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Ethiopia Should Welcome Obama as if He is Her Own Son!

          Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                        July 2, 2015

However Ethiopia, and by extension Africa, view the Obama political persona and character, call him prodigal son or the lost son of Africa, the land of the origin of humanity should welcome him as if he is her own son. In the micro sense, Obama is African-American but in the macro sense and also in the broader context of the etymology of the term Ethiopia (denoting ‘sun-burnt face’), he is Ethiopian. Therefore, his sojourn to Ethiopia on July 2015, in fact, evokes the Homeric depiction of Ethiopia, as land in which the gods enjoy their respective excursions. Obama, thus, will enjoy his sojourn in Ethiopia not only with the Ethiopian people but in the company of the gods as well.

Ethiopia should welcome Obama not only as her own son, but she also should baptize him with the sacred waters of the land and  offer him an adopted Ethiopian name, preferably Tesfa (hope), because he is the hope for thousands upon thousands of young Americans, and more specifically for African Americans. By default, Obama has become the vital force and inspiration for black Americans who survive every single day against all odds in democratic and prosperous America.

In March 2008, I wrote a piece entitled “If Barack Obama becomes the next president of the United States! A Comparative and International Political Perspective,” and in that essay, I argued, “With respect to judgment and intelligence, some may portray Barack as relatively immature but they are definitely wrong. Nobody in his right mind would argue that Obama is one unrivaled genius, but many, I gather, would agree that he is intelligent, politically astute, eloquent, forward-looking persona, and above all charismatic, all important chemistry of leadership. What other proof could be furnished for a vision and judgment other than opposing a war that has immersed the United States in a quagmire. In fact, quite clearly Obama’s wisdom and vision was vividly reflected in his ability to obviate America’s involvement in Iraq. And one important and crucial attribute of a leadership is his ability to see beforehand (by leading) and disposing off miscalculated actions. The United States is justified to defend itself after the 9/11 terrorist attack but the perpetrators originated in Afghanistan  and not in Iraq and Obama does not oppose America’s initiative to defend itself, but like most Americans he believes the Iraq war was wrong from the outset.”

Moreover, in the same essay, I critically examined the political personality of Obama as follows: “There are still others who portray Obama as liberal and as far left in the continuum. There is no doubt that Barack is liberal and I don’t see anything wrong in being liberal especially in a country that prides itself as champion of democracy and in fact founded on the ideals of liberty. …However, despite his liberalism, Obama does not belong to the far left; he has very well (and consciously so) positioned himself in the center. To be sure, Obama would have not come this far and embraced by a sizable electorate, let alone become a phenomenon, had he not been in the center from the outset.”

Now, that Obama is almost at the end of his second term and that we have witnessed his leadership style, we acknowledge that the world knows him very well and long after he is gone from the White House his legacy will live on. The Ethiopian officials who would host Obama should also acknowledge what the Obama phenomenon is all about and in order to fathom the latter in some depth, it is important to explore American politics in the context of Obama’s presidency.

After Obama assumed power in 2008, American politics dramatically altered and it was manifested in the form of a new social movement such as the Tea Party that emerged in reaction to a black president, and soon after new waves of racism were also unleashed, as if to tell the world that Obama indeed does not herald a post-racial America. Obama, of course, happens to be a black president of the United States but not a president of Black America. 

In spite of the countervailing forces, however, one can safely assume that Obama was psychologically ready to combat the many obstacles and hurdles that he encountered during the campaign for presidency in 2008. He was attacked left and right not only by the far right but also by his own party members, but he proved to the world that he can resist bruises, and also practically showed his supporters that political engagement is an enterprise fraught with frustration. Once he was inaugurated as president, he very well understood that eminence invites criticism and he also appreciated the moral matrix of legitimate governance in order to pursue his policies by accommodating even his political foes without compromising his principled stances, and by doing so he successfully maintained the delicate balance of Washington and global politics.

 It is this kind of Obama that Ethiopia will host at the end of July 2015, and the Ethiopian authorities should know better in dealing with the son of Africa, who, no doubt, would enjoy the company of fellow Ethiopians, but the latter should not harbor any illusion that their guest would compromise American interest in favor of Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular. Obama, like his predecessor presidents, would carry many political cards, one of which is engraved with “America has no permanent friends but permanent interests”. It is in light of the latter maxim that Ethiopian authorities, thus, must pursue Ethiopian interests as well.

In order to further digest the political fiber among the two nations, it is necessary to contrast (not compare, because they are incomparable) the United States with Ethiopia. The US is the richest, most affluent, technologically advanced country in the world; by contrast, Ethiopia is its polar opposite; it is poor and has just begun standing on its feet in the long and arduous march of development. The US is an exemplar nation in political culture and the democratic experiment, while Ethiopia has yet to learn these cultures and translate them into action; America has New York City as the headquarters of the United Nations and Ethiopia has Addis Ababa as the seat of the African Union (AU). But in terms of longevity of a nation-state, America is 239 years old while Ethiopia is an ancient nation that boasts a continued existence of more than three thousand years, notwithstanding the pseudo-historians and Mickey Mouse politicians who claim that Ethiopia is only a century plus years old.

Despite the contrasts of the US and Ethiopia discussed above, Ethiopia remains an indispensable partner to the United States, not only in the fight against terrorism (as has been constantly drummed by the media) but also in regional and continental politics. The capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, as mentioned above, is not only the headquarters of the AU but also the arena of global NGOs, diplomats, and investors, not to mention the thousands of tourists who would crisscross the historical sites in Ethiopia throughout the year.

Ethiopia also should render a hero’s welcome to Obama and it is for the following reason: Obama, of course, is no Emperor Tewodros, an exemplar of highest altruism and valor; or Emperor Yohannes, another exemplar of self-sacrifice and uncompromising when it comes to Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, or Emperor Menelik, indefatigable and triumphant over Italian imperialism, but he is one that follows their footsteps in a different way and in a different country. Obama would not exhibit the altruism of Tewodros, or Yohannes, but like Menelik, he waged a relentless war against so many obstacles and hurdles fostered by American politics and he countered the evils of racism manifested in many ways. While Menelik physically confronted his enemies, Obama had to deal with invisible enemies but he too was triumphant and he deserves a medal of valor and a hero’s earring similar to what Empress Taitu put on Menelik’s ear after his triumphant return from Adwa to Addis Ababa in 1896.

Once Obama is honored with medal of valor, he should immediately negotiate business with the Ethiopian authorities. He should make sure that American companies invest in Ethiopia and US precocious technology is widely introduced in that country. The US is lagging behind China, Korea, Turkey, and European countries in trade and investment, although its diplomatic relations, and subsequently commercial ties, began as far back as 1903. Some American technology like space telescope has recently been introduced into Ethiopia, but this technology is inappropriate for a country that is staggering in its emergence. What Ethiopia needs now is a combination of Hewlett Packard, IBM, Apple, Caterpillar, and the plethora of manufacturing technologies.

Obama should make sure that Ethiopia transcends ‘the ally against terrorism’ status and becomes rather a US partner in the market economy in all its facets. Revitalizing the US-Ethiopia relations without the above recommendations, would be meaningless and a failure in policy.  The Ethiopian American trade relations can be changed for the better if we are able to critically examine the current database of their trade, as for instance, presented by US Census Bureau. The Bureau reports figures from 1993 to 2015, but for the purpose of this essay, I will put figures of exports and imports in the last five years only:

US trade in goods with Ethiopia: all figures are in millions US dollars     

                        Exports                        Imports

2010                773.2                           127.9

2011                689.9                           144.9

2012                1,274.9                        183.1

2013                688.5                           193.6

2014                1,669.0                        206.8

2015                346.6                           83.6

If we now read the figures of the above table between lines, American imports drastically dwindled from $206.8 million in 2014 to $83.6 million in 2015 and if we  analyze the table as a whole, the US and Ethiopia are partners in trade, the partnership is not based on equality. We cannot, of course, blame the US for such inequity and the latter could be redeemed in the long run when Ethiopia made a transition to a manufacturing industry and begins to export more industrialized goods to the rest of the world.

And if we follow the US Department of State fact sheet of June 9, 2015, the US exports to Ethiopia include aircraft, wheat, machinery etc. and US imports from Ethiopia include coffee, niger seeds [sunflower seeds], and apparel. What Ethiopia exports to the US is simply incomparable to what it imports from the United States, and as stated above, unless some kind of redemption is wrought in due course of time, the unequal partnership of trade will persist for a long time.

The Obama official visit to Ethiopia may not solve the problem of inequity in trade but it could pave the road to equal partnership for the future. And once the preconditions for fair trade are set up, the future would be bright not only for Ethiopia but for the entire continent of Africa as well.    

One other important thing that must be executed with respect to trade and investment relations between the United States and Ethiopia is best reported by the Dow Jones Business News of June 26, 2015. The Dow Jones tells us that Congress “cleared an extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is designed to advance the US goal of expanding trade with Africa while encouraging democratic governance.” The Dow Jones anticipates that “Barack Obama is expected to quickly sign the extension of AGOA, well ahead of a planned trip to Ethiopia and Kenya in late July.”

I have no doubt that Obama will sign the extension of AGOA, because as the Dow Jones argues, and I concur, “The renewal of AGOA also means a 10-year extension of a rule, added to the law of 2002 that allows African manufacturers to get fabrics from outside Africa. Before the rule, African manufactures could only export textiles or apparel in the US.”

When the Ethiopian authorities and the Obama-led US delegation sit on a round table, everything that is brought on the table should be crystal clear. One thing I was unable to fathom and quite perplexed by is what I read about foreign direct investment (FDI) reported by the Office of the United States Trade Representative in the Executive Office of the President. First and foremost, the US FDI to Ethiopia in 2012 was 11 million in 2012 and I believe this is very low compared to other FDI investments from other countries like China. In order to further ascertain that China has outpaced the US in FDI investment in Ethiopia, one could simply make reference to ‘Chinese FDI in Ethiopia: A World Bank Survey’ of November 2012. According to this World Bank report, “Chinese economic cooperation with Ethiopia has expanded rapidly over the past decade. In 2011, China was both the largest import and the largest export trade partner of Ethiopia. Similarly, China’s investment to Ethiopia has increased steadily. According to China’s Ministry of Commerce, FDI from China to Ethiopia increased from virtually zero in 2004 to an annual amount of US $58.5 million in 2010 (US $74 million in 2009). Secondly, the Executive Office of the President report states, “There is no information on the distribution of US FDI in Ethiopia”. I found this quite astounding because, put otherwise, it means the US FDI investment in Ethiopia is neither transparent nor accountable.

Finally, if time permits and if indeed Obama feels at home in Ethiopia, I suggest that he visits some historical sites like Aksum, Gonder, and Lalibela. In those sites, Obama will be fascinated by the history and mystique obscurity of Ethiopia; he would have the opportunity to explore the many facets of the country; he would fuse the past and the present by surveying the generic borderland of the Ethiopian ethos and the unique flavor of Ethiopian diversity; and above all, he would sentimentally feel invoking the silent ghosts of the past and bring them back to life literally under his foot.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2015. For constructive and educational feedback, Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted via dr.garaia@africanidea.org