Obama deems Ethiopia’s election democratic (Excerpts from Susan Rice’s briefing)

National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice made some interesting remarks on Wednesday regarding President Obama’s trip to Africa.

In a White House briefing, ahead of the President’s departure from Washington, Susan Rice remarked that

* We go to many places where we engage with countries and leaders with whom we have some questions and concerns about their human rights record, their respect for democracy and the rule of law.  So there is nothing unique about this in the African context,

* [Obama] is going [to Kenya] now because we are the co-chair of the 6th Annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

* Does Obama think that [Ethiopia’s] was a democratic election? Absolutely — 100 percent.

* We’ve always had an interest in Ethiopia’s progress, particularly after the end of the Derg.

* And more.

Here are excerpts from Ambassador Susan Rice’s responses to journalists.


Question:    For Kenya and Ethiopia, particularly on issues of human rights, there are concerns about human rights issues when it comes to peaceful assembly in Ethiopia as well as silencing journalists and bloggers. And then when we talk about Kenya, Kenya in particular with the issue of same-sex couples, how is the President approaching these human rights issues as he travels and makes this historic visit?  

Ambassador Susan Rice:  I think as you all know well, we go to many places in Asia and Africa and the Middle East where we engage with countries and leaders with whom we have some questions and concerns about their human rights record, their respect for democracy and the rule of law.  So there is nothing unique about this in the African context, but what is consistent is that wherever we go, whether it’s in Africa or elsewhere in the world where we have such concerns, we raise them directly and clearly, both in public and in private.  And we will do that as we always do when we visit Kenya and Ethiopia.

Each of these are different countries with different contexts. Obviously, in Ethiopia in particular, we have consistently expressed concern about the treatment of journalists, among other issues. We noted that recently the Ethiopian government did release five journalists, which is a welcome step but they have a long way to go. And I think we have been very clear in our dialogue with them on this and other issues related to democracy and governance that we believe they can and should do more and better. And we look forward to engaging with them on this topic and similarly with the concerns that you raise that are specific to Kenya.

But both these countries are very important longstanding U.S. partners with whom we have a broad range of issues, not just in the governance — in the interests, not just issues. But in the governance space and the security space, in the economic space, we have a lot that we can do and are doing cooperatively and productively with these countries, and our aim is to be forthright about the concerns where we have them and strengthen and deepen cooperation in our mutual interests where we can.  So that’s how we’ll approach it.

African countries visited by a sitting US President

Question: Thank you. A question on timing.  Kenya obviously is a place of great personal significance for the President. For reasons that you’ve acknowledged already, there were reasons not to go prior to now. But I just wonder if you can talk a little bit about why he didn’t go before now, why he is going now. What’s the reason? Why is this a good time to go?

Ambassador Susan Rice:  He’s going now because we are the co-chair of the 6th Annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit which Kenya is hosting.  So every year there is such a summit; the President hasn’t been able to make every one of them but he’s gone to several.  The Vice President has gone to some.

And so this is an opportunity not only to support the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which is something the President is deeply committed to as an initiative that has resonance around the world, but it’s also an opportunity to strengthen and deepen our relationship to Africa — which has been a centerpiece of the President’s foreign policy.

Question: Was he waiting for the ICC charges against President Kenyatta to be resolved before he took his trip?

Ambassador Susan Rice: I think the real hook for the timing was the entrepreneurship summit. 

Question:  Will he appear or meet with the deputy who still is facing charges before the ICC?

Ambassador Susan Rice: I don’t think he has any plans for any separate engagements with him. He is a member of the government, so I imagine that he may be present at some of the events.

Question:  Can you speak a little bit more broadly to the security concerns on this trip?  Are they higher than normal for a presidential trip, given the countries that he’s visiting and the situation like this? And also, to just follow up on [the previous question], does the President consider the presidents of Kenya and Ethiopia democratically-elected Presidents?

Ambassador Susan Rice:  First of all, you mean — okay, let me come to the second one.  The short answer is, on the security side, I think I should refer you to Secret Service for any detailed questions.  But obviously we wouldn’t be taking this trip if we thought that security conditions precluded us doing so.  But it is important to note that Kenya in particular — Ethiopia less recently — has been the victim of terrorism, primarily perpetrated by al-Shabaab. 

We are very concerned for the people of Kenya and for the region, that this threat remains a real one.  And that’s why we’ve cooperated so actively not only with the African Union force in Somalia, which is countering al-Shabaab, but also in a bilateral way with the government of Kenya, the government of Ethiopia, and Uganda and others in the region that have experienced the threat from al-Shabaab.

So it’s something that obviously, given their history and given the strong counterterrorism cooperation we have with the countries in the region, that we take seriously.

The democrat role — first of all, yes, I think we would say that the President of Kenya was democratically elected.  That was a competitive process.  I think the Prime Minister of Ethiopia was just elected with 100 percent of the vote, which I think suggests, as we have stated in our public statements, some concern for the integrity of the electoral process — at least if not in the outcomes then in some of the mechanisms that supported the process, the freedom for the opposition to campaign.

Question:  So is that — but does he think that that was a democratic election?

Ambassador Susan Rice: Absolutely — 100 percent.

Question:  Ambassador, you addressed already a little bit of the issue of human rights.  Some aid groups have said that a presidential trip gives the White House a lot of leverage to press Ethiopia and Kenya on rights.  Do you feel you’ve used that leverage?  And do you expect any additional announcements of journalist release or other things along those lines from the Ethiopian government?

Ambassador Susan Rice:  I can’t speak for the Ethiopian government.  I can say that we always — not just in Africa, but around the world — when we are traveling to countries where we have concerns about the rule of law, human rights, corruption, whatever, democratic governance, we make those concerns known, publicly and privately.  And we have done so continuously in the case of these two countries, and we’ll continue to do so.  I think our interest is not in some gesture necessarily tied to the trip but in lasting change, which is sustained over time that benefits the people of these countries.

Question:  It’s kind of astounding that no American President has visited Kenya before now.

Ambassador Susan Rice: Sitting, yes.

Question: Yes, sitting President.  How do you —

Ambassador Susan Rice:  Or Ethiopia, which is the largest — one of the largest countries in East Africa and on the continent.

Question:  But you hear a lot about the historic relationship between the U.S. and Kenya.  So what can you say about why that is that no one —

Ambassador Susan Rice:  I can’t answer that question.

Ambassador Susan Rice:  Why didn’t Bill Clinton go? 

Ambassador Susan Rice:  I’m not sure why we didn’t go to Ethiopia or Kenya.  I think one strong thing about Ethiopia that was less the case back then is the African Union, which back then was the Organization of African Unity, has come into its own and become a very strong force for unity and progress, frankly, on the continent.  And so our partnership with the African Union has definitely strengthened and deepened.  It’s been under this administration that we appointed an ambassador to the African Union.  And in many ways, the strength and importance of that relationship has changed.  We’ve always had an interest in Ethiopia’s progress, particularly after the end of the Derg.  And we had Secretaries of State in the Clinton administration who went to Ethiopia and to Kenya, of course.  But we did not have the opportunity for President Clinton to go.  He took two trips to Africa, as you’ll recall.  First one in 1998, where he went to I think six countries, and then a subsequent one where he — it was a shorter trip where he just went to two.

Question:  I just want to come back to the lawmakers for a moment.  Do you see these invitations to them as a way to advance your policy goals on Africa?  And what specifically might you be asking Congress to do in the area of Africa legislation in the coming months?

Ambassador Susan Rice:  Well, obviously we want to strengthen and sustain what I’ve referred to repeatedly as a strong bipartisan consensus around support for Africa, Africa’s development, peace and security there.  The biggest piece of legislation that we were focused on related to Africa was, of course, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which was renewed last month in the context of other trade legislation.

But obviously we have many, many issues that are important that we need Congress’s support on — legislation that will support and codify some of the most significant initiatives, including in the health and agriculture and power sectors, as well as we have a nominee on the Hill that very much needs to be confirmed for USAID administrator.  So that is not something solely for Africa, it’s for the whole world, and for our leadership as the world’s biggest provider of humanitarian assistance at a time when the world is having many humanitarian crises.  But there are many, many ways in which Congress’s role is necessary to, and contributes to, on a bipartisan basis our support for Africa and other developing parts of the world.

Question:  It was just yesterday that Kenya’s President said that gay rights was a non-issue in his country, and that it was definitely on the agenda with the President.  It was two years ago in Senegal, President Obama was very forceful about protecting gay rights.  There are already warnings from inside Kenya from politicians, media outlets, for the President not to address it as bluntly or as openly as he did before.  Is it on the agenda?  Is it something that he is thinking about in terms of the balance between recognizing the sovereignty of Kenya and also promoting gay rights?

Ambassador Susan Rice:  I think, as you know, this is not for us an issue of Africa or any country in Africa, this is an issue of universal human rights.  And President Obama feels very strongly, as do all of us in the administration, that gay rights are human rights.  And whether we’re in Washington, D.C. or in somewhere in Asia or in Africa, that is something that we do not shy away from underscoring, as the President did during his last trip to Africa, and many other parts of the world.  So this is not something that we think is a topic we reserve for certain parts of the world and not others.  If appropriate, I have no doubt that the President will feel perfectly free to raise his concerns.


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