Addis Ababa is abuzz with Obama’s historic visit. Ethiopians were nonchalant about his visit with no sign of a fraction of the excitement Kenyans showed towards Obama’s visit. That seems to have changed once the president arrived in Addis.
Live state TV coverage started even before the arrival of Air Force One, the presidential plane, above Addis Ababa skies. Premier Hailemariam Desalegn welcomed President Obama at the airport along with top Ethiopian government officials and US Ambassadors for Ethiopia and the AU.
The social media was also super active from the get go as Ethiopians dissected and commented on every bit of footage, from a coincidental rainbow seen at the airport to the protocol lapses by government officials greeting the president.
A few minutes later, the president’s mile long motorcade left the airport to pass through new roads built by Chinese loans, with flag waving children greeting on the roadside.
There is no question the warm welcome was fitting for the most powerful man on Earth. The visit, which is the first ever for a sitting U.S. president, was considered as a recognition of Ethiopia’s transformation from a poster child of war and famine to the club of fastest growing countries in the world.
However, the over-the-top reception the government organized and the unprecedented live coverage of the state media raises some questions. Why is the reception for the Chinese premier Li Keqiang, who visited on May 5 of last year was not on par to this visit? What message does that send to our Chinese allies who were very generous in funding our infrastructure projects for a decade? Who does the government of Ethiopia take as its strategic and critical ally?
China has provided Ethiopia with loans amounting in billions of dollars to build roads and bridges, railways and dams, factories and almost everything. Ironically, even the tallest building in the capital, the AU building where Obama is going to make a speech is a Chinese donation. The strong friendship between China and Ethiopia extends to ideological concurrence between the ruling political parties. China considers Ethiopia’s friendship as a “gateway to Africa”. On the other hand, Ethiopia considers China as an alternative world power and source of finance free from the preconditions that come attached with loans from her western partners and the Britton Woods institutions.
This partnership has been a fruitful one for more than a decade. Recent loan and trade agreements between Ethiopia and China suggests that there is a partnership growing stronger. Hence, this marked difference in the reception afforded to leaders of China and U.S. could just be an aberration or maybe a demonstration of U.S. leaning elements in the government.
Whichever the case, getting our signals right and not disappointing our reliable allies is something that should be noted.