By THEODROS YESHIAREGA, Correspondent JULY 28, 2015
President Barack Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia, where he headed to after spending two days in his fatherland Kenya last week. However, human right activists questioned Washington’s commitment to supporting rights and rule of law in Africa.
Ethiopian-Americans protested outside the White House earlier this month, with signs that read: “President Obama don’t bankroll dictatorship and injustice” and “No to wining and dining with a tyrant.”
Other Ethiopians, especially those in the country itself, have not been silent either.
The idea for a Twitter hashtag to catch Obama’s attention before his visit to Ethiopia was discussed matter-of-factly by Twitter users earlier in July. Just a few days after the Ethiopian government suddenly freed some members of the Zone 9 collective, tweeps began discussing on launching hashtag for their social campaigns. The idea was to use this one-of-a-kind opportunity to urge President Obama to press his Ethiopian counterparts to release other prisoners of conscience and to respect the rule of law.
BTW shouldn’t we start some hashtag to make voices heard while he’s visiting, pls shoot one!
— Faisal (@FtihLeEt) July 12, 2015
While several hashtags were proposed, the one that caught people’s imaginations was #EthiopiansMessageToObama. Activists asked Ethiopians at home and abroad to use the hashtag from the 21st to the 24th of July, and hundreds of tweets were posted from all corners of the globe.
According to Vocativ, an online publication, Twitter users leveraged President Obama’s appearance on the Daily Show last Tuesday (July 21, 2015) to highlight the injustices faced in Ethiopia. Hundreds of tweets were posted with the hashtag #EthiopiansMessageToObama before, during and after the broadcast to draw attention to Ethiopia’s crackdown on dissent.
An analysis of the campaign
Where did these tweets originate? Many of them are from Ethiopians who accuse their government of not respecting its own constitution and using its infamous anti-terrorism law as an excuse to infringe upon political, religious and freedom of expression rights in the country. These messages however, are not homogenous. Some have an ethnic undertone while others religious; and the remaining have been using the platform to demand the release of political prisoners, and express their grievances against corruption and the abuse of power in Ethiopia.
Eric Schreyer, one of the few foreigners who is actively tweeting for the release of Ethiopian prisoners of conscience, said in one of his tweets that Obama needs to send a blunt message on freedom rights in Ethiopia and on the politicization of courts.
Talking about another topic, some users speculated that Obama is more likely to talk about LGBT rights in Ethiopia. Others have been using this Twitter campaign to demand the release of people from their ethnic group who were arbitrarily detained.
Despite the number of those expressing discontent with the government’s policies, a closer look at the statistics reveals that one group stands out.
In this Twitter campaign, users from Ethiopian Muslim groups have the lion’s share in tweeting, re-tweeting and posting graphic images which depict an alleged abuse by the Ethiopian government against their fellow compatriots. They demand the government to release the Ethiopian Muslim Committee members and respect the right to freedom of religion.
An analysis of tweets with the hashtag #EthiopiansMessageToObama posted between July 21-25/2015 shows a total of 701 tweets by 164 users. The tweets reached over 155 thousands users and made over 377 thousand impressions. Ethiopia is where the highest number of tweets were coming from.
The president’s comment
To the dismay of many critics, President Obama called the Ethiopian regime — which won every parliament seat in recent general elections — a “democratically elected” government during a joint press conference with PM Hailemariam Desalegn on Monday.
Human rights activists are criticizing the President for his remarks, while Ethiopian tweeps continued to vent out their frustrations taking over the hashtag #ObamaInEthiopia.
President Obama will conclude his Africa trip today, after addressing the African Union on US-Africa relations. Some fear the president’s speech may only touch upon economic and security issues.