ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Rights groups are asking President Barack Obama to re-evaluate the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship over allegations the leader of the East African nation is becoming increasingly repressive.
The requests came just before Obama on Friday announced $3 billion in private-sector pledges to help feed Africa's poor. The U.S. is a major contributor of aid to Ethiopia.
The Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia and the Oakland Institute asked Obama in a Thursday letter to "reassess the terms" of U.S. aid to Ethiopia during weekend talks with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Meles is one of four African leaders invited to discuss food security at Camp David. The longtime leader has been accused of restricting freedoms and the media. Some in Ethiopia see him as a dictator.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a Wednesday letter to the White House it was concerned that Ethiopia had charged 11 independent journalists under sweeping anti-terror laws.
"Since 2011, under the guise of a counterterrorism sweep, the government of Ethiopia has brought terrorism and anti-state charges against 11 independent journalists, including blogger Eskinder Nega, who may face life in prison for his writing about the struggle for democracy," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said in the letter. "Such policies deter reporting on all sensitive topics, including food security."
CPJ called on Obama to "encourage Prime Minister Meles to end his repressive practices."
Meles was invited along with John Atta Mills of Ghana, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and Yayi Boni of Benin to represent Africa at hunger talks on the eve of a G8 summit. Meles seized control of the Horn of Africa country in a 1991 coup and has ruled longer than the combined terms of the other three.
The Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia and the Oakland Institute also urged Obama to press Meles on what they say is forcible relocation of people in a government program to lease land to foreign investors.
"By continuing to provide huge amounts of aid to Ethiopia, the U.S. is in partnership with a repressive regime that puts large-scale agricultural investment and for-profit access to Ethiopia's fertile lands over the well-being and land rights of indigenous and local people," the groups said in a joint letter.
A January report by Human Rights Watch accused Ethiopia's government of forcibly resettling about 70,000 people in the country's western Gambella region.
The Ethiopian government denied the allegation, saying people are being relocated to places where there is access to secure water points, health facilities, schools, and fertile farmland.
Under Meles, Ethiopians have enjoyed relative stability and steady economic growth. But some critics say this growth has come at the expense of democracy and good governance.
The U.S. has rarely criticized Meles, a key ally in the war on terror in the Horn of Africa.
Meles has long insisted economic growth can be accomplished without practicing Western-style democracy.
"There is no direct relationship between economic growth and democracy, historically or theoretically," he told the World Economic Forum in Ethiopia last week. "I don't believe in bedtime stories, contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy."