Barack Obama last night urged Ethiopia’s leaders to curb crackdowns on press freedom and political openness as he began a visit that human rights groups say legitimises an oppressive government.
“When all voices are being heard, when people know they are being included in the political process, that makes a country more successful,” the US President said during a news conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Mr Obama’s trip marks the first visit by a sitting US president to Ethiopia, a fast-growing economy once defined by poverty and famine.
The President also said the situation in neighbouring civil war-torn South Sudan was deteriorating but it was now time for a “breakthrough” in peace efforts.
“The humanitarian situation is worsening. The possibilities of renewed conflict in a region that has been torn by conflict for so long and has resulted in so many deaths needs addressing,” Mr Obama said.
“We don’t have a lot of time. Now is time for a breakthrough.”
He said if a peace agreement was not reached by an August 17 deadline, the US and its partners would have to “consider what other tools we have’’.
Options under consideration include deepening economic sanctions and an arms embargo.
Mr Obama arrived in Ethiopia late on Sunday after a stop in Kenya, the country of his father’s birth. The crisis in South Sudan and the human rights challenges on his agenda punctured a trip that had otherwise been a celebratory visit of the first black US president to Africa.
Ethiopia has come far from its 1984 famine, experiencing near double-digit economic growth and infrastructure investment that have made it one of Africa’s top-performing economies and a magnet for investment.
Through the tinted windows of his bombproof presidential limousine, Mr Obama will see Addis Ababa’s construction boom of tower blocks, as well as sub-Saharan Africa’s first modern tramway.
Despite Ethiopia’s progress, there have been deep concerns about political freedoms on the heels of May elections in which the ruling party won every seat in parliament.
Last night’s talks were held in the presidential palace, a sprawling compound in the heart of the capital, which still houses the country’s unique black-maned Abyssinian lions in the grounds, once the symbol of the “Lion of Judah”, former emperor Haile Selassie.
Mr Obama said he was frank in his talks with Ethiopian leaders about the need to allow political opponents to operate freely.
He also defended his decision to travel to the east African nation, comparing it with US engagement with China, another nation with a poor human rights record.
“Nobody questions our need to engage with large countries where we may have differences on these issues,” he said. “That’s true with Africa as well.”
Mr Desalegn, defended his country’s commitment to democracy. “Our commitment to democracy is real — not skin-deep,” he said.
Asked about his country’s jailing of journalists, he said his country needed “ethical journalism” and reporters that don’t work with terrorist organisations.
Ethiopia is the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Ahead of Mr Obama’s arrival, the Ethiopian government released several journalists and bloggers it had been holding since April last year on charges of incitement and terrorism. Many others remain in detention.
Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said Mr Obama’s visit undermines the President’s goals of good governance in Africa.
“In many ways, I guess it’s a reward,” Ms Margon said.
“Ethiopia at this time doesn’t deserve that.”
The US sees Ethiopia as an important partner in fighting terrorism in the region.