ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When a young Ethiopian journalist, Simegnish Mengesha, got the chance to meet with President Obama in May, a comment from a high-ranking American official was on her mind.
On a visit to Ethiopia two weeks earlier, Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary of state for political affairs, had said she expected the country’s May 24 national election to be “free, fair, credible and open and inclusive.”
Critics of the Ethiopian government scoffed at the notion, saying there was no space for open political discourse in the country. And the words rang hollow to Ms. Simegnish, 30, because nine of her colleagues — bloggers and professional journalists — were arrested in a roundup in April 2014 and accused of supporting terrorism.
So when she was invited to the White House to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, then found herself sitting with Mr. Obama and two other journalists in the Roosevelt Room, she asked how Ms. Sherman could have made such a statement.
“President Obama said that although it was appropriate for the State Department and the United States government to encourage — as an aspiration — that elections will be free and fair, he recognized my legitimate concern,” Ms. Simegnish said.
Mr. Obama’s two-day trip to Ethiopia, which started Sunday night, highlights a complex relationship with the country, which has a strong defense partnership with the United States but has been criticized for its human rights record by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The State Department later expressed concern about the results of the May election, in which the ruling coalition and allied parties won every seat in Parliament. A statement from the department mentioned “continued restrictions on civil society, media, opposition parties, and independent voices and views.”
News media freedom and other human rights issues will be on the agenda for Mr. Obama’s visit, but the Ethiopian government spokesman, Redwan Hussien, said “subjects of mutual interest,” like investment, trade and terrorism, would take precedence when the president meets with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Monday.
And opposition parties do not expect Mr. Obama’s visit to result in political change in Ethiopia, said Woretaw Wassie, head of finance for the Semayawi Party. “Our supporters are not seeing this visit as such a big deal,” he said. “It is the duty of the Americans to do business with their allies, whether they are dictators or democrats.”
Ethiopians were looking to the visit, the first by a sitting American president, with mixed feelings, as residents here in the capital prepared for tight security and blocked roads.
While journalists like Ms. Simegnish and human rights activists would like to see greater pressure from the United States, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Ethiopia, many Ethiopians bristle at the notion of the United States interfering in the affairs of their country. Mahari Yohans, a political science lecturer at Mekelle University in the northern region of Tigray, said he did not think that Mr. Obama could or should effect fundamental policy changes in a country that has fiercely defended its state-driven development model for 24 years. “Organizations like Human Rights Watch will attempt to put pressure on Obama to put certain issues on the agenda, but in Ethiopia nobody will accept that,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s visit comes amid a period of strong economic growth and political stability for Ethiopia. The country has claimed annual economic growth rates exceeding 10 percent over the last decade. With American economic assistance, which exceeded $677 million in 2014, it has made great strides in reducing poverty, battling H.I.V. and improving access to basic health care and primary education.
Despite its proximity to Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, countries torn apart by violence and civil war, Ethiopia is comparatively stable and has become a major contributor to peacekeeping efforts across the continent. American assistance to the country included over $1 million for security last year. Ethiopia also hosts troops from the United States in the southern town of Arba Minch, although an American military official declined to say why the troops were there, citing security concerns.
“This is a turbulent region, and both countries have the common concern of checking terrorism,” Mr. Redwan said. The White House has previously confirmed the presence of an American surveillance drone base in Ethiopia, but it is unclear what operations are underway now.
Though the United States lags far behind countries like China, Turkey and India in direct investment in Ethiopia, Mr. Obama’s two-year-old Power Africa initiative aims to increase energy investments on the continent. In Ethiopia, it has already brought American technical expertise to a geothermal power project led by Reykjavik Geothermal, an Icelandic company.
As a senator in 2006, Mr. Obama visited the eastern Ethiopian town of Dire Dawa while United States Navy personnel provided aid after flash floods. This month’s visit to Ethiopia and Kenya brings the number of his presidential trips to sub-Saharan Africa to four — more than any president before him.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama is to visit the Addis Ababa headquarters of the African Union to discuss the union’s initiatives on security, disease control, climate change and other issues, said Erastus Mwencha, deputy chairman of the African Union Commission. “In the last 10 years, the A.U. has occupied a big space in the continent, in terms of peace and security and development,” he said. “So I think this is the right moment.”
Despite muted hopes for this visit to stimulate political change in Ethiopia, advocates for the news media were encouraged by the recent release of some of the bloggers and journalists arrested last year. This month, after spending over a year on trial, five of the nine were unexpectedly set free. Ethiopian officials say their release had nothing to do with Mr. Obama’s visit, but Ms. Simegnish and many of her peers suspect otherwise.
While she hopes that Mr. Obama will find a way to bring human rights issues to the fore, Ms. Simegnish knows that defense and aid partnerships might be higher priorities.
“How and where Obama will find this balance and make his point, I really don’t know,” she said. “But I hope he does.”
Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting from Washington.