Barack Obama urged Ethiopia’s leaders to curb crackdowns on press freedom and political openness as he began a visit that has been criticised by human rights groups who say it 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 Hailemariam Desalegn, the Ethiopian prime minister.
The visit is the first by a sitting US president to Ethiopia, a fast-growing economy which was once defined by poverty and famine.
Later on Monday, Obama will meet with African leaders to discuss the crisis in South Sudan, which has been gripped by violence as warring factions in the government fight for power. Obama said: “The conditions on the ground are getting much, much worse.”
He said if a peace agreement was not reached by a deadline of 17 August, the US and its partners would have to “consider what other tools we have”. Options under consideration include economic sanctions and an arms embargo.
Obama arrived in Ethiopia late on Sunday following his visit to Kenya, the country of his father’s birth. The crisis in South Sudan and the human rights challenges on his agenda have brought a more serious to tone to a trip that had otherwise been a celebratory visit of the first black US president to Africa.
Despite Ethiopia’s progress, there are deep concerns about political freedoms following elections in May, in which the ruling party won every seat in parliament. Obama said he was frank in his discussions 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 to US’s 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.”
Ethiopia’s prime minister defended his country’s democratic record. “Our commitment to democracy is real – not skin deep,” Desalegn said. Asked about the jailing of journalists in Ethiopia, he said his country needed “ethical journalism” and reporters who do not work with terrorist organisations.
Ethiopia is the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Before Obama’s arrival, the government released several journalists and bloggers it had been holding since April 2014 on charges of incitement and terrorism. Many others remain in detention.
Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said Obama’s visit undermines the president’s goals of good governance on the African continent. “In many ways, I guess it’s a reward,” she said. “Ethiopia at this time doesn’t deserve that.”
Despite differences on human rights, the US sees Ethiopia as an important partner in fighting terrorism in the region, particularly the Somalia-based al-Shabaab network. Ethiopia shares intelligence with the US and sent troops into Somalia to address instability there.
The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab claimed credit for a suicide bomb at a luxury hotel in Somalia’s capital on Sunday that killed nine people and injured nearly two dozen more. The Jazeera Palace hotel was considered the most secure in Mogadishu and is frequented by diplomats, foreigners and visiting heads of state.
Obama said the attack was a reminder that “we have more work to do” in stemming terrorism in the region.
Ethiopia has also been an important US partner in the effort to end South Sudan’s civil war. The prime minister was to be among the leaders to join Obama in Monday’s meeting on the crisis.
South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, was thrown into conflict in December 2013 by a clash between forces loyal to its former vice-president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, and President Salva Kiir, a Dinka. The fighting has spurred a humanitarian crisis, throwing the country into turmoil four years after its inception.
The US was instrumental in backing South Sudan’s bid for independence, which was overwhelmingly supported by the country’s people. The Guardian