President Obama and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn addressed terrorism, human rights and regional security issues, including the crisis in neighboring South Sudan ahead of their meeting with the African Union.
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NAIROBI, Kenya — President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia on Sunday, highlighting the East African country’s increasing value to combat Islamic extremism despite a poor human rights record.

“Obama’s visit means our country is a safe place to invest and do trade,” said Dawit Betty, 25, a student in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa. “Ethiopia has been forgotten for so long. The coming of the U.S. president will bring a new beginning for this country.”

The country’s economic heft is growing, so Ethiopian leaders are eager to hear about Obama’s plans for trade, but discussions Monday are likely to focus heavily on terror threats facing Africa. Obama is likely to urge Ethiopian leaders to keep pressure on al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group that has staged deadly attacks in neighboring Kenya and Somalia, including one Sunday by a suicide bomber outside a luxury hotel in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu that killed nine people.

“He is going now to Ethiopia because they need to act quickly on al-Shabab,” said Mario Aguilar, a political professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Though Obama probably won’t discuss human rights extensively on his visit, his presence at least calls attention to the government’s abuses, said Ethiopian civil rights activist Ellani Jembere, who hopes Obama will raise the issue privately during talks with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

“I am very happy because Obama is coming at the right time when this nation needs him,” he said. “We need him to address electoral reforms and push the government to increase democratic space.”

International human rights groups have been critical of Desalegn’s party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which claims to have won nearly 100% of the vote in parliamentary elections in May. They’ve condemned the government for imprisoning journalists, suppressing peaceful demonstrations and harassing political opponents.

Tuesday, Obama is slated to address the 54-member African Union at its headquarters in Addis Ababa about the fight against terrorism and the importance of creating greater economic opportunities for people, so they won’t be lured by terror groups. Ethiopian peacekeeping troops have clashed with al-Shabab in Somalia as part of an African Union mission to root out the terrorist group from the war-torn country. Other African nations — including Kenya, where Obama wrapped up a visit Sunday — have  contributed troops to the effort.

The United States maintains a drone base in southern Ethiopia for operations against the militant group, which killed 148 people, mostly students, in a four-day siege on a northeastern Kenyan university in April.

Obama’s trip will  call attention to the African Union’s cooperation in combating al-Shabab and mediating conflicts in other hot spots such as Congo and Rwanda, Aguilar said.

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“The African Union … has done significant diplomatic work in the last few years,” he said. “It has always been ignored by Western powers. I think this defines the actual purpose of the visit. It is to engage, in a sense, with Africa in a different way.”

Trade will also be an important part of Obama’s agenda. Last month, the United States renewed the 15-year-old African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which had been slated to expire in September. The legislation, which lowers tariffs for key African exporters, has helped double annual trade between the United States and Africa to $52 billion since 2001, according to White House figures.

U.S. and African trade representatives must  hammer out individual trade agreements under the law. “African countries are very keen on AGOA,” said William Attwell, an Africa specialist with Oxford Analytica. “African manufacturers and businesses will be looking for messages that signal progress of the ongoing trade deal negotiations. This deal presents an opportunity for the African economy to diversify.”

Ethiopia in particular has been undergoing an economic renaissance. The country’s gross domestic product has grown by more than 10% a year during the past decade. The United States is the country’s fourth-largest trading partner. Still, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and unemployment stands around 17%. To create jobs, the country’s leaders want to expand trade and maintain growth.

“There is a need for ensuring there is a structural transformation in the economy,” said Assefa Admassie, principal researcher at the Ethiopian Economics Association in Addis Ababa.

Contributing: Mihret Yohannes and Katharina Wecker in Berlin

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