US President Barack Obama has delivered a blunt appraisal of Ethiopia’s democracy deficit during a landmark visit.
However, the leader of the free world says his criticism won’t scuttle the two nations’ close security and political relationship.
“There is still more work to do and I think the prime minister is the first to admit there is still more to do,” Obama said on Monday, standing next to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose party won 100 per cent of seats in parliament two months ago.
“We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history,” Obama added, after lauding the country’s regional role in fighting Somalia’s Shebab militants and peace efforts in war-torn South Sudan.
Obama is on the first trip by a US president to Africa’s second-most populous nation, a key strategic ally of Washington but also much criticised for its record on democracy and human rights. It is also the seat of the African Union.
Rights groups have warned Obama’s visit could add credibility to a government they accuse of suppressing democratic rights with anti-terrorism legislation said to be used to stifle peaceful dissent.
“There are certain principles we think have to be upheld,” Obama added.
“Nobody questions our need to engage with large countries where we may have differences on these issues. We don’t advance or improve these issues by staying away.”
But Hailemariam pushed back against criticism his government has quashed opposition voices and suppressed press freedom.
“Our commitment to democracy is real and not skin deep,” he said, adding that Ethiopia is a “fledgling democracy, we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices”.
The US State Department has noted Ethiopia’s “restrictions on freedom of expression” as well as “politically motivated trials” and the “harassment and intimidation of opposition members and journalists”.
But Hailemariam insisted Ethiopia needed journalists.
“For us it’s very important to be criticised, because we also get feedback to correct our mistakes. Media is one of the institutions that have to be nurtured for democracy.”
Obama flew into a rainy Addis Ababa late on Sunday after a landmark trip to Kenya, his father’s birthplace, where he spoke frankly on human rights and corruption.
Talks on Monday were held in Ethiopia’s presidential palace, a sprawling compound in the heart of Addis Ababa, 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.
Obama also praised Ethiopia’s military role in neighbouring Somalia, where its troops in the AU force – working alongside US “regional teams” – are battling the al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab.
“We don’t need to send our own Marines in to do the fighting: the Ethiopians are tough fighters and the Kenyans and Ugandans have been serious about what they’re doing,” Obama said, but added: “We’ve got more work to do.”
Obama will later hold talks with regional leaders on the civil war in South Sudan in an attempt to build African support for decisive action against the country’s leaders if they reject an ultimatum to end the carnage by mid-August.
He said the situation in South Sudan was deteriorating but that it was now time for a “breakthrough” in peace efforts.
“The humanitarian situation is worsening,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time. The conditions on the ground are getting much much worse.”
Signalling a deeper commitment to ending violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and forced more than two million from their homes, Obama is expected to make the case for tougher sanctions and a possible arms embargo.
© AFP 2015
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