Obama challenges Ethiopia to plug democracy deficit

US President Barack Obama
US President Barack ObamaPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

ADDIS ABABA • US President Barack Obama has delivered a blunt appraisal of Ethiopia's democracy deficit during a landmark visit, but indicated Washington would not scuttle a close security and political relationship.

He told Ethiopia's leaders that allowing more freedoms would strengthen the African nation, which had already lifted millions in the once famine-stricken country out of poverty.

"There is still more work to do, and I think the prime minister is the first to admit there is still more to do," Mr Obama said yesterday, standing next to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose party won 100 per cent of seats in Parliament two months ago.

Mr Obama is on the first-ever trip by a US president to Africa's second-most populous nation, a key strategic ally of Washington but one also much criticised for its record on democracy and human rights. It is also the seat of the 54-member African Union (AU). Rights groups have warned that Mr Obama's visit could add credibility to a government they accuse of suppressing democratic rights - including the jailing of critics.

"There are certain principles we think have to be upheld," Mr 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."

DON'T LET UP

"There is still more work to do, and I think the prime minister is the first to admit there is still more to do."

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, who delivered a blunt appraisal of Ethiopia's democracy deficit

But Mr Hailemariam pushed back against criticism that 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".

Mr Obama flew into Addis Ababa late on Sunday after a visit to Kenya, his father's birthplace.

The US leader 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 Al-Shabaab.

"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," Mr Obama said, but added: "We've got more work to do."

Mr Obama was also to hold talks with regional leaders on the civil war in South Sudan in a bid 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.

Mr Obama will today also become the first US president to address the African Union, at its gleaming Chinese-built headquarters.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2015, with the headline 'Obama challenges Ethiopia to plug democracy deficit'. Print Edition | Subscribe