ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - US President Barack Obama delivered a blunt appraisal of Ethiopia's democracy deficit during a landmark visit on Monday, but indicated it would not scuttle their 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, standing next to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose party won 100 percent 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-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 African Union.
Rights groups have warned that Obama's visit could add credibility to a government they accuse of suppressing democratic rights - including the jailing of journalists and critics - 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 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." - South Sudan 'worsening' -
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.
South Sudan's rival leaders - President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, who will not be at the meeting - effectively face an ultimatum, a "final best offer," according to one senior administration official.
"The parties have shown themselves to be utterly indifferent to their country and their people, and that is a hard thing to rectify," the official said.
On Tuesday Obama will also become the first US president to address the African Union, the 54-member continental bloc, at its gleaming Chinese-built headquarters.
AU Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has hailed what she said will be a "historic visit" to boost ties.
While Kenya launched one of the biggest security operations ever seen in the capital Nairobi to host Obama from Friday evening to Sunday, the habitual reach of Ethiopia's powerful security forces meant there was little obvious extra fanfare ahead of his arrival in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia has come far from the global headlines generated by the 1984 famine, experiencing near-double-digit economic growth and huge infrastructure investment that have made it one of Africa's top-performing economies and a magnet for foreign investment.
Through the tinted windows of his bomb-proof presidential limousine, nicknamed "The Beast," Obama will see Addis Ababa's construction boom of tower blocks, as well as sub-Saharan Africa's first modern tramway.
Obama praised its progress in having "lifted millions of people out poverty", but adding that "we have to keep moving on the progress that has been made."