ADDIS ABABA: President Barack Obama huddled with Ethiopia’s leaders Monday for talks on counterterrorism, human rights and regional security issues, including the crisis in neighboring South Sudan.
Obama’s visit marks the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Ethiopia. He arrived at the National Palace in the capital of Addis Ababa for a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, followed by a joint news conference.
Later Monday, Obama was to convene a meeting of African leaders on the situation in South Sudan. The world’s newest nation has been gripped by civil war for months, spurred by a conflict between warring factions in the government.
South Sudan is facing an Aug. 17 deadline to accept a peace and power-sharing agreement, though U.S. officials say they’re pessimistic a deal will be reached. Obama’s meeting with regional leaders is aimed in part at considering an international response if the deadline passes without a deal.
Obama arrived in Ethiopia on Sunday night after a stop in Kenya, his late father’s homeland.
Like Kenya, Ethiopia has a fast-growing economy but faces challenges from the al-Shabab terrorist threat based across the border in Somalia. Ethiopia has partnered with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism, sharing intelligence with American officials and sending troops into Somalia to address instability there.
However, human rights groups and others say Obama’s visit to Ethiopia lends an air of international legitimacy to a government that is using national security concerns as a pretext to stifle opposition and curtail basic freedoms. Ethiopia is the world’s second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“It undermines a lot of the presidential goals about good governance on the continent,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “In many ways, I guess it’s a reward. Ethiopia at this time doesn’t deserve that.”
Ahead of Obama’s arrival, the Ethiopian government released several journalists and bloggers it had been holding since April 2014 on charges of incitement and terrorism. Many others remain in detention.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes defended Obama’s trip, saying the stop is not a seal of approval and that the two governments share a broad set of interests. He said Obama would not shy away from raising differences of opinion, including human rights.
Another touchy subject for their discussions would be gay rights, which Obama championed while in Kenya.