Barack Obama has opened talks in Ethiopia during the first-ever trip by a US president to Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Obama, who flew in to a rainy Addis Ababa late on Sunday after a landmark trip to Kenya, his father’s birthplace, went into bilateral talks with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and President Mulatu Teshome, whose position is largely ceremonial.
Ethiopia is a key strategic ally of the United States but much criticised for its record on democracy and human rights. The visit comes two months after Hailemariam’s ruling coalition won every parliamentary seat in elections the opposition said were marked by repression.
Talks were held in the nation’s presidential palace, a sprawling compound in the heart of the capital, 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.
A 21-gun salute welcomed Obama as he arrived.
Obama will also hold talks with regional leaders on the civil war in South Sudan in an attempt to build African support for action against the war-torn country’s leaders if they reject an ultimatum to end the carnage by mid-August.
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 the ‘historic visit’ and a ‘concrete step to broaden and deepen the relationship between the AU and the US’.
While Kenya launched one of the biggest security operations ever seen in its capital Nairobi to host Obama from Friday evening to Sunday, the habitual reach of Ethiopia’s powerful security forces meant there was little extra fanfare ahead of his arrival in Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia, like Kenya, has been on the frontline of the fight against the Somali-led, al-Qaeda-affiliated Shebab. Both nations have troops in Somalia as part of an AU and US-backed force and are key security partners to Washington.
The US State Department, however, 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’.
Ahead of the visit, the White House stressed it frequently addresses issues of democracy and political rights in the region. Having spoken frankly in Kenya on human rights and corruption, Obama is now expected to address Ethiopia’s – and Africa’s – democracy deficit.
High on the agenda on Monday are talks with leaders from Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda as well as Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour to try and build a collective front to end the 19-month civil war in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation.
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