Barack Obama met the Ethiopian prime minister Monday on the first visit by a serving U.S. president to a nation with one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa but which has often been criticized for its rights record.
Talks with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn are expected focus on security and the threat of the Islamist militant group al Shabaab in Somalia. Obama, who arrived from Kenya on Sunday, also wants to boost business ties with Africa.
Ethiopia’s ruling party, in power for quarter of a century, has turned the once famine-stricken economy around, but opponents say it has been at the expense of political freedoms. The opposition failed to secure a single seat in a May parliamentary election.
On Obama’s first stop in Kenya, his father’s homeland, he urged Kenyans to deepen democracy, tackle corruption and end politics of exclusion based on gender or ethnicity. He also promised Kenya more security assistance.
“We are strongly committed to partnering with African countries to increase their capacity to address the immediate threats posed by terrorist organizations,” the White House said in a statement on Monday.
Ethiopia contributes troops to an African Union peace keeping force battling al Shabaab in Somalia. The group has often launched attacks in Kenya, but diplomats say Ethiopia’s state security apparatus has spared it similar assaults.
Obama holds talks with regional leaders about the conflict in South Sudan late on Monday. Warring factions have ignored pressure to end fighting, and talks may consider possible sanctions if an mid-August deadline is not met.
Obama, who many Africans claim as their son, is seeking to expand business links with the continent, where China overtook the United States as the biggest trade partner in 2009.
“Africa is on the move. Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world,” Obama told a conference in Nairobi on Saturday that sought to encourage African entrepreneurs and match them with investors.
Ethiopia, brought to its knees by communist purges in the 1970s and famine in the 1980s, has won praise for pushing growth into double digits and spreading development with a range of rural health programs and other initiatives across the nation.
But it has relied largely on state-led investment to drive growth, which economists say is squeezing out private business. It remains one of the world’s biggest recipients of aid and is still among Africa’s poorest nations per capita.
The government has often turned to China to help build new roads, railways and dams in its bid to expand the industrial base in the largely agrarian economy. The new metro line that snakes through Addis Ababa was built by a Chinese firm.