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Obama Urges Ethiopia to 'Open Political Space'

  • Aru Pande

President Barack Obama says the United States and Ethiopia are "strong partners" on many issues, but is urging the government to allow journalists and opposition parties to operate more freely.

In a news conference Monday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Obama praised Ethiopia's economic record, noting the country has lifted millions out of dire poverty, and said Ethiopia has played a vital role in fighting the Somali militant group Al-Shabab.

The U.S. president said that he also held "frank discussions" with the prime minister, and that opening space for journalists and opposition voices "will strengthen rather than inhibit" the ruling party's agenda.

WATCH: President Obama's remarks during joint press conference

Hailemariam said Ethiopia is committed to improving human rights and governance.

"Our commitment to democracy is real, not skin deep," he said.

Rights groups have called for Obama to demand reforms from Ethiopia, where the government controls 100 percent of the seats in parliament and keeps a tight leash on the media.

Watch related video report by Anita Powell

South Sudan

Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia. While in Addis Ababa, he's meeting with the leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and the African Union to discuss the civil war in South Sudan.

At the news conference, the U.S. president said conditions in South Sudan are getting "much, much worse," and said the United States and East African countries will discuss what can be done to forge a peace deal.

He said South Sudan's president and opposition leaders have been stubborn and are looking out for their own self-interest rather than the interest of their country.

Obama said the U.S. will continue to work to advance Ethiopia's economic progress, human rights, governance and access to electricity.

Terrorism

In his opening remarks, Hailemariam said he was honored to host a U.S. president for the first time in Ethiopia. He said his nation and continent are making important strides and Obama’s visit comes while Ethiopia is working hard at governance and the fight against terrorism.

Hailemariam said he and Obama talked at length about U.S. support in expanding trade and investment in Ethiopia.

"We have agreed to work closely on South Sudan and to build peace in Somalia, and to increase intelligence cooperation which is essential to counter terrorism," he said.

A car bomb rips through the Jazeera hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sunday morning, July 26, 2015. (Courtesy photo by Mohamed Moalimuu)

A car bomb rips through the Jazeera hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sunday morning, July 26, 2015. (Courtesy photo by Mohamed Moalimuu)

He added that the Sunday attack in Mogadishu, where at least 13 were killed in a car bomb blast outside a hotel hosting the Chinese and Egyptian embassies, was a stark reminder of the threat posed by terrorism.

Ahead of the Monday talks, Obama was welcomed at the National Palace in Addis Ababa, where he and Desalegn listened to Ethiopia's National Marching Band play the national anthems of both their countries.

U.S. aid

In line with the bilateral talks, the White House announced the United States intends to provide at least $40 million more in assistance related to countering terrorism in East Africa.

It already has proposed funding of some $465 million for training, equipment, capacity building and countering violent extremist initiatives throughout Africa.

The issue was also a focus during the American leader’s talks with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi on July 25. Kenyatta will join Obama and leaders from the African Union, Uganda and Sudan later Monday for talks focused on the crisis in South Sudan.

President Barack Obama waves after delivering a speech at Safaricom Indoor Arena, Sunday, July 26, 2015, in Nairobi.

President Barack Obama waves after delivering a speech at Safaricom Indoor Arena, Sunday, July 26, 2015, in Nairobi.

Kenya visit

Before Ethiopia, Obama spent two days in his father's homeland of Kenya, where he was hailed as a native son.

WATCH: VOA's Gabe Joselow's related video report

VOA's Gabe Joselow, Anita Powell, Arash Arabasadi and Vincent Makori contributed to this story.

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