U.S. President Barack Obama told Ethiopia’s leaders on Monday that allowing more freedoms would strengthen the African nation, which had already lifted millions in the once famine-stricken country out of poverty.
Obama was speaking after talks with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn during the first trip by a serving U.S. president to Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies but which has often been criticized for its rights record.
The opposition failed to secure a single seat in a May parliamentary election, while the United States has criticized Ethiopia’s detention of bloggers and journalists in the past. The government insists those detained have committed crimes.
“The governing party has significant breadth and popularity and, as a consequence, making sure to open additional space for journalists or media or opposition voices will strengthen rather than inhibit the agenda that the prime minister and the ruling party have put forward,” Obama told a news conference.
Hailemariam, speaking at the same briefing, acknowledged his country was “young democracy” that had more to do, but also said he had “minor differences” with the United States about the speed of that process.
Ethiopia, run by Hailemariam’s ruling party for quarter of a century, is on track for 10 percent growth this year, helping transform a nation that was brought to its knees by communist purges in the 1970s and famine in the 1980s.
Obama praised Ethiopia’s development record that had pulled “millions of people” out of poverty in the past 15 years in the nation of 96 million, although he said there were “still too many people” struggling.
“My message to the people of Ethiopia is: as you take steps moving your country forward, the United States will be standing by you the entire way,” he said.
Obama discussed closer security cooperation with Ethiopia, and praised its role in an African force in Somalia that was helping shrink the area controlled by al Shabaab militants.
Obama’s Africa tour, which began on Friday in his father’s homeland Kenya, also aims to boost trade and business ties with a continent where China overtook the United States as the biggest trade partner in 2009.
The Ethiopian prime minister noted a century of diplomatic ties with the United States but said the U.S. “investment flow doesn’t match.” He particularly noted that America was a leader in science and technology, which African needed more of.
Ethiopia’s breakneck economic growth has been driven largely by state-led investment, which economists say is squeezing out private business. Hailemariam said the country had to do more to remove bureaucracy and bottlenecks to avoid deterring investors.
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.