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Obama Becomes First Sitting U.S. President To Visit Ethiopia


President Obama is in Ethiopia today. It's the first visit there by any sitting U.S. president. He held a conference to find a negotiated solution to the civil war next door in South Sudan, which is teetering on the edge of famine. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, many have questioned doing this in Ethiopia given that government's poor record on human rights and democracy.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Present Obama's historic visit comes just two months after an election in Ethiopia where the ruling party and its allies won 100 percent of the vote. Human rights groups called the election a sham. But in a press conference today in the Ethiopian capital, President Obama's criticism of Ethiopia's human rights record was muted. He noted that Ethiopia needed to take further steps to show progress on good governance and democracy.


BARACK OBAMA: There's still more work to do, and I think the prime minister's the first to acknowledge that there's more work to do.

WARNER: Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said building democratic freedoms were a process. Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, says in Ethiopia, it's more like a U-turn.

LESLIE LEFKOW: Ten years ago, the human rights situation in Ethiopia was better than it is today. We've seen an actual regression rather than slow progress.

WARNER: Ten years ago, Ethiopia had more freedom of the press, more political debate and more opposition leaders in government.

LEFKOW: That's why, also, the timing of the visit is so worrying.

WARNER: Ethiopia now has more journalists in exile than any other country in Africa, one of them Kassahun Yilma, an editor for an Ethiopian satellite channel based in D.C.

KASSAHUN YILMA: I have expected Obama, you know, to tell the reality right away on that press conference.

WARNER: Obama's first presidential trip to Africa was in 2009 when Kassahun was living in Ethiopia, writing for a well-known journal called Addis Neger. He remembers the president's speech back in 2009 in Ghana.


OBAMA: Africa doesn't need strong men. It needs strong institutions.

WARNER: A free Ethiopia felt just around the corner, but by the end of that year, the Ethiopian journal was shut down, its writers imprisoned or exiled. Today, Kassahun had a sinking feeling watching the president speak.

YILMA: I'm so disappointed. I didn't expect this because looking back what he said in Ghana six years ago.

WARNER: He expected handshakes, the photo ops, and he was even proud to see Obama on his native soil. He just didn't expect Obama to twice call the Ethiopian government democratically elected. That, he says, felt like betrayal. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.