ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia— Like the visit to Kenya, President Barack Obama’s trip Sunday to Ethiopia represents the first time a sitting U.S. president has been to this East African country and according to its government, it is a sign of the nation’s growing stature.
There remain, however, grave concerns over political freedoms in this nation of more than 90 million — Africa’s second largest — and opposition figures fear that the visit, coming on the heels of an improbable 100 percent ruling party win in elections, will legitimize a repressive government.
With its history of pan-African activism, Ethiopia is also the home of the African Union and on Tuesday Obama will be addressing the whole continent from the organization’s new headquarters in Addis Ababa.
After centuries of ties — the first bilateral trade agreement was signed in 1903 — only now is a U.S. president visiting, noted Communication Minister Redwan Hussein.
“The choice by a sitting U.S. President to visit us was made because we have become more visible and important enough to be visited,” he told The Associated Press. “Being visited by the first sitting American president will enhance the confidence and aspirations of Ethiopians.”
Obama is set to holds talks with his counterpart Mulatu Teshome as well as Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and is expected to discuss the conflict in southern Sudan, confronting the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab in Somalia and economic development.
Administration officials have also promised frank discussions over the lack of press freedom and political openness in Ethiopia.
In May, the ruling party took all the seats in legislative elections described by the U.S. and the European Union as unfair.
Woretaw Wassie, a leader of the opposition Blue Party said members of his party were arrested ahead of Obama’s visit on suspicion they would make a fuss.
“Visiting a country which is totally contrary to the values of the West is very controversial,” he said. “But in any case, the U.S. believes that engaging can make a difference so maybe it will be a good opportunity to put some pressure.”
Another touchy subject would be gay rights which Obama championed on Saturday in Kenya, calling for equal treatment for all under the law.
“All religions in Ethiopia should oppose the president if he raises the gay issue here,” said Memihir Dereje Negash, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church-linked Weyiniye Teklehaimanot Association.