President Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia, the White House announced Friday, when he heads there next month.
Obama's trip to Africa's second-most populous nation -- the second stop on a journey that includes a visit to his father's home country of Kenya -- comes amid growing concern that Ethiopia's government has become increasingly repressive when it comes to internal dissent. During elections last month the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front tightened its hold on power, prompting the opposition to accuse the government of running a one-party state.
In a statement Friday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president would travel in late July to Ethiopia for bilateral meetings with both the country's government and the leadership of the African Union, which is headquartered there.
"This visit, which will follow the President’s travel to Kenya, will build on the success of the August 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit by strengthening ties with our African partners and highlighting America’s longstanding commitment to investing in Africa," the statement read. "This will be the first visit of a sitting U.S. President to Ethiopia and to the African Union headquarters, underscoring our efforts to work with the countries and citizens of sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security."
Human rights activists praised Obama for highlighting the work of the African Union, which has worked to promote both political stability and economic integration across the continent. But they said the president must use his trip to draw attention to the government's repeated use of targeted arrests and prosecutions to suppress any opposition from journalists, bloggers, protesters and political activists.
“Ethiopia is too often presented as an African success story instead of the human rights disaster that is the reality,” said Sarah Margon, Human Rights Watch's Washington director. “If Obama wants to make the case for investing in Ethiopia, he should be clear that means investing in the human rights of its people, not the repression of its government.”
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday, White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said the stop in Addis Ababa is more about America's relationship with sub-Saharan Africa than a single nation.
Referring to human rights violations, Schultz said, “As you know, we regularly -- both in public and in private -- communicate our concerns about some of the issues you've raised. I don't think that's going to stop because of this visit."
The president is likely to focus on counterterrorism efforts within Africa while in Ethiopia: the government there has worked with the United States on countering the extremist group al-Shabab in Somalia and promoting peace efforts in South Sudan.
A senior administration official, who asked for anonymity in order to speak frankly about diplomatic matters, said the two countries have "a long-standing and strategic relationship," and the visit came out of a meeting Obama had with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in the fall.
Ethiopia has played a key role "advancing and promoting broader regional stability," the official said, adding that when it comes to next month's visit, "this is an opportunity to hold frank discussions with our Ethiopian counterparts, and urge them to make progress in areas of concern."