With no resolution in sight for the ongoing conflict in South Sudan, Obama brought together top officials from Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and the A.U. to chart out a strategy in the event that the latest round of peace talks fail.
African nations, led by Ethiopia, have been trying to broker a peace in South Sudan through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional body, and are almost ready to present a possible compromise to the warring parties. The two sides will have until Aug. 17 to respond to the proposal, but administration officials have little expectation that they will accept it.
On Monday, Obama praised the regional leaders for showing “extraordinary leadership in trying to address the continuing situation in South Sudan.” The group included Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, African Union Chairperson Dlamini Zuma and Sudan’s minister of foreign affairs, Ibrahim Ghandour.
“This gives me and the U.S. delegation an opportunity to learn from them what progress has been made, where there appears to be continued roadblocks and how we can partner with them to make progress,” Obama said. “Our hope is that we can actually bring about the kind of peace that the people of South Sudan so desperately need.”
The question of South Sudan — a nation that the United States helped bring into existence in 2011 after years of effort by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations — has vexed American policymakers for years.
In December 2013, South Sudan President Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar, who had served as his vice president, of attempting a coup d’etat. The two had been longtime political rivals from different ethnic groups — Kiir is Dinka, Machar is a Nuer — who had come together to form a government when the country was first created.
While tribal differences have helped fuel the conflict, the war has been largely focused on control of the nation’s oil fields, South Sudan’s primary source of revenue.
Princeton Lyman, U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from 2011 to 2013, noted that when he first took over as envoy, the United States had spent $10 billion on peacekeeping and other assistance for the two nations, “and that was four years ago… This is a big investment,” he added.
At this point, more than 2.5 million people are facing food shortages, while roughly 1.5 million are displaced from their homes. An additional 520,000 South Sudanese have fled across the border into neighboring countries, including Ethiopia.
The conflict also poses a major economic problem for Kenya, which had major investments in South Sudan before the fighting broke out. The LAPSSET Corridor project was aimed at transporting oil from South Sudan to the Kenyan port of Lamu, and according to E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group, the planned transportation and infrastructure development could have been an “engine of development" for many parts of East Africa. "Unfortunately, of course, that’s on hold because of the war,” he said.
While Obama spent part of the afternoon addressing a regional conflict in Africa, he devoted the rest of the day to strengthening ties with Ethiopia, whose alliance with the United States dates back more than a century. But the current government has come under sharp criticism for its treatment of political opponents and journalists.
Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia.
In a news conference Monday afternoon, both Obama and Hailemariam said they had a frank discussion about Ethiopia's human rights practices and the need for improvement. Ethiopia is Africa’s number two jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and its ruling party won 100 percent of the seats in May’s parliamentary elections.
White House national security adviser Susan Rice, asked last week whether she considered Ethiopia a democracy, replied, with irony: “One hundred percent.”
But during the news conference Obama twice referred to the Ethiopian government as “democratically elected.”
“I don’t bite my tongue,” Obama said of raising concerns on these issues with Ethiopia. “But I do so from a position of respect.”
Hailemariam, for his part, said, “Our commitment to democracy is real, not skin deep.”
But he added later that people could not expect sweeping reforms given the fact that military rule ended just a couple of decades ago. “Something has to be understood: This is a fledgling democracy.”
The two leaders also discussed their collaboration on counterterrorism, an area in which Ethiopia has been an active leader. The White House announced Monday it will “work with Congress to provide approximately $465 million” this year in new training, equipment and capacity-building aid to its African allies.
The administration also said it would provide at least $40 million in assistance this fiscal year to combat violent extremism in East Africa. The money is intended to foster collaboration among security forces, law enforcement, government officials, community leaders and members of civil society, officials said.
Obama praised Ethiopia’s work to curb extremist activity but noted that its government had labeled some opposition groups as posing a greater threat than U.S. intelligence would indicate. “Our intelligence indicates while they may oppose the government, they have not tipped into terrorism,” he said.
The United States provides more than $600 million in assistance to Ethiopia annually. The vast bulk of that — $490 million — comes from the U.S. Agency for International Development, while the rest is largely security-related. Last fiscal year, nearly $200 million went to health programs, while $163 million went to humanitarian aid.
Obama said Ethiopia “has proven itself a global leader” on development and over the past 15 years “has lifted millions of people out of poverty.”
“To many people around the world, their image of Ethiopia remains stuck in the past, remembering drought and famine,” he said.
The two leaders appeared to have a friendly rapport throughout the news conference. Hailemariam described his country as scoring a series of firsts: Along with being “the cradle of mankind,” he said, “Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee.” That elicited a smile from Obama.
Obama said he was impressed by the Ethiopian’s unusual pets. “I had a chance to see the famous lions that live on the grounds," he said. "I’m considering getting some for the White House.” But he conceded that before he did that, “I’ll have to make sure my dogs are safe.”