Ethiopian opposition urges Obama to keep up pressure

Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen (L) toasts US President Barack Obama at a State Dinner at the National Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 27, 2015 (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb) (AFP/File)

Addis Ababa (AFP) - US President Barack Obama's visit to Ethiopia, which saw him speak out against democratic restrictions, was positive but Washington must maintain pressure on the government, an Ethiopian opposition figure said Wednesday.

"I was not in favour of his coming, but (the visit) exposed Ethiopia and its government," said Merera Gudina, the vice-president of the opposition Medrek party, hailing the media and NGO interest generated by Obama's remarks.

"I think the cause of democracy benefited from this," Gudina said.

"But we have to wait for the follow-up. If the US really means business, they have a lot of leverage with the Ethiopian government. But the US needs Ethiopia on the war on terror. It's a major ally in the Horn of Africa," he said, adding that he feared Obama's comments were "only for public relations."

Obama was in Ethiopia on Monday and Tuesday, making the first-ever visit to the country by a US president.

On Tuesday he became the first US leader to address the Addis Ababa-headquartered African Union.

Obama delivered a blunt appraisal of Ethiopia's democracy deficit but said it would not scuttle the two countries' close security and political relationship.

"There is still more work to do, and I think the prime minister is the first to admit there is still more to do," Obama said during a joint news conference on Monday with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose party won 100 percent of seats in parliament two months ago.

Rights groups had warned that Obama's visit could add credibility to a government they accuse of suppressing democratic rights -- including the jailing of journalists and critics -- with anti-terrorism legislation said to be used to stifle peaceful dissent.

But Hailemariam pushed back against criticism his government has quashed opposition voices and suppressed press freedom.

"Our commitment to democracy is real and not skin deep," he said, adding that Ethiopia is a "fledgling democracy, we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices".