President Obama met on Monday with major African leaders at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to discuss South Sudan, Somalia, and regional counterterrorism issues.
The meeting included Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour, and African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.
The meeting comes at a time when terrorism and civil war is plaguing various regions in the continent. In Somalia, Al-Shabab is battling the government for control of the country. While security in Somalia has improved, the group still attacks Mogadishu regularly. The militant terrorist group has also committed acts of terror in Kenya, in April killing 147 students at Garissa University.
After it gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan was thrown into conflict in December 2013 by a clash between forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, part of the Nuer tribe, and President Salva Kiir, a Dinka. The fighting started a humanitarian crisis that threatens the country's survival just four years after its independence.
The young nation, created with the support of the U.S., was given an August 17th deadline to accept a regional peace and power-sharing deal between the two main warring factions.
President Obama expressed appreciation to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and the other leaders who agreed to meet. He also demonstrated his desire to find a resolution to the conflict in the region.
“They have shown extraordinary leadership in trying to address the continuing situation in South Sudan,” the US leader said. “This gives me and the U.S. delegation an opportunity to learn from them, what’s the progress that’s been made, where there continues to be roadblocks and how to partner with them to make progress. Our hope is that we can actually bring about the kind of peace that the people of South Sudan so desperately need.”
A senior Obama administration official noted that the U.N. Security Council has already passed a resolution that “explicitly threatened additional sanctions” on South Sudan and there is a strong possibility the U.S. and other countries “will go back to that resolution and ask whether it’s time for additional pressure.”
The American official added that the President was very clear that this is a problem for the region to resolve, saying that while it remains a regional problem, “It is becoming of a scale and intensity that all of us are ultimately, one way or another, affected.”
Regarding Somalia, a second official said the group spoke of the need to support the African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping operation. The importance of working to grow the capacity of Somali institutions was also discussed.
Asked about the Obama’s description of Ethiopia's government as "democratically elected," the senior officials said both he and the administration had been clear about the problems with the last election, including the lack of independent media and lack of effective space for opposition.
But Obama recognized the challenges for a country that has only been a democracy for two decades following a monarchy and a dictatorship. "I think the president was very frank," one of the officials said. "I don’t think in any way he was being soft but he was putting it in a certain context."
Officials said they were surprised by the Prime Minister's admission at the news conference that their democracy was still weak and needed improvement. They said that he was even more candid in private.
"In the bilateral meeting, the government expressed some discomfort with the uniform outcome as not indicative of the kind of competition they want," one official said. The official added: "I've never seen a day like today."
A senior administration official said the meeting was “productive” and lasted nearly two hours. The bulk of the discussion was on South Sudan, with the rest of it on Somalia and counterterrorism.