ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—President Barack Obama, in a visit to Ethiopia, sought to balance his goals of strengthening a U.S. partnership key to combating regional security threats, while pressuring the country’s leaders to address democracy and human-rights concerns.
The president on Monday also waded more deeply into the worsening conflict in South Sudan, a country his administration helped secede from Sudan four years ago following a two-decade civil war. Mr. Obama is trying to salvage the U.S. effort, which has unraveled as the new nation descended into a sectarian conflict before it could celebrate its third anniversary.
Mr. Obama spent nearly two hours with regional leaders on Monday discussing new options for forcing a resolution to escalating violence. He threatened new sanctions if South Sudan’s warring factions don’t agree to a peace deal by a mid-August deadline set by African mediators.
“If we don’t see a breakthrough by Aug. 17, then we’re going to have to consider what other tools we have to apply pressure on the two parties,” Mr. Obama said in a joint news conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
A senior U.S. official said one of the African leaders at the South Sudan meeting raised the prospect of “a regional intervention force.” The official declined to say who proposed it, but the meeting was attended by the leaders of Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, the chairman of the African Union and the Sudanese foreign minister.
Ethiopia has been at the forefront of efforts to resolve the crisis in South Sudan. “It is becoming of a scale and intensity that all of us are ultimately, one way or another, affected,” said a senior administration official who attended Monday’s meeting.
After a one-on-one meeting, Messrs. Obama and Desalegn vowed to redouble their efforts to combat the threat of the al Qaeda-affiliated terror group al-Shabaab in neighboring Somalia. Both of them condemned Sunday’s deadly attack on a hotel in the capital Mogadishu that left 13 people dead.
Mr. Obama said he pressed Mr. Desalegn to implement changes to remedy the poor human-rights record in Ethiopia. The country has proved a magnet for foreign investment because of soaring economic-growth rates, but has attracted the ire of human-rights groups for muzzling dissent.
“This was a significant topic of conversation,” Mr. Obama said. “Making sure to open additional space for journalists, for media, for opposition voices will strengthen rather than inhibit the agenda that the prime minister has put forward.”
Mr. Desalegn offered some conciliatory comments, saying Ethiopia is “a fledgling democracy” that is struggling to embrace broader freedoms. “We have to work on our limitations.”
Mr. Obama’s two-day stay in Addis Ababa marks the first visit to Ethiopia by a sitting American president. His trip followed a landmark visit to Kenya and is part of his broader aim to burnish his foreign-policy credentials in Africa before leaving office in January 2017.
He attended a state dinner with Mr. Desalegn on Monday evening, and on Tuesday he will deliver a speech before the African Union.
Growing security concerns in Africa have absorbed Mr. Obama’s focus on the continent, even as his administration tries to highlight economic growth in countries like Ethiopia and Kenya.
“To many people around the world, their image of Ethiopia remains stuck in the past—remembering drought and famine,” Mr. Obama said, adding that his administration’s goal is to simply provide aid but building Ethiopia’s capacity to flourish on its own. “So instead of just giving a fish, we teach you how to fish.”
That same approach is embedded in Mr. Obama’s approach to security issues.
The president has come under criticism for holding up as a model the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Somalia, given the persistent violence there. On Monday, he defended his strategy as one that is in line with his broader foreign-policy doctrine of favoring diplomatic engagement and empowering local military forces, rather than using American troops to intervene in conflicts affecting other nations.
But the worsening situation in South Sudan threatens to tarnish Mr. Obama’s Africa legacy.
Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report that the South Sudanese army carried out deliberate attacks against civilians during a recent offensive to recapture oil-rich regions that may amount to war crimes, marking the latest setback for efforts to broker peace in the world’s youngest nation.
“It’s something that requires urgent attention from all of us,” Mr. Obama said. “We don’t have a lot of time to wait. The conditions on the ground are getting much, much worse.”
The U.S. is seeking to corral new international and unilateral sanctions targeting arms and individuals perpetuating the conflict if the bloodshed continues. U.S. officials were blunt that they don’t expect South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to agree to a compromise by the August deadline.
Regional mediators failed to reach a deal by a March deadline after a year and a half of stalled talks and ignored cease-fires. In June, they joined together with the African Union, the United Nations and the countries supporting South Sudan to try again with the hope that the unified front would lead to a deal.
Casie Copeland, a South Sudan analyst with International Crisis Group, said the revamped peace team is taking a much tougher approach—handing the two sides a compromise and promising punitive measures if they don’t sign. Ms. Copeland said Mr. Obama’s presence in Ethiopia is likely to persuade South Sudan’s warring parties to take seriously threats of sanctions and arms embargoes.
“Obama coming and sort of putting the hammer on the table is putting a level of credibility to the threat that it didn’t have before,” Ms. Copeland said.
Jok Madut Jok, the head of South Sudan’s Sudd Institute think tank in Juba, said the key is the U.S. influence with regional players who haven’t all been pushing as hard as they could for a peace deal.
“What has become evident over the past 19 months is the importance of the United States exercising its influence in the region—with Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia—to get them on board with any threats so that everyone is speaking with one voice,” he said.