Barack Obama has met the Ethiopian prime minister on the first visit by a serving US president to a nation with one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa but which has often been criticised for its rights record.

In a joint press conference on Monday in the capital, Addis Ababa, Obama urged East Africa's most populous country to curb its crackdown on opposition members and limits on press freedom.

"We had a frank discussion, in a global economy increasingly driven by technology and the internet, continued growth in Ethiopia depends on the free flow of information and open exchanges of ideas." Obama said.

"I believe that when all voices are being heard, when people know that they are included in the political process, that makes a country stronger and more successful and more innovative," Obama added.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose government swept all seats in May's disputed parliamentary election, attempted to counter the criticism of his government.

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

Ethiopia's ruling party, in power for a quarter of a century, has turned the once famine-stricken economy around.

Ethiopia: Development at the cost of growth?

On Obama's first stop in Kenya, his father's homeland, he urged Kenyans to deepen democracy, tackle corruption, and end politics of exclusion based on gender or ethnicity. He also promised Kenya more security assistance.

"We are strongly committed to partnering with African countries to increase their capacity to address the immediate threats posed by terrorist organisations," the White House said in a statement on Monday.

Ethiopia contributes troops to an African Union peacekeeping force battling al-Shabab in Somalia. The group has often launched attacks in Kenya, but diplomats say Ethiopia's state security apparatus has spared it similar assaults.

Obama will hold talks with regional leaders about the conflict in South Sudan late on Monday. Warring factions have ignored pressure to end fighting, and talks may consider possible sanctions if a mid-August deadline is not met.

Trade ties

Obama, who many Africans claim as their son, is seeking to expand business links with the continent, where China overtook the United States as the biggest trade partner in 2009.

"Africa is on the move. Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world," Obama told a conference in Nairobi on Saturday that sought to encourage African entrepreneurs and match them with investors.

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Ethiopia, brought to its knees by communist purges in the 1970s and famine in the 1980s, has won praise for pushing growth into double digits and spreading development with a range of rural health programmes and other initiatives across the nation.

But it has relied largely on state-led investment to drive growth, which economists say is squeezing out private business. It remains one of the world's biggest recipients of aid and is still among Africa's poorest nations per capita.

The government has often turned to China to help build new roads, railways and dams in its bid to expand the industrial base in the largely agrarian economy. The new metro line that snakes through Addis Ababa was built by a Chinese firm. 

Source: Agencies