I hadn’t been back to Ethiopia since its zealously reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power a year ago. I finally did.
One thing hasn’t changed from the pre-Abiy Addis Ababa—the building craze is still fully on, and seems to have gained momentum.
Beyond that, it is a totally different country.
Ethiopia is an old, proud country, at one time making claim to being an empire. It is the only African country not to be dominated by a European colonial power.
This history partly explains the magnitude of the political reforms that Abiy has made.
A diplomat who knows Ethiopia and the ways of Africa tells me: “The thing is that Ethiopia is a 3,000-year-old country—and dictatorship.
Abiy is giving it its first taste of freedom,” he adds. “He is unleashing demons that have been buried in the ground for 30 centuries.”
His point being that the ethnic violence that is wracking parts of the country, displacing millions, as long-oppressed people take up machetes to vent, was inevitable. The surprise, he says, is that it has not –and may still not – consume the country.
In the face of myriad threats, Abiy has lifted controls on free expression, the Internet, and political association. He has thrown open the gates of Ethiopia’s notorious overflowing prisons and freed political prisoners; and made peace with foes like Eritrea.
There is palpable giddiness, a daring to dream that Abiy’s rule will bear rich fruit.
I met an old acquaintance who is in Addis scouting a venue for a freedom of expression conference later in the year.
The last time I was invited to a similar conference in Addis, I – and several others – stayed away. It was a time when the “Zone 9 Bloggers” and over a dozen other journalists were being tormented in jail.
It is in this, the sense that today’s Ethiopia is where good things go looking for wings, rather than to die, that Abiy may find solutions to the country’s problems.
And those problems are many. The ruling EPRDF splurged on Chinese money to build the extensive array of infrastructure that has been laid down over the past decade.
However, Byzantine business rules, smothering state control of the economy, meant it couldn’t reap handsomely from the infrastructure investments. Unemployment is rampant. Poverty levels remain stubbornly high.
The day after our arrival, we encountered former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Abiy’s predecessor.
A man of mild demeanour, he resigned after he couldn’t bring himself to swing the axe hard enough to cut down Oromo and Amhara uprisings that threatened the regime’s grip on power.
Desalegn is a busy man, deployed on tasks abroad by Abiy. Not too long ago, the last time he would have been seen, would have been with his body hanging from an electricity pole.
For the first time in years of travelling to Ethiopia, I didn’t have to hear about a friend or journalist who had been jailed, fled into exile, or murdered by state thugs.
Abiy has tried to reinvent a country in peacetime. He might fail spectacularly in the end. But few on this our fair continent, have taken a plunge into the deep political end like he’s dared do.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]