A little over a decade ago, I was in Addis Ababa studying legal empowerment and speaking to a well-known human rights lawyer in my hotel lounge.
Around 15 minutes into our conversation, a stranger approached us, greeted me by name and sat down at a nearby table without hiding his interest in eavesdropping on our conversation. My guest suddenly began to whisper and soon stopped talking. I realised that we were being monitored by agents of the Ethiopian government and began to worry about the fate of the lady sitting in front of me and the numerous individuals with whom I had interacted during the trip.
Indeed, throughout my visit, I found it extremely difficult to strike up a conversation on politics with just about anyone. Most appeared to be clearly afraid to speak freely and I convinced myself that Ethiopia was perhaps the most difficult country in Africa to research.
By all accounts, Ethiopia is now witnessing a major turn-around. Although the country has been Africa’s fastest growing economy for the past decade and a half, it is now also undertaking political reforms at a rapid pace. A country that typically made world headlines for abject poverty and sensational famines, is now being talked of as one of the most promising economies on the continent. And on a recent visit to Addis, I was struck by the freedom and ease with which Ethiopians arediscussing politics and development.
Much of this current optimism is due to ‘Abiymania’—the euphoria associated with Abiy Ahmed, the country’s young and energetic prime minister, who since coming to power in April 2018. Through his charisma and bold decision-making prowess, he has initiated radical reforms that have dramatically changed the national and international narrative of this strategically significant African country.
Despite being a relative political outsider before being made the leader of the four-party EPRDF coalition that has ruled the country since 1991, Ahmed’s list of accomplishments in the short period since becoming leader are many. He has released political prisoners, made peace with neighboring Eritrea, eased restrictions on media outlets, promised free elections in 2020 and reforms of the electoral system (that has been dominated by his coalition), and initiated an ambitious project to remodel Addis with the aim ofcreating new jobs, promoting sustainable development and boosting tourism.
In addition, one particular issue generated considerable international attention in 2018. In a historic decision, lawmakers appointed Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female president. And Ahmed reshuffled his Cabinet and appointed women to half of the top ministerial positions, including defense. I am particularly pleased that the lady I was interviewing at the hotel in 2007, Meaza Ashenafi, now heads the Supreme Court.
Despite the frenetic pace of change the country is witnessing, many Ethiopians continue to worry about their future. One set of concerns relates to growing income inequality, acute shortage of foreign currency, high levels of youth unemployment, and simmering tensions and factionalbattles within the ruling coalition, which some fear, will undermine on-going reforms.
But there is also concern that Abiymaniamay be short-lived and that rather than placing their bets on a ‘messiah’, the country’s interests would be best served if reforms during this period of political transition are aimed at strengthening institutions promoting democratic governance. n