Under the transformative regime of prime minister Abiy Ahmed, a reformist from Oromia, exiled dissidents are being welcomed home. Yet the loosening of state control has also sparked an upsurge in violence
by Tom Gardner and Charlie Rosser
Something extraordinary is happening in Ethiopia. Under new prime minister Abiy Ahmed, authoritarianism and state brutality appear to be giving way to something resembling democracy. A country that began the year crippled by anti-government protests is now being lauded as a model for the region. One of Africa’s most autocratic ruling parties, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is today led by a man who professes to believe deeply in freedom of expression.
In the capital, Addis Ababa, huge crowds have been welcoming home exiled dissidents. Residents who once feared speaking publicly about politics now talk of little else. Flags and symbols long banned by the EPRDF blossom across the city.
But it is also a time of deep anxiety. The unprecedented loosening of state control has been accompanied by an upsurge in ethnic violence and widespread lawlessness. Hate speech thrives on social media. Groups with starkly contrasting visions for the country have clashed on the streets of the capital. On 19 September the government began its first clampdown, arresting hundreds of people suspected of orchestrating violence. “Abiymania”, as it has become known, may not last forever.
In Addis Ababa the face of Abiy Ahmed is almost ubiquitous, emblazoned on stickers, posters, T-shirts and books. Some of his most enthusiastic supporters liken him to a prophet. “Without Abiy we would be doing nothing,” says Asrat Abere, a taxi driver and father of two. “If he had time he could change everything.”
- Abiy Ahmed supporters in Addis Ababa
Some worry that “Abiymania” is a personality cult; others liken it to the sort of adoration that has often followed Ethiopian leaders, including the former emperor, Haile Selassie.
“There’s an inclination in the Ethiopian population to have more faith in charismatic leaders than in political parties or institutions,” says Goitum Gebreluel, an Ethiopian researcher at Cambridge University. “Abiy has been able to cultivate that cleverly.”
On 9 September, two days before Ethiopian New Year, thousands of Addis Ababa’s residents arrived in the central square and national stadium to welcome exiled opposition leader Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of the city in disputed 2005 elections before being jailed and eventually fleeing the country. He leads the opposition movement Ginbot 7, which had been labelled a terrorist organisation before Abiy took office in April.
Supporters of Ginbot 7 have been enthusiastically waving the old Ethiopian flag, which lacks the star emblem associated with the EPRDF, and calling for unity between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups.
Many attending the rally credited Abiy with allowing their political heroes to return to Ethiopia. “The country is now democratic,” says Stentehu, a Ginbot 7 supporter. “Abiy is amazing – he is just like my father, my brother. He is family.”
“This is a day of love,” says Admasu, in a thick American accent. “Abiy is our miracle one – all of this is happening because of him.”
“Today is our victory day,” says Belanesh Mengistu, sitting on the steps of Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square with her sisters. “We have worked 27 years in slavery. Now things are gradually improving. We have a bright future.”
On 15 September another huge rally took place in Addis Ababa, this time for supporters of the previously banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), whose long-exiled leader, Dawud Ibsa, returned from neighbouring Eritrea.
The OLF’s once-banned flag is now a public symbol of resistance for many of the young ethnic Oromos, known as the Qeerroo, whose anti-government protests brought Abiy (also an Oromo) to power.
Many young Qeerroo jogged in formation through Addis Ababa before the rally, singing in the Oromo language, waving the OLF flag and carrying traditional wooden sticks.
“I’m here to welcome the OLF – freedom fighters,” says Lemi Mamo, a 26-year-old doctor. “I’m also really a supporter of Abiy Ahmed. He’s making the country democratic. Everybody can express what he feels.”
Before the event, which was peaceful and festive, there were clashes between city residents and young Qeerroo from the Oromo hinterland.
Shortly after the OLF rally, violence broke out on the outskirts of the capital. Twenty-three people were reported killed in ethnic conflict, amid clashes between groups associated with Ginbot 7 and the OLF. On 17 September thousands took the to the streets of Addis Ababa to demand that the government stop the bloodshed, after five people were killed by security forces as riot police and red-capped commandos took control of the city.
“The federal government simply says we are one but [the Oromo] are avenging and killing people,” says Ayele, a 23-year-old student protester. “There is no democracy in Ethiopia,” says another demonstrator. “No democracy.”
- Supporters of the OLF