On April 2, 2018, with Ethiopia on the edge of political collapse, more than 100 million Ethiopians witnessed something different. Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali, an energetic, visionary and unifying figure of mixed Muslim Oromo and Christian Amhara heritage, became Prime Minister. Dr. Abiy’s appointment marks the first time power was transferred peacefully in Ethiopia. But it is also significant because his rise to power can be seen as the manifestation of Ethiopians’ yearning for a dynamic agent of democratic change.
Dr. Abiy was an unlikely candidate. A soldier in the armed struggle against the oppressive Marxist Derg regime, he went on to earn a PhD in conflict resolution, entering politics quietly only a few years ago. As Prime Minister, he has been uncharacteristically outspoken about the problems facing government and strident in his pursuit of justice, both unusual for an official from the ruling coalition, not to mention for an African leader.
In his inauguration speech, Dr. Abiy announced sweeping reforms, which he is implementing at a thrilling speed. He negotiated changes that ended years of divisive protests. He lifted the state of emergency, ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners, denounced human rights violations and removed key figures responsible for perpetrating them.
Dr. Abiy also addressed governance issues for which Ethiopia had become notorious. He removed political opposition groups from a “terrorist” list established to shut down dissent, restored internet access and unblocked hundreds of websites and TV channels. He gave an historic speech on HIM Emperor Haile Selassie, recognizing the need for healing and reconciliation 40 years after the Ethiopian Revolution and the ensuing Red Terror. And critically, Dr. Abiy concluded a costly (human and financial) 20-year conflict with our brothers and sisters in neighboring Eritrea. He is being compared to historic leaders like Obama, Macron and Mandela – after only 100 days in office.
But as optimism dominates the headlines, there are murmurs of concern about Dr. Abiy’s alleged tendency to act unilaterally. Some also question whether things can be this good over the long-term and still others point to the need for consensus among the ruling coalition party.
We have to temper our expectations. One man cannot have all the answers, and in the haste of effecting significant change, he will make mistakes. For example, he is considering a pardon for former Derg officials, even the Chairman and dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam. I support efforts to unite the country. However, to equate the pardoning of Derg officials with pardoning unjustly accused political dissidents, releasing political prisoners and ending a needless war with Eritrea is a false moral equivalency.
Under the Red Terror – a wave of violence, arbitrary incarcerations, torture, and mass killings – an estimated half-million people died at the hands of Derg officials. The Ethiopian Diaspora itself is a result of it. I urge Dr. Abiy to consider Rwanda and South Africa, which teach us that dealing with such trauma is a years-long process that must be managed carefully. People who commit atrocities should not be forgiven until they have first sought forgiveness and made amends.
Despite mild fears and healthy skepticism, there is far more we celebrate – for Ethiopia, and Ethiopians, everywhere. And with such a bold agenda of reforms, Dr. Abiy will need all of our help to realize his vision. The United States is home to an estimated 500,000 Ethiopians and many of us stand ready to support the new administration. Several Ethiopian attorneys and I have organized a lawyers’ association. We avail ourselves to the new administration to help with legislative and institutional reforms, constitutional amendments, and any other legal counsel needed.
The Ethiopian community was joined by our countrymen from across the United States for Dr. Abiy’s historic visit which included trips to Washington, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles where he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Every Ethiopian I’ve spoken with, including my family, delights at the prospect of rebooting a positive relationship with our government. And it is a great feeling to know the new administration wants to hear from the Diaspora, too. If this momentum and good faith can be harnessed to sustain a unified front with matching substantive reforms, great things can happen. Ethiopia is rising again and ushering in an era of peace, prosperity, and freedom. As we say in Amharic, Yichalal (We can succeed)!
HIH Prince Joel Makonnen is the great-grandson of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia. He lives in Washington and works as an attorney for a multinational pharmaceutical corporation.