ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When Ethiopia’s prime minister resigned in February after more than five years in office, there was little reason to think his successor would be an improvement.
The East African country was under a state of emergency that followed a years-long crackdown on opposition political activity. Thousands of activists and dissident journalists had been detained, and hundreds had died in demonstrations crushed by government forces.
Then came Abiy Ahmed, who at 42 is one of the youngest leaders on the continent. In his first month as Ethiopia’s premier, he has ushered in an unlikely wave of hope and even optimism in this close U.S. ally that serves as something of a linchpin to the stability of East Africa.
While ostensibly a democracy, Ethiopia is a highly centralized state with only the ruling party and its allies in Parliament. In recent years, however, unrest has grown, and on April 10, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the government to increase its respect for human rights and the rule of law.
In a riveting speech at his April 2 inauguration, Abiy acknowledged some of Ethiopia’s enduring problems. He apologized for the deaths of protesters at demonstrations, welcomed differences of opinion and promised to heal the wounds between Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.
The accession of Abiy, who hails from the Oromo community, brought a sharp drop in tension. Since he took office, Internet service has been restored to the countryside, charges against dozens of activists have been dropped, and he has embarked on meetings around the country, listening to grievances and promising reform, including term limits for his position.
“As someone who grew up in Addis Ababa, one thing that is very foreign was seeing a prime minister come and organize town hall meetings and just sit down with people and discuss things,” said Zecharias Zelalem, a journalist and frequent commentator on Ethiopian affairs. “That has never happened, and it’s been going on for the past three weeks.”
Activists, many of whom were released in the days following Abiy’s inauguration, pronounced themselves “cautiously optimistic” that, at long last, Ethiopia may be changing.
“Our release means something. It is a signal for change, that he wants change,” said Eskinder Nega, a journalist who spent part of his youth in Washington, D.C, and had just spent six years in an Ethiopian prison for his writings.
He was released in February but detained again during the state of emergency a month later for meeting with friends — ironically in celebration of their release. Ten of his colleagues were also arrested.
“But, ultimately, this is not what the nation wants,” Nega said. “The nation wants two things: the lifting of the state of emergency in the next 100 days and a call for an all-inclusive dialogue. This will set things right.”
“Right” is not where Ethiopia has been for the past three years, and its partners abroad have been worried. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Ethiopia to the stability of East Africa. It has the largest army in the region and the continent’s fastest-growing economy, and it is surrounded by disintegrating states such as Somalia and South Sudan.
This regional rock of stability has looked shaky in recent years, with persistent anti-government protests by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, as well as unrest among the second-largest community, the Amharas. At the same time, clashes between Oromos and ethnic Somalis elsewhere in the country have left hundreds dead and displaced more than a million.
All that has been compounded by the return of devastating droughts that have put millions in need of food aid.
In the midst of the crisis, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, and a state of emergency was declared as strikes erupted around the capital.
As soon as he took office last month, Abiy started visiting the centers of dissatisfaction. He went to the Oromo town of Ambo and complimented the young men at the forefront of the demonstrations for protecting democracy. He visited the Somali region to discuss the ongoing clashes that have displaced so many, and he journeyed north to the Tigray region, seen by many government critics as unfairly dominating the military and economy, to put the population at ease about having an Oromo in charge of the government.
He also met with opposition politicians and said that he welcomed their views and saw them as legitimate competition rather than as enemies of the state.
In a speech before 20,000 people in Addis Ababa on April 15, he acknowledged that the bureaucracy and justice system have not been serving the people and promised reforms, including in the security services.
“We will work closely to make the security and intelligence institutions free from political partiality,” he told the crowd. “They would [have to] act in accordance with the law and be accountable to the law upon transgressing the law.”
In contrast to his predecessor, Abiy has strong popular support, which could give him leverage against elements of the establishment that might oppose changes.
A reorganization of the security services, which critics maintain are dominated by the Tigrayans — who formed the backbone of the military after they overthrew the communist regime in 1991 — has yet to take place, however. They were left untouched in a recent cabinet reshuffle.
The international reaction to Abiy’s first few weeks has been remarkably positive. A statement from the U.S. Embassy struck a note of hope as the State Department announced its 2017 human rights report, which describes the occurrence in Ethiopia of conditions such as “arbitrary deprivation of life, disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention by security forces.”
“2018 has seen positive steps as well, including the release of thousands of prisoners. We are also encouraged by strong and clear statements by Prime Minister Abiy regarding the need for reforms,” the statement said.
Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who has clashed in the past with the government, was invited back to the country and allowed to visit areas and talk with people he had previously been prevented from seeing.
“I was impressed by his commitment to openness and impressed by his apology for the irrevocable damage suffered by so many people during the repression of the recent protests,” Hussein told students at Addis Ababa University on April 25, referring to the new prime minister.
In fact, some are saying Abiy may have saved the country — not to mention the reputation of the ruling party.
In an editorial last year, the English language weekly Addis Standard issued a stark warning about the future of Ethiopia, saying that government infighting, ethnic tensions and popular anger had pushed the country toward collapse.
Editor Tsedale Lemma, who now lives in Germany, said the peaceful transition of power to Abiy may have halted that slide.
“They recognized that unless they do something, they were going down, and we came that close,” she said, lauding the outreach to the opposition and the release of prisoners. “What they are doing has given breathing space.”
Like the recently released detainees, she said she was cautiously optimistic but worried that not enough new faces have come into the government with the cabinet reshuffle. She noted also that the security forces remain untouched and that the state of emergency remains in place.
“It was a good beginning,” she said, “but . . . he could have done more.”