(CNN) At 6 am when Gutama Habro arrived at the Target Arena in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the line for tickets already snaked around the block. Within hours, 20,000 fans had packed the venue. “People around me were crying,” says Gutama, a 28-year-old medical laboratory scientist. “Seeing this was a dream come true.”
Gutama wasn’t at a pop concert. This was the final leg of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s three-city American tour. Held in July, it was the first time the 42-year-old had visited the more than 251,000 Ethiopians living in the United States, many in self-imposed exile — fleeing ethnic clashes, violence, and political instability in their homeland. “The level of hope was something we had not seen since the election of Barack Obama,” says Mohammed Ademo, an activist who fled to the US in 2002 and founded OPride.com, a news outlet that was blocked for years at home.
Since taking office on April 2, Africa’s youngest head of government has electrified Ethiopia with a dizzying array of liberal reforms credited by many with saving the country from civil war. Abiy has freed thousands of political prisoners, unblocked hundreds of censored websites, ended the 20-year state of war with Eritrea, lifted a state of emergency, and planned to open key economic sectors to private investors, including the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines.
In the capital city of Addis Ababa, taxi windscreens are plastered with Abiy stickers, while citizens are changing their Whatsapp and Facebook profile pictures to pro-Abiy slogans and spending their money on Abiy T-shirts. Elias Tesfaye, a garment factory owner, says that in the past six weeks he has sold 20,000 T-shirts bearing Abiy’s face, which cost about 300 birr ($10) each. In June, an estimated four million people attended a rally Abiy gave in the capital’s Meskel Square.