Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will make his first trip to the United States
Earlier this year, Ethiopia faced widespread unrest and violent protests against a government that appeared unresponsive and entrenched.
In less than four months in office, Ahmed has led a dramatic turnaround. Sweeping reforms have quelled dissent, boosted civil liberties and begun to heal wounds from decades of ethnic tension and marginalization.
Ahmed was elected by the ruling coalition’s executive council after his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, abruptly resigned. Since assuming office, Ahmed has focused on improving human rights, reducing corruption, and introducing economic and political reforms that can potentially move Ethiopia toward a more democratic society.
Now, Ahmed is connecting with Ethiopians in the U.S. to promote his reforms and encourage diasporans to return home and add to the changes unfolding.
For a country that’s seen some of its most talented doctors, academics and engineers leave for better opportunities in Europe and the U.S., a return of diasporans could affect whether Ethiopia’s reforms stick.
NuNu Wako is a media spokesperson for the prime minister’s visit to Washington, organized by the Ethiopian Embassy.
She told VOA that Ahmed’s trip is designed to “bridge the gap” between the Ethiopian government and American diaspora communities in ways not seen in the past 27 years, since Ethiopia’s current government toppled the communist regime that preceded it.
In Washington, Ahmed plans to meet with representatives from academia, banking, medicine and other industries with prominent Ethiopians. He hopes some will return home.
“It’s really important that these powerful brains are returned to Ethiopia and assist in the sustainable development of Ethiopia,” Wako said.
In his first 100 days in office, Ahmed has introduced symbolic and substantive changes designed to reshape Ethiopia and the broader region.
He has closed prisons, released hundreds of political prisoners and admitted that the government has tortured its citizens.
He has also unblocked opposition media that was previously banned and taken steps to privatize key industries.
In June, Ahmed said Ethiopia would honor the terms of an international ruling and cede land back to its neighbor Eritrea, leading to a historic peace deal weeks later and the end of nearly two decades of cold war between the countries.
Ahmed’s push to open up Ethiopia’s political system reached a “critical turning point” earlier this week, Wako said, when he called for multiparty democracy.
Ethiopia’s politics are based on ethnic federalism. Its regions and accompanying political parties are largely defined along ethnic lines. Five parties make up the country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and they have a virtual monopoly on political power.
But Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups, and the current system has led to the consolidation of power into the hands of a few.
Stepping away from ethnic federalism could lead to more inclusive politics that benefit all of society, Wako said.
“I think that this is going to be a tangible, concrete step forward for Ethiopia that, peacefully, will bring everyone together and lead to the Ethiopia that we once knew about and our forefathers fought for.”
Not everyone is enthusiastic about Ahmed’s overseas trip.
Mesfin Woldemariam is a retired professor and the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. He told Ethiopian broadcaster LTV that Ahmed should address pressing domestic concerns before looking outward.
“While there is fire burning within the country from four different directions, the prime minister is going to a different country. I don’t know what he is going to find or what he is looking for there,” Woldemariam said.
Engaging with the diaspora may not bring the benefits Ahmed hopes to reap, he added, until the country becomes more stable over time.
“The diaspora can come back with their own will, and we shouldn’t placate them — especially when things haven’t firmed up within Ethiopia yet,” Woldemariam said.
Among the problems Ahmed faces at home is the displacement of nearly 1 million people in the southern Gedeo and West Guji zones because of ethnic violence.
The humanitarian crisis has escalated since Ahmed took office in April, and hundreds of thousands of people are in need of emergency aid.
In the U.S., Ethiopians are the second-largest group of African immigrants, trailing only Nigerians.
In 2014, a quarter-million first- and second-generation Ethiopians lived in America, according to a report compiled by the Migration Policy Institute. Most Ethiopian immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the past two decades.
After meeting with prominent businesses, religious leaders and political groups in Washington, Ahmed will visit diaspora communities in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.