Ethiopia’s Democratic Awakening

(Photograph: by Tom Gardner)

The Guardian

‘Abiy Ahmed is our miracle’: Ethiopia’s democratic awakening

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 thousands 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.

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.”

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