From Skepticism to Visions of Going Home
Abiy’s reforms came so unexpectedly that it is understandable that see his rise as miraculous. Previous politicians used ethnicity and religion to divide the Ethiopian people, but Abiy keeps stressing national unity, as he did on July 28. Although his words have yet to truly overcome the deepset divisions among Ethiopians, at least the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians both at home and abroad are united in their support of him.
As Soleyana Gebremichael, an Ethiopian human rights activist based in D.C., pointed out, winning the support of the diaspora community is a major political accomplishment. Historically, the diaspora has always been the source of nearly all protest against the Ethiopian government. Without the safety of distance, activists faced torture and imprisonment.
Now, for the first time, the diaspora supports the leader of Ethiopia. On July 28, Abiy even embraced Tamagne Beyene, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the EPRDF regime over the course of the last 27 years, on stage at the Convention Center. By winning the support of the leaders of the diaspora, Abiy is politically neutralizing the most vocal and active opposition the Ethiopian government has ever had.
Anyone at the July 28 rally would have been struck by what a broad range of people in the diaspora Abiy has been able to win over.
Eritreans had come to support Abiy because he put an end to the decades of conflict that divided the two countries after their bloody war in the 1990s. For decades there had been no communication between Eritrea and Ethiopia; families who were separated by the border couldn’t even visit each other. Even in D.C., as Kuta explained, “the people from Ethiopia don’t go to Eritrean restaurant, the Eritrean people don’t come to Ethiopian restaurants.” But on July 28, they celebrated side by side.
Ethiopians who had spent years protesting the EPRDF, like Malaki who had come to the U.S. five years ago as an asylee, came to support Abiy. Malaki [who did not provide his last name] is a member of an opposition party, so the EPRDF would have imprisoned him if he hadn’t escaped.
At first Malaki was skeptical of Abiy because, as he explained, “[Abiy] came from the same party and I still have some doubts, but in the first hundred days I see a lot of changes.” Now that he has seen that Abiy is serious about reform, he fully supports him.
Like Malaki, Gebremichael thought that she would never be able to go home again because she has spent years working to uncover the abuses of the EPRDF. She started the Ethiopia Human Rights Project, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that has gathered information on the cases of the political prisoners and journalists imprisoned without any due process.
As an activist, Gebremichael describes Abiy’s change as “disorienting.” He is releasing the last of Ethiopia’s political prisoners, so her day-to-day work is largely unnecessary now. The big questions that have always been on the horizon about what a reformed Ethiopia will look like are now at hand. The speed of Abiy’s reforms has contributed to high hopes and popularity, but Gebremichael fears that her country is poorly prepared to address those big questions and lacks the stability to make long-lasting reform a certainty.
On a personal level, Abiy has changed her life. Gebremichael never thought she would go home again, and now she will this November. As she put it, “I can’t even focus on whatever I’m doing now, I’m just so excited.”