One of the defining stories of the past few years has been the rise of a wave of far-right demagogues and aspiring strongmen around the world.
But something very different is unfolding in Ethiopia: perhaps the greatest exception anywhere to the current democratic recession. In just 11 months, Africa’s youngest head of state, 42-year-old Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has introduced sweeping reforms to open up Ethiopia’s closed political system, released thousands of political prisoners, ended a 20-year state of war with neighboring Eritrea, and promised fair, competitive elections in 2020.
It has been widely argued that the United States shouldn’t seek its friends among demagogues like this week’s guest in the Oval Office, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—who was celebrated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton at his inauguration in January, even as Bolsonaro used his first day in office to roll back protections for racial minorities and LGBT people. Or like Poland’s right-wing government, which the Trump administration chose to host its Middle East summit last month despite the ruling government’s attempts to purge the country’s judiciary and criminalize speech recognizing Poles’ role in the Holocaust.
But seeking the right friends is just as important as avoiding the wrong ones. The United States needs to seize opportunities when they arise to help leaders and nations taking risks to achieve democratic progress. Instead of treating people’s democratic aspirations primarily as a cudgel to topple regimes or undercut enemies, the United States should also recognize the long-term potential to strengthen partnerships and friendships.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous nation, is one such case. It could become the anchor of a more peaceful, less bitterly divided Horn of Africa—or descend back into dictatorship, mass migration, or even civil war. Ethiopia has Africa’s fastest-growing economy but also surpassed Syria to become the world’s top displacer of people in 2018 due to ethnic violence.
On a recent trip to Addis Ababa, I heard from one Ethiopian after another how their country has reached a critical moment. Abiy has raised hopes. While troubling repression persists, Abiy has taken formidable steps in the right direction. He ended the legal state of emergency put in place by his predecessor, closed an infamous jail, and spoke frankly about the abuse political prisoners had endured there. He welcomed home exiled ethnic rebels. He chose a respected former judge from the opposition, Birtukan Mideksa, to manage elections. He even managed to reconcile feuding wings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Abiy’s persona is also a stark departure from the demagogic wave. He shares populists’ desire to set aside political convention to be frank and direct. But for the most part, in place of bullying and demonization, Abiy has drawn on his evangelical faith to embrace a more personalized, humble, and spiritual tone unusual for an Ethiopian leader. He’s had to navigate tensions with ruling elites he displaced, but as one diplomat from an Arab country who handled past negotiations with Ethiopia told me, “Abiy does not need an imaginary enemy to mobilize his people at home.”
For all the excitement, Ethiopians’ optimism is laced with worry. Many of Abiy’s achievements are longer on symbolism than on substantive detail. He achieved peace with Eritrea, but it’s unclear how and when full normalization will be implemented. Much the same is true for his ambitious plans to privatize major state-owned companies, without a well-defined blueprint for generating private sector jobs. Nor is there a clear plan to reintegrate former rebels, some of whom have taken part in ethnic clashes since their return last summer. Observers wonder how long Abiy’s honeymoon with the public will last. There have also been attempts on Abiy’s life, including a grenade attack at a rally last summer.
But perhaps the greatest popular fear is that Ethiopia’s democratic opening will fail. Many obstacles remain, as do questions about whether the ruling coalition will prove willing to dismantle its monopoly on power to honor the results of competitive elections. Nor should elections be expected to solve all problems. As the former U.S. official Payton Knopf put it, “Abiy is raising questions about Ethiopia’s fundamental approach without necessarily having answers in place.” As their government loosens its grip, Ethiopians worry elections will descend into ethnic violence. A lot can go wrong, and quickly.
All this presents meaningful stakes and opportunities for the United States.
Previously, Ethiopia had looked to China as a model for state-led development. Now Abiy is trying to transform Ethiopia’s politics and economy to look a little less like China and a little more like the United States.
Abiy is trying to transform Ethiopia’s politics and economy to look a little less like China and a little more like the United States.In his Africa strategy rollout last December, Bolton mentioned China again and again but did not mention Ethiopia. If the United States wants to compete for influence in Africa or even counter China’s authoritarian development model, then it needs to show up in places like Ethiopia when they choose an alternative path.
The United States has been a key counterterrorism and aid partner to Ethiopia. Now would be a moment to augment these efforts with active support for political and economic reforms. As failed democratic transitions in the Middle East have made clear, even the most promising opening for political competition also brings heightened risk.
Trump may be uniquely ill suited to launch a charm offensive in Africa, but the United States still can and should side with aspiring democracies. It could offer technical support to administer elections, the civic and voter education that Ethiopians told me was urgently needed, training for independent media, and mediation between government and civil society—and could actively champion nongovernmental organizations doing the same. Travel to Ethiopia by Abiy’s fellow devout Christian U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, or by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, would send a meaningful signal. So too would continued congressional attention and aid focused on supporting Ethiopia’s transition.
Ethiopia is remaking itself and redefining its place in the world. In an era when demagogues are challenging the democratic model, Ethiopia is a reminder that U.S. foreign policy should value not only avoiding the wrong partners, but also supporting the right ones.