Why I’m coming back home to Ethiopia after 16 years in exile
I want to witness firsthand how my country is undergoing massive change which was unthinkable just a few months ago.
In February 2018, I told Al Jazeera’s Martine Dennis that Ethiopia was on the edge of a precipice and that only the election of an Oromo prime minister could save it from the plunge. This was in the midst of a budding revolution that was years in the making in Oromia, the country’s largest and most populous state. It was also a time when the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was facing popular protests and a bitter internal power struggle.
Ethiopia has now turned a new page. In a highly contentious party election in April, EPRDF appointed Abiy Ahmed, 41, as its chairman and its first Oromo prime minister. The new premier launched political and economic reforms with remarkable zeal and record speed. There is now so much activity from Abiy’s government on a daily basis that journalists complain they can’t keep up with the fast pace of changes.
Few observers, if anyone, saw this coming. Ethiopians are in awe. The early cautious optimism has given way to unprecedented public support. Prime Minister Abiy has quickly become the most popular Ethiopian politician in recent memory. His call for synergic unity – “medemer” in Amharic – is now part of the everyday lexicon of Ethiopians. There is a contagious sense of hope and optimism in and outside the country.
Ardent EPRDF opponents, who not long ago were dubbed extremists and anti-peace elements by the government, are now organising rallies in Washington to show support for the reformist prime minister and his reconciliatory message. There is a growing international support for his political and economic reforms and a chorus of calls for the changes to be sustained and institutionalised.
This is why I am going home after nearly 16 years in exile. Only two months ago, a return to Ethiopia was incredibly risky for me. It was not because I had committed any crime, but because of what the US had given me: Freedom – the freedom to speak, write, organise, and help amplify the voices of those I left behind in Ethiopia. Over the past decade and a half, I have worked as a youth leader, political activist and journalist striving to make Ethiopia a freer, fairer, and more equal nation – for all of its citizens.
In 2008, I created, with a friend, OPride.com to add a much-needed Oromo perspective to the Ethiopian story. The site has been blocked, hacked and targeted at various times over the past decade. Ethiopia now appears poised to shed its image as one of the most censored countries in the world and as one of the leading jailers of journalists in Africa. Abiy’s chief of staff has said freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. The comment underscored one of the biggest changes in the Abiy era: The change in narrative. And narratives matter.
There are also notable changes on the ground. Tens of thousands of political prisoners have been freed from prison, a remarkable feat for a country that only months ago denied it was jailing opponents. A state of emergency that was declared in February to quell anti-government protests was lifted two months early. Former rebel leaders have been invited to return home and pursue peaceful political struggle. Authorities have unblocked websites critical of those in power and granted a broadcasting license to a banned television network.
In a recent speech to parliament, Abiy made a startling admission of guilt – characterising official violence and rights violations as acts of terrorism. State-run outlets known for parroting out diktats from the ruling party are now investigating torture and human rights violations at federal prisons.
The changes are not only internal. Abiy has visited Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan and Somalia to reset bilateral relations. He is hoping to end Ethiopia’s near-exclusive reliance on Djibouti for access to the sea. He talks of Africa’s borders as being artificial and colonial creations.
After 20 years of stalemate, a peace offer to Ethiopia’s “archenemy” Eritrea is off to a stellar start. While projecting Ethiopia as the region’s most dynamic political-economy, he’s also eyeing greater economic integration. He’s even floated an idea for a regional “grand bargain” leading to the creation of a common union.
Abiy’s stratagem may just work. Ethiopia is an anchor state in the Horn of Africa. What happens in Ethiopia will have consequences far beyond the immediate region. But bogged down by years of internal political turmoil and deepening authoritarianism, Ethiopia’s leaders have failed to provide leadership fitting the country’s size and influence. Abiy is now shaking things up.
Challenges remain, however. There is still a long road to democratisation. The June 23 grenade attack at a pro-Abiy rally in Addis Ababa was a reminder that we are not out of the woods.
Hardliners in the EPRDF coalition are sidelined and pushed out of power. They are bitter about the loss of absolute economic and political power that they once enjoyed. Despite losing out to Abiy’s reformist wing in the intra-party power struggle, they continue to try and frustrate reform efforts. They have been accused of instigating ethnic tensions and economic sabotages.
To be sure, there are other more structural and pressing concerns that belie the current euphoria. The new leadership’s approach to these concerns will determine how long the new sense of national unity will last. At least 70 percent of Ethiopia’s 106 million population is under the age of 30. Forty percent of the population is of working-age.
This segment of the society is either unemployed or underemployed. They are the youths that led protests over the last four years. Now, they need jobs and other economic opportunities. Inflation remains high. There is still a crippling foreign currency shortage. A sudden turn to privatisation has raised concerns about the rise of an opportunistic oligarchy in the absence of the appropriate regulatory framework.
The 2020 elections are less than two years away. EPRDF’s developmentalism has hit a dead end. The party can no longer bank on its economic record. Its unquestionable aura of invincibility is waning. When the campaign season eventually kicks into high gear, the current blurred lines between Prime Minister Abiy’s supporters and the opposition will crystalise.
The elections could prove chaotic with so many exiled opponents with divergent political persuasions going home and vying for political power. Electoral reforms are long overdue to pave way for free, fair and competitive elections. The electoral commission is seen as partisan and lacks capacity.
While the prime minister is insanely popular throughout the country, there are still complaints that his party’s front-line functionaries are beholden to the old ways of doing things and that renewal at the top is not reaching the grassroots level fast enough.
Still, I have never been more hopeful about Ethiopia’s prospects.
I was in my early 20s when I left in 2002. I did not know when and if I would return. Exile is a deeply lamentable, nostalgic and at times traumatic existence. You live here and also there but ultimately in neither of the two places. The fond memories of “home” and the struggle to regain it was what kept me going all these years.
I had the good fortune of a world-class education and the privilege to play a small part in the struggle for justice – even if remotely. I leave behind family, friends and the luxuries of a first-world life. But I am happy to be going home at this hopeful moment for my country and people.
I am anxious to see my mother and other family members for the first time after such a long absence. It will be an emotional reunion. I have lost loved ones, to whom I could not say goodbye or attend their funerals. I am buoyed by the irresistible sense of hope and the positive change sweeping through my country. I look forward to bearing witness to these changes that are being ushered in by Abiy’s administration.
Finally, I hope that my return will mark the start of a reverse brain drain and pave the way for other young Ethiopians in the diaspora who are eager to go back to their country of birth and contribute to its development. It’s been said that there are more Ethiopia-born doctors practising in Chicago than in Ethiopia.
But the exodus is not limited to the medical profession. In 2015 Ethiopia had the second highest number of exiled journalists in the world after Syria. Years of systemic abuse has decimated free press.
Ethiopia – now more than ever – needs a strong Fourth Estate and a marketplace of ideas to overcome the deep schism in society and to create an informed citizenry. The vibrant Ethiopian diaspora can offer much-needed expertise and resources.
For now, my exile and longing for home have come to an end. I am glad that it coincided with this defining and pivotal moment of renewal for Ethiopia. I look forward to both the journey and the challenges.