I visited Ethiopia in February this year, and the country appeared to be on the brink of civil war. Tribal tensions reverberated within all corners of society, deadly riots were breaking out on a regular basis, and I actually ended up being escorted out of the country by the army. Looking back, that would make for a great story, but at that moment it was terrifying. Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, felt marginalised and were putting huge pressure on the government to release the increasingly large number of Oromo political prisoners, stamp out corruption, and ease unemployment and inflation.
Just days after I left Ethiopia, in an unexpected turn of events, (now former) Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned. Ethiopian citizens then elected the first ever Oromo Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who vowed to unite the country and ‘clean up’ the ruling class. Ahmed’s instalment as Prime Minister followed three years of protests lead by ethnic Oromos, and since taking the country’s highest power he has been carrying out huge reforms, and through politically liberal acts he seeks to restore stability and encourage growth in Africa’s fastest growing economy.
In the past few months Ahmed has ended a two-decade long conflict with Eritrea. In July 2018, a joint declaration was signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which puts an end to border conflicts, and allows the two countries to restore diplomatic relations, further opening up trade routes, and decreasing military spending. Ahmed’s government has released thousands of political prisoners, healing old wounds between Ethiopia’s tribes, and lifted Ethiopia’s draconian state of emergency act, widely perceived to be a tool of repression, thus opening up the political landscape and establishing democratic principles within the country’s governance.
Although domestic opposition have seethed at Ahmed’s fast-paced liberal reforms, the international community has welcomed his progressive reforms and many investors are looking towards an increasingly attractive Ethiopia. There is particular interest surrounding his intentions to privatise several state owned enterprises and establish an Ethiopian stock exchange. Ethiopia is, at present, the largest country in the world, in terms of population and gross domestic product, to not have a stock exchange.
Abiy Ahmed, a father of three daughters, further appears to be a great champion of women’s empowerment. Earlier this month, Ahmed famously declared in a parliamentary speech that women are ‘less corrupt than men.’ He further stated that strong female leadership would help restore peace and stability and bring greater transparency to the government. He seems to have acted upon his word by giving 50% of cabinet positions to women, and being the head of a parliament which elected Ethiopia’s first female president.
So as Ms Zewde steps into her new office, Ethiopia steps into a brave new world of change, progress and optimism. Hopefully, next time I return to Ethiopia I won’t experience such a dramatic forced exit…