Abiy Ahmed has become the most closely watched leader in Africa: a man who says he wants to change his country from the inside out — and fast.

By Somini Sengupta (Toronto Star) |

LOS ANGELES, Cal. —On the morning of his first day of school, when he was 7, Abiy Ahmed heard his mother whispering into his ears.

“’You’re unique, my son,’” he recalled her saying. “You will end up in the palace. So when you go to school, bear in mind that one day you’ll be someone which will serve the nation.”

With that preposterous prophesy for a boy growing up in a house without electricity in a tiny Ethiopian village, she kissed him on his head and sent him on his way.

Abiy, now 42, not only ended up in the prime minister’s palace, he has also become the most closely watched leader in Africa: a man who says he wants to change his country from the inside out — and fast.

After taking office in March, he officially ended two decades of hostilities with Ethiopia’s longtime rival and neighbor, Eritrea. Beyond that, he started loosening a tightly controlled state-run economy, pledged multiparty elections in a country long known for jailing dissidents, and began wooing the government’s most strident critics: members of the Ethiopian diaspora, who have long organized insurgencies from afar. Leaders of a previously outlawed opposition group returned to the capital last Saturday.

The task is enormous. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous nation, with more than 100 million people, in a part of the continent where world powers are scrambling for influence.

So are the risks: millions of disaffected youth, widespread poverty, a violent struggle over resources among Ethiopia’s competing ethnic groups, and a range of detractors from inside and outside the government who are either threatened by too much change — or angry that it is not enough.

Abiy’s changes are a major departure for Ethiopia, which has long relied on a government model that resembles China’s, emphasizing state-led economic growth and a suppression of political dissent.

But Abiy knows his country is overwhelmingly young, with a median age of 18 and a thirst for economic and political freedom.

“Closing the door is the worst approach,” he told The New York Times in Los Angeles in between bridge-building meetings with Ethiopians living in the United States.

Many of Abiy’s promises remain just that. He has yet to lift restrictions on civil society, and it is unclear how multiparty elections can be held, as he has promised, in a country where the governing coalition and its allies have sweeping control over almost all institutions — and hold every seat in Parliament.

Continue reading this story at Toronto Star
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