Long a byword for abject poverty and famine — issues the country continues to struggle with to this day — Ethiopia may soon be better known as one of the greatest success stories in the developing world, a model for reform, democratic transition, and socioeconomic development.
First, as The Economist reported, the country of 100 million (the most populous in Africa after Nigeria) has unveiled the sort of robust social program one would expect of a wealthier nation:
Ethiopia’s Urban Productive Safety Net Project […] was launched in 2017 and is among the largest social programmes in sub-Saharan Africa (outside South Africa) designed specifically for urban areas. About 400,000 poor Ethiopians in 11 cities are already enrolled. The government hopes it will eventually help 4.7m people in almost 1,000 towns. Beneficiaries are selected by a neighbourhood committee based on how poor and vulnerable they are. In addition to the paid work, they also receive training. Those who want to start their own businesses are given grants.
Of course, there are plenty of Ethiopians slipping through the cracks, and the program can only go so far given the country’s poverty and political underdevelopment. But it is still a worthy effort that speaks to the nation’s maturation and increasing stability.
Ethiopia has also appointed its first female president — among the few female leaders in the continent — who in turn is spearheading national efforts to improve gender equality and internal security; a newly-established Ministry of Peace, also headed by a woman, will tackle the country’s endemic problems with violence and abuses by security forces.
Speaking of peace, the nation has restored diplomatic ties with its neighbor and former breakaway region Eritrea, following two decades of tension and acrimony after a bloody border war in 1998. Communities on both sides of the once militarized border have reported unprecedented freedom of trade and movement.
Its dynamic but rancorous capital, Addis Ababa, is launching a crowd-funding campaign to create more green spaces, bike paths, and walkways. It has tripled the size of its airport in a bid to become Africa’s leading gateway. With the help of China, the country will launch and maintain its first satellite, aimed at monitoring and collecting vital data on climate and weather related patterns in its infamously vulnerable ecology.
Just a week ago, Ethiopians even broke records in reforestation efforts, planting over 350 million trees in just one day.
This bevy of milestones and changes has occured under the administration of Abiy Ahmed, who rose to power from seemingly nowhere, in a country long bedeviled by ineffectual if not repressive rulers:
In the year since Abiy rose to power, the word “change” has come to define many things about Ethiopia. Under the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the decades-long tightening vise of repression finally led to widespread anti-government demonstrations in 2015. Mohammed was part of a diaspora movement of writers and activists who used their contacts to bypass the internet and social media shutdown in Ethiopia and document the growing unrest. In February 2018, in a bid to calm intensifying tensions and pave way for dialogue, then premier Hailemariam Desalegn suddenly resigned.
On April 2, Abiy, just 41 then, became prime minister and Africa’s youngest leader. In moves best described as salvific, he helped turned the trajectory of Africa’s second most-populous state. He made peace with long-time regional rivals like Eritrea and Egypt, released journalists, invited back opposition groups, acknowledged that prisoners suffered torture and abuse, and increased the place of women in power. He also promised to open up the economy for private investment, kickstarted a green initiative to transform the capital, and rolled out a visa-on-arrival push for African travelers.
Emboldened by these reforms, donor groups returned, with Ethiopia reportedly attracting a record $13 billion of inflows in the past year. Marathoner Feyisa Lilesa, who protested the previous government at the finish line at the Rio Olympics in 2016, also went back. During his East Africa tour last month, French president Emmanuel Macron commended Abiy’s transformative agenda, saying he “profoundly changed” Paris’s vision of Addis Ababa. Human Rights Watch staff who cover Ethiopia were also permitted to visit Ethiopia for the first time in eight years.
“It was refreshing how open people were to discuss politically sensitive issues, which is in sharp contrast to the past where there was much fear about speaking openly,” says HRW senior researcher Felix Horne.
As noted in The Economist piece, Ethiopia’s status as Africa’s second largest country (after Nigeria), and as being among the few to have retained its independence from Europe, gives it considerable influence throughout the continent and the developing world, and may perhaps inspire other nations to implement similar reforms despite their challenges.
Of course, Abiy’s markedly progressive leadership, and all the positive changes it seems to be engendering, remains tenuous. The country faces incredible challenges in virtually every sector, including a strong but highly unequal economy, ethnic tensions, endemic corruption, and the ravages of climate change. It will take more than one man or one administration, no matter how ambitious, to tackle so many pressing issues.
But given what we are seeing so far, it is safe to assume that whatever hiccups or roadblocks get in the way, the people of Ethiopia have displayed an incredible degree of resilience, resourcefulness, and hope that will see them through the 21st century. The world will be watching and learning.