Prophet Abiy? Ethiopian-Americans Love The New Leader Of The Country They Fled

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Abiy Ahmed took over as Ethiopia’s new prime minister after Hailemariam Desalegn resigned unexpectedly in February, inheriting a country with some of the world’s fastest economic growth, but also divided by protests among marginalized people.

In what looked a lot like a page from President Donald Trump’s book, Abiy went on tour in July, holding a stadium rally as part of a three-city U.S. tour. On the tour, Abiy wore blazers with purple or green and gold trim — traditional Oromo attire, CNN reported. He has captured the imagination of Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora:

“The level of hope was something we had not seen since the election of Barack Obama,” says Mohammed Ademo, an activist who fled to the U.S. in 2002 and founded OPride.com, a news outlet that was blocked for years at home.

Ethiopia is Africa’s fastest-growing economy, according to the World Economic Forum. The International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook predicts 8.5 percent Ethiopian economic growth in 2018. The next fastest-growing sub-Saharan African economies include:

  • Cote d’Ivoire (7.4 percent)
  • Senegal (7 percent)
  • Tanzania (6.4 percent) and
  • Ghana (6.3 percent).

By comparison, U.S. growth is expected to hit 2.9  percent in 2018, 2.4 percent in Europe, and 1.2 percent in Japan.  Global growth is expected to tick up to 3.9 percent this year and next.

Ethiopia is the No. 2 top birthplace for African immigrants in the U.S. as of 2015 (222,000 immigrants), according to Pew Research. No. 1 is Nigeria (327,000 immigrants to the U.S.) and No. 3 is Egypt (192,000 immigrants to the U.S.)

Abiy has “electrified Ethiopia with a dizzying array of liberal reforms.” People put stickers of him on their cars and use his likeness on their Facebook and WhatsApp profile pictures. Garment factory owners are selling T-shirts bearing Abiy’s face. In June, an estimated 4 million people attended a rally to see him in Meskel Square in the country’s capital of Addis Ababa.

He’s a rock star. Some Ethiopians believe Abiy is a prophet, CNN reported.

The previous government was accused of human rights violations including killing and torturing political dissidents. Abiy is Ethiopia’s first Oromo leader —  the ethnic group that led almost three years of anti-government protests in which hundreds of people died.

He is credited with avoiding civil war, ending a border war with Eritrea by agreeing to give up disputed territory, and normalizing relations with the long-time adversary.

He lifted the state of emergency, ordered thousands of prisoners released, condemned police brutality as “terrorism” and allowed hundreds of blocked websites and TV channels to go back on the air.

But he has also been targeted by attacks with two people killed in an explosion in June at a rally held to support him.

Abiy is Ethiopia’s first prime minister from the country’s biggest ethnic group, the Oromo, who constitute a third of its 100 million people. Ethiopia has more than 90 ethnic groups. For decades the country’s politics have been organized along divisive ethnic lines, according to CNN.

There is an almost religious fervor to what has been dubbed “Abiymania, said Tom Gardner, a British journalist who lives in Addis Ababa, in a CNN interview. “People talk quite openly about seeing him as the son of God or a prophet.”

Abiy presents himself as a liberal champion, but in four months in office, he didn’t give an interview. On Aug. 25, he held a three-hour press conference — his first. Private media stopped being invited to government events for “reasons we don’t understand yet,” said Tsedale Lemma, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper, Addis Standard. “Consequently, a question mark hangs over much of Abiy’s worldview and biography, other than the fact he is married with three daughters,” CNN reported.

In addition to visiting the U.S. and Djibouti, Abiy also visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.

He has taken tough questions from the public at multiple town halls, Gardner said.

Abiy, 42, was born in the city of Agaro in Oromia to a mixed Christian-Muslim family, according to BBC.

He served in the military, rising to Lieutenant Colonel before becoming the founder and director of the country’s Information Network and Security Agency, responsible for cyber-security. Later he became minister of science and technology.