With the highly-anticipated arrival of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed to the District in full swing, Mayor Muriel Bowser proclaimed Saturday, July 28 as “Ethiopia Day in DC,” continuing a relationship first established in 2013 when D.C. and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, entered into a Sister City Agreement and Protocol of Friendship.
And on Saturday, following several days filled with more private conversations between Dr. Abiy and business and political leaders from the greater Washington area, Bowser joined the prime minister at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest where the recently-elected leader shared his message, “Break the Wall, Build the Bridge,” in a crowded auditorium that included a throng of his fellow Ethiopians.
But Dr. Abiy, 42, said he also came to the District to listen to those who number almost 300,000 immigrants now living the Washington region, raising families and contributing to the region’s economy — many of them successful business owners of their own businesses — but also members of the “Ethiopian Diaspora” — the largest group of Ethiopian-born people in the U.S.
During his visit, occurring just four months since the former army officer, whose intellectual achievements include a doctorate in conflict resolution, became prime minister, Dr. Abiy has been true to utterances made during his campaign. In short order, he has emerged as a new-age, charismatic leader determined to change the landscape of Ethiopia and initiate sorely-needed healing, reconciliation and unity for a country whose people have endured decades of widespread unrest, political oppression and broken promises.
In his message before an estimated crowd of 20,000, he urged the Diasporas to return to their native land, bringing their skills, talents and resources in a collective effort to “reverse the brain drain affecting our country.”
NuNu Wako, media spokesperson for the prime minister, said, “it’s really important that these powerful brains are returned to Ethiopia and assist in the sustainable development of our country.”
Recent reports released by the Diaspora Affairs Directorate – General — Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicate that worldwide the Diaspora gave an estimated $4.6 billion in remittances, nearly 25 percent of the country’s foreign exchange, to Ethiopia in 2017. However, the prime minister contends that significantly more resources must be secured in order to develop and fund education programs, provide health care services for the disabled and to support the country’s national development plan, among other initiatives.
During his address, the prime minister asked the Diasporas to contribute one-dollar a day in the spirit of “caring for people in the motherland where the Diasporas linkages were born.”
His sentiments were echoed by Milat Debala, an Ethiopian and business owner of a pharmacy in Ward 8, who said, “I know there are tens of thousands of us who are looking forward to reinvesting in the country we share.”
Meanwhile, media outlets including The Reporter, a weekly English newspaper published in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, continue to share news of Dr. Abiy’s unfettered efforts for change, according to one of The Reporter’s senior writers, Tesfaye Hailemicheal.
“We have only one option and that is to be united, not only cooperating and helping each other but uniting to live together,” Dr. Abiy said. “We are not free until we are all free.”
But despite the apparent enthusiasm surrounding his appearance and message, some Ethiopian Diaspora remain skeptical about his ability to sustain his reforms back home. Further, some say they wonder how he can lead the peaceful transition power in a government and military in which so many of the old guard remain in key positions.
Abera Tefera, the former executive director of the Oromo Center in Northwest and one forced into exile at the hands of previous Ethiopian dictatorial regimes, said, “Dr. Abiy must end the days when leaders considered bribery, power abuse and arrogance as a normal way of governing. I, along with many of my colleagues who call Ethiopia our home, expect him to take concrete actions towards democracy and fair elections in 2020 if he wants to gain our support.”
Still, change has already begun. Dr. Abiy has ended a half century of wars between Ethiopia and its smaller neighbor, Eritrea — wars that left tens of thousands dead and even more displaced. He has reached out to his counterpart, Eritrea’s most powerful leader, President Isaias Afwerki, with the two men embracing the newfound peace. Numerous examples exist of families who have been separated for decades that have finally been able to cross borders once maintained to ensure separation between the two countries and reunite with their loved ones.
The prime minister has also freed political prisoners, lifted press restrictions, fired officials guilty of abuses and began easing controls over the economy.
Bowser said she both applauds and supports Dr. Abiy’s efforts.
“The Ethiopian community is such a valued part of our city, and our Ethiopian neighbors have played a critical role in building the diverse, inclusive and vibrant Washington, DC that we live in today,” Bowser said.
“Since assuming office in April of 2018, the prime minister has focused on improving human rights, ending the war with Eritrea, pursuing political and economic reforms and eliminating corruption that will move Ethiopia toward a more democratic society,” Bowser said, while announcing plans to visit Ethiopia to renew the Sister City Agreement with Addis Ababa, “as a symbol of the long-lasting and never-ending friendship between both cities.”
Tefera said, “as a young, talented, charismatic, smart and articulate leader, Dr. Abiy Ahmed is completely different from previous leaders whose humbleness has captured the attention of all Ethiopians and mine as well,” adding that Diasporas support remains critical to the prime minister’s success back home.
But what captured one African émigré’s attention would be something he pointed to, saying it’s made the most impact on those who remain committed to a new way of life for Ethiopia and Eritrea.
“The peace agreement signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea in ending the state of war is good news not only for both countries but for all peace-loving nations,” said Kedist Gerenaw, Commissioner, Mayor’s Commission on African Affairs.
WI Editor D. Kevin McNeir contributed to this report.