Earlier this week a mechanic in Ethiopia telephoned his mother. Such a simple event, yet it symbolised astonishing moves taking place in a conflict-ridden corner of the world. For Mohammed Osman last spoke to his mother 20 years ago, when he was a teenager and she was one of thousands expelled to neighbouring Eritrea amid a border war. This blood-stained feud repeatedly flickered back into fighting over the years, scarring the Horn of Africa and displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees – but now it is over.
Next up: direct flights so separated families can hug as well as talk again. Such moves seemed unlikely just months ago amid the stalemate over scraps of land which has dragged on pointlessly down the years. Then last month Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, announced he would accept a peace agreement signed 18 years ago by a predecessor – and flew to dramatically embrace Issaias Afwerki, the long-serving Eritrean dictator. After warm words about building “a bridge of love”, diplomatic links have been restored and normality is starting to tumble into place.
This outbreak of peace, deserving of the Nobel prize committee’s attention, has not garnered the coverage it merits in Western media, not least since it could impact for the better on both strife-torn Somalia and Europe’s migration saga. For Issaias, a former guerrilla leader who took power 25 years ago and was once a pin-up of the Left, has used Ethiopia’s threat to justify his horrifically despotic regime. Young people are forced into indefinite national service, which can last years and is often little more than slave labour, with the result that many of them flee.
So this sliver of Africa, containing 0.1% of its population, has been a key source of refugees flowing to our shores. As migration surged in 2014, more Eritreans arrived in Europe than from any other country apart from war-torn Syria, while already this year it is the biggest source of sub-Saharan Africans risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. So many Eritreans left their homeland that it led to one of Theresa May’s most callous actions at the Home Office, using a dodgy dossier to rebrand these desperate young people as economic migrants.
We must wait to see if the walls come down in Eritrea, which is often compared to North Korea for its control and cruel dictatorship. But already they are falling with immense speed in Ethiopia, another highly repressive, one-party state. The reforms under Abiy – a 41-year-old with a Greenwich University degree in transformational change, and Africa’s youngest leader – have been simply stunning. He is, after all, head of a ruling party that controls every seat in parliament, has held citizens in fear through a rigid security network and with a terrible record of slaughtering protesters, torturing dissidents and jailing journalists. All propped up by Western aid, of course.
Partly this shift is generational in a place with more than two-thirds of its population under 30 — and partly recognition the country has become a tinderbox on the brink of revolt. This mighty nation with such proud independent history has been run for almost three decades by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition dominated by Tigrayans who make up only 6% of citizens in a country with 80 ethnicities and 102 million people. Abi, who succeeded his weak predecessor in April, is from the biggest Oromo group, which was behind protests and unrest that led to the imposition of a harsh state of emergency.
Given his past as an army officer and spook, combined with the regime’s iron grip and the fact he was a compromise candidate, few analysts anticipated big change. But already this charismatic and often casually-dressed leader is being compared to the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and even Nelson Mandela as ‘Abiymania’ spreads well beyond Ethiopia’s vast borders. In just three months he has scrapped the state of emergency, freed hundreds of political prisoners, fired officials from the old guard including the prisons chief, lifted media bans, started privatising state-owned firms, apologised for past misdeeds and invited thousands who fled to return home.
Ethiopia is a regional powerhouse, strategically crucial and home to the African Union. Its economic growth has been impressive but it faces huge challenges on jobs, fears of a foreign exchange crisis and continuing ethnic rivalries. Some analysts fear the speed of his reforms may spark backlash, pointing to a grenade attack at a rally in Addis Ababa last month.
Yet optimists argue we are witnessing landmark changes that could spill over into neighbouring nations such as Somalia and perhaps even shake up a continent still cursed by old men refusing to cede power. “I have never been more hopeful about Ethiopia’s prospects”, said Mohammed Ademo, a website founder returning home after 16 years living in exile.
Among the freed political prisoners was Andargachew Tsege, a father of three from north London and leading democracy activist who was grabbed at an airport in Yemen and stuffed on death row. “I have no doubt about his conviction to push through the necessary changes needed in Ethiopia”, said Tsege, who met Abiy after his release in May from four hideous years in prison. “You can look in his eyes and trust him. The country nearly went into revolution with the protests. The only solution is proper democracy or there will be a tragedy of biblical proportions.” We must hope Tsege’s faith is proved right – but regardless, these extraordinary events deserve global attention.