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Colorado Ethiopians Celebrate Collapse of Hailemariam Desalegn Dictatorship – 2

July 23, 2018

“Thank God for what happened, for Eritrea, for Ethiopia, for East Africa” – an Eritrean in London participating in the rally celebrating Ethiopian-Eritrean reconciliation. 

Ethiopian Spring?

Spring came early to Ethiopia this year, politically speaking. There is even a specific date for its arrival. Thursday, February 15, 2018. On that date the current prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation. In a bid to head off what was shaping up to be nothing short of a national political explosion, Desalegn resigned ending six years of rule marked by deceptive double digit economic growth on the one hand and severe repression, ethnic conflict on the other.

Then on April 2, 2018, Desalegn was replaced by Abiy Ahmed. In the first hundred days of his acceding to power, Ahmed released tens of thousands of political prisoners, promised and delivered on reviving Ethiopia’s long censored press, reached out to Eritrea to bring the state of war between it and Ethiopia to an end. The celebrations of Ethiopia’s U.S. diaspora community coincide with the Abiy Ahmed’s upcoming visit to the United States, that will include stops in Washington DC, Minneapolis, culminating in what is shaping up to be a massive reception for him in Los Angeles, home of the country’s largest Ethiopian diaspora community.

A la Gorbachev in the mid 1980s, Ahmed is not afraid to mix up with the “man on the street.” Furthermore, at least in principle, if not in fact, he has begun a process of ethnic reconciliation to reduce the strong ethnic (and religious) tensions that have plagued the country these last decades and made a commitment to close the growing gap between rich and poor that has long plagued the country.

Tall order of course, and just how much of these promises will be realized in fact remains to be seen (I will explore the political economy/power relationships of Ethiopia as well as the U.S. role behind the scenes in a future article in this series), but regardless, these initial gestures have struck a deep chord throughout Ethiopia and in the Ethiopian diaspora.

Estimates of the size of the Ethiopian diaspora are hard to come by, but there at at least some 500,000 scattered around the world, the largest communities by far in North America (30,000 in Canada, 270,000 in the USA, 18,000+ in Sweden and Germany, 15,000 in Great Britain of which 10,000 are in London).  While Ethiopian government spies and agents troll these communities, in spite of this, overwhelmingly, these communities formed a bedrock of opposition to the Ethiopian dictatorship.

2018 - 07 - 22 - Ethiopian Solidarity - 3

Ethiopian Orthodox Choir singing a psalm at the Aurora, Colorado rally. This choir was followed by another one, Ethiopian Pentecostals. An Ethiopian Moslem Imam also addressed the crowd.

Rallies, like the one in Aurora, Colorado (immediately east of Denver) took place the world over.

  • They were in every sense celebrations, explosions of joy and calls for ethnic and religious unity that the Desalegn dictatorship has come to an end, and that on a larger scale, that the political instability and unending turbulence that has marked Ethiopia’s history since the 1974 overthrow (military coup) of the Haili Selassi dynasty has possibly come to an end
  • joy over the Ethiopian-Eritrean reconciliation. Eritreans fought a war of independence against Ethiopia that culminated in the 1991 independence of Eritrea, leaving Ethiopia with no outlook to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Its independence was immediately followed by a war between the two countries resulting in 100,000 dead and more than a million displaced.
  • joy over the future prospects for Ethiopia’s potential to find an economic vision that will lead to shared prosperity. Although the country’s economic growth rates are among Africa’s highest, the polarization between rich and poor has widened even more as the country has pursued classic neo-liberal World Bank/IMF structural adjustment policies.

From my brief discussions with a few of the Ethiopian elders with whom I had to good fortune to be sitting with at the Aurora High School rally, the community’s enthusiasm was mixed with the kind of realism, wisdom that comes from suffering and a reading of their own and world history. They are aware of the limits of other reform movements (the Arab Spring, the failed Soviet reforms which had a similar chemistry at the beginning), the unrealized promises of change in their own country at different times. But this wasn’t the moment for those discussions which have already begun under the surface.

The Ethiopian people need to celebrate their achievement – for the diverse strands of its extraordinarily rich and complex ethnic and religious make up – was overwhelming. They needed to re-affirm – Ethiopian Orthodox, Pentecostal, Moslem and Animist – Amharic, Omo, Somali, Tigre, Eritrean – conservative to left – the connection to one another and a unified Ethiopia. For they had, through their combined efforts, accomplished something rare and extraordinary: they had brought down a dictatorship. And they knew it. 

For Hailimariam Desalegn did not merely step down as prime minister. He was overthrown, nothing less and it was a rebellion from below that included all sectors of the great and culturally rich Ethiopian nation that forced the dictator – for that is what he was, a dictator – to resign. The Ethiopian diaspora community played their part too.

The 3000 or so Ethiopians and Eritreans in Aurora understood that Desalegn’s resignation marks not just the end of his dictatorship, but the end of what has been a 150 years of foreign intervention, that included such outrages as the Addis Ababa Massacre of 1937 by the Italian fascists, the seething stupid and mechanical repression of the Mengistu Haili Mariam military junta and more.

The expectations are high among Ethiopians that this new opening is the beginning of a process of deep-going change, and not just a symbolic gesture that will be followed down the road by another clamp down of decades more economic stagnation (despite World Bank economic estimates) and repression. After the celebrations die down, hard and probing analyses of exactly what did happen in Ethiopia and why, what changed and what didn’t politically are in order.

I’ll weigh in these more sober (not necessarily depressing) aspects of the situation in Ethiopia as I see it in any case, in the next entries.


Colorado Ethiopians Celebrate Collapse of Hailemariam Desalegn Dictatorship – 1

Ethiopians Celebrate Collapse of Hailemariam Desalegn Dictatorship – 3

Ethiopia and the Iran Factor – 4

Ethiopia and U.S. Geopolitics in the Horn of Africa


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