Tuesday June 12, 2018
Washington Post Editorial Board

Prime
Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a rally during his visit to Ambo in the
Oromiya region, Ethi­o­pia, on April 11. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

SIX MONTHS ago, Ethi­o­pia appeared trapped in a
cycle of unrest, repression and more unrest. Stability in East Africa’s
largest country, with a population of more than 100 million, appeared to
be crumbling, while the once-booming economy was facing a debt crisis.
All of this was bad news for the United States, for which Ethi­o­pia has
been a key ally in combating terrorism in nearby Somalia. So it’s more
than worth cheering the rush of developments in Addis Ababa during the
past few weeks, which signal an astonishing turnaround under a new and
dynamic young leader.

In the past week
, the government of Abiy Ahmed has lifted a state of emergency,
announced a major new program to partially or fully privatize state-run
firms and said it would finally implement a peace agreement with
neighboring Eritrea that it had been stalling for 18 years. That
followed the release of political prisoners and invitations to exiled
dissidents and media outlets to return home. Mr. Abiy, who took office
on April 2, has been touring the country and promising even more change:
He says the constitution will be amended to apply term limits to his
position, which has been occupied by only two other men since 1995.

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The
immediate effect of this reconciliation campaign has been to stem
ethnic unrest that had been threatening to tear Ethi­o­pia apart. Mr.
Abiy, who at 41 is one of the youngest leaders in Africa, is an Oromo, a
group that makes up one-third of Ethi­o­pia’s population.
Oromo-populated areas around the capital were the starting point for
anti-government demonstrations beginning in 2015 that eventually spread
to other areas, including those populated by ethnic Amhara. The
government responded harshly: By the end of last year, at least 700 people had been reported killed and thousands imprisoned.

Fortunately,
a majority in the ruling Ethio­pian People’s Revolutionary Democratic
Front, which has ruled the country autocratically for 27 years,
concluded that change was necessary. Early this year, a notorious prison
was closed
and the first releases of political prisoners began; in February, Prime
Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who has been in office since 2012, was
forced to submit his resignation. A few weeks later came the unexpected
appointment of Mr. Abiy, who appears to have the backing of Oromo and
Amhara factions within the ruling coalition. His first act was to
deliver a powerful inaugural speech in which he apologized for the
killing of demonstrators and welcomed dissent — a stance no Ethio­pian
government has adopted in modern times.

It
remains to be seen whether Mr. Abiy can sustain his reform drive, which
is sure to draw opposition from regime hard-liners. A key question will
be whether economic reforms, including the sale of shares to foreign
investors in large state companies and the privatization of others, will
bring in enough hard currency to allow payments on foreign debts and
ease import bottlenecks. A return of economic dynamism would go far to
address the long-festering unrest; if that is accompanied by genuine
political liberalization, the cause of democracy in Africa could get a
historic boost.

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