Far from Ethiopia's capital, change remains a distant dream

Across the country of 100 million people, legions of unemployed graduates are holding their breath, hoping the new PM Abiy Ahmed will succeed in his sledgehammer approach to dismantling the status quo.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Picture: @Dr_abiy/Twitter

HARAR, Ethiopia - Clutching the bloodstained student ID card and post-mortem certificate of his younger brother, Abedir Jamal’s elation at the huge changes underway in Ethiopia is tempered by his fear that they won’t reach him.

Across the country of 100 million people, Abedir, 25, and legions of unemployed graduates like him are holding their breath, hoping that new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will succeed in his sledgehammer approach to dismantling the status quo.

Only 41 himself, Abiy has taken Ethiopia and the broader Horn of Africa by storm since taking office in April by doing the unthinkable.

In just three months, he has secured peace with bitter foe Eritrea, got parliament to lift a “terrorist” ban on opposition groups and pledged to open up key sectors of the economy to foreign investment.

Given the security-obsessed mentality and the Marxist-Leninist roots of the ruling EPRDF coalition that he now leads, it is hard to say Abiy is not moving at lightning speed.

But for Abedir, whose brother was shot at a protest near his home-town last year, it is not fast enough.

The shooting was one of many instances since 2015 in which security forces used live rounds to quell unrest that roiled small towns and some cities, including Harar, an ancient walled city 500 km (300 miles) east of Addis.

The crackdown included the arrest of 30,000 people under anti-terrorism laws. When it failed to keep a lid on the crisis, it prompted the resignation of Abiy’s predecessor in February.

“We need him to go faster. We need his promises to turn into action now,” Abedir said of Abiy, as his friends - also graduates and jobless - nodded in agreement.

Such views underscore one of the biggest challenges facing the wildly popular prime minister: delivering on his promises across a vast country overseen by a sclerotic and stifling bureaucracy.

Despite the euphoria at the winds of changes sweeping through the corridors of power in Addis Ababa, there is little sign of change so far in places like Harar.

“The government, the security forces, the judiciary, they have all been against us,” Abedir said. “We need Dr. Abiy to know about our problems. We are not feeling the reforms here yet.”


He also wants justice for his brother, Obsa - specifically a thorough investigation into his death and an open trial.

Obsa was one of many youngsters who took to the streets last year against what they felt was the marginalization suffered by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group at the hands of the Tigrayan ethnic clique that has dominated the EPRDF since it seized power from a military junta 27 years ago.

The coalition, which holds every seat in parliament, includes four ethnicity-based parties but Oromo protesters in Harar and other places have accused it of focusing on the interests of the Tigrayan elite.

The government has regularly denied any bias. But many Oromos hope they will see a real change now that Abiy, one of their own, is in charge.

That would still leave one of Ethiopia’s biggest problems: unemployment, especially in the hinterland.

Doing well in university is no guarantee of work, graduates say, blaming an economy heavily dominated by the state and ethnic bias in hiring for coveted government jobs.

One-quarter of Ethiopians live before the international poverty line of $1.90 per day, according to the World Bank, which said in a 2016 report that unemployment even among relatively educated people was high.

“You have no idea how demoralizing it feels to be working to eat only and not using my mind,” said Elias Mohammed, who has a degree in accounting but, like most graduates he knows, does odd jobs such as carrying bricks.

The new government says one of the main reasons it wants to attract more foreign investors is because the state cannot provide jobs for the 150,000 students that graduate from Ethiopian universities each year.

Government spending on infrastructure including industrial parks for the fledgeling garment sector has fueled the growth of nearly 10% annually over the past decade, and in the last three months, the black market currency market evaporated, suggesting a surge in investor confidence.

But that optimism is in shorter supply beyond the capital, where people complain of high inflation and pervasive unemployment. Turning that around will take a long time.

“There may be a gap in that the people’s expectations are huge,” said Mohammed Aman Ogeto, an economics professor at Harameya University, in the Oromiya region bordering Harar. “It’s difficult to deliver on all of the changes they expect.”