Keeping up with Dr. Abiy Ahmed, is exhausting. Since emerging as Ethiopia’s new prime minister in April, he has ushered in dramatically democratic policy changes almost daily.
His energy has awoken the nation.
For the first time in a long time we finally got a glimpse of a united Ethiopia.
An estimated 4 million citizens from all ethnic groups flooded the streets in support of the new prime minister today, waving their respective flags.
Love is beautiful. 🇪🇹❤️ pic.twitter.com/nihUfvhFwV
— Mel@ (@EthioMelat25) June 23, 2018
In June 2018, this optimism was nearly brought to a halt by an apparent assassination attempt on Dr. Abiy, which killed two and injured 156 people.
For most of us here in the U.S., we probably can’t identify with such optimism right now; our eyes are focused on other headlines.
But for Ethiopians:
“He is our Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Nelson Mandela all in one.”
– Addis Alemayehou, as quoted in Financial Times: Ethiopia’s Mandela steps up pace of change — but provokes enemies.
To understand this enthusiasm, it is important to understand the pain Ethiopians have been suffering, and in many ways continue to suffer, on the ground in Ethiopia.
It was October 2016. Within weeks of planting the season’s crop on our family farm southwest of Modjo in Oromia, Ethiopa, about 200 protesters took the farm in the middle of the night.
First they looted for office supplies and agricultural equipment. They then laced the property with gasoline. They broke windows and burned tires.
“Please come. This is happening now,” my mother-in-law Genet told the local police by phone. She and her daughter Mishu, along with her right-hand Birke were safe at their apartment in town in Modjo, but about a dozen of their employees were scrambling to hide by darkness in a nearby forest.
The police could not assist. Their excuse was that they did not have a car.
The protestors positioned burning tires so that the flames would destroy an industrial-sized electrical transformer, which had been strong enough to power electricity for 500 homes. The transformer, Genet’s most valuable investment, had enabled modern agricultural irrigation across her land.
The loss of the transformer began the suffocation of almost a thousand mango trees and countless crops of coffee, onion, lemon, grapefruit, orange, guava and lime. Not to mention the free-range chickens and cows.
For 30 years, Genet has operated what had become the largest woman-owned agricultural enterprise in Ethiopia. Still tiny by American standards, she owns 43 hectares, or about 100 acres, although much of it has been in dispute for decades.
Her agricultural spirit had started humbly in the 1980s. Workers, at times, were an issue. Sometimes they’d show up for work, sometimes not. As a nearby Dutch-owned tulip farm and Israeli-owned strawberry farm surfaced nearby, there was plenty of competition for local labor.
Eventually, Genet grew tired of on-again-off-again day-laborers and developed a program to increase worker attendance and reliability through a health care and retirement program. Ethiopia did not have formal medial or retirement plans, so Genet simply paid these expenses from her otherwise profits. The cost-benefit of worker reliability and increased morale justified the business decision.
Genet was honored in 2015 year for establishing a retirement plan in Ethiopia, 20 years ahead of Ethiopian regulations.
But for the investors.
The land near the Awash river in the Shoa Valley reminds me of The Land Before Time. Or Eden. It is fertile with a gentle flow of river water, a consistently mild temperature, and no history of wind storms or other natural disasters. It’s centrally located a few hours drive south of the capital Addis Ababa, along an important train route to Kenya, and near a major highway to a proposed airport.
It’s no wonder that others have identified this area as prime real estate.
The techniques used by investors on the ground in Ethiopia reflect the long-standing corruption Dr. Abiy seeks to destroy. It is not uncommon for investors to identify a property occupied by an existing business, then chat up the local community to encourage them to squat, steal and sabotage it. With luck, the owner would give up, throw in the towel and walk away, leaving the investor the ability to take over.
On more than one occasion, Genet was offered bribes by the provincial government leaders in order to make the issue go away.
Genet refused all bribes, and insisted she held rightful title to her property. She practically earned her own law degree by working her way up through the system.
She made it to Ethiopia’s highest court.
She won her case.
Without a bribe.
Women own less than 20 percent of the world’s property, yet 400 million women around the world farm and produce the majority of the world’s food supply. Relatively few countries in Africa recognize a women’s right to own property today, and implementation is difficult to measure.
When Genet went to the provincial government to enforce her supreme court ruling, she met obstinace. The provincial government would not enforce her rights. Turns out the investor that had been encouraging squatting on her land was related to the provincial official.
Such difficulties persisted for years, but Genet continued to invest in her modest farm.
The years leading up to this one were difficult. On numerous occasions we were awoken early in the U.S. to learn of riots or protests surrounding our family back home.
In February 2018, many celebrated the resignation of former prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, but the uncertainty made me nervous.
I feared the continued constitutionality of Genet’s supreme court ruling. Unlike the U.S., where we have relied upon a single constitution for hundreds of years, Ethiopia has endured four forms of government in Genet’s life-time alone. It was feasible to me, at least during February 2018, that Ethiopia would be starting over yet again.
Never would I have been so ready for it.
“Building an independent nation is not the same as building a free society. What good is a free country, if we don’t enjoy freedom? If we are not free from fear? If we don’t have freedom of speech & expression? If we build dividing walls rather than bridges?” HE PM Abiy pic.twitter.com/ErdCjfA0Ol
— Fitsum Arega (@fitsumaregaa) June 23, 2018