Tens of thousands gathered on Saturday to show their support for Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new prime minister. This kind of rally is unprecedented in Ethiopia’s history, noted Eritrean ambassador Estifanos Afeworki. It was a widespread demonstration for peace. Abiy took the stage wearing a yellow t-shirt that depicted Nelson Mandela’s face above the continent of Africa. Tragically, this peaceful demonstration was interrupted by brutal violence.
As Abiy was waving to the crowd, a grenade went off. It was thrown by a man dressed as a police officer. The man was aiming for the stage, trying to kill the Prime Minister, but several bystanders grabbed his arm, so the grenade missed its target and fell into the crowd. The carnage was massive—153 were wounded, one was killed. Investigative forces have targeted six suspects, and nine members of the police commission are in custody, blamed for the lack of security at the event.
Abiy called the attack “an unsuccessful attempt by forces who do not want to see Ethiopia united.” Abiy took office in February after Hailemariam Desalegn, the former prime minister suddenly resigned. And indeed, Abiy’s reformist policies have received resounding support from the people of Ethiopia—generating an abundance of hope after decades of turmoil and upheaval.
Abiy has unblocked hundreds of websites and TV channels, relaxing the state’s previously iron grip on the people’s media consumption. He has also released thousands of jailed politicians, activists, and protesters. Fitsum Arega, the PM’s chief of staff, went as far as to say that “freedom of expression is a foundational right” and “a free flow of information is essential for [an] engaged and responsible citizenry. Only a free market of ideas will lead to the truth.”
Addis Ababa’s first Pizza Hut opened in April—a symbolic event that marked Abiy’s decision to open up its state-controlled economy. Abiy’s policy will loosen control over the energy, telecom, logistics and aviation sectors, allowing private domestic and foreign investment. This decision could provide the people with significantly better access to mobile and internet services—until now, a state firm has had a monopoly on internet access which is very expensive and very slow.
Another crucial step is a move towards peace with Ethiopia’s neighbour and rival, Eritrea. Ethiopia and Eritrea have stood at a standstill for over a decade, unable to agree on a peace settlement. Their conflict is one of the longest in Africa’s history. However, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (led by Abiy) plans to implement the peace deal that officially ended the war, which was signed in 2000 after two years of war but never enforced. This would end a standoff in Badme, a tiny military town where Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have camped for sixteen years. Few expected Abiy to extend his hand to Eritrea this way, to finally enforce a treaty that his country has rejected for eighteen years. Abiy has said that Ethiopia and Eritrea are “not only intertwined in interests but also in blood” and “we should end this suffering, and fully return to peace”. Eritrea condemned the grenade attack.
Although the attack on Saturday was tragic, it has not changed the prevailing mood in the country—optimism and progress. Abiy’s reforms have the potential to usher in a new era of freedom, openness and peace, and the people are not deterred. Even after the attack, people were seen celebrating in the streets. BBC’s Emmanuel Igunza said that “there’s palpable optimism about Mr. Abiy in the country.” Fitsum Arega said “we will overcome hate with love. Some whose heart is filled with hate attempted a grenade attack. All the casualties are martyrs of love & peace.”