Tuesday July 31, 2018
Over ten thousand supporters of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gathered to hear him and celebrate in song and dance/RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
Thick bass thundered through the arena as thousands of people shook flags of red, yellow and green. On the second deck of the Target Center, Addisalem Yosef, 36, waved her arms and stepped to the beat, celebrating the arrival of the new Ethiopian prime minister and hope for peace in the country she left eight years ago.
"It's the most beautiful day of my life," she said.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Minneapolis on Monday to share reform developments with the country's diaspora. The event was hosted by the Oromo Community of Minnesota. It is the first time an Ethiopian prime minister has come to Minnesota, which has the United States' largest Oromo diaspora. Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and Abiy is the first of them to lead the country.
Since his election by the parliament in April, Abiy has made peace a priority in a country marred by violence. In addition to releasing political prisoners and opening previously restricted internet access, he accepted peace deals with Ethiopia's northern neighbor Eritrea 20 years after a war that killed nearly 100,000 people. Now he's traveling the United States asking Ethiopians here to help the move country ahead.
It's a break from the repressive narratives of past leaders, said Tadesse Nigatu, a member of the Coalition of Ethiopians in Minnesota.
"It's just a dream-come-true type of occurrence," he said.
Crowds formed outside Target Center hours before its doors opened. On the sidewalk, people sold bracelets, keychains and even umbrella hats with Abiy's image. Some wore T-shirts with the prime minister's slogan: "Break the wall, build a bridge" — a reference to re-establishing connections with his nation's scattered people. Shirts sporting his image read "We support U," or simply "The Legend."
Betty Mekuria, 27, said her family had planned to travel to Ethiopia just to see Abiy and were floored to find he was coming to them.
"It's something I never thought would happen," she said.
While many cheered Abiy, others challenged him to address ongoing violence.
Recent clashes between Ethiopia's Oromo and Somali communities have left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. Last week, Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame introduced a resolution asking Abiy to end the "humanitarian crisis." On Tuesday, several Somalis stood in the entrance of Target Center with signs calling for justice.
Others said Abiy needs to go beyond rhetoric. Investigating torture practices, reforming repressive laws against media and encouraging victims of abuse to step forward should all be on his to-do list, said Maria Burnett, an associate director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division. Investigators from Human Rights Watch came to Minnesota to interview victims who alleged they were tortured in Jail Ogaden in Ethiopia's Somali region.
"Abiy has made some really important steps," she said, "but there's a lot of concrete work to be done to reform laws and hold abusers accountable and move forward if this is going to be a new chapter."
But the progress Abiy's already made has given many hope. For Yosef, Abiy has done the impossible. It used to be her daily news from home was about dead children and families. Now it's about change, peace talks and hope.
"Everything is changing," she said. "I hope it stays like that."