ST. PAUL — When it comes to Ethiopia’s future, Abdulaziz Mohamed is downright bullish.
He’s collecting donations for the ongoing construction of a massive hydroelectric dam along the Nile River, which will help bring electricity to a country where more than half the population still lacks it. The pandemic will not last forever, Mohamed said, and neither will the political challenges that have led to recent violence and accusations of human rights abuses in the northern regions of one of the world’s oldest nations.
In fact, he said, many Ethiopians in Minnesota are applying for visas to return home “and invest in their country.”
Mohamed may not exactly be an impartial voice — as Ethiopia’s consul general in Minnesota, he’s a direct link from the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Ethiopians throughout the Midwest. But the foreign consulate office he oversees from the Court International Building near Raymond and University avenues in St. Paul has experienced an uptick in reverse migrations.
“The trend is not migrating (to the U.S.), but going back,” said Mohamed.
The only other Ethiopian consulates and embassies in the U.S. are in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., making his St. Paul office the face of the Ethiopian government for everything in between. Based on U.S. Census counts, the International Institute of Minnesota estimates upward of 13,000 Ethiopians living in Minnesota, the majority of them ethnic Oromo, though the community believes numbers could exceed 40,000.
Before arriving in Minnesota in July, Mohamed served as the former Ethiopian consul general in Djibouti and, before that, held a variety of roles in Ethiopian government, including that of national finance minister. His four-year assignment in St. Paul has already introduced him to Midwest winters — Djibouti was a land of triple-digit heat — and crisis control during a global outbreak.
To help Ethiopia weather the COVID-19 storm, the consulate raised about $152,000 in donations from Ethiopians throughout the Midwest, as well as in-kind donations of personal protective equipment. When it comes to the pandemic, “the country,” Mohamed acknowledged, “was not prepared for that.”
Some good years, and a difficult 2020
There’s been plenty of other turbulence in Ethiopia beyond COVID. Some liken tribal conflict in the northern farmlands to the experience of the U.S. pre-Civil War. In late June, an unknown assailant shot and killed acclaimed Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in the capital city, Addis Ababa, setting off violent riots that left dozens dead.
“I know a few people who have gone back to Ethiopia to help with the political transition. That’s a few,” said Abdul Dire, a Woodbury technologist and author of “Oromo Witness,” a biography of his uncle’s involvement in Cold War-era Oromo uprisings. “Most people are ‘wait and see.’ I’m not aware of a big movement back to the country. The community here is very much polarized about what’s going on back in Ethiopia.”
Dire added: “You only hear from the polar opposites — people who support the government no matter what, and people who oppose the government no matter what. The majority are silent. It hurts to watch the country plunge from one crisis to another after another. Leadership matters, and leaders are forged in a crisis.”
A Nobel Prize
In 2019, just months after taking the helm of a country divided by fractious tribal politics, Ahmed won a Nobel Peace Prize for ending the long-running border war with neighboring Eritrea and instituting democratic reforms many hoped would usher in a new era of stability.
The nation’s Oromo majority had long been locked out of influential economic and political seats. Ahmed himself is Oromo, a breakthrough in a country ruled for 27 years by members of the ethnic Tigray minority. Ethiopia has invested in roughly a dozen “plug and play” industrial parks around the land-locked country of roughly 112 million people, sites where international corporations such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger have been able to move in and set up manufacturing operations.
Other companies, such as Caterpillar machinery and Procter & Gamble, are still kicking the tires. According to its website, Procter & Gamble currently employs about 60 people in Ethiopia in accounting, sales and brand management.
From 2015 through 2019, annual year-over-year growth in Ethiopia’s gross domestic product ranged from 7.7 percent to 10.4 percent. GDP, which dropped to 1.95 percent last year, is expected to fall into the negative numbers this year, but beginning in 2022, analysts predict 9 percent growth annually through 2025.
International credit rating agencies such as Moody’s, Fitch and the S&P 500 index nevertheless downgraded the nation’s credit rating from stable to negative in 2020, which could impact investments.
Trade, tourism promotion
The St. Paul-based consulate works on trade and tourism promotion, tall orders during a pandemic and global recession.
Still, Mohamed points to projects like the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or “GERD,” as a point of national optimism. The Nile is the longest river in the world, flowing through 11 countries, and 86 percent of its waters originate in the Ethiopian highlands. The hydroelectric dam, which began construction in 2011, is about 80 percent complete, sparking both national pride and tensions over water-security concerns in Egypt and Sudan. Once finished, it will be the largest dam in Africa and among the 10 largest in the world.
“The Ethiopian-American diaspora members should step up their contribution to this signature project that strengthens and enhances the country’s independence and sovereignty,” said Mohamed, in written talking points shared with a reporter.
In a nod to gender rights, Ethiopia’s parliament unanimously elected the nation’s first female president, career diplomat Sahle-Work Zewde, in 2018. She’s largely seen as a ceremonial figure with no real power — Ahmed, a computer engineer and military figure who once ran the nation’s cybersecurity efforts, makes the day-to-day decisions. Still, symbols can carry weight.
No easy road ahead
No one expects an easy road ahead.
The prime minister has been under international scrutiny in recent months for delaying scheduled elections during the pandemic, as well as the army’s handling of northern uprisings led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which has declined to recognize the Ahmed government. The TPLF held regional elections last year in defiance of Ahmed, whose government, in turn, refuses to recognize those elections as valid.
“Ethiopia is doing what Abraham Lincoln did to save the USA in the 1860s,” Mohamed said.
Also troubling to international observers, journalists in the region have sometimes been detained by federal authorities at gunpoint. Mohamed called any accusations of abuses overblown, but he acknowledged “this political instability is new.”
Still, he said, “we will be having the elections in June 2021. Things will get settled, and the future of the reform programs is bright.”