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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Professor Meets Ethiopian Prime Minister

By Phil Walzer

Old Dominion University professor Berhanu Mengistu returns to his native Ethiopia almost every summer to help encourage progress in a country plagued by tribal fighting and suppression of political dissidents.

His recent trip included an unusual appointment - a private meeting with the country's new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Mengistu, a professor of public administration, said he emerged buoyed by the prospects for Ethiopia, the second largest country in Africa.

"I don't want to paint a rosy picture," Mengistu said. "But I'm more hopeful than I've been in a long time."

Mengistu said of Abiy: "I think he wants to serve the people. He really wants to make sure the common people feel that they have a leader."

Mengistu visited Ethiopia in May, one month after Abiy became prime minister. At 41, he is one of the youngest leaders in Africa. Abiy is a member of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which wields power, but he is part of the party's reformist wing.

On June 23, at a rally for Abiy in Addis Ababa, a grenade attack killed two people and injured more than 150. Thirty people were arrested.

The incident, Mengistu said, illustrates the challenges Abiy faces and the threats to his leadership.

"From what I hear," Mengistu said, "he does not have the backing of the police, the security system and maybe not even the army. But the Ethiopian people, both at home and in the disaspora, support him.

"They find him to be the modern version of Moses, the liberator of the Jewish people from the enslavement of the Pharaoh," Mengistu said.

Mengistu, an expert in conflict resolution, was in Ethiopia primarily to attend a conference on expanding social capital - developing policies and strengthening connections among organizations to improve the country.

He had hoped to see Abiy there and give him a letter signed by individuals and groups supporting his leadership. But Abiy could not attend.

Mengistu contacted the prime minister's chief of staff, who arranged a meeting for the three of them. It was scheduled for 15 minutes but lasted 25 minutes.

"We talked about the power of words," Mengistu said. "He assured me that he's going to follow through with actions."

Abiy has already taken several unusual steps in the short time since he became prime minister. He recently said the government would no longer block more than 200 websites, blogs and TV stations. He lifted emergency rule, and he pardoned several political prisoners.

"And not only did he release those who were captured from jail," Mengistu said. "He brought the leadership to his office to talk to them."

Abiy invited Mengistu to attend a town hall meeting that he will hold with Ethiopians when he visits Washington later this summer.

Mengistu said he told him: "I hope, going forward, you will not depend on your ethnic group and you will not depend on your political party. Instead, I hope you will depend on God and then the Ethiopian people."

"So far," Mengistu said, "it looks like that is what he is doing."

Read more about Mengistu's work in Ethiopia in the winter 2017 issue of Monarch magazine, at www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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