Ethiopians abroad eye return as reforms kick in back home

Ethiopian jounalist Eskinder Nega reacts upon his release from Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa on February 14. The election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April made him comfortable about returning home from the US.

London, England (CNN)On a recent Tuesday night, nearly every table was occupied at Harar, a small Ethiopian restaurant in Vauxhall in South London.

Most of the clientele were Ethiopian, eating the flatbread called injera and drinking either coffee or tej, a traditional honey wine. The restaurant was redolent of frankincense, burned as part of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
"I miss everything about Ethiopia. My family, the traditional food, the coffee ceremonies, the festivals, Easter and Christmas," said Alex Abraham, who sought asylum in the UK 10 years ago. His half-Ethiopian, half-Eritrean heritage made staying at home dangerous. He now works as a taxi driver in London.
    But things are changing back at home. Since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed office in April, he has taken radical steps toward transforming the country. Ethiopia has been in and out of a state of emergency in recent years, and at war with Eritrea for 20 years.
    Passengers pose for a selfie inside an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Eritrea's capital Asmara on July 18. It was the first commercial flight from Ethiopia to Eritrea in two decades.
    Since the 1980s, Ethiopians have been fleeing the country. First from the violent Derg dictatorship that deposed Haile Selassie, and then from the increasingly authoritarian Federal Democratic Republic. The quashing of opposition and alleged human-rights abuses led to a rise in Ethiopians applying for refugee status -- 37,014 applied globally in 2016.
    But in just a few months the new Prime Minister has made policy changes many Ethiopians never dreamed of seeing in their lifetimes. This has included the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners and an end to the country's war with Eritrea.
    "The change is really magnificent; it's great because there is reconciliation between the two countries," Abraham told CNN. "I'm planning to go back to Ethiopia for good in one or two years' time. I have to see the change, whether the peace and tranquility lasts," he said, finishing his injera plate.
    Such sentiments extend beyond the UK, Legesse Geremew Haile, deputy head of mission at the Ethiopian Embassy in Ottawa, told CNN.
    "Our communities across the globe in general and in Canada, in particular, are content with the changes that are taking place in Ethiopia and have shown strong interest not only to visit their country but also to engage in investment and support their people in different ways."
    He added that a clear indication of this interest has been the "constant phone calls and dozens of emails" the Embassy has been receiving from diaspora members in Canada following Abiy's reforms.

    Changes lauded by diaspora

    Reforms have brought a new wave of optimism in the country and among its diaspora -- there's even a hashtag, Abiymania. Over the past month Ethiopians have gathered at celebration rallies in honor of Abiy Ahmed in London and Washington, and during his "diaspora tour" of the United States this week, vast crowds gathered at Minnesota's Target Center hoping to catch a glimpse of the man of the hour.
    And a visit to the London restaurant makes it clear that from journalists to business people, the changes in Ethiopia are prompting exiles to think about going home.
    Mimi Haile, another customer, came to the UK over 20 years ago to study. When she got a job after graduating, she decided to stay.
    "I knew if I went back I wouldn't find a job and my education would be wasted. At the time the Ethiopian government was not good, and if you wanted a job, you had to know someone, and you had to agree with the politics," Haile told CNN.
    Supporters of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rally for US support outside the State Department on June 26.
    But a return home is now on the horizon, she said, once her adolescent children are of age. "The way he [Abiy] speaks to people is very respectful, and he released those people who were in prison because of politics. There are big changes coming. I'm very hopeful," she said.
    The desire to go to Ethiopia isn't confined to people who have actually lived there, extending also to some second-generation Ethiopians who have spent their lives elsewhere.
    Lamia Naji, an international development consultant, was brought up by Ethiopian parents in Canada who migrated to pursue economic opportunity. The family made only one trip back to Ethiopia while Naji was growing up, but she has since traveled there with work.
    "I am intrigued by the potential opportunity to apply my skills, and contribute my passion, in a country where my parents and grandparents call home," she told CNN in an email. "I considered it before, but these considerations have been renewed with the new PM, especially with respect to his privatization announcements."
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    Among Abiy's reforms is the partial privatization of state-owned companies. This includes Ethiopian Airlines -- Africa's most profitable airline -- and Ethio Telecom. The latter move brings an end to the country's telecoms monopoly, which has enabled governments to restrict internet and phone connections nationwide.

    Potential economic boost

    Returnees have the potential to positively contribute to the Ethiopian economy, bringing in "much-needed foreign currency, business experience and dynamism," according to Awol Allo, an Ethiopian academic based at Keele University in the UK.
    Allo told CNN that remittances from the roughly four million people who make up the Ethiopian diaspora are worth more to the country's economy than coffee, its top source of export revenue.
    Some formerly exiled or imprisoned Ethiopian journalists and activists have already returned to the country, with cautious optimism. The exiled patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Bishop Merkorios, went back to the country on Wednesday.
    Mohammed Ademo, founder and editor of OPride.com -- a website focusing on news related to Oromo, an ethnic group that has been marginalized by the Ethiopian government -- left Ethiopia for the US in 2002, when he was in his early 20s.
    In an opinion piece for Al Jazeera about his return, he expressed concern about hardliners remaining in government who "have been accused of instigating ethnic tensions and economic sabotages," and said he is unclear what the sudden privatization U-turn will mean for the country.