It was July 2018, just three months after Abiy Ahmed
had been appointed leader of Africa's second-most populous country, and his star was rising both at home and abroad. Excitement was surging into an almost religious fervor around the young politician, who promised to bring peace, prosperity and reconciliation to a troubled corner of Africa and a nation on the brink of crisis.
But even in those early, optimistic days of Abiy's premiership, as he kickstarted a flurry of ambitious reforms -- freeing thousands of political prisoners, lifting restrictions on the press, welcoming back exiles and banned opposition parties, appointing women to positions in his cabinet, opening up the country's tightly-controlled economy to new investment and negotiating peace with neighboring Eritrea -- Berhane Kidanemariam had his doubts.
The Ethiopian diplomat has known the prime minister for almost 20 years, forging a friendship when he worked for the governing coalition's communications team and, later, as CEO of two state-run news organizations, while Abiy was in military intelligence and then heading Ethiopia's cybersecurity agency, INSA. Before working for Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kidanemariam ran the country's national broadcaster, the EBC, and he said Abiy sat on its board of directors.
In a recent phone interview, Kidanemariam said he, like many Ethiopians, had hoped Abiy could transform the nation's fractious politics and usher in genuine democratic change. But he struggled to square his understanding of the man he'd first met in 2004 -- who he described as power-hungry intelligence officer obsessed by fame and fortune -- with the portrait emerging of a visionary peacemaker from humble beginnings.
In 2018, Kidanemariam was serving as Ethiopia's consul general in Los Angeles and said he helped organize Abiy's visit.
When Kidanemariam, who is from Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, approached the dais to introduce his longtime friend and colleague to the crowd, he said he was greeted with heckles from members of the audience: "Get out of the podium Tigrayan, get out of the podium Woyane," and other ethnic slurs. He expected Abiy, who preached a political philosophy of inclusion, to chide the crowd, but he said nothing. Later, over lunch, when Kidanemariam asked why, he said Abiy told him: "There was nothing to correct."
"One of the ironies of a prime minister who came to office promising unity is that he has deliberately exacerbated hatred between different groups," Kidanemariam wrote in an open letter
in March, announcing that he was quitting his post as the deputy chief of mission at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, DC, in protest over Abiy's monthslong war in Tigray
, which has spurred a refugee crisis
Kidanemariam said to CNN he believed Abiy's focus had never been about "reform or democracy or human rights or freedom of the press. It is simply consolidating power for himself, and getting money out of it ... We may call it authoritarianism or dictatorship, but he is really getting to be a king."
"By the way," he added, "the problem is not only for Tigrayans. It's for all Ethiopians. Everybody is suffering everywhere."
In an email to CNN, Abiy's spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, described Kidanemariam's characterization of the prime minister as "baseless" and a "reflection."