In the three months since his rise to power, the 41-year-old politician has introduced sweeping changes to Ethiopia, lifting a state of emergency, brokering peace with neighbouring Eritrea and releasing hundreds of prisoners. These dramatic steps toward liberalization have sparked “Abiy-mania” within the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States.
The Washington area is home to some 300,000 Ethiopians, making it the largest community outside the African country.
Inside the convention centre, the crowd spent the hours before Abiy’s arrival dancing, waving Ethiopian and Eritrean flags.
About 2:45 p.m., Abiy walked onto the stage and the room exploded in cheers. Nearly everyone stood on their chairs, and many stayed there until they were told to sit.
Religious leaders began the rally with prayers, praising Abiy and celebrating the future of the country. District Mayor Muriel Bowser also addressed the crowd, declaring July 28 “Ethiopia Day” to rapturous applause.
PM Abiy spoke primarily about unity, telling the audience that “our ancestors were wrong about having division.” He called on members of the diaspora to invest in Ethiopia and to return home – a message that seemed especially resonant for older members of the audience.
Saba Gizau, a 58-year-old grandmother from Maryland, said that after two decades away from Ethiopia, she is ready to go back. Gizau, who had been at the convention centre since 4 a.m. with her 56-year-old sister, works in sales at a Nordstrom department store and said she wants to impart what she knows about business to Ethiopians back home.
“He invited us to come back to Ethiopia and help the country,” she said after Abiy’s speech, her eyes welling with tears. “He invited us, and I will be there.”