FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed addresses a news conference in his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia August 25, 2018.
FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed addresses a news conference in his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia August 25, 2018.

After leading a congressional fact-finding trip to Ethiopia, U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith said he's convinced the Horn of Africa country is making rapid progress toward democracy, thanks to new leadership.

"Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is the right man at the right time and is therefore deserving our support," said Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who chairs the House subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations.

Smith shared that observation during a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, at which he and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat and ranking subcommittee member, discussed their late August trip. They were part of a five-person delegation meeting with Abiy and other Ethiopian officials, lawmakers, political and religious leaders, human rights activists and victims of detention and torture. 

The congressman is the architect of H.R. 128, legislation condemning human rights abuses in Ethiopia and outlining a number of reforms that the country must take to promote peace and democracy. The resolution passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year.

FILE - Human rights lawyer and US Congressman Chri
FILE - Human rights lawyer and US Congressman Christopher Smith speaks during an exclusive interview with the Associated Press in Addis Ababa Ethiopia.

Smith praised Abiy, a former intelligence official who, since assuming office, "has released thousands of political prisoners," lifted a months-long state of emergency and "initiated an historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea this past July."

Expectations have been raised, he added, "and the reforms that have begun must continue."

Smith said he and Bass met with a group of former prisoners and torture victims in the capital, Addis Ababa, "and what they described as having been done to them was horrific." They demand justice, he added.

Smith and Bass also met with young people. Youth-led protests began in late 2015 and forced out Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February after six years in office. Smith said the economy needs to grow to provide jobs for young people, including those who were active in protests and civil disobedience.

Abiy has begun opening up Ethiopia's business sector, selling stakes in state-owned businesses such as telecommunications and airlines. Smith said he hopes to see additional economic reforms.

FILE - Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., walks through th
FILE - Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., walks through the Capitol Visitors Center on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The Ethiopian government faces an array of challenges, including a humanitarian crisis caused by fighting and recent flooding. The U.N. migration agency reports well over 2 million people have been displaced and need immediate attention. 

Bass acknowledged other daunting obstacles: "Regional security issues, the country's past human rights records [and] ethnic tensions across the country and hard-liners" among the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front party who hope to stall Abiy's reform agenda. 

But, she said, the hearing gave voice to Ethiopians about ways the U.S. could help its ally move forward. 

Girum Alemayehu, an Ethiopian community representative who testified at the hearing, said he was impressed by changes in his homeland but feared ongoing violence, including in the Oromia and Somali regions, could hinder full progress. 

"Create an independent commission to investigate the alleged security forces who have committed killings, mass detention and torture and used excessive force," he said, urging the U.S. government to prod Ethiopia's leaders on that front.

Another speaker was Jamal Said, now living in Denver, Colorado. He's originally from Oromia, Ethiopia's largest state and home to ethnic Oromo. For years, they had found limited political and economic opportunity, and the state became a hotbed of anti-government protests. The Oromo celebrated when Abiy freed thousands of political prisoners, but, Said said, they still want to see Afaan Oromoo recognized as a federal language. Currently, only Amharic is recognized as an official federal language.  

This report originated in VOA's Horn of Africa Service