Jawar Mohammed never travels alone. When the American Ethiopian activist returned to his homeland on August 5, he was treated like a monarch. A group of sharp-edged young men always floated with him. Jeeps with guards patrolled his hotel in the center of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Supporters from the provinces flocked to show their respect. During a two-week visit he held about 25 to 30 meetings a day, according to an exhausted assistant.
After a meeting with the Guardian in his hotel suite he ran away to give a lecture at the main university of the capital, entourage in tow.
Nothing demonstrated the breathtaking transformation in Ethiopian politics of the last four months, as did the red carpet return of a figure once the most wanted man of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
From a studio in Minneapolis, where he founded the controversial Oromia Media Network, Mohammed spent the past decade restlessly about social media for political change at home in Ethiopia, which he left as a scholarship student in 2003. This was his first time in Ethiopia since 2008.
He was so effective as an activist that anti-government protests across the country rippled towards the end of 2016 and forced the EPRDF to impose a state of emergency, the Oromia Media Network was banned and Mohammed declared a terrorist.
At the beginning of 2018, the revolutionary fervor had grown so hard that Hailemariam Desalegn was forced to resign as prime minister and paved the way for his hugely popular successor Abiy Ahmed, a young reformer from Oromia, the home of Mohammed and the largest and most populous region of the country.
The Oromia Media Network, along with some smaller stores and activists, has used social media in recent years to have devastating consequences, coordinate boycotts and demonstrations, and bring Ethiopia's large and often brutal security device close together.
"We used social media and formal media so effectively that the state was completely overwhelmed," says Mohammed. "The only option they had was to implement reforms or to accept a complete revolution."
In the course of a triumphant homecoming, the former terrorist (charges were dropped in May) traveled through the country, mostly around Oromia, where he was welcomed by a huge and jubilant crowd. On his first day, he led a raging rally in the capital's major concert hall.
Later he traveled to Ambo, the epicenter of the Oromo protest movement – a struggle for political freedom and for greater ethnic representation in federal structures, which played a key role in orchestrating Mohammed. Tens of thousands came to greet him more than when Abiy visited the city shortly after his inauguration in April.
As Muhammad had promised his followers – mostly young, politically active Oromo men known as the Qeerroo – he took off his shoes and walked through the streets of the city like a prophet. Then he planted a tree where a young man was killed by security services almost 15 years ago, long before the movement that threw him into the national spotlight.
"They always made me happy and proud with what they did," he said about Ambo's Qeerroo. "So I said to them:" One day I will come to your city and show my respect by walking barefoot. "That day came and I had to make it. & # 39;
Few doubt the importance of Muhammad in recent Ethiopian history. Perhaps more than any other individual, he took the once-marginal policy of Oromo nationalism and made it mainstream. Today, Oromos, the country's largest ethnic group, dominates the highest state functions and Muhammad has significant personal influence over the new leaders of the country, including Abiy himself.
In a recent interview with local media he claimed – to the dismay of many Ethiopians – that the country actually has two governments: the one headed by Abiy, the other by the Qeerroo. This puts him in a position of extraordinary responsibility, since he is "one of the Qeerroo" and "a considerable part of the country listens to me", he admits.
Many feel uncomfortable with the touch of demagogy accompanying Mohammed. An Ethiopian journalist (who wanted to remain anonymous) notes his "Trumpian sense of truth when uncomfortable facts occur."
He has been accused of inflating the number of demonstrators killed by security forces and, infamous, told his followers (73,000 on twitter and more than 1.4 million on Facebook) that army helicopters fired live bullets at civilians during the tragic rush that took place during an Oromo cultural festival in October 2016. Independent journalists present confirmed that this did not happen. He has a history of sweep journalists with whom he disagrees as & # 39; government agents & # 39;
He has also been accused of inciting ethnic and religious violence. In a video from 2013, for example, he says: "My village is 99% Muslim. If someone speaks to us, we cut his throat with a machete."
In recent years, he has led his supporters against the Tigrayan People & # 39; s Liberation Front, the once-dominant ethnic Tigrayan wing of the ruling coalition, which critics led to attacks against Tigrayan citizens and also of other ethnic groups. Mohammed says he has been trying for a long time to send his followers to "nonviolent resistance" and adds, "Even when TPLF was in power and actively murdered our citizens, we made sure that Tigrayan citizens were not exposed to attack." .
Nowadays Mohammed comes across as a more moderate and conciliatory figure. He says he plans to set up Oromia Media Network offices across Ethiopia and become a professional outfit. He points to the BBC and NPR as models. He insists that he does not intend to go into formal politics, he would rather remain an activist.
"I want to help with the transition to democracy in the coming years, and I want to use my influence on the population so that they can calm down, control themselves and guarantee peace, while political leadership works out transition arrangements," says Mohammed. .
The last point is especially important. In recent weeks, the instability in Ethiopia has escalated strongly, especially in its own region. The day after his interview with the Guardian, a demonstration in the city of Shashamene became violent, as a crowd of Mohammed followers in public. hung a man that they suspected had a bomb with him. Two more died in the massacre that followed. Many Ethiopians accuse him of the unrest, and he had to cancel the rest of his tour.
Mohammed, however, remains optimistic about the future of the country and about the prospect of a peaceful policy free of violent expressions of ethnic identity. "I truly believe that if we democratize the Ethiopian state – enable people from all ethnic groups to participate in the political process and get a fair share of power and wealth – there is a possibility that the next generation will be proud on Oromo and proud Ethiopian at the same time, I think that's possible. & # 39;