ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — As war raged in northern Ethiopia, and the region barreled toward its worst famine in decades, a senior American envoy flew to the Ethiopian capital last month in the hope of persuading Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to pull his country out of a destructive spiral that many fear is tearing it apart.
Mr. Abiy, though, wanted to go for a drive.
Taking the wheel, the Ethiopian leader took his American guest, the Biden administration’s Horn of Africa envoy, Jeffrey D. Feltman, on an impromptu four-hour tour of Addis Ababa, American officials said. The prime minister drove him past smart new city parks and a refurbished central plaza and even crashed a wedding where the two men posed for photos with the bride and groom.
Mr. Abiy’s attempt to change the channel, showcasing economic progress while parts of his country burned, was just the latest sign of a troubled trajectory that has baffled international observers who wonder how they got him so wrong.
Not long ago Mr. Abiy, who faces Ethiopian voters on Monday in long-delayed parliamentary elections, was a shining hope for country and continent. After coming to power in 2018 he embarked on a whirlwind of ambitious reforms: freeing political prisoners, welcoming exiles home from abroad and, most impressively, striking a landmark peace deal with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old foe, in a matter of months.
The West, eager for a glittering success story in Africa, was wowed, and within 18 months Mr. Abiy, a one-time intelligence officer, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But in just nine months Mr. Abiy’s halo has been brutally shattered. The civil war that erupted in the northern region of Tigray in November has become a byword for atrocities against Ethiopian citizens.
Mr. Abiy’s forces have been accused of massacres, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing. Last week a senior United Nations official declared that Tigray was in the throes of a famine — the world’s worst since 250,000 people died in Somalia a decade ago, he said.
Elsewhere in Ethiopia, ethnic violence has killed hundreds and forced two million people to flee their homes. A smoldering border dispute with Sudan has flared into a major military standoff.
Even the election on Monday, once billed as the country’s first free vote and a chance to turn the page on decades of autocratic rule, has only highlighted its divisions and fueled grim warnings that Ethiopia’s very future is in doubt.
“These elections are a distraction,” said Abadir M. Ibrahim, an adjunct law professor at Addis Ababa University. “The state is on a cliff edge, and it’s not clear if it can pull back. We just need to get past this vote so we can focus on averting a calamity.”
The prime minister’s office did not respond to questions and an interview request.
Mr. Abiy’s Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 from the rump of a former governing coalition, is widely expected to win the election easily. But there will be no voting in 102 of Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies because of war, civil unrest and logistical failures.
Senior opposition leaders are in jail and their parties are boycotting the vote in Oromia, a sprawling region of about 40 million people that is more populous than many African countries.
Mr. Abiy has put a brave face on his nation’s problems, repeatedly downplaying the Tigray conflict as a “law and order operation” and pushing his vision for a modernized, economically vibrant Ethiopia. The United States, which gave Ethiopia $1 billion in aid last year, is pressuring him to shift focus immediately.
After being chauffeured around Addis Ababa by Mr. Abiy in May, Mr. Feltman wrote a detailed analysis of his trip for President Biden and other leaders in Washington, even mentioning a sudden jolt by the vehicle that sent coffee spilling on the envoy’s shirt.
Weeks later, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken imposed visa bans on unnamed Ethiopian officials.
Other foreigners have left Ethiopia concerned that ethnic cleansing was underway. Pekka Haavisto, a European Union envoy who visited in February, told the European Parliament last week that Ethiopian leaders had told him “they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, that they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.”
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry dismissed Mr. Haavisto’s comments as “ludicrous” and a “hallucination of sorts.”
Global condemnation of Mr. Abiy, 44, most recently at last week’s Group of 7 summit, represents a dizzying fall for a young leader who until recently was globally celebrated.
The whirl of reforms he instituted after being appointed prime minister in 2018 were a sharp rebuke to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a party of rebels turned rulers who had dominated Ethiopia since 1991 in an authoritarian system that achieved impressive economic growth at the cost of basic civil rights.
Mr. Abiy promised a new way. He allowed once-banned opposition parties, appointed women to half the positions in his…