Photo: Francisco Seco / AP / NTB scanpix
11 Oct 2019

The Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed

Granting the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed is both deserved and needed. Ethiopia’s prime minister deserves it because of the work he has done to make peace in the Horn of Africa, particularly between Ethiopia and Eritrea. He needs it to get the support to continue the political reforms he has started in his own country, a process challenged by opponents within the ruling party and by a multitude of ethnic conflicts across Ethiopia. 

There is no doubt that the Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister fulfills Alfred Nobel’s will to grant the prize to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations and to establish and promote peace processes. After he was appointed as Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the second most populous state in Sub-Saharan Africa, in April 2018, he has made peace with the long term enemy, Eritrea, and has helped negotiate between the opposition and the government in Sudan after the fall of Sudan’s president Bashir. The peace agreement signed with Eritrea in June 2018 made it possible for families who had been separated since the Eritrea-Ethiopia war in 1998 to 2000 to reunite. In the summer of 2018, thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians were crossing the border, crying with joy to see their dearest relatives and friends again. Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki made mutual visits to each other’s countries and were met by jubilation from peoples on both sides of the border, peoples with shared culture and religion, and some also using the same language. The hope that the peace would bring political change inside the extremely repressive Eritrea was however soon shattered. President Afewerki has maintained the compulsory national military service, a main reason for Eritrean youth to flee the country, and has not opened up for any political reforms. In the months after the peace deal, the border has been closed on several occasions, mainly by the Eritrean side to keep control of the cross-border movement. The peace prize to Ahmed may help keeping up the pressure on the two countries to continue the normalization process that has started, and viewed optimistically, may ultimately contribute to a dialogue on political reforms inside Eritrea.

During his one- and- a-half year reign in Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed had done more to political liberalization that any of his predecessors have ever done, and has in this way started a process of building peace and democracy in an autocratic state.  He has released tens of thousands of political prisoners, invited banned opposition parties and armed movements back from exile, and has started the revision of repressive laws regulating opposition, civil society and media, and has appointed a  formerly imprisoned opposition politician as head of the National Election Board. Under his rule, Ethiopia got its first female president and supreme court president, and half of his ministers are women. In his speeches, he has appealed to national reconciliation, trying to mitigate the ethnic divides that have been nurtured during the previous leadership. His talk on national reconciliation has been particularly welcomed by the many Ethiopians who feel tired of the ethnic politics of the Tigrayan dominated leadership since 1991. Being an Oromo, from the largest, but most historically oppressed ethnic group in the country, a Christian with a mixed Muslim-Christian parentage, who speaks several of the country’s eighty languages, Abiy Ahmed is the embodiment of a diverse and inclusive Ethiopian national identity. This has brought hopes and excitement among fellow Ethiopians, but has also led to worries among the previously privileged elites and to an upsurge in earlier suppressed ethnic demands. The latter has led to renewed violence between several ethnic groups in the country, producing one of the largest numbers of new internally displaced peoples in the world. Whether he is able to contain these challenges and remain true to his democratic intentions will be tested soon, in the upcoming national elections in 2020. As a leader not elected, but appointed by an autocratic ruling party, he needs to demonstrate that he is genuine about opening up for political competition, a competition that ultimately can oust him and the ruling party from power. The Nobel Peace Price is a strong encouragement for Ahmed to continue on the path on he has started, and may give him the extra push from the international community to stand firm against those who want Ethiopia to continue as an autocratic state.