The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to prime minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia vindicates his approach to peace in the Horn of Africa and strengthens his ability to achieve further reforms in this own country.
Before October, few ordinary citizens outside Africa had heard of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, much less his extraordinary peace-making efforts with neighbouring Eritrea or his ambitious domestic reform agenda.
Well, they have now. The stunning award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo caps the 43-year-old’s astonishing rise from poverty to global renown, and stands as a vindication of his strategy of defusing regional tension and delivering meaningful political change.
Before Abiy’s accession in April 2018, the simmering conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea spanned just over 20 years, exploding into bloodshed between 1998 and 2000 before settling into a dismal cold war defined by tension over disputed land. Borders were closed, ending the flow of goods and people, and diplomatic relations broke down.
Having assumed the premiership, Abiy worked out the principles for a peace agreement, opening talks with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and agreeing to accept the arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission from 2002.
The results of the peace deal, signed in July 2018, have been profound. Diplomatic relations have been restored, borders opened for people and goods, and disputed land around the town of Badme returned to Eritrea.
While that was the catalyst for the Nobel Committee’s award of the Peace Prize, the judges’ admiration for Abiy extended into other spheres. In an inspiring testimonial, Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairwoman of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee, commended Abiy for other regional initiatives, including his contribution to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Djibouti and dialogue between Kenya and Somalia over a disputed maritime area.
The committee highlighted Abiy’s encouraging domestic reforms, including the freeing of political prisoners, media liberalisation, the legalisation of outlawed opposition groups and expansion of the role of women in society. Of course, Abiy’s work is far from complete. Ethiopia remains an immensely complex country defined by ethnic diversity and regional disparity. Troubling ethnic tensions threaten instability, according to the committee. His reforms have prompted resistance and in June, fatal rebel attacks in the Amhara regional capital of Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa offered the most significant challenge to the new era yet.
Recognition and encouragement
Questions remain over the extent of democratic change and the role of the military, leading some to conclude that the prize was awarded prematurely. And yet the committee wisely chose to frame the award as not only recognition for Abiy’s immense diplomatic achievement with Eritrea, but also encouragement for the promise they have observed in the prime minister.
“No doubt some people will think this prize is being awarded too early. The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement [and] hopes that the Nobel Prize will strengthen prime minister Abiy in his important work for peace and reconciliation,” argued Reiss-Andersen.
Like the committee, we congratulate the prime minister and Ethiopia, and are hopeful that this deserved prize represents just the beginning of the reform this extraordinary country deserves.