DUBAI: “It is a prize given to Africa, given to Ethiopia and I can imagine that the rest of Africa’s leaders will take it positively to work on (the) peace-building process on our continent.” This was the reaction of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, when he was told by the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that he was the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
The announcement on Oct. 11 by the committee was far from a surprise. Abiy, 43, had been bookmakers’ second favorite to win, behind the teenage Swedish climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg.
Still, the decision amounted to profound recognition of the efforts and success of an indefatigable peacemaker in a continent wracked by conflict and violence.
The Ethiopian leader’s biggest achievement to date is ending two decades of hostility and restoring ties with long-term enemy Eritrea that had been frozen since a 1998-2000 border war. “I have said often that winds of hope are blowing ever stronger across Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is one of the main reasons why,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
During the border war, Abiy, who was born in Ethiopia to a Muslim father and Christian mother, led a spy team on a reconnaissance mission into areas held by the Eritrean Defence Forces. But when he became prime minister, he was quick to launch a peace offensive.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said Abiy was honored for his “decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.”
However, it added that the prize is “meant to recognize all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the east and northeast African regions.
“Peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone. When Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President (Isaias) Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries.
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes the peace agreement will help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
The principles of the agreement are set out in the declarations that Abiy and Afwerki signed in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, and in Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah in July and September of last year.
Dan Smith, head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said by choosing Abiy, the committee is seeking to encourage the peace process, echoing the 1994 peace prize shared by Israeli and Palestinian leaders and the 1993 award for moves toward reconciliation in South Africa.
“It is a case of wanting a constructive intervention in the peace process ... to give leverage and encouragement,” he said.
“The challenge now is internal for Abiy, with Ethiopia needing to deal with the consequences of long-term violence, including 3 million displaced people and the need to continue the political process.”
Abiy took office in April 2018 after the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn following three years of violent anti-government protests in Africa’s second-most populous country.
The ruling coalition had already begun making conciliatory measures, but it was Abiy who sped up the reforms.
After securing peace with Eritrea, he swiftly released dissidents from jail, apologized for state brutality and welcomed home exiled armed groups. Those actions sparked optimism in a region blighted by violence.
Since then, Abiy has played a significant role in bringing peace to the Horn of Africa region, from Sudan to Somalia and Djibouti, all of which at some time have had border disputes. Small wonder, then, fellow African leaders were among the first to congratulate him.
The “warmest felicitations” were sent by Liberian President George Weah, who said in a tweet: “I hereby join the rest of Africa and the world at large in celebrating with the great people of Ethiopia and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Award.”
Somalian President Mohamed Farmaajo called Abiy a “deserving winner” via Twitter, adding “I have enjoyed working with him on strengthening regional cooperation.”
Meanwhile, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said the award was “a reminder to us all that peace is one of the most critical ingredients needed to make Africa successful.”
Speaking to CNN, Biniam Getaneh, an Ethiopian poet and writer, described the award as a “big win” not only for Abiy and Ethiopia but for Africa, too. “Despite the shortcomings of the reform he introduced and the man himself, I believe he is deserving of this international recognition simply for his peace efforts with Eritrea,” he said.
Congratulations came in from Arab leaders, too. “My sincere congratulations to my dear friend Dr. Abiy Ahmed on winning the #NobelPeacePrize,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, said in a tweet.
“He is a wise man who has brought peace and hope to his country and region. The prize is a well-deserved honour for an extraordinary leader.”
Abiy visited the Gulf in July last year, when he and Afwerki were honored with the UAE’s highest civil honor for their reconciliation efforts. Sheikh Mohammed had conferred the Order of Zayed on the two leaders on that occasion.
In addition to resolving the border dispute with Eritrea, Abiy’s government has promised to liberalize the bureaucratic, state-controlled Ethiopian economy, overturned bans on many political parties and dismissed or arrested many senior officials accused of corruption, torture or murder.
Despite the abundant international recognition for his work, however, Abiy faces big challenges, with many wondering if he can control the political forces he has unleashed in a country of 100 million people.
The biggest threats appear to come from elements within the ruling coalition who feel disempowered and from new, ethnically based parties eager to flex their muscles in next year’s elections.
Abiy survived an assassination attempt amid riots in June 2016 and faced down a mutiny from his own military by challenging — and then defeating — them in a push-up competition.
The loosening of political freedoms means that many regional power brokers are demanding more influence and resources, fueling ethnic conflicts around the country.
In June, a rogue state militia leader killed the head of the Amhara region and other senior officials in what the government described as a regional coup attempt.
Abiy also faces high expectations from young Ethiopians who want jobs, development and opportunities, and feel the government still has much to do to improve daily life in the country.
The same sentiments were echoed by Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who said: “There is a lot achieved already in reforming Ethiopia to a democracy, but there is also a long way to go. Rome was not made in a day and neither will peace or democratic development be achieved in a short period of time.”