The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed Ali, the Ethiopian prime minister who, with stunning alacrity, has made major strides in resolving a decades-long border conflict with Eritrea.
According to Matina Stevis-Gridneff of the New York Times, Abiy became prime minister in 2018 and “threw himself at a breakneck pace into ... peace negotiations with the rebel-turned-dictator Isaias Afwerki, president of Eritrea.”
The roots of the conflict between the two countries began in the 1960s, when Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, according to Vox’s Alexia Underwood. In 1993, after 30 years of fighting, Eritrea held a referendum in which voters opted to separate from Ethiopia, and the two nations cleaved on reportedly friendly terms. But five years later, a dispute erupted over the border town of Badme, spurring a violent war that led to the deaths of as many as 100,000 people between 1998 and 2000. In 2002, an international boundary commission awarded Badme to Eritrea, but Ethiopia would not surrender the town, leading to a lasting military stalemate.
The war also played a role in transforming Eritrea into a reclusive regime, known as “Africa’s North Korea.” As the conflict raged, Isaias suspended his country’s constitution and implemented an unending state of emergency. Every Eritrean is now required to undertake “national service” for an indeterminate period of time after they turn 18. “Some are assigned to civil service positions, while most are placed in military units, where they effectively work as forced laborers on private and public works projects,” according to Human Rights Watch. In 2001, independent newspapers were shut down, their editors and top journalists arrested. The government restricts religious freedoms, and citizens live under the threat of arbitrary imprisonment and torture.
But since taking office, Abiy has made concerted efforts to end hostilities with his country’s isolated neighbor. According to Mark Lewis and Elias Meseret of the Associated Press, he announced that Ethiopia would accept a peace agreement with Eritrea. He and Isaias formally restored diplomatic relations last July, and agreed to open embassies in their respective capitals. Telecommunications and commercial flights between the two countries were restored, allowing families that had long been separated by the conflict to finally reconnect.
“An important premise for the breakthrough was Abiy Ahmed’s unconditional willingness to accept the arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission in 2002,” the Nobel committee notes.
Abiy has also been praised for implementing reforms at home. Though the country was formally governed by a four-party political coalition, power had long rested in the hands of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which represented the interests of one ethnic group, according to Underwood. Recently, protesters began demanding political and economic changes. The former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down, and Abiy, a “young technocrat,” took his place, reports Yohannes Gedamu of Al Jazeera. He belonged to the ruling coalition that had sparked dissent within the country, but hails from a mixed ethnic background and enjoys a “broad political appeal,” Gedamu writes.
Within his first 100 days as prime minister, Abiy lifted Ethiopia’s state of emergency, granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, legalized banned opposition groups, and dismissed military and civilian leaders accused of corruption, according to the Nobel Committee. He also ended media censorship—as of last year, Ethiopia reportedly had no journalists in prison—and promised the country would hold free elections next year. Ethiopia now has a gender balanced Cabinet, according to the AP, and its first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde.
But there are some who have questioned the Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s Peace Prize to the upstart prime minister. Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean-Swedish activist, tells Stevis-Gridneff of the Times that while circumstances are, in some respects, improving in Ethiopia, President Isaias maintains an iron grip on Eritrea. “How do you award a peace prize without peace?” she says. “Do Eritreans have peace? No.”
In spite of Abiy’s strides, Ethiopia also continues to struggle with internal conflicts. Ethnic tensions, once tempered by political repression, have been boiling over in the country, forcing millions of people to flee their homes. The swell in violence represents, according to Tom Wilson of the Los Angeles Times, what is “arguably the greatest threat to [Abiy’]s lofty ambitions.”
In its announcement, the Nobel Committee acknowledges that “some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early.” But it hopes that the newly awarded prize will bolster Abiy’s reconciliation efforts. “Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and has East Africa’s largest economy,” the Committee states. “A peaceful, stable and successful Ethiopia will have many positive side-effects, and will help to strengthen fraternity among nations and peoples in the region.”
“[I]t is now,” the Committee adds, “that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”