Is Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize a poisoned chalice?

Morris Kiruga
By Morris Kiruga
East Africa Editor of The Africa Report

Posted on Monday, 14 October 2019 21:22, updated on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 09:14
A man chants slogans during a celebration rally for Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in Ambo, Oromia region of Ethiopia. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize, while deserved, may have been premature.

Abiy was announced on 11 October as the 100th winner of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, making him the fourth African leader to win the prize while in office.

  • The other African leaders to be awarded the prize while in office were Anwar Sadat (1978), F.W. de Klerk (1993) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2011). It also makes Abiy Ahmed the first African from the Horn to win the prize, and the second from the Eastern end of Africa, after Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai.
  • The Nobel committee awarded the prize to him mainly “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”.

Just a day later, Ethiopian police banned a planned protest at Meskel Square in the capital, Addis Ababa.

The rally, organised by the Baladera Council, a civic group associated with journalist Eskinder Nega, was supposed to be a protest against Oromo politicians and nationalists who claim ownership over the capital city. Abiy is an Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

  • It was also to highlight five other issues, including the council’s members who have been arrested in several regions.
  • It is not the first time Eskinder, who was released in February 2018 after serving seven years of an 18-year prison sentence, has been forced to call off press conferences and meetings this year for ‘security reasons’. The government has blocked his press conferences that sought to highlight problems with the administration and nationalism in the capital, but also to open his own media house.

In a statement, the council said that “[the] government’s unlawful restraint has proven to undermine democracy and justice,” while also claiming that the government had closed roads and arrested several members of the organisation.

Was it too soon?

Such events within Ethiopia will now attract even more attention, as Abiy looks to solve some of the country’s many problems, while trying to encourage peace in the region.

The Nobel was awarded because of the steps Abiy took to end a long-running dispute with neighbouring Eritrea. Ethiopia fought a war with Eritrea between May 1998 and June 2000, with border disputes before and since.

  • Since he became Ethiopia’s prime minister in April 2018, Abiy has worked not only to fix his country’s problems and conflict with Eritrea, but also to become the consummate peacemaker in the region.
  • He has worked to make peace between Somalia and Kenya, and more recently in Sudan, after protests brought down the long reign of Omar el-Beshir.
  • He has also proven adept at balancing multiple international interests in the Horn of Africa.

After a headline-grabbing summit with Eritrea in mid-2018 and resumption of flights and communications lines between the two neighbours, the peace deal faced what initially seemed like teething problems.

For instance, all land border crossings were shut down by the end of the year, and most, if not all, are still closed.

  • One reason for this is that a significant part of the border with Eritrea is the Tigray Region, dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Abiy’s rise to power last year marked the end of TPLF’s dominance of the ruling party and the country’s politics.
  • Another is that Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki is unlikely to feel the same enthusiasm for the deal as his Ethiopian counterpart, since it would mean not only allowing Eritreans more freedom of travel but could also destabilise Asmara.

Some critics fear that the Nobel committee did not learn from its own mistake of awarding former US President Barrack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Geir Lundestad, who served as the Nobel committee’s secretary for 25 years, later wrote that Obama failed to live up to expectations.

Yale Sterling Professor of English and author of American Breakdown David Bromwich recently argued that Obama “was given the prize in the hope that he would do something to deserve it”.

  • A closer parallel is perhaps with South Korea’s former president Kim Dae-Jung, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. The Nobel committee included Dae-Jung’s reconciliation efforts with North Korea as a major reason for the award, saying that his visit to the hermit nation gave “hope that the Cold War will also come to an end in Korea”.
  • Kim was later criticised for ‘buying’ the prize, after the successive government established that his administration had paid North Korea in a cash-for-summit deal.

Similarly, the Nobel committee’s press release on Abiy’s wins says that “The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes that the Nobel Peace Prize will strengthen Prime Minister Abiy in his important work for peace and reconciliation.”

But might it limit his ability to manoeuvre in peace negotiations with Asmara?

  • “The award could, eventually, even torpedo those peace efforts, if the Eritrean leadership felt put under pressure to an even greater extent than before. The grumpy autocrat from Asmara, who ruthlessly keeps his own people in chains so he can remain in power, is unlikely to enjoy being snubbed under the eyes of the world by a charismatic politician half his age,” Ludger Schadomsky, the head of DW’s Amharic desk, wrote in an op-ed.
  • Another problem for Abiy is that some in Ethiopia feel that the Eritrea deal is a personal, instead of national, initiative. “The foreign office was not in the loop…We learned of it from the Eritrean media, on Facebook and Twitter,” an unnamed official told Reuters recently, referring to Abiy’s July visit to Asmara.

Domestic challenges abide

Since ascending to power in mid-2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister has shown himself as the consummate peacemaker in the region, but the bigger problems are at home, where he has to deal with a regional referendum in November, a potentially divisive census and Ethiopia’s first properly competitive general elections in more than a decade – in addition to a host of other challenges.

  • While his first big win was to release political prisoners, he has launched his own wave of arrests, targeting not just corrupt officials of previous governments but also elements trying to undo his own rule.
  • He has also been criticised for not responding effectively to escalating attacks on houses of worship, as well as to ethnic conflicts and assassinations of high-profile individuals.

While Abiy’s fast-paced reforms have shaken the preceding balance in Ethiopia and her neighbours, awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize this early seems a little hasty, especially as there are still many likely scenarios in which they could fail.

While the Nobel committee’s hope is “to strengthen him”, it may also have handed him a poisoned chalice.

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