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Ethiopia’s Nobel intellectual soldier

Ethiopia’s 43-year old prime minister, Abiy Ahmed – Africa’s youngest leader – received the $900,000 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on 10 November, becoming the 13th African and 100th awardee to obtain the prize since 1901. He joins Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk, and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the fourth sitting African leader – and second Eastern African after Kenya’s Wangari Maathai – to be ennobled. On hearing the news, an elated Abiy noted: “It is a prize given to Africa, given to Ethiopia and I can imagine how the rest of Africa’s leaders will take it positively to work on [the] peace building process on our continent.” The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the prize for his efforts to “achieve peace and international cooperation,” highlighting his “decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.” Abiy also won the award for initiating “important reforms that give many [Ethiopian] citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future.” Ethiopia’s premier has consistently promoted a message of Medemer (“coming together”), making peace with Eritrea barely three months after taking office, embarking on a courageous pilgrimage to Asmara, agreeing on opening the border and communication lines, restoring travel, and reuniting families. The 1998-2000 border war between both countries resulted in 100,000 deaths and was described as akin to “two bald men fighting over a comb” due to the lack of concrete strategic interests at stake.

Abiy has also sought to mediate conflicts between Eritrea and Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya, and Eritrea and Somalia. More recently, he contributed to successful efforts to establish a transitional government in Sudan between the military junta and civil society groups following the coup d’état that toppled Omar al-Bashir’s autocracy in April. Abiy has further sought to promote regional integration on the Horn of Africa through joint infrastructure projects, arguing that domestic peace and development can be achieved only through these broader regional efforts. At home, he has acted as a bold reformer, releasing thousands of political prisoners, unbanning groups formerly deemed “terrorist” organisations, apologising for past human rights abuses, allowing political exiles to return home, jailing senior officials engaged in corruption and human rights abuses, and lifting media restrictions and the “state of emergency”. He has also established a Peace and Reconciliation Commission to promote domestic reconciliation, and appointed a cabinet of gender parity and a female chief justice and president. These popular actions unleashed a wave of “Abiymania” across the country.

Abiy was born of a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother, inculcating in him an innate understanding of cultural diversity. Being from the largest Ethiopian group, the Oromo, has helped to dissipate some of the grievances of a people that have long felt marginalised. He is married to an Amhara woman and speaks Oromo, Amharic, and Tigrinya. Abiy joined the Ethiopian rebel resistance to the dreaded Derg regime of Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, at the age of 15 in 1991. He rose to become a colonel, intelligence chief, and head of cyber security, also serving as a United Nations (UN) peacekeeper in Rwanda. He obtained a doctorate from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University, and holds two master’s degrees in transformational leadership and business administration, as well as a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering.

Abiy left the army to join politics in 2010 as a parliamentarian for the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation. As a legislator, he led the establishment of a “Religious Forum for Peace” to foster reconciliation between Muslims and Christians involved in persistent clashes. Abiy assumed the premiership of Africa’s second most populous country in April 2018, following two years of widespread protests against government repression, land-grabbing, and displacement of locals for development projects, during which 1,000 people were killed and 20,000 jailed.

But despite some successes, Ethiopia’s premier has a long way to go to achieve domestic and regional stability. Even the peace deal with Eritrea – the main initiative for which he won the Nobel prize – is threatened by the fact that his promised return of the border town of Badme to Asmara depends on the Tigray-dominated military to implement. Having sacrificed so much blood to win the territory, it is unclear Tigrayan generals will cooperate. Ethiopia’s post-1991 federal system has aspirations for self-determination for its multiple groups. But this mainly remains theoretical ambitions, as efforts to actualise such autonomy have often created fissures that have threatened the unity of this polyglot nation. Like Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, the 108 million-strong Ethiopian state is an ethnically and religiously diverse federation which suffers from many tensions and has the potential to destabilise its entire sub-region. Tigrayans who have dominated the political space over the last three decades are only 6% of the population, while Oromos account for 34% and Amharas 27%.

Many have also questioned how entrenched Abiy’s reforms are, and whether his regime is still vulnerable to the machinations of Tigray-dominated securocrats. An assassination attempt was reported in June 2018. Despite Abiy’s efforts, personal charisma cannot be a sustainable substitute for a lack of political unity and effective state institutions. Internal instability has continued, with 2.9 million Ethiopians – the most of any country – remaining internally displaced by local conflicts, while the government still has to manage discontent in its turbulent Oromia and Amhara regions. Even after the Nobel announcement, protesters have been arrested in Addis Ababa, the internet has been blocked, and journalists have been harassed. There could be a return to autocratic methods in the name of stability. Elections in May 2020 present a major test of Abiy’s popularity and ability to keep together his fissiparous country and fragile ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party which is showing real signs of splintering. As Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize, controversy swirled in Oslo at his refusal to attend the traditional press conferences. However, his fellow laureate, United States (US) president, Barack Obama, also did not give any media interviews while collecting the award in 2009. The hope is that the Nobel Prize will assist Abiy to consolidate his reform efforts, and not become an albatross around the young premier’s neck.

By Professor Adekeye Adebajo, director Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa, and editor, Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent.

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