Abiy Ahmed – Peace in our Time or Stagnant Reformation?

4 mins read

By Joakim Ydebäck

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. The prize is also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions.” This was the statement issued by the Norwegian Nobel Committee on the 11th of October when announcing the recipient of the Peace Prize of 2019.

Awarding Ethopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize is of great importance. While commentators in the major news outlets proposed that the laureate would be called Greta Thunberg or perhaps Donald Trump, the Norwegian Nobel Committee tend to think differently. Like with most cases, the wish is that this award will send a signal. It is not only to award someone for an achievement that has improved the world in some way, but also to ensure that the improvement prevails and perhaps leads to the resolution of similar conflicts. Whether this goal is achieved will be hard to discern. While the conflict Between Ethiopia and Eritrea is resolved, we do not know what the future entails.

The Nobel Peace Prize can serve the purpose of highlighting an otherwise overlooked issue. The armed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea had not been an internationally hot topic until last year. And soon after peace had been declared between the two parties, interest cooled down again soon enough. There is a hope that when Abiy Ahmed travels to Oslo to accept the prize in December, it will renew interest in the Ethiopian-Eritrean situation and on this successful conflict resolution. It is important that it remains relevant because it will educate people about the overall situation in Eastern Africa and it will inspire world leaders on how to resolve conflicts in a stalemate. There are a number of examples around the world, primarily the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the India-Pakistan skirmishes about hegemony over the Kashmir region.

The end of the conflict means a more stable Horn of Africa. The initial conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea took place from 1998-2000 and mainly concerned a border dispute. While most of the armed conflict was conducted during this short period of time, peace was not achieved until 2018. That is the same year that Abiy Ahmed Ali was appointed as Prime Minister of Ethiopia and subsequently initiated the peace process with the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki. Since Ethiopia remains the strongest economy in East Africa and a key player in African politics, the effects of the Peace Prize may hopefully encourage other countries in the region to implement similar reforms. The neighbouring countries have been continuously burdened with unresolved civil war or authoritarian leadership where human rights are rarely respected, especially Eritrea. Eithopia’s now-former antagonist remains one of the most brutal authoritarian states with one of the worst freedom of press in the world. So far the peace itself has not meant any positive effects regarding Eritrea’s governance. What happens in the long run we will see. 

Ethiopia also has its problems. The Ethiopian Prime Minister has been praised for respecting democratic institutions more than his predecessors. During his short period in office he has conducted widespread reforms which meant the release of political prisoners and the overhaul of repressive laws. This does not mean that the choice to give Abiy Ahmed the Peace Prize is wholly uncontroversial. While the reforms are welcome, the implementations have not been optimal. Critics, among the Human Rights Watch, have pointed out that Abiy’s progressive reforms have not been completely without fault or problems. “The opening up of political space has allowed Ethiopians to express long-standing grievances, often over land, border demarcations, access to state resources, and perceived discrimination against their community or ethnic group, without fear of retribution,” Human Rights Watch wrote in April earlier this year. Ironically, the democratic reforms has left a political vacuum in some regions of the country where local government is failing. Rebellions and ethnic conflicts were kept at bay by former oppressive regimes. Since the ruling EPRDF party controlled all levels of government these kinds of skirmishes were easily suppressed by the military or hindered by giving different subsidies to the locals. The lack of authoritarian rule has lead to old ethnic conflicts resurfacing which has resulted in the displacement of many groups. In fact, IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) is one of Ethiopia’s most dire problems. Around 1.4 million people were expelled from their homes in 2018, according to The New Humanitarian.

So it will be left to be seen whether these problems Ethiopia has are resolved or if Abiy Ahmed will go the way of other promising Nobel laureates. Let us remember in 2009 when Barack Obama was the laureate in the hopes that he, who had managed to instill so much hope in the American populace, could find a new direction for American conflicts and perhaps ultimately ending them. Today, the situation in regions like the Middle East is as complicated as ever before. In 2016, the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos became the recipient of the award due to the peace he established with the local FARC-guerrilla. However, his popularity dropped and was succeeded by Iván Duque Márquez, who is a harsh critic of the treaty.

The continued success of Abiy Ahmed will soon be evident. A general election in Ethiopia will take place in May 2020 where his leadership will be put to the test. Already, widespread protests across the country has shown how fragile his position is.

Cover photo: Office of the Prime Minister – Ethiopia

Joakim Ydebäck is studying at the Peace and Development Program at Uppsala University. After that, his goal is to somehow make the world just a little bit better. If he were to be offered the position of foreign minister, he would not say no. His four main interests include talk radio, international opinion polls, political crises and somber jazz music.

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