Does Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed deserve the Nobel Prize for Peace?

Ethiopian prime minister set to receive award in Norway’s capital, but his win has generated a mixed reaction.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the European Council headquarters in Brussels. Abiy Ahmed announced a failed coup attempt during a public address on TV Sunday, June 23, 2019, allegedly led by a
Abiy has refused to attend any event where he could be asked questions publicly, according to the Nobel Peace Prize committee [Francisco Seco/AP]

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is due to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace at a ceremony in Norway’s capital, Oslo.

Upon announcing its decision in October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee hailed Abiy’s pursuit of domestic reforms and efforts to achieve peace and cooperation in the region since assuming office in April 2018.

The news prompted an outpouring of national pride domestically – many Ethiopians switched their profile pictures to Abiy’s – while leaders from around the world joined the chorus of international praise for the 43-year-old leader.

But Abiy’s awarding, to take place on Tuesday, also sparked questions whether he deserved the recognition – especially so early in his premiership.

Peace with Eritrea

Among the series of accomplishments cited by the committee were Abiy’s efforts to help resolve a maritime territory dispute between Kenya and Somalia, as well as his mediation efforts to bring together leaders in both Sudan and South Sudan.

But it was, without a doubt, his historic rapprochement with neighbouring Eritrea that led to him becoming the first Ethiopian to win a Nobel Prize.

Just two months after becoming prime minister, Abiy, a former intelligence officer, announced that Ethiopia would fully accept the terms of a peace agreement with longtime foe Eritrea.

More than 80,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes during a two-year war that broke out between the neighbours in 1998. A United Nations-backed peace deal in 2000 awarded the disputed border territories to Eritrea, but the agreement was never implemented and skirmishes continued.

Abiy’s peacemaking efforts with longtime Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki formally ended a two-decade military standoff, leading to the re-establishment of diplomatic ties and the resumption of communication lines and air travel.

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki receives a key from Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa
Abiy has made a hero out of Isaias, according to Eritrean human rights activists [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

Still, key issues remained unresolved. 

“Eritrea’s borders remain closed, the border between the two countries has not been demarcated, and the exodus of Eritreans fleeing the brutal restrictions imposed by their government continues,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement after the announcement of Abiy’s win.

For Selam Kidane, director of Release Eritrea, a UK-based group campaigning against religious persecution in the Red Sea country, Abiy’s Nobel award came as a surprise.

“I did not expect Abiy to win. Yes, they signed a peace agreement but life has not changed for Eritreans,” Selam told Al Jazeera.

“What this award does is it whitewashes the image of an oppressor, Isaias Afwerki. It only works to rehabilitate Isaias’ image,” she added.

Isaias has ruled Eritrea since gaining independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s. Eritrea, a one-party state, has never held national elections and is the world’s most censored country, according to Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), a media watchdog. An unknown number of journalists are held in jail without trial.

At the same time, Eritrea’s widely criticised indefinite military service has driven many, especially the youth, to flee at an alarming rate – often risking their lives in the process.

According to the UN refugee agency, Eritrea, a nation of fewer than five million people, was last year the ninth largest country of origin of refugees, with more than 500,000.

“Sadly, the situation in Eritrea is unpalatable. Abiy made a hero out of Isaias, which is a shame,” Selam said.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki waves upon his arrival for a state visit to Sudan at the Khartoum Airport
Isaias has ruled Eritrean since the country gained independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s [Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

Al Jazeera contacted the committee to ask whether it considered the human rights situation in Eritrea before awarding the prize to Abiy. In response, the committee sent the October statement announcing the Ethiopian leader’s win, which it did not address these human rights concerns.

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes the peace agreement will help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea.”

But despite the situation in Eritrea, Awol Allo, a lecturer in law at the United Kingdom’s Keele University, said the committee was right to award the prize to the Ethiopian leader.

“The concerns of Eritrean human rights and pro-democracy activists are understandable, but there is no suggestion that the Nobel Prize was awarded to Abiy for changing the political dynamics within Eritrea itself,” he said.

According to Awol, Abiy deserves the award “for saving a nation of 108 million people from the precipice of an economic and political explosion”.

Abiy is Ethiopia’s first prime minister hailing from the Oromo group, the country’s largest ethnic group which spearheaded mass anti-government protests that forced his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to step down. 

But as Ethiopia gears up for crucial general elections next year, the picture on the domestic front is far from rosy.

Ethnic violence has been on the rise since Abiy came to power, while local government and security sharply deteriorated, according to HRW. More than two million people are currently internally displaced across the country due to conflict, including 1.4 million in the first half of 2018, more than anywhere else globally, the rights group said in April.

Separately, while the Nobel committee praised Abiy for “discontinuing media censorship”, rights groups have criticised government plans to charge journalists and media organisations for their reporting on the military.

In a statement days before after Abiy’s win, Amnesty International acknowledged the reforms undertaken by his government but called on the prime minister to revise the country’s anti-terrorism law to avoid rolling back progress made since he took office.

“The use of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism proclamation to arbitrarily arrest journalists is completely out of step with reforms witnessed in the country,” Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa, said in early October.

“This law must be revised to align with international standards and must no longer be used to harass journalists.”

Somalia bloodshed

Elsewhere, Ethiopian troops have been accused of using lethal force in December last year against unarmed protesters in neighbouring Somalia during a regional election campaign. At least 11 people, including a legislator, died during the clashes.

“Somali and Ethiopian security forces in Baidoa must refrain from using lethal force against protesters, including ahead of, during and after the South West regional presidential election scheduled for 19 December. No one should have to die for simply expressing their views,” Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said.

Meanwhile in October, amid rising tensions with Egypt over a massive dam on the Nile, Abiy defended his Nobel win during an address to Ethiopia’s parliament.

“Some individuals are finding it hard to accept about the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s already given to Abiy, and it won’t be taken away from him. That’s it! This is a dead issue!” Abiy said.

“Now, our focus should be on how to motivate other youths to win the prize. People who continue to dwell on this are wasting their time,” he added.

Abiy is not expected to hold a news conference after receiving the award in Oslo’s City Hall on Tuesday, nor address the media in any other event while in Norway’s capital, enabling him to avoid questions by journalists. 

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera