A Nobel Peace Prize for Optimism

What does Abiy Ahmed's Nobel Prize Mean for Africa and the World?
Analysis18.10.2019Stefanie Steinbach
 Abiy Ahmed
© picture alliance / AAEthiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

A Nobel Peace Prize for optimism

The Nobel Committee announced Abiy Ahmed Ali, the prime minister of Ethiopia, as the winner of the 100th Nobel Peace Prize on 11 October 2019. The award gives particular recognition to his efforts to negotiate a peace settlement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in July 2018, in addition to his other achievements and his preternatural determination in pushing for reforms. At the same time, the award can be seen as a powerful symbol of  reconciliation and optimism in today’s polarised world.

Who is Abiy Ahmed Ali?

Looking back at Mr Abiy’s early career, nobody would have bet on his ever winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He served in the military during the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. For many years, he was a member of Ethiopia’s autocratic and oppressive leadership. From 2007 to 2010, he was the founding head of the Information Network and Security Agency, which tightly controls the country’s internet and telecommunications. 

Mr Abiy is a member of the largest ethnic group, the Oromo. He served as member of parliament representing the Oromo OPDO party, which forms part of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The coalition is accused of having used authoritarian methods to stay in power, including censorship, electoral fraud, and the arrest and torture of dissidents, since the early 1990s. 

But since 2015, changes have swept through Ethiopia: after mass protests against expropriations which left over 700 people dead, the prime minister at the time, Hailemariam  Desalegn, was left with no choice but to resign, thereby paving the way for political change. As the country’s politics had been dominated by the Tigray ethnic group since 1991, it was a considerable surprise when Abiy – a member of the Oromo group – was elected as prime minister in early 2018. 

As head of government, Mr Abiy’s political style has been characterised by a consistent focus on reconciliation and compromise. He has benefitted from his family background, which includes a mix of ethnic groups and religions, including Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals, Tigray, Amhara and Oromo. His academic background further contributed to his predisposition as a peacemaker. He holds a masters degree in transformational leadership, while his doctoral dissertation dealt with resolving interreligious conflict in Ethiopia. It is precisely this mix of visionary ideas and political experience that favoured his success. 


What reasons were given for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize?

In its announcement, the Nobel Committee emphasised Mr Abiy’s decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea (full text: LINK https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2019/press-release/]. The conflict lasted for two decades and cost an estimated 100,000 lives.

The committee added that the award was also meant to “recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions”, and that it hoped that the Nobel Peace Prize would “strengthen Prime Minister Abiy in his important work for peace and reconciliation”.

The committee also honoured Mr Abiy’s other peace and reconciliation efforts in North and East Africa. In September 2018, he and his government contributed actively to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Djibouti. Mr Abiy has also sought to mediate between Kenya and Somalia in their protracted conflict over rights to a disputed marine area. In Sudan, the military regime and the opposition have returned to the negotiating table. Mr Abiy played a key role in the process which led to the drafting of a new constitution to support a peaceful transition to a civilian government.

Domestically, too, Mr Abiy has produced breathtaking changes. He granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, lifted the state of emergency, ensured the equal representation of women in his new cabinet – including the defence ministry –, nominated the former leader of the opposition to head the electoral commission, and supported the legal prosecution of human rights violators.


What does the Nobel Peace Prize mean for Ethiopia?

It is a prize “for all Ethiopians and for Africa”, said Mr Abiy in his telephone call with the Nobel Committee.

But he and the Ethiopian people still have a long way to go. In December 2018, Eritrea closed its border with Ethiopia because too many people were allegedly crossing over. The peace agreement is fragile.

In Ethiopia, too, ethnic tensions have been on the rise since Mr Abiy assumed office. As he loosened control over the security apparatus, law and order as well as public safety have collapsed in some areas. In this country of about 120 ethnic groups, people are revolting against the central government. In 2018, there were 3.2m internally displaced persons. The 43-year-old prime minister now has to find a way to keep pushing for freedom and democracy while keeping the authoritarian old guard in check, including the security agencies, the army and the central committee. For this, Mr Abiy should continue to invest in the national reconciliation commission, which is conceived along similar lines as post-apartheid South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission.

Ethiopia’s youth, which makes up about two-thirds of the population, is dissatisfied with the slow pace of reform. Young people still see no prospects for their future, which is leading to discord. But democratic reforms form part of a larger process that will take years, and which may only lead to economic development and sufficient employment opportunities at a later stage. Here, too, Mr Abiy has to strike a fine balance between pushing ahead with reforms on the one hand, while motivating the youth to become actively engaged by contributing its creativity and energy on the other.

Unfortunately, democracy is still widely misconceived as lawlessness and licentiousness in Ethiopia. Freedom and democracy cannot be guaranteed by a head of state acting on his own. They require taking individual, personal responsibility. This depends on the existence of a strong and responsible civil society. 

Democracy is a constant learning process. In this sense, the Nobel Peace Prize announcement is an expression of hope. It will strengthen Mr Abiy’s hand in future reform processes. As early as next year, when elections are scheduled to take place, it will become apparent how far the process has advanced and whether free elections do indeed take place.

What does the prize mean for Africa and the world?

It is hoped that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Ethiopian peacemaker will encourage autocratic leaders throughout Africa to embark on the path of reconciliation and democratisation. The prize should inspire African leaders and politicians who want to embark on reforms to push for freedom, democracy and reconciliation. The message is being heard. For instance, Kenyan opposition politician and AU representative, Raila Odinga, tweeted that the awarding of the prize to Mr Abiy was “a recognition that the politics of diplomacy and engagement instead of confrontation is the way to the future.” Mr Odinga and his party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), are members of Liberal International and the Africa Liberal Network.

The awarding of the prize also spreads a bit of Afro-optimism. The continent holds enormous potential. Unlocking it requires the political will to carry out reforms and helping people during the change process. In this sense, the prize is also a call for the international community to give its wholehearted and generous support to Mr Abiy’s reform processes. In today’s globalised world, stability and progress in Africa means stability and progress everywhere.

The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize sends a signal in a world increasingly riven by regional and global tensions. It represents optimism and the knowledge that peace and reconciliation are achievable. It calls on heads of government worldwide to follow this impressive statesman’s lead. This Nobel Peace Prize is a source of hope: it will be presented to Ahmed Abiy Ali in Oslo on 10 December 2019, Human Rights Day.

Stefanie Steinbach

Stefanie Steinbach

Head, FNF East Africa Office