By Teodor Teofilov
The Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded on October 11 to the prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, for his work in restarting peace talks with neighboring Eritrea and beginning the restoration of freedoms in his country after decades of political and economic repression.
Abiy broke a two decade long stalemate between Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, and Eritrea, its small and isolated neighbour. In 2018, when he became prime minister he began sweeping reforms at home and started peace negotiations with Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea.
Although the two countries share a lot of ethnic and cultural ties, it wasn’t until July 2018 that the conflict that has separated families, complicated geopolitics and cost the lives of more than 80,000 people was stopped.
“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,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a release. “Peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone. When Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries.”
In the official announcement, the Nobel Committee detail a number of accomplishments that Abiy has achieved in his first 100 days as prime minister. He lifted the country’s state of emergency, granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinued media censorship, legalized outlawed opposition groups, dismissed military and civilian leaders that were suspected of corruption, and significantly increased the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life. Abiy also pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.
“Abiy Ahmed has initiated important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.
Old ethnic rivalries have flared up in Ethiopia lately and according to international observers, up to three million ethiopians may be internally displaced. This is an addition to the million or so refugees and asylum seekers from neighbouring countries. There are many challenges ahead of Abiy as ethnic strife escalates.
“No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early,” the Nobel Committee statement said. “The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”
There have been questions about whether the Norwegian Nobel Committee should not only announce the winner, but also add a loser by rescinding past awards to those who no longer deserve them. Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger often feature on that ignominious list of the undeserving.
A brief history of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict
The conflict between the two African countries is rooted in an earlier war. In the 1960s, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, creating a 30-year conflict. Eritrea held a referendum in 1993, where the countries residents voted overwhelmingly for independence, causing the official split of the two.
In May 1998, both Eritrea and Ethiopia claimed ownership of a border town called Badme — a town that isn’t strategically useful or important, which led to the conflict being described as “two bald men fighting over a comb.”
The border dispute led to a violent conflict that caused the death of more than 80,000 people and the displacement of thousands more. In 2000, both countries signed a peace agreement and established a border commission to resolve the issue, which in 2002 awarded the town to Eritrea. However, Ethiopia demanded further negotiations, but Eritrea refused to negotiate unless it was given Badme. The two countries remained locked in a stalemate for the next two decades, which the Norwegian Nobel Committee called a “no peace, no war” stalemate.
During this time, the president of Eritrea used the conflict to institute mandatory and indefinite military conscription and created a closed and repressive regime, often called the North Korea of Africa.
“In September 2001, the government closed all independent newspapers and arrested their editors and leading journalists. None were brought to trial,” Human Rights Watch reported. As of 2017, “They remain in solitary detention. There are reliable reports that about half of them had died.”
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled to Ethiopia, Europe, and elsewhere, adding to the migrant crisis. Concurrently, tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea showed no signs of abating.
That is until Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in April 2018, when he made it clear that he wished to resume peace talks with Eritrea. Abiy worked in close cooperation with Afwerki and quickly worked out the principles of a peace agreement, with an important premise for the breakthrough being Abiy’s unconditional willingness to accept the arbitration ruling of the international boundary commission in 2002.
The award recognised Abiy’s “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Norwegian Nobel committee’s chair.
“I am so humbled and thrilled … thank you very much,” said Abiy to the Guardian. “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 in our continent.”
You can watch the announcement ceremony below.