How Abiy Ahmed Won the Nobel Peace Prize – and Lost the Trust of His People

About one year ago Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, travelled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize 2019. The committee honoured him with the award “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 decision was seen as greatly encouraging for the continent and portrayed Abiy as a role model for African leaders. A year later, Ethiopia finds itself on the brink of civil war. On the 4th of November, in the shadow of the US elections, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military operation in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia. In the meantime, the Peace Prize committee expressed their concerns and “follows the developments in Ethiopia closely”.

Abiy Ahmed – The hope for a better future

In recent years, Ethiopian politics has been characterised by highs and lows, starting back in 2016 when political protests against the former government erupted in Oromia, the biggest region of Ethiopia. In 2018, and with the instalment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who is Oromo himself, hope for a better future came back to the country. He promised many reforms and new legislation, released political prisoners, freed the media and aimed for re-unifying Ethiopia and its over 80 different ethnic groups. He also made peace with Eritrea, making it possible to reunite families between the two countries who had been separated for 20 years, due to a devastating border war from 1998 to 2000.

However, ethnic divisions have become even more distinctive in the last two years, and more protests have occurred in different regions of the country. Ethnic communities, mostly through social media, have stood up for their own culture, ready to defend it against all obstacles, which has posed a challenge to this unity that Abiy Ahmed was striving for. 

In June 2020, widespread violence broke out following the killing of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa, leading to more casualties and arrests due to erupting demonstrations. In addition, only few results of the promised reforms have become visible, which have made people lose trust in their Prime Minister. “It seems clear that the political transition has stalled, and the government is relapsing to authoritarian practices”, says Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University in Oslo. He has followed politics in the Horn of Africa for a long time and published many articles and books about the issue.

Tigray – Political struggles between the local and the national government

Regions of Ethiopia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The case of Tigray is especially precarious. The dominant party of the region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has dominated Ethiopian politics for 27 years, despite the fact that Tigrayans only make up 6% of the entire Ethiopian population. The party’s influence diminished rapidly after Abiy Ahmed came to power, resulting in the TPLF split from the central government coalition stating demands for more regional autonomy and self-determination.

Debretsion Gebremichael, the president of the TPLF and one of the prominent faces of the conflict is one of Abiy’s greatest critics, with ambitions to become Prime Minister himself.  He and his party crossed a red line in September, when they defied the Prime Minister and held unapproved regional elections. National elections, which were supposed to take place in August, were indefinitely postponed due to the Coronavirus. Both sides therefore see the respective government as illegitimate, as the TPLF accuses Abiy of undermining the constitution by denying the people of Ethiopia free and fair elections to decide who should rule the country. 

Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the TPLF. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The current military operation in Tigray started on the 4th of November , after Abiy accused the TPLF of taking over an army base located in the north of Ethiopia. The cabinet has declared a state of emergency for six months over the region. Moreover, national authorities have initiated an internet and phone line blackout, which makes communication to and from Tigray nearly impossible. Electricity is said to be down and the banking system has collapsed, leaving many without access to money. The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, reports on thousands of Tigrayans seeking shelter in neighbouring Sudan.  

Not only is Sudan getting affected by this conflict, so is the rest of the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is surrounded, on the one side, by Eritrea whose people are fleeing, mainly to Europe, to escape the iron-fisted dictatorship and countless years of forced military service. East of Ethiopia is Somalia, a country that finds itself in endless years of conflicts with Al Shabaab, a terrorist group which controls part of the country. 

An extensive conflict could weaken the rest of the region, since Ethiopia, as the biggest country, has long taken the role of being the most stable player in the game. The country is, for instance, hosting many refugees from the other nations. About a 100’000 Eritrean refugees, now facing great danger, are sheltered in Tigray, and Ethiopian forces, who were previously stationed in Somalia to support the fight against Al Shabaab, have been withdrawn, leaving more room for terrorists to further extend their territory.

From peace to war – Controversial decisions by the Nobel Peace Prize committee

The Nobel Peace Prize medal (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It is not the first time that the Nobel Peace Prize committee has made controversial decisions in their choice of Nobel Peace Prize winners. The history of awarding the prize shows that sometimes the committee prematurely decides on a winner based on hopes and indications of peace, even though these winners had not given the chance to prove themselves in the first place. 

Former US President Barack Obama won the award in 2009, only a few months into his presidency. In 1994, the prize was shared between then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, hoping to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict to an end. And in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi, now de facto leader of Myanmar, was awarded the honour “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”, according to the awarding committee. She recently won national elections, but her international reputation is fairly contested, due to her non-existing response to the Rohingya crisis. 

By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed, the international community was hoping for further stabilisation and encouragement to strengthen democracy in one of the oldest countries in the world. These expectations have not been fulfilled so far – on the contrary, the situation and potential for conflict in the country has gotten worse in the last five years, even more so after 2019, when Abiy Ahmed brought the prize back to his home country. Ethiopia’s people, who are already afflicted by poverty and natural disasters, such as the ongoing massive locust invasion, will be the losers in these political power struggles.

Mirjam Zehnder

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