The Nobel Peace Prize has thrust Ethiopia’s young reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to the world stage as an important figure for the cause of peace in the conflict-ridden region of the Horn of Africa, home to some of the world’s most impoverished countries. Ahmed, 43, won the prize for his role in ending a 20-year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea — both ravaged by poverty and conflict — and for his efforts to “achieve peace and international co-operation”.
Ahmed became Ethiopia’s PM in April 2018 after a churn in the country’s politics, prompted by widespread citizen protests just as the country’s economy had started growing at a fast clip. Within months, by July 2018, Ahmed managed to conclude a peace deal with Eritrea, the neighbour with which it had a longrunning border conflict over the disputed territory of Badme. Ahmed’s peace deal ended the military standoff that has been festering since the two neighbours fought a bloody border war between 1998 and 2000, killing more than 80,000 people on both sides and inflicting huge damages on property and infrastructure. “It is a prize 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 on our continent,” Ahmed said, responding to the award, sending out a message of hope to the leaders and peoples of the conflict-ravaged region. There is a long history of Nobel Peace Prize going to people associated with ending conflicts, most recently Columbia’s Juan Santos, who was awarded the prize in 2016.
Ethiopia is a critical country in an increasingly volatile and conflict-ridden region of Africa. Of late, Ethiopia has been undergoing rapid reforms in its domestic and foreign policy dynamics. The sudden resignation of the former PM Hailemariam Desalegn, who succeeded Meles Zenawi (died in 2012), ushered in the most significant re-ordering of political power in the country ever since the overthrow of the detested military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
After a period of serious crisis in the country, Ahmed introduced massive reforms, shaking up what was a very tightly controlled nation. He freed thousands of opposition activists from jails and allowed exiled dissidents to return home. Under him, several women were also appointed to prominent positions, including Sahle-Work Zewde as the president of the country. The Norwegian Nobel committee said the prize for Ahmed was “also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions”.
When Prime Minister Ahmed reached out with an olive branch, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea grasped it and helped formalise the peace process between the two countries. Since the Eritrea deal, Ahmed, the youngest head of government in Africa, has also been involved in peace processes in other African countries. These include helping to broker an agreement between Sudan’s military leaders and civilian opposition after months of protests earlier this year. It is also noted that the award was a testimony “to the ideals of unity, co-operation and mutual coexistence that PM Abiy Ahmed has been consistently championing”. His aggressive reformist agenda, if successful, can enable Ethiopia not only to re-invent itself but also to bring a wave of reforms, democratisation and peace to the whole region and beyond. At the heart of Ethiopia’s ongoing reforms under Ahmed is a drive for national and regional peace and reconciliation.
Making of a Leader
Ahmed was born in Ethiopia, in the presentday Jimma Zone, Oromia Region, on August 15, 1976. His late father Ahmed Ali was a Muslim Oromo, and his late mother Tezeta Wolde was an Orthodox Christian. His childhood name was Abiyot, meaning revolution. The name was sometimes given to children in the aftermath of the Derg revolution of 1974, which saw the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by a Marxist military junta. Accounts from his childhood say Ahmed was always very interested in his own education and later in his life encouraged others to learn and improve. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a master’s in transformational leadership from Greenwhich University, London.
He also has a PhD from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University. He met and married Zinash Tayachew, an Amhara woman, while both were serving in the Ethiopian Defence Forces. As a teenager in early 1991, he joined the armed struggle against the Marxist-Leninist Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which he did so as a member of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), which played a decisive role in the defeat of the detested Mengistu regime in 1991. His time as an MP coincided with clashes between Muslims and Christians.
He devised a lasting solution to the problem by setting up a “Religious Forum for Peace”.
The historic peace agreement signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea on July 9, 2018, in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, ended the two countries’ antagonism and set the stage for renewed friendship and cooperation. The re-opening of embassies, land borders, re-starting of commercial flights and restoration of telephone lines, among others, symbolised the new rapprochement between the two rival countries. These promising developments have the chance to usher in an era of peace and prosperity for what has up until recently been one of the most conflicted and impoverished regions of Africa.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea were earlier locked in a “Thirty-Year War” (1961-91) of Liberation and a two-year (1998-2000) border war, followed by a 20-year state of war (no active war, but no peace either). The peace deal signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea is helping change the political and economic landscape of the Horn of Africa. The positive effects of Ethiopian-Eritrean peace deal can also spread beyond the immediate region by creating structural opportunities for other members of IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) such as Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya to seize the opportunity to enhance their comprehensive integration with one another.
With South Sudan now signing a final peace deal with extensive diplomatic efforts by Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda, this may be the opportune time for the Greater Horn of Africa region to finally overcome its history of conflicts and poverty and collectively work together to forge a new and brighter future. The Nobel Peace Prize for Ahmed will hopefully act as a catalyst for renewed efforts in this direction.
The writer is a professor in the department of political science and international relations at Addis Ababa University.
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