Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has today been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – beating eco-campaigner Greta Thunberg, who was tipped to receive the honour.
The schoolgirl, who went from anonymity in her native Sweden to leader of a global movement in little more than a year, was picked as the bookmakers’ favourite for this year’s prize.
The 16-year-old activist has been credited for driving a global movement in the fight against climate change.
However, the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose Abiy Ahmed, who at 43 is the youngest leader in Africa, to join the list of previous prize winners, such as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) was awarded the prize for his peacemaking efforts with Eritrea. Teen climate change activist Greta Thunberg had been considered a favourite to win
Abiy today said he was ‘so humbled and thrilled’ by the award, adding: ‘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 peace building process in our continent.
‘I am so happy and I am so thrilled for the news … Thank you very much, it is a big recognition.’
The committee cited his efforts to make peace with Eritrea, and foster stability in the wider regions of east and north east Africa as a key reason.
‘Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize 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 committee said in a statement announcing its decision.
Ethiopia and Eritrea, longtime foes who fought a border war from 1998 to 2000, restored relations in July 2018 after years of hostility – mere months after the 43-year-old became prime minister.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee went on to describe in detail what the Ethiopian leader had achieved in his first 100 days in power.
It said, in less than six months he had lifted the country’s state of emergency, granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinued media censorship, legalised opposition groups, dismissed corrupt leaders and worked to ‘significantly’ increase the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life and pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, second left, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center, hold hands as they wave at the crowds in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in July last year. Ethiopia and Eritrea were longtime foes who fought a border war from 1998 to 2000 before restoring relations in July 2018
The Nobel Committee said from the start the Prime Minister had made his intentions for peace clear on his agenda.
‘In close cooperation with Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea, Abiy Ahmed quickly worked out the principles of a peace agreement to end the long ‘no peace, no war’ stalemate between the two countries,’ it said.
‘An important premise for the breakthrough was Abiy Ahmed’s unconditional willingness to accept the arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission in 2002.’
In its statement the committee said the prize was also meant to recognise all who were working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions.
‘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.’
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki at a ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in July 2018. Mr Ahmed has in October 2019 been awarded the prize for his efforts to ‘achieve peace and international cooperation’ in particular with neighbouring Eritrea
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it hoped the peace agreement would help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea.’
It acknowledged that some may question how the prize could be given to a leader who had only been in power for a year and in a country where ethnic tensions continued.
‘Ethnic strife continues to escalate, and we have seen troubling examples of this in recent weeks and months. No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early,’ it said.
But, the committee went on to say it believes ‘ it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.’
The Committee said while there was much work to do in Ethiopia the country’s leader had initiated important reforms that gave his people ‘hope for a better life and a brighter future’.
After the peace deal with Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed was also seen to contribute ‘actively to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Djibouti after many years of political hostility.’
‘Additionally, Abiy Ahmed has sought to mediate between Kenya and Somalia in their protracted conflict over rights to a disputed marine area. There is now hope for a resolution to this conflict.’
The Nobel Peace Prize will be presented in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who founded the awards in his 1895 will.
In response to the announcement, the Prime Minister’s office said Ethiopia was ‘proud as a nation’.
‘This victory and recognition is a collective win for all Ethiopians, and a call to strengthen our resolve in making Ethiopia ‘the new horizon of hope’ a prosperous nation for all,’ the office said in a statement.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has hailed his being awarded the prize as a testimony to the efforts to reform the country and seek peace with Eritrea
The prize has been described as a meteoric rise for a man, born to poor villagers in the western town of Beshasha.
From his humble beginnings, to his role as a spy boss and now the man behind dizzying attempts to reform Africa’s fastest-growing economy and heal wounds with Ethiopia’s neighbours, Abiy Ahmed has seen an unpredictable and peril-strewn rise to fame.
Since becoming Ethiopian prime minister in April 2018, the 43-year-old has aggressively pursued policies that have the potential to upend his country’s society and reshape dynamics beyond its borders.
More recently he has turned to fleshing out his vision for the economy while laying the groundwork for elections currently scheduled to take place next May.
But analysts fret that his policies are, simultaneously, too much too fast for the political old guard, and too little too late for the country’s angry youth, whose protests swept him to power.
Despite the challenges, Abiy’s allies predict his deep well of personal ambition will prompt him to keep swinging big.
Tareq Sabt, a businessman and friend of Abiy’s, says one of the first things that struck him when they met was the prime minister’s drive: ‘I always said to friends, when this guy comes to power, you’ll see a lot of change in Ethiopia.’
Born in the western town of Beshasha to a Muslim father and Christian mother, Abiy ‘grew up sleeping on the floor’ in a house that lacked electricity and running water.
‘We used to fetch water from the river,’ he said in a wide-ranging radio interview with Sheger FM last month, adding that he didn’t even see electricity or an asphalt road until the seventh grade.
Yet Abiy progressed quickly through the power structures created by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), after it took power from the Derg military junta in 1991.
Fascinated with technology, he joined the military as a radio operator while still a teenager.
He rose to lieutenant-colonel before entering government, first as a securocrat – he was the founding head of Ethiopia’s cyber-spying outfit, the Information Network Security Agency.
He then became a minister in the capital Addis Ababa, and a party official in his home region of Oromia.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gestures after receiving a horse as a gift from the elders of the Kafficho ethnic group during a visit to Bonga, the main town in Kaffa province, in south western Ethiopia. The 43-year-old has come a long way rising through the ranks from his humble beginnings to a now celebrated world leader
The circumstances that led to Abiy’s ascent to high office can be traced to late 2015.
A government plan to expand the capital’s administrative boundaries into the surrounding Oromia region was seen as a land grab sparking protests led by the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and the Amhara people.
States of emergency and mass arrests – typical EPRDF tactics – worked to quell the protests but failed to address the underlying grievances.
When then-prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned, many feared a power-struggle within the EPRDF, or even an unravelling of the coalition that would leave a dangerous vacuum.
Instead, the coalition’s member parties chose Abiy to become the first Oromo prime minister.
‘He’s the only one that could have saved the EPRDF,’ said Mohammed Ademo, a journalist who accompanied Abiy on his first visit to the large Ethiopian diaspora community in the United States last year.
‘My feeling is that he’s prepared for this moment all his life.’
As prime minister, Abiy has sought to shape events across the Horn of Africa, fuelling criticism that he is taking on too much at once.
Beyond the rapprochement with Eritrea, for which he was cited for the Nobel, he has played a leading role in mediating Sudan’s political crisis and has also tried to revive South Sudan’s uncertain peace deal.
Yet whether any of these initiatives will ultimately succeed is an open question.
Even the Eritrea deal, which many see as Abiy’s signature achievement to date, has been undermined by a lack of tangible progress on critical issues like border demarcation.
‘Abiy has had real foreign policy successes, but there has been some misguided optimism from abroad that he can transform the Horn of Africa,’ said James Barnett, an analyst specialising in East Africa at the American Enterprise Institute.
‘The Horn is volatile. I’m sceptical that one leader can undo decades of competition and mistrust.’
The immediate demands of Ethiopian politics may leave Abiy with no choice but to shift his focus inward in the months to come.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is seen earlier this year meeting Pope Francis in the Vatican City
Holding credible elections by next May, the current timeline, is a daunting task, yet Abiy is keen on scoring the kind of victory that would give him a mandate with the general public.
First, he must contend with Ethiopia’s formidable security challenges.
Ethnic violence has been on the rise in recent years, causing Ethiopia to record more internally displaced people last year than any other country.
And last June, Abiy faced the greatest threat yet to his hold on power when gunmen assassinated high-ranking officials including a prominent regional president and the army chief.
Abiy seems well aware of the danger he faces, and from time to time makes public reference to attempts on his own life, including a grenade attack at a rally just two months after he took his post.
For now, as he noted in the Sheger FM interview, he remains in control.
‘There were many attempts so far, but death didn’t want to come to me,’ he said. ‘Death shied away from me.’