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Abiy Ahmed: Ethiopia's first Nobel laureate

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh dpa, Reuters, AP
October 11, 2019

The prime minister of Ethiopia has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his rapid domestic political reforms and for making peace with Eritrea. In Ethiopia, some say he has reopened ethnic conflicts and uprooted millions.

Nobelpreisträger Abiy Ahmed

In awarding  the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Friday hailed Abiy "for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea." More generally, he was chosen from a list of 301 nominations for his "efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation," the committee said.

Read more: Opinion: Is 'Emperor Abiy' at the gates in Ethiopia? 

"I am so humbled and thrilled... Thank you very much," Abiy told Olav Njolstad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, on the phone. "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."

The award is worth almost a million dollars.

The executive actions

In the weeks after he took office, Abiy freed hundreds of political prisoners and activists, and unbanned political parties countrywide. He reestablished diplomatic relations with Eritrea in July 2018, ending 20 years of war. 

Ethiopian peace and security analyst Abebe Aynete says Abiy's rapid readjustment programs has had "positive and negative consequences,"

Read more: Ethiopia-Eritrea ties thaw – first talks in 20 years

Since April 2018, the borders between Ethiopia's nine ethnic federal states have been the scene of multiple deadly clashes. Some 2.9 million have fled their homes to escape the violence – making Ethiopia the country with the highest number of internally displaced people.

Abiy has positioned himself as an open and reform-oriented leader. He is feted internationally as a source of hope for peace in the Horn of Africa. The chair of the Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, says it is hoped that the prize will strengthen Abiy "in his important work for peace and reconciliation."


Mass gathering of people
Mass protests spearheaded by the Oromo ethnic group, of which Abiy is a member, forced his predecessor to resignImage: DW/Y. G/Egziabher

Divisive prime minister

Ethiopians are strongly divided over their prime minister as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. "It's difficult to say that he deserve or doesn't deserve [the prize], as an Ethiopian," Abebe Aynete, the peace and analyst, told DW. "The devil is in the details."

"At a face value, he deserves it because he attempted to make peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But in the details, everything is not what we expected. At a grassroots level there are a lot of things to be done," Aynete says.

The current inter-ethnic violence is an unintended consequence of Abiy's reforms. For many it is also his biggest failure.

"There are different constituencies within Ethiopia and some will be celebrating this award for the prime minister as an award for Ethiopia," said Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa researcher at the London-based think tank Chatham House."Others with a narrower view think this isn't deserved at the right time given the eruptions in the region, the continuation of intercommunal violence in large parts of Ethiopia."

Soldiers marching at the Ethiopia/Eritrea border
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending 20 years of hostility with neighboring EritreaImage: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer

The Abiy government's response to the ethnic violence and the mass displacement of people has been described as sluggish. Soliman thinks that what the prime minister needs is strong backing.

Read more: Is Ethiopian PM Abiy's reform drive running out of steam?

"Ethiopia's challenges are far more than one person can tackle alone," said Soliman. "There is a hundred million people in the country with many groups who have different interests."

According to Soliman, Abiy should implement and institutionalize the reform process relying on non-state actors, civil society and others. "It could help the transition process," he added.

Crucial moment for Ethiopia

The precariousness of Ethiopia's political landscape was evident on June 23, 2019, when attacks that authorities described as an attempted coup in the northern Amhara Region claimed several lives.

These included Amhara governor Ambachew Mekonnen, his top adviser and the state’s attorney general, who were shot at a meeting in the state capital of Bahir Dar.

A few hours later in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's army chief, General Seare Mekonnen, was shot dead by his body guard in a killing that the government says was linked to the Amhara assassinations.

Authorities subsequently arrested hundreds of people suspected of supporting those responsible for the attacks.

Ethiopian leader wins Nobel