The pace of change in Ethiopia has been so fast since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister last year, it is almost like observing a different country, which is one of the reasons he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, writes Demola Ojo with agency reports
Two days ago, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who made peace last year with bitter foe Eritrea.
Ahmed’s peace deal with Eritrea ended a 20-year military stalemate following their 1998-2000 border war. He was named as the winner of the 100th Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, where he will receive the award in December. It is worth about $900,000. Following the announcement, Ahmed said he was “humbled and thrilled”.
“Thank you very much. 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 on our continent,” he added in a phone call with the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Ahmed, 43, was honoured for his “decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.
“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,” they said.
“Peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries. The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes the peace agreement will help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
A total of 301 candidates had been nominated for the prestigious award, including 223 individuals and 78 organisations.
There had been great speculation over who would win the prize, with climate activist Greta Thunberg widely tipped as the favourite.
Under the Nobel Foundation’s rules, nomination shortlists are not allowed to be published for 50 years, and the organisation says any speculation ahead of the announcement is “sheer guesswork”.
After becoming prime minister in April 2018, Ahmed introduced massive liberalising reforms to Ethiopia, shaking up what was a tightly controlled nation.
In the first few months after he came to power, following the unexpected resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn, Ahmed lifted the state of emergency, ordered the release of thousands of prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return home and unblocked hundreds of websites and TV channels. Most importantly, he signed the peace deal with Eritrea.
Since coming into office just over a year ago, Abiy Ahmed has made history and turned Ethiopian politics on its head.
Few had given him any chance of ascending to the prime minister’s office and even less had anticipated the sweeping reforms he would bring to a country that for years had been led by the iron fist of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
His most significant achievement was ending a bitter border dispute with Eritrea. He even went to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, receiving a rock star’s welcome – a sign of his popularity with the population weary of the two decades of hostilities between the two countries.
But also significant is the role he has played in bringing peace to the Horn of Africa region, from Sudan to Somalia and Djibouti, all which at some time have had border disputes.
Throughout he’s preached a message of Medemer – meaning togetherness or inclusiveness.
His Nobel win is yet another feather in the cap of the former intelligence chief. The reforms he has introduced were unthinkable not so long ago.
For many years, the government seemed impervious to criticism from human rights groups that the state stifled free expression, sidelined and imprisoned opposition leaders and cracked down on protests.
He also ended the state of war with Eritrea by agreeing to give up disputed border territory, in the process normalising relations with the long-time foe.
Since the Eritrea deal, Ahmed – the youngest head of government in Africa – has also been involved in peace processes in other African countries, the committee said. This has included helping to broker an agreement between Sudan’s military leaders and civilian opposition after months of protests.
Ahmed’s office said the award was testimony “to the ideals of unity, cooperation and mutual coexistence that the prime minister has been consistently championing”.
But not everyone is happy with the pace of change. In June 2018, Ahmed was targeted in an attack, with two people killed in an explosion at a rally held to show support for him, and there is some opposition to him in the Tigray province which used to dominate the country.
Late last year, a group of soldiers, some of them armed, marched to his office to demand a pay rise.
Initially, a photo of him doing press-ups with the soldiers led to him being praised for managing to defuse a potentially dangerous situation. However, he later said that some of them had wanted to kill him – a reminder of the extent of the opposition his reforms have attracted in some quarters.
And after some of the state’s tight controls were lifted, the simmering ethnic tensions in this diverse country boiled over into violence which has forced some 2.5 million people from their homes.
Earlier this year in June, two of Ahmed’s close allies were killed in what was described as an attempt to seize control of the Amhara region, scene of some of the worst violence.
He is the country’s first Oromo leader – the ethnic group at the centre of nearly three years of anti-government protests, which left many dead and thousands arrested following clashes with security forces.
One of the protesters’ main complaints was that they had been politically, economically and culturally marginalised for years – despite being the country’s largest community.
The coming to power of Ahmed, who is believed to have huge support among the Oromo youth as well as other ethnic groups, has begun to change that.
He is leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of the four ethnic parties which make up the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.
Born in the city of Agaro in Oromia, he comes from a mixed Christian-Muslim family and joined the OPDO in the late 1980s.
In the military he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, before becoming the founder and director of the country’s Information Network and Security Agency, which is responsible for cyber-security in a country where the government has always exercised tight control over the internet. After that he became the minister for science and technology.
He has promised to free up the telecoms sector, which is currently dominated by a state-run monopoly.
The speed at which he has been changing Ethiopia has been unprecedented but should not be a surprise.
He laid out his political vision in comments made to the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement’s (SEPDM), a constituent party of the ruling coalition, in October 2017.
“We have only one option and that is to be united, not only cooperating and helping each other but uniting in order to live together. The other option is to kill each other,” he said.
“However, no sane person will opt for this. So, our option should be to trust one another, heal our wounds together and work together to develop our country.”