Reactions have varied to the news that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
His selection over some 300 other possible candidates was naturally welcomed by official agencies in Ethiopia. We are “pleased to express our pride in the selection of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This recognition is a timeless testimony to the Medemer ideals of unity, cooperation and mutual coexistence that the prime minister has been consistently championing,” said a press release from Abiy Ahmed’s office posted on its official Twitter account and referring to Ahmed’s ideas of Medemer, or “synergy”.
However, quite a few Ethiopians have expressed different views on social-networking sites. Some see the award as a form of support for an individual who does not believe in institutionalised government and consensus-seeking and has advocated insufficiently studied ideas solely because they please the West.
Some political activists also suspect that Ahmed is working to promote a Western agenda. They maintain he is creating a facade of peace with Ethiopia’s neighbours in order to serve political aims of primary interest to the West, thereby positioning Ethiopia as a Western-affiliated regional power that can be used to threaten the interests of other countries in the region. Other critics maintain that the prime minister has failed to realise social peace at home between the country’s various ethnic and national groups.
What may have helped Ahmed win the nomination for the prestigious international prize is that within a short time in office he has scored numerous accomplishments at home and abroad. His reform project has shown that his policies are different from those of his predecessors. They aim to strengthen democracy and reinforce the domestic front as a means to strengthen and lend impetus to his regional project. He has improved Ethiopia’s relations with its neighbours in order to restore security and stability to the region, while domestically he has worked to end the political polarisation in the country preparatory to fielding himself in the 2020 elections.
Indeed, Ahmed began his premiership with an apology for the human-rights violations previously perpetrated by the Ethiopian security agencies against opposition leaders and movements. He lifted the state of emergency, eased the censorship of the press and Internet, released all political detainees and launched investigations into the corruption allegations against the previous regime. He simultaneously espoused a project for peaceful coexistence between all Ethiopian ethnic and national groups under the rubric of national unity and justice.
In December 2018, the Ethiopian parliament passed a bill allowing the prime minister to create a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In March this year, more than 100 political parties and organisations joined the ruling coalition in Ethiopia in signing a “code of conduct” that sets rules and guidelines for their activities and relations with each other. It supports the peaceful rotation of power, rejects violence and policies of exclusion and marginalisation, and seeks to broaden civil liberties.
In order to promote a peaceful discourse and the renunciation of violence, Ahmed has also called on militant movements in Ethiopia to lay down their arms and take part in the political process, promising the lifting of their terrorist designations. The most prominent of these movements are the Oromo Liberation Front, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and the Ginbot 7. Ahmed’s reforms have also included changes in the army, police and security structures and an ambitious economic reform project.
At the foreign policy level, Ahmed has worked to strengthen his country’s standing regionally and internationally against the backdrop of mounting international competition over Africa. In addition to consolidating Ethiopia’s leading role in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, he has worked to forge regional alliances and end long-standing conflicts and tensions with neighbours like Eritrea and Somalia.
He has mediated in several crises in the region, further enhancing Ethiopia’s regional profile. The most recent case was his mediation in the Sudanese crisis last summer between the ruling Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change Alliance. He has remained neutral on Middle Eastern issues, while working to forge closer Ethiopian-Arab relations, positioning Addis Ababa to benefit more from Gulf assistance as Eritrea has done in the past.
Despite the prime minister’s many successes, many opposition political, social and ethnic forces have worked to undermine and topple his government, however, occasionally going so far as to foment or fuel ethnic unrest. Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic and national groups jockeying for social influence, political power and control over the country’s land and resources. Simmering border conflicts between regions have triggered ethnic hostilities, such as the sporadic eruptions of violence between the Ethiopian Afar tribes and the Djibouti-affiliated Issa tribes near the border with Djibouti. Clashes between the Ethiopian Somali region and Oromia have also continued unabated since July 2018, and there are frequent clashes along the borders between the Somali region and the Afar region to the north.
There is strong opposition to Ahmed in most regions of Ethiopia, including Oromia, his native region. The Tigray region and the Tigrayan people oppose him personally and resent the rise of the Oromo to power. In addition to such ethnic and national conflicts, some regions in Ethiopia are demanding greater autonomy that could lead to their secession, creating a possible domino effect among other regions. It is noteworthy that Ahmed has been campaigning to amend Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution that concerns the right of self-determination.
On 22 June, Ethiopia was shaken by news of the assassination of Seare Mekonnen, chief of general staff of the Ethiopian army, by a bodyguard. The incident occurred only hours after what was described as a coup attempt in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where gunmen stormed a meeting and assassinated the president of the region and one of his advisers. The incident, which a spokesman for the prime minister’s office described as a “coordinated attack,” occurred about a year after an assassination attempt against Ahmed himself, when a bomb was detonated in a venue where he was giving a speech. In another incident in October 2018, dozens of Ethiopian soldiers stormed his office at the presidential palace, ostensibly to demand pay rises.
Such incidents tell us that opposition to Ahmed extends into the Ethiopian army, where there is stiff resistance to his attempts to bring the military establishment under his control. A number of other phenomena have compounded his fears of a coup or further unrest: the Ethiopian security forces’ seizure of enormous quantities of arms smuggled into the country, mounting separatist trends in the regions, anti-Ahmed currents within the army, especially among the Tigrayans, shaky Ethiopian-Eritrean relations at a time when the peace agreement between them has yet to take effect, concerns that militia groups from eastern Sudan might attempt to infiltrate Ethiopia and recruit Ethiopians, fears that Sudan’s grassroots protests might spread to Ethiopia, and ongoing disputes between Addis Ababa and a number of opposition groups despite the recent reconciliation drive.
Against this backdrop, the Ethiopian prime minister’s remarks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project during a question-and-answer session in the Ethiopian parliament on 22 October were neither reassuring for his country nor acceptable to Egypt. His statement about a possible “need to go to war” and getting “millions readied” elicited angry and indignant reactions not just from Egyptian officials but from all segments of the Egyptian public.
Egypt has never approached this subject outside a negotiating framework in accordance with the rules and principles of international law. Egypt has never intimated a possible recourse to violence or warfare, which is why these belligerent remarks came as such a surprise to all Egyptians, especially coming as they did from a “messenger of peace,” as Ahmed has been dubbed in this region as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
It should be borne in mind that Nobel Prizes are often awarded for political ends that serve great power interests. That this most prestigious international prize was awarded to the Ethiopian prime minister will draw world attention to him and his country and strengthen its soft power, already enhanced by his promotion of human rights and other such universal values. Ahmed’s reception of the Nobel Prize should, therefore, bolster Addis Ababa in its management of crises with other countries in its regional sphere because of how it enhances its regional status, especially given that it is already the seat of the African Union and other major organisations.
Events in Ethiopia reflect not just the challenges the prime minister faces in the pursuit of his national and regional project, but also the dangers he faces personally. Some political forces want to eliminate this young Oromo leader who when taking office inherited a heavy burden in a complex and volatile domestic and regional environment. As developments have shown, some powerful undercurrents are still seething beneath the surface and could threaten the security and stability of his government and his country.
Therefore, the award of the Nobel Prize should spur Abiy Ahmed into seriously remedying the causes of the domestic unrest that has led to the displacement of three million people in his country. Towards this end, he needs to rebuild trust among the four partners in the ruling coalition as the country moves towards the 2020 elections. Can this Nobel Peace Prize laureate, awarded the prize before reaching his stated goals, overcome the hurdles in front of him and steer his country to safer shores?
*The writer is an expert on national security affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.