The Nobel Committee has recognised Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”, said Berit Reiss-Andersen, the committee’s chair, last week.
Ahmed’s biggest achievement since rising to the helm in April 2018 is the peace deal he brokered with Eritrea three months after coming to power, ending the 20-year border war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people from both sides.
Eritrea had been in conflict with Ethiopia to gain independence, which was achieved in the early 1990s. A few years later a border dispute ensued and war over Badme city, on the northern borders between the two countries, erupted in 1997.
But this is not Ahmed’s only achievement. The 43-year-old Ethiopian premier released thousands of political prisoners from jail and allowed the return of opponents from exile. For the first time in 10 years, Ethiopian prisons didn’t hold a single opposing journalist.
Ethiopia had been a repressive state for decades, be it during the reign of emperor Haile Selassie, the military rule of colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, or the last revolution that overthrew him in 1991.
Ahmed’s efforts extended beyond Ethiopia’s relationship with its neighbouring countries. Following visits between Ahmed and his Eritrean counterpart Isaias Afwerki, Asmara signed a peace treaty with its smaller neighbour Djibouti, and calm reigned over Somalia.
“I am so 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 in our continent,” tweeted Ahmed after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
The international community had been commending Ahmed for his achievements for some time before he won the award, primarily because he gave women prominent positions in the state. He contributed to the rise of Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female president, and the appointment of Meaza Ashenafi as president of the Federal Supreme Court. In addition to the defence portfolio, Ethiopian women won half of the cabinet seats.
Ahmed declared his country’s desire to open the door to foreign investment in sectors that had been monopolised by the state for decades, such as banks, Sahara Airlines and Ethio Telecom, the local mobile company. Ahmed’s announcement aroused the interest of foreign investors.
Governmental figures estimated that investment in these sectors would boost total foreign direct investment in the country and result in increasing growth rates.
Successive Ethiopian governments had said that the national economy was growing by more than 10 per cent per year for over a decade. Some observers believe that the figures are exaggerated.
However, it is true millions of Ethiopians rose from the depths of poverty with the construction of mega projects and heavy foreign investment in the country, particularly in the leather and textiles sector.
Ahmed, nonetheless, still has a long list of challenges. After all, the conflict with Eritrea is not entirely over yet. The borders are semi-closed till present. This is basically due to the Tigrayans’ objection who had been ruling the country since the rise of one of its own, Meles Zenawi, to power in the early 1990s until his death in 2012. The Tigrayans constitute more than six per cent of the Ethiopian population in the far north on the borders with Eritrea and Sudan.
Hundreds of the people of the Tigray ethnic group held protests against peace with Eritrea, untrusting of the young premier who hails from the Oromo, the largest ethnic community in Ethiopia, comprising 34 per cent of the population.
Many observers believe that Eritrea is not ready to open up after decades of seclusion, although Asmara says it wants to open up to its neighbours. The means to do this are unavailable, nevertheless.
Asmara used the Arab Coalition war in Yemen to announce its siding with the coalition, which led it to open its economy on its Gulf neighbours via the Red Sea. It also sought to reconcile with Sudan, and it was one of the first countries to announce its siding with the Egyptian Revolution of 30 June 2013, in addition to siding with the Arab Quartet in its boycott of Qatar.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, democratic conditions didn’t improve, despite unprecedented political openness in the country. Everyone in Ethiopia is awaiting the parliamentary elections of 2020, which Ahmed promised would be fair and free.
Ethiopia is made up of 80 ethnicities. The Oromo is followed by the Amhara, with 27 per cent of the population, and the Tigray and Somali ethnic groups, each comprising at least six per cent of the population.
It appears that fair and transparent elections will mirror the social ingredients of Ethiopia. Consequently, none of the groups will be able to form a government on its own, and Addis Ababa will have nothing to do except divide government portfolios according to the percentage of each ethnicity in the Ethiopian community.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s economic growth, which lasted from 2000 to 2014, has declined, particularly after Ahmed’s appointment as prime minister and his adoption of an open policy.
Ahmed had spoken of the inadequate work done on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a point of contention in Cairo-Addis relations. In addition, Ahmed faces his own people’s rising voices demanding economic and social rights after years of marginalisation.
But it is the security challenge that is Ahmed’s toughest test. There has been more than one attempt on his life, in addition to an attempt at a coup the victims of which included a governor, a high-level military leader and a number of their assistants. There are fears such tensions will extend to the social components of Ethiopia, pitting the second largest African country on the verge of civil breakdown.
Despite the long list of challenges, the Ethiopian prime minister is leading his country’s third revolution. This time, however, the revolution is democratic. It is not a communist revolution such as that led by Mengistu Haile Mariam against the emperor in 1974, nor is it like the social revolution of 1991 that provided symbolic visibility to Ethiopia’s ethnicities.
Nonetheless, Third World democracy is not always a presage of stability and advancement. More often than not, it is accompanied by social and political tensions that render all scenarios possible.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.