The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced on 11 October in Oslo the award of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed Ali, Prime Minister of Ethiopia. 43-year-old Abiy was honoured for his efforts to “achieve peace and international cooperation”, in particular the ending of the 20-year conflict between his country and neighbouring Eritrea.
Ethiopia and Eritrea, long-time enemies involved in the 1998-2000 border war, restored their relations in July 2018 after years of hostility.
Abiy Ahmed was born in the town of Beshasha on August 15 1976, two years following the monarchy overthrow in Ethiopia and the assumption of power by the Dergue military regime.
Married and father of four children – three daughters and a recently adopted baby boy – he is Ethiopia’s first prime minister from Oromia, the country’s most populous region with more than one-third of its 100 million population. His father is a Muslim Orom, his mother an Orthodox Christian and he speaks Oromo, Amharic, Tigrinya and English.
With a keen interest in technology, Abiy joined the Ethiopian army as a wireless operator in his teen years. He became a lieutenant colonel before joining the government, initially as a security official, and he was the founder of the country’s cyber intelligence service, the Information Network Security Agency.
Abiy received his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in 2001 from Addis Ababa’s Microlink Information Technology College. In 2011, he obtained a master’s degree from London’s Greenwich University in collaboration with Addis Ababa’s International Leadership Institute and in 2013 he received a second master’s degree in business administration from the Ethiopian capital’s Leadstar College of Management and Leadership, in collaboration with Ashland University. In 2017 he completed his Ph.D. at the Department of Peace and Security Studies of the University of Addis Ababa.
Following his service with Ethiopia’s cyber intelligence service, he entered politics in 2011 and quickly climbed the ranks of the Oromo faction of the Revolutionary People’s Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling coalition since the collapse of the military regime in 1991, which has historically been at odds with the Tigrayans.
Abiy’s mixed religious background, combined with his fluency in three of the country’s main languages, is believed to have helped him overcome communal and sectarian divides.
Previous roles in government include Head of the Oromo Democratic Party Secretariat, Vice President of the Oromia Regional Government, Minister of Science and Technology, founder and Head of the government research institute.
At the age of 43, Abiy Ahmed is the youngest prime minister in Africa. He took over the post in 2018, when a crisis that had broken out three years before forced then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign.
For almost three decades the Revolutionary People’s Democratic Front had run the country as a powerful authoritarian party with 7 million members and massive party-controlled funding that dominated the economic and the political scene, achieving complete majority during the last parliamentary elections in 2015 and practically closing down all civil society and independent media voices.
The situation started to change in 2016, when continued protests by young activists from the regions of Oromia and Amhara shook the regime. In spite declaring two states of emergency and arresting thousands of people, the ruling party lost control of key countryside areas and reached the point of nearly complete collapse at the beginning of 2018.
Abiy together with a group of young reformers rose to the occasion and positioned themselves both as sympathetic to popular anger and as a reliable ruling party that could ensure national unity. The inauguration of Abiy in April 2018 provided the necessary breathing space and the opportunity to end the stalemate.
Upon his appointment, Abiy announced a series of reforms, ranging from the partial liberalisation of the state-controlled economy to the restructuring of the security forces, thus raising hopes both at home and abroad. His investiture was met with great enthusiasm and a wave of “Abiymania” was spread all over Ethiopia and among Ethiopians in the diaspora. The symbolism of a young leader from the neglected Oromia region rising to the top of the nation proved to be very strong.
In an equally symbolic fashion, one of Abiy’s first acts as prime minister was to fly to Eritrea and meet with President Isaias Afwerki. This unexpected and remarkable gesture of reconciliation broke the prolonged deadlock between the two countries and following Isaias’s own visit to Ethiopia it led to the re-establishment of transportation and communication links, as well as contacts and exchanges between families and communities.
Eritrean forces helped bring down the communist-led government in Ethiopia in 1991, with Eritreans voting for independence two years later. However, the lack of agreement on the border between the two countries turned small-scale border incidents around the town of Badme into a proper conflict. It is believed that almost 100,000 people lost their lives between 1998 and 2000 and Ethiopian troops retained control of Badme and other disputed areas following the ceasefire.
In addition to taking the first steps in normalising relations with Eritrea, Abiy led efforts for peace in South Sudan, support political transition in Sudan, and tried to negotiate an agreement between Somalia and Kenya in relation to a maritime dispute. This extraordinary set of activities subscribes to a long tradition of leveraging Ethiopia’s position as a historical leader on the continent in promoting peacemaking. Ethiopia is currently the largest contributor of U.N. peacekeeping troops with 7500 soldiers.
In the war-torn Horn of Africa, Abiy has been at the centre of a series of efforts to restore peace, and while results are timid and incomplete, his work has been recognised by the international community.
In contrast to the slow pace of international change, progress within Ethiopia has been rapid. The 2018 transition freed up political space drastically in a country where opposition had been treated as a crime.
Political prisoners were released, the oppressive civil society law was abolished and independent media are now free. Exiled movements that had been characterised as terrorists have agreed to an armistice, returned to Ethiopia and registered as political parties. Leaders from the civil society and the opposition were appointed to key positions in the National Election Board, Human Rights Commission and the Federal Supreme Court. A woman has become the new Minister of Peace, while women constitute 50 percent of the cabinet positions. A truth and reconciliation commission was created and multiparty elections have been scheduled for May 2020.
The process of peacemaking and reform has not been without its obstacles and controversies. Some of Abiy’s domestic reforms, no matter how positive they appear on paper, have also unleashed forces that threaten the country’s stability, while he has already escaped at least one assassination attempt.
Despite the signs of goodwill, critics suggest that not much has changed in the relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many voices among the Eritrean diaspora have expressed disapproval for the Nobel Peace Prize focusing on the agreement with Eritrea when so little had changed in practice.
On the country politics level, the award provides yet another argument to those critics who have rejected the prime minister’s new and dynamic approach to politics as isolated from reality and unwanted. Criticism does not appear to be limited to his compatriots: his development policy partners are also sceptical towards the young prime minister’s personality cult and governing style.
In a deeply socially conservative country such as Ethiopia, the prime minister’s PR-oriented behaviour (accompanied by an unprecedented “Abiymania”) has resulted in some bitter rumours that the former intelligence agent is engaged in illegal activities for the benefit of his ethnic group, the Oromo.
Ethnic rivalries have also been rekindled in recent years as a result of more than two million people having been internally displaced due to conflict. New political actors, such as the National Movement of Amhara, are mobilising local populations in a polarising manner; Sidama activists in the southern region have been given the right to hold a referendum that endangers the viability of existing borders within southern Ethiopia, while the Oromo Liberation Front, as well as the Oromo Federalist Congress, are challenging the ruling party in Oromia.
Further internal challenges include the resistance to change from established interests within the ruling coalition and the potential for violence to escalate: in June, the district’s president and other high-ranking officials were killed by the head of the Amhara region’s security services.