The Nobel Prize for Abiy Ahmed: Turning an irony into an opportunity 1


The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia seems full of irony, and in many ways – perhaps too many.  But first, and following convention, one must congratulate the new Laureate. It would be improper not to recognize the honor merely because of seriously-held disagreements with the prime minister’s policies. It is good news for Ethiopia and Africa that one of its own has won the Prize. But this of itself is no reason not to question the justification for the award, or to remain silent for fear of attacks from political cheerleaders. Sometimes, somewhere and for someone, it is necessary and useful to scrutinize issues and record misgivings, if any.

Clearly, the Nobel Committee is a respected institution although far from free of controversy or serious questions concerning its independence. Once again, in this case it is the citation, more than the award itself, that leads one to question the independence of the Committee.

The award apparently was conferred on Abiy Ahmed “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve [the] border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” The citation continues: “In close cooperation with Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea, Abiy Ahmed quickly worked out the principles of a peace agreement to end the long ‘no peace, no war’ stalemate between the two countries … An important premise for the breakthrough was Abiy Ahmed’s unconditional willingness to accept the arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission in 2002.”

The profound irony, however, is that even now, Ethiopia and Eritrea are neither at peace with each other nor within themselves; certainly, not enough to merit talk of a breakthrough. Albeit for brief time, their mutual borders remain closed and tensions in border areas have led to the militarization of the Ethiopian regional state bordering Eritrea. Aside to the aviation connectivity between Asmara and Addis Abeba, the peace dividend of the dealings is illusive, even more to the Eritrean people. This is evidenced by the fact that the Committee, despite mentioning by name did not award the Prize to President Isaias. The Committee’s hope for peace and reform does not extend to Eritrea.

Indeed, the Nobel Committee has indicated that the award recognizes peaceful aspirations rather than an actual resolution of the root causes of the war. The motivation underlying the “peace” effort that brought Abiy Ahmed the award was hardly unalloyed: because many observers believe that the prime minister used the peace process to win internal power struggle within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the party he leads. Handled under a cloak of absolute secrecy, the Eritrean and Ethiopian public is yet to know the details of the agreements. One can reasonably assume that the Committee is not privy to the details of the dealings between Abiy and Isaias. Or is it?

Of course, political courage is an important component in the Committee’s judgments: in the past the Peace Prize has been awarded to courageous politicians. The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Israeli prime minister Yitshak Rabin received the Prize for their courageous leadership in arriving at the Oslo Peace Accords, a high risk undertaking for which Rabin paid the ultimate price – death by assassination. The Ethiopia-Eritrean case, however, involved no great political risk. Indeed, previous prime ministers had publicly announced their readiness to travel to Asmara in pursuit of an agreement; and as regards peace with Eritrea, this award is a not much more than a grandiose inflation by the Nobel Committee of Abiy Ahmed’s modest contribution.

The Committee’s award, it appears, hinges on a variety of hopes. The Committee “hope[s] the peace agreement will help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea.” In regional efforts, the Committee asserts “[T]here is now hope for a resolution to this conflict. In Sudan, the military regime and the opposition have returned to the negotiating table.” Furthermore, “the Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes that the Nobel Peace Prize will strengthen Prime Minister Abiy in his important work for peace and reconciliation.” In the same vein, on the domestic front the Committee adds “In Ethiopia, even if much work remains, Abiy Ahmed has initiated important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future. He spent his first 100 days as Prime Minister lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalizing outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, and significantly increasing the influence of women in the Ethiopian political and community life. He has also pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.” It adds another, final hope that “No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early. The Norwegian Committee hopes that the Nobel Peace Prize will strengthen Prime Minister Abiy in his important work for peace and reconciliation.”

Indeed, this is not a “first” for the Nobel Committee. In an article in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “The Nobel Peace Prize: A prestigious award or a political tool?” Lonnie Shekhtman asserts that the Nobel Peace Prize “seems to have morphed into Norway’s magic geopolitical wand, wielded to encourage political actions, rather than award accomplishment.” In the same vein, Mili Mitra of the Brown Political Review poses a question and offers a clear answer: “All of this begs the question: Is the Nobel Prize selling out to the trappings of popularity and public approval? The short answer seems to be yes, but the reality is more nuanced.”  

No sensible person could oppose hope, but hope is hardly a concrete basis for such an important award. And as has happened before, some of the Nobel Committee’s overly-high hopes may be dashed too early.

A further, and probably the most significant, irony surrounding this award is that it comes at a time when death, displacement and ethnic enmity has become the new norm in Ethiopia. The Committee failed to adequately acknowledge the grave challenges the country is now facing and the massive human rights violations which have become daily occurrences. The details of the condition of the Ethiopia’s politics are almost too intimidating to contemplate. Domestically, much of the reform agenda is illusory, with a raft of symbolic promises that lack delivery. The grandiloquence that Ethiopians have seen before reigns again. Political impotence is camouflaged under extravagant words, pretentious attitudes and empty gestures. Reconciliation between conflicting interests is given lip-service and in any case, institutions established for this purpose have been marked from the outset by a terminal crisis of legitimacy. Lawlessness and assassinations have become Ethiopia’s hallmark. Recent mass killings in Afar, Guji, Gondar, and universities and the high-level assassinations of regional state governor Ambachew Mekonnen, and of the Ethiopian chief of staff General Seare Mekonnen and another, retired senior general, alone are evidence of the country’s systemic security problem whose root causes is political crisis. The prime minister has also condoned the demonization and de-legitimization of specific ethnic communities. Currently, the Southern, Oromia, Amhara, and Somali regions of Ethiopia hold thousands of prisoners. Many parts of the country are under a de facto state of emergency under which the army has been sent to keep the peace. Corrupt officials still roam the government corridors and the prosecution of some has been selective. Unfortunately, in this climate, the Nobel Committee’s citation lends fuel to the flames of populist cheerleading that pervades the political system; and it reinforces the tendency of the international community to impose self-censorship on criticism of the Abiy administration.

The Nobel Committee remarks on the normalization of relations between Djibouti and Eritrea, and notes that the mediation between Kenya and Somalia, “in their protracted conflict over rights to a disputed marine area, has now hope for a resolution.” No doubt there is some basis for this claim but even here the Committee went astray. It should have been obvious that Abiy’s shuttle diplomacy did not produce any reduction in tensions, let alone resolve the dispute and it seems apparent that the Horn of Africa is in no better shape as a result of his efforts. Sudan is in transition but unsure of its destination with challenges associated with managing high expectations and civil-military partnership, economic reconstruction, and accountability. Kenya and Somalia are at loggerheads, extending their maritime dispute into proxy wars; while the implementation of the South Sudanese peace agreement is still unclear. This is not to depict a bleak future, but to highlight the leadership failures in the region.  

As has often been the case with Nobel prizes, this award might therefore appear more as an attempt to influence future desired action than as a reward for past success. It could be justified only insofar as it serves to boost a much-needed process of dialogue, reconciliation and peace within Ethiopia and more generally in the Horn of Africa. If the Committee aimed to encourage Abiy Ahmed seriously to engage in further dialogue and reconciliation initiatives, it should have said so. But whether such an intent by the Committee, however honorable, can justify such an award is debatable at best.  As it is, the motivation for the Prize is scrappy in its formulation and might lend itself to the conclusion that the Nobel Committee has moved from attempting to influence Ethiopian government policy to trying to boost its morale – in which case, holding off the award for few more years would have given the prime minister a stronger incentive to work and deliver on peace and reconciliation.

Many previous Nobel Committee decisions, of course, have been controversial and the reason for the award to Abiy Ahmed may lie in the history of the Nobel Committee itself.  Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, was nominated five times but never awarded the Peace Prize on the pretext that he lacked a “suitable heir”; UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, however, received his posthumous honor in the year of his death. In plain truth, Gandhi was denied the prize largely due to opposition from the dominant powers of that time, which took the form of objections from the British former colonial power and Western governments in general. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security advisor and later secretary of state, was awarded the Peace Prize despite widespread accusations of his involvement in international war crimes as part of a US administration that had conducted an undeclared war in South East Asia. Conversely, Gandhi had the courage to use passive resistance to resist colonialism – an egregious form of international crime– at high personal sacrifice like Yitshak Rabin. Yet the Nobel Committee denied him the Peace Prize for a half-century while Kissinger, together with Vietnam’s leader Le Duc Tho, received the award for the negotiation that resulted in the Paris Peace Accord (which ended the Vietnam war) while the ink was scarcely dry; although Le Duc Tho refused to accept his prize because he considered that peace was not achieved.  

Some argue that, yielding to outside pressures as it consistently has done, the Nobel Committee arguably has failed to live up to the intentions of Alfred Nobel, its founder.  Lonnie Shekhtman, for example, has observed that the Nobel Committee “mirrors the political makeup of Norway’s government … with two people appointed by the Labor Party, two from the Conservative Party, and one from the Progress Party. This has caused continuous debate about its independence.” All this said, however, and although the aptness of the award to Abiy Ahmed will remain a matter of intense dispute, perhaps Ethiopians simply need to accept the Prize with good grace and make the best of it.    

It would be both mean-spirited and pointless to defend the troubled status quo in Ethiopia, with its all-too-visible fissures, without offering constructive proposals. Ethiopia faces a myriad of national, regional and local challenges that need concentrated attention, offered in good faith, and with total commitment in terms of energy and time. Among these pressing problems, four main ones stand out. First is a national history that is as contentious as it is a source of pride; secondly, there is deep distrust that inhibits genuine dialogue and turns all conversations into disputes; third, there exists in the country a plethora of rival nationalist movements that are stuck in history, feed on revenge and reject compromise, thus putting national survival at risk; and finally, there is an undue concentration of power among elites seeking vainglory rather than pursuing the public good.  In the face of such pervasive crisis, what might be the basis for a new Ethiopian consensus?

As to the first of the problems cited above, the challenge facing the young generation of Ethiopians rests both on the interpretation of history and on the formulation of a shared future vision. Interpretations of Ethiopia’s history are bogged down in disagreements while aspirations for the country’s future are diverse and at times contradictory (although all of them could be accommodated within a constitutional democracy and a consensus-based federal system).  Appeals to history add very little value to the current debate and no useful purpose can be served by dwelling on and lamenting past mistakes; any discussion of Ethiopia’s history should be aimed only at learning lessons that might be of benefit for the future. It is therefore necessary to focus on the future. But at the same time, it is vital to carry through a process of closure for those harmed by past violations of human rights, if they are to play an active role in a future Ethiopia.  

Secondly, more than ever, Ethiopia needs genuine, institutionalized dialogue directed at addressing deep sectarian distrust. Most public meetings at present take the form of debates, as opposed to constructive dialogue, and discussions aimed at arriving at a dialogue generally turn into talk shows and achieve little if anything. The atmosphere in ongoing debates is one of a permanent campaign for populist support as each participant tries to find flaws in the other, to prove everyone else wrong, and to win at any cost. Attempts to listen to other points of view are rare; and there is no search for common ground through dialogue.  Self-introspection seems alien to some members of the Ethiopian elite, who prefer to deflect criticism by externalizing problems. Given this mindset, historical blunders, and even colossal abuses, are given a positive spin, defended – and in some instances glorified – regardless of the suffering they inflicted in the past and the pain they bring to new generations. Above all, these contradictory historical narratives serve to destroy any remnants of the collective social psychology that formerly bound Ethiopians together.  Instead of treating events of the past as an asset base for Ethiopia’s future journey, history has become “fundamentalized” into a liability that has now become a heavy burden for current and future generations to bear. Ethiopians should not be trapped in their history; and that history should inform, not determine, their future. 

Thirdly, nationalistic politicians propelled to power by extremism and a hatred of other ethnic communities have allowed social tensions to mount to an extraordinary degree. Demonization of those holding opposing viewpoints, the application of double standards and the de-legitimization of the questioning of community values can only reinforce unguarded anger and bitterness toward others. Rising tensions naturally seek outlets, either a genuine inclusive dialogue or a resort to violence. For this reason, it is more than ever necessary for all of Ethiopia’s rival nationalist movements to come together for a frank and future-oriented negotiation of “needs” and “interests” within a spirit of compromise. It is crucial that they reject a defeatist siege mentality, avoid fostering isolationist tendencies and above all, eschew rejectionist posturing. Ethiopians of all political persuasions should be called upon to agree on the existence of grave problems before clearly defining the issues and evolving solutions.

Fourthly, there must be a coming together of all stakeholders to analyze the precise nature of state power, who and what are the interests that wield that power, how it is acquired and for what purposes it is dispensed (one question, for example, might be whether elections guarantee legitimacy). There must also be a discussion of methods of allocating and further dispersing power and authority in cases where it rightly resides in local communities. For long years, Ethiopians thirsted for democracy while enjoying relative stability and economic delivery; now, the hunger for stability and economic delivery will increase.  It is critical that Ethiopian elites recognize that democratic institutions are not a sufficient condition for a prosperous society: they must be backed by programs of economic delivery sufficiently rapid to offer escape from the poverty trap. Socio-economic and cultural rights are equally important human rights like civil and political rights. Democracy and economic delivery together can guarantee Ethiopia’s stability and by extension its very survival as a nation. Only those who fail to understand Ethiopia can afford to disregard the strong and intense demands for self-rule and administration by communities.  Ethiopians need to calmly – and more importantly, firmly – demand that all viable ideas and proposals are put into action.  

Transition to a better political dispensation probably will be complicated but it is not necessarily a grim picture. The country will likely continue to face domestic, boundary-based clashes; border wars; violence; a breakdown in law and order and eventually, anarchy; and it is not impossible that it faces repression, discrimination, and even civil war and the fragmentation of federal institutions. But by working to avert these chilling scenarios, Ethiopians could make a bright future for themselves through a transitional process that provided an opportunity to build a constitutional, democratic federal system that invents new equilibrium able to balance all legitimate federal, national, regional, and ethnic interests.

In this scenario many concrete recommendations could emerge but above all it is necessary to ensure that power is used for public rather than personal purposes and to put trust and sincerity at the center of the deliberations.  Compassion should guide action and equality, justice and human rights should be the institutional pillars of society.  It is vital that a stop is put to “instrumentalizing” history in so negative a way that renders the past a burden on us and our children. What is needed is sober analysis, strategic foresight, and a forward-looking stance. This – admittedly hopeful – message encompasses the need to cultivate a pragmatic approach and is also a call for compromise in deliberations and compassion in spirit.  

Undeniably there is some element of paradox in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed at this difficult time for our country but it also carries with it an element of hope. A good case could be made that the Prize will encourage stakeholders to strive for dialogue, peace and reconciliation, as the Committee stated. When exercised with caution, hope is a great stimulus to improvement and Ethiopians need not resign themselves to a fatalistic, gloomy view of the future. Most importantly, they need to regain the sense that this future will be determined by themselves and not by outside forces.  

Ethiopia is in transitional crisis.  As Antonio Gramsci said of another time and place, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” In this light, it might appear that Ethiopia’s current difficulties are symptomatic of a transition to a better future but not necessarily. One can only hope that the award of the Peace Prize will energize Ethiopians and help to usher in a new system of participatory and competitive democracy, transitional consensus-based federalism, inclusive economic delivery, and sustainable stability. 

One comment on “The Nobel Prize for Abiy Ahmed: Turning an irony into an opportunity

  1. Ephrem Oct 24,2019 5:29 am

    Simply amazing article. Thank you very much Dr. Mehari

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