Who is Abiy Ahmed and why he won the Nobel Peace Prize
The young, reformist Prime Minister of Ethiopia is the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The 43-year-old was awarded the prize for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for ending a conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
It was in the middle of a political turmoil that Ethiopia got its new prime minister in April last year. Then 42, Abiy Ahmed, a former army intelligence officer, was the youngest head of state in Africa.
Fast forward one and a half years, Ahmed is declared the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize – the 100th since it was first awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee -- for solving a long-lasting border dispute with the neighbouring nation Eritrea.
Rise to power
Abiy rose to power navigating the ethnically fractionalised politics of Ethiopia. There are more than 80 ethnic groups in the country, which is divided into nine major regions; Oromo, Amhara, Somali and Tigrayans dominate and constitute three-fourths of the population.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition made up of four major political parties representing only four of those regions, has been ruling since 1991.
Since 2017, popular protests swept Amhara and Oromia —the most populous regions of the country. This culminated in the end of Tigray group-dominated rule by next year. Abiy, a member of the Oromo People's Democratic Organization since 2010, was then a Member of Parliament.
Abiy had already developed a name for himself, especially after he successfully devised a "Religious Forum for Peace" to put an end to the clashes between Muslims and Christians.
He was elected as the new Prime Minister.
Backed by Demeke Mekonnen, an ethnic Amhara who has been holding the Deputy Prime Minister post since 2012, he undertook a series of reforms, unprecedented since the coalition’s ascent to power.
I am humbled by the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. My deepest gratitude to all committed and working for peace. This award is for Ethiopia and the African continent. We shall prosper in peace!— Abiy Ahmed Ali (@AbiyAhmedAli) October 11, 2019
To start with, Abiy tried to bring changes to the authoritarian nature of the federal government. He released thousands of political prisoners and journalists, legalised outlawed opposition groups, ousted corrupted officials and military leaders, and made the regime seem clean on human rights records.
Hundreds of media outlets were unbanned, as he reinstated press freedom.
Abiy realigned the neighbourhood policy of the de-facto leading state of the Horn of Africa region, which has a long history of bloody disputes, to conciliation.
He focused on women empowerment too. For the first time in the history of the East African nation, half the seats in the cabinet went to women. In another first, the country got a female president.
His initiatives such as planting billions of trees, including the record-setting for planting 350 million trees in 12 hours, also got wide global appreciation.
Eritrea, formerly a part of Ethiopia, became independent in 1991 after three decades of a bloody war. But the wounds didn’t heal and violent disputes continued in the form of open hostilities and cold wars.
Abiy himself had the experience of serving as an officer in the Ethiopian army during the border war from 1998 to 2000.
But within three months of assuming power, Abiy managed to strike peace with Eritrea. He and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a deal that formally ended the state of war between the countries. The key step was Abiy’s willingness to accept a 2002 arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission.
“Peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone. When Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries,” the Nobel committee said as it announced the nine million Swedish crowns (equivalent to around $900,000) prize.
He has also signed a peace deal with the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist movement based in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Together, these moves have opened a new chapter in the Horn of Africa region, which has always been a cradle of instability.
The Nobel Prize comes as a big boost to the reform-driven political agenda of the Prime Minister, and all the while as his party heads for the national elections in 2020. But how effectively he can sustain it in the complex ethnic federal set up of 100 million citizens is to be seen.