Testing times for Ethiopia’s Nobel laureate leader

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia 

Even as the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, he is facing daunting challenges to maintain peace at home and also to continue bonhomie with the neighboring Eritrea.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee on Oct 11, conferred award on Abiy, citing his “decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.”

Analysts in Ethiopia believe that of late, bonhomie with Eritrea has slowed down.

The borders, which were opened with great fanfare have been closed again, after remaining open for just four months.

Significantly, when Abiy was greeted by the leaders from across the globe, Eritrea did not send any message of congratulations.

“Nothing came from Eritrea’s leader Isaias Afeworki, signaling cooling down of relations between the two countries,” a source in Addis Ababa told Anadolu Agency.

“The open border had led large number of migrations from Eritrea to Ethiopia. Even at the time of tensions, people from the Eritrean side used to take risk, to cross the heavily militarized border,” a senior politician told Anadolu Agency, seeking anonymity.

The Eritrean authorities did not like the exodus, he said.

On July 9, 2019 the two countries signed a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship. The agreement allowed Ethiopia to use Eritrean ports of Asab and Massawa. Both countries also opened embassies in respective capitals.

The spate of violent incidents in Ethiopia, killing 78 people, has also tainted the aura of Abiy Ahmed. Amnesty International says that, since Abiy took office, there have been several waves of mass arrests of people in Oromia perceived to be opposed to the government. Detainees were not charged or taken to court, Amnesty’s Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle said.

Abiy deserves recognition

Despite violence and faltering border accord, many in Addis Ababa, believe that Abiy deserved recognition for his reforms and peace initiatives.

“He deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for many reasons. He is a messenger of peace at home and in the region,” Kebede Chane, Deputy Chairman of the Ethiopian Citizens for Democracy and Justice Party told Anadolu Agency.

Abiy , 43, a former intelligence officer, became the fourth prime minister of Ethiopia on April 2, 2018. He immediately launched a series of unprecedented reforms. His predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn had governed the country, with an iron fist, stifling free speech, sending opposition leaders and journalists to jail.

The prime minister has set up a unique Peace Ministry, under Muferiat Kamil, country’s first women speaker of parliament. The ministry has been designed to improve ethnic relations and attend to the woes of citizens ravaged by unprecedented levels of tensions.

But, the reality is that despite the ministry, there were deadly clashes in the most populous region in Ethiopia – Oromia – following a message sent by a high-profile activist to his supporters, saying he was about to be arrested.

All hell broke loose the next day as supporters of activist Jawar Mohammed took to the streets blockading roads in many places such as Harar, Dire Dawa, Adama, Bushoftu, Shashemene, Bale Robe and in the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa. They were confronted by the supporters of prime minister, who by that time was attending the Africa-Russia summit in the Russian city of Sochi.

Many analysts feel that the Nobel Committee should have been more circumspect about awarding a politician, who is still coming to terms with his office. They cite Nobel Committee’s past decisions, like awarding the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize to Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi, and then in 2009 to Barack Obama, in the early days of his administration. Both of them failed to keep up with the prestige of the award.

But, there are many in Africa rooting for the dynamic 43-year-old Abiy, saying he represents a break across the continent, where in many cases, an old guard has clung to power against all odds.
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