Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 8
Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in reestablishing peace talks with Eritrea and restoring freedoms after years of economic and political repression. The Nobel committee attests to his attempts to resolve the border conflict with Eritrea and beginning reforms that provide many citizens with “hope for a better life and future.” While he has made significant progress on many of the complex issues that plague the Horn of Africa, little has been done to institutionalize and sustain these initiatives. In turn, many critics claim that this recognition was premature, as Ahmed has only been prime minister for 18 months. However, this honor should be regarded as a means for guidance for continuing the reforms and initiatives that prompted it in the first place.
Indeed, Abiy has accomplished laudable achievements in his brief time in office. His administration began peace talks with Eritrea after nearly twenty years of stalemate, following a brutal war from 1998 to 2000. Ahmed has also released tens of thousands of political prisoners, invited back formerly banned political parties and armed groups, revoked repressive laws, started to open up the economy, apologized for previous human rights violations, and appointed women to leading roles in the government. But, ordinary Ethiopians have yet to reap the fruits of these initiatives.
Although federalism and multiparty elections were instituted in Ethiopia in 1995, genuine democracy seems feasible only now. The long-reigning Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (E.P.R.D.F.), the revolutionary Marxist-Lenininst association, never completely implemented the liberal democratic principles set out in the 1995 Constitution. Instead, the E.P.R.D.F. governed the country as a semi-authoritarian state. Simultaneously, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.), which claims to represent the well-being and interests of the people of Tigray, a state bordering Eritrea — about 6 percent of the population— dominated the leadership within the ruling coalition. In doing so, this minority rule estranged the Oromo people who amount to more than 34 percent of the population as well as the Amhara people, 27 percent of the total population.
In turn, opposition parties capitalized off the popular dissatisfaction with the E.P.R.D.F. in the 2005 elections. When the E.P.R.D.F. emerged victorious in spite of this, the opposition disputed this revelation and the government repressed the protests that erupted in response. Eventually, this discontent motivated countrywide protests from 2016 to 2018, during which the Oromo youth blamed the government for joblessness, land-grabbing, repression, and a lack of genuine representation.
These demonstrations where 1,000 people were killed and 20,000 people were imprisoned, compelled former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign in February 2018. Abiy became the ultimate symbol of Ethiopian unity during this Abyssinian spring when he was appointed as prime minister in April. Not only was he supported by the Oromo and Amhara parties within the E.P.R.D.F. coalition, but he preached the political doctrine of ”medemer”, translating as “coming together” in Amharic. In doing so, he was able to advocate for a more inclusive political atmosphere. Essentially, Abiy’s administration is attempting to surpass Ethiopia’s federal system, one that was designed along ethnic lines, where the distinction between politics and sectarian turmoil has become increasingly blurred over the years.
However, Abiy’s Abyssinian spring is fragile, and has entered an integral chapter. The abrupt abatement of political controls and dissolution of some of Ethiopia’s authoritarian elements under his administration, has brought to the surface repressed ethnic, political, and religious conflicts. Because of this, 2.9 million people are internally displaced. At the same time, the E.P.R.D.F coalition continues to be divided among ethnic lines. In the southeastern Somali region for instance, the changes in the central government have inspired changes in the regional governments as well, with T.P.L.F loyalists being replaced by Abiy supporters. Conversely, in other areas like the Oromia and Amhara regions, regional ethnic parties that are a part of the E.P.R.D.F remain somewhat defiant. These occasions of resistance have ultimately weakened the central government and hindered its efforts to ease different conflicts and implement reforms.
Concurrently, instead of staying true to its democratic platform and reforms, the central government has shown signs of relapsing into its former authoritarian practices. As the Nobel Peace Prize was being announced, the police in Addis Ababa, arrested demonstrators at a rally denouncing the municipal government. Reports of journalists being intimidated as well as continued internet shutdowns serve to attest to Abiy’s administration’s authoritarian tactics to maintain power. Indeed, the best example of this behavior is the trigger of recent violence: a Facebook post by Jawar Mohammed, former supporter of Ahmed and an influential Oromo activist and media mogul, who claimed that security forces tried orchestrate an attack against him.
Abiy’s administration may have reverted to the authoritarian habits it officially disavowed, yet it is important to note the progress he has made not only in Ethiopia, but the broader Horn of Africa region as well. One of Abiy’s first acts upon becoming Prime Minister was to fly to Eritrea and meet with President Isaias Afwerki. This token of rapprochement shattered the chronic stalemate between the two nations. This lead to the opening of transportation and communication channels, and restored contact between families and communities. However, this relationship along with the implementation of the border agreement, and the establishment of mutually beneficial trade relations remains to be institutionalized.
In addition to taking the necessary steps to normalize relations with Eritrea, Abiy has also launched initiatives to broker peace in South Sudan, encourage the political transition in Sudan, and attempted to arrange an agreement between Somalia and Kenya over maritime disputes. Although many of these efforts are tentative and incomplete, Abiy has been at the center of various initiatives to encourage peace in the Horn of Africa, and his initiatives should be supported.
After 18 months in power, Abiy’s feats deserve recognition, although his efforts overall remain a fragile work in progress in a tumultuous domestic context. It is crucial that an African country and an African leader have at least a brief period of recognition in international media. For a country and a continent that is often shrouded with stereotypes and generalizations of never ending violent conflicts, disease, poverty, and corruption, a single occasion that acknowledges the advancement and complex post-colonial reality, like Ahmed’s Nobel peace prize, merits recognition and celebration. Sustaining peace, domestically and regionally, necessitates the creation of withstanding institutions. If the Nobel Peace Prize empowers Abiy’s initiatives that engage a range of civil and political society actors as well as regional leaders, the prize will help advance peace and prosperity in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.