Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for promoting democratic reforms and pacification actions in the region.
Abiy received the award "in particular, for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea," said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairman of the Nobel Committee, who decides who will win the annual awards.
A peace agreement between Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki formally ended a 20-year military standoff following Eritrea's separation from Ethiopia in 1993. About 100,000 people were killed between 1998 and 2000 when a dispute broke out. at the border turned into war.
"Ethiopians are very excited about the prize. The excitement is huge all over the country," Gemechu Bekele, journalist and university professor in Addis Ababa, told People's Gazette.
Bekele believes the award was a well-deserved recognition of the prime minister's effort to bring peace to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. "I believe this recognition will give him more energy to continue the reform he has started," said the journalist. "It will also give the moral impetus to forge peace and turn the Horn of Africa, now plunged into conflict, into an oasis of peace."
Who is the prime minister
Abiy, a 43-year-old former intelligence officer, ushered in an era of hope for peace and greater freedoms in Africa's second most populous country, long ruled by authoritarian regimes. Upon taking office in April 2018, Abiy initiated the release of thousands of political prisoners, lifted bans on various political organizations, prosecuted former officials accused of torture and promised to bring Ethiopia to the first free and multiparty elections in 2020.
Abiy also took bold steps to broker peace in neighboring Sudan and South Sudan, both affected by civil strife. Abiy led rounds of negotiations between opposing sides in both countries, and he sought a role in mediating other regional conflicts, such as a maritime dispute between neighbors Kenya and Somalia.
Ethiopia remains one of the most insecure countries in the world, with more than 3 million people displaced from their homes and more than 1,000 killed in 2018, mainly due to ethnic conflict. The country's economy is dangerously weak and tens of thousands of Ethiopians have become refugees in search of less harsh conditions. Abiy's proposed changes are also seen by some in Ethiopia as likely to exacerbate ethnic tensions, and he has survived an assassination attempt.
The peace agreement
Abiy's peace agreement with Isaiah has not yet resulted in a complete resumption of normal ties, mainly due to Eritrea's reluctance. Military enlistment is still mandatory in Eritrea despite the end of the military standoff with Ethiopia.
"The peace agreement has thawed diplomatic relations, reopened telephone lines and allowed some travel between the two countries," said William Davison, an Ethiopian analyst with the International Crisis Group. "But the main border disputes have not been resolved, and Eritrea remains without constitutional government, so there has not yet been a peace dividend for long-suffering citizens."
Abiy was born from parents who belonged to different ethnic groups, which is unusual in Ethiopia. Some analysts say their background makes their calls for unity more effective in a country politically divided into nine semi-autonomous sub-nations. In interviews with local media, he has already talked about his poor background and growing up having to sleep on the floor without electricity and water – both services still unavailable to much of Ethiopia's population.
Why Eritrea Has Not Won the Nobel for the Peace Agreement
Notably, the award was not given to President Isaias Afwerki, Abiy's partner in the negotiations.
The chairman of the Nobel committee acknowledged that "peace does not come from the actions of only one party." Within a few years, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to various parties for their work to end a conflict.
But the decision to award the 2019 prize only to Abiy was not a surprise. Isaiah, the president of Eritrea, leads one of the most repressive military dictatorships in the world; his government has been compared to that of North Korea and accused of possible crimes against humanity.
And while he reached an agreement with Abiy in the capital of Eritrea last year to end the conflict between the two nations, in practice the agreement remains virtually unimplemented, and there have been few visible benefits to the Eritreans.
"I think there was a lot of hope in Eritrea," said Laetitia Bader, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, "but very quickly, the Eritreans saw that things were not changing."
"I would say that the pact has not brought positive developments for the people of Eritrea, because the reality is the same more than a year after the peace agreement," said Vanessa Tsehaye, an Eritrean activist in London.
The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia goes back decades. After the European powers left occupied Eritrea in 1951, landlocked Ethiopia claimed the land of its coastal neighbor, resulting in a civil war that began in 1961 and lasted three decades.
In 1991, Eritrean forces helped overthrow the Communist-led government in Ethiopia, and two years later the Eritreans voted for independence.
However, the two nations did not reach a border settlement, and in 1998 small-scale incidents in the city of Badme turned into a real conflict. Almost 100,000 people are estimated to have died, and after it was over, Ethiopian troops had control of Badme and other disputed areas.
As part of a mediated peace deal in Algiers in 2000, a commission cited colonial-era documents to determine that the land around Badme was part of Eritrea. But Ethiopia disagreed with the arbitrated border and the two sides remained at a standstill.
The relationship between the two countries was called "no war, no peace," which meant that diplomatic, trade, and transport ties were severed, and the countries were still on the warpath, repeatedly clashing and backing rival rebel groups.
On June 5, 2018, Abiy made a fundamental commitment to accept the peace agreement with Eritrea and to withdraw Ethiopian troops from occupied territory. Within weeks, Isaiah responded by saying that both nations yearned for peace.
Just a month after Abiy's announcement on July 8, the Ethiopian leader landed at Asmara Airport, the capital of Eritrea, where he was greeted by Isaias. The leaders embraced each other and later announced that they would reopen the embassies, allow direct communications, and restore transportation links.
"Love is bigger than modern weapons like tanks and missiles," said Abiy. "Love can win hearts, and we see a lot of it today here in Asmara."
Despite signs of goodwill, critics say nothing has really changed between the two nations. Among the communities of those who left Eritrea, many expressed disapproval of the Nobel Peace Prize for focusing on the Eritrea agreement when so little had changed in practice.
"I didn't know anyone could win a peace prize without achieving peace!" Selam Kidane, a London activist, wrote on Twitter.
Crossings at the Ethiopia-Eritrea border opened last year, but Eritrea soon closed the border again. Analysts suspect Eritrea, which has virtually complete control over its citizens, is stalling because of fears of wider reforms.
Isaiah, a former combatant, has led the country since 1993, and his government has left no room for opposition. In 2015, the UN released the results of a one-year human rights investigation in the country, noting "systematic, widespread and serious violations of human rights", including extrajudicial killings, torture and forced labor.
Abiy is the third African head of government to win the Nobel Peace Prize during his tenure after Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and FW of Klerk of South Africa, who won jointly with Nelson Mandela in 1993, when South Africa came out of the apartheid era.
Last year, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to 64-year-old Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor who treated thousands of women who were raped or sexually assaulted as a result of conflict, and Nadia Murad, 26, who advocated supporting women. Yazidi captured and held as sex slaves in the hands of the Islamic State.