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Who is Abiy Ahmed? Ethiopia's young leader has taken home the Nobel Peace Prize

Ethiopia's young PM has many contradictory reputations. Credit: Simona Granati - Corbis/Getty Images.

Ethiopia's young PM has many contradictory reputations. Credit: Simona Granati - Corbis/Getty Images.

October 11, 2019   9 mins

This piece was originally published at the beginning of September. Abiy Ahmed has just been announced as the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. 

If you haven’t paid much attention to Ethiopia, the second largest country in Africa, you should. This nation of over 100 million people is poised to make major changes in the next few years: given current circumstances, it could either experience an unprecedented period of democracy and economic growth, or explode into ethnic tensions that could tear the nation apart like the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

And the strange thing is that either outcome would largely be the result of one man: Abiy Ahmed – the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia and leader of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party (EPRDF). Abiy has just turned 43, making him one of the youngest heads of government in the world. Since coming to power last year, he has gained a number of contradictory reputations: reformer, demagogue, democrat, dictator, and potential Nobel Peace Prize winner.

That last one caught my attention and got me thinking: how does one go about winning a Nobel Peace Prize, anyway? If we look back at the past 30 or so years of Nobel laureates, there appears to be a number of paths.

Like the former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung (the 2000 winner), you can work to bring peace and reconciliation between rival nations that share a common culture and a bloody history of war. Alternatively, you can be a political insider leading a formerly autocratic regime through a transition to democracy and freedom, like the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev (who won in 1990). Other options include helping to end politically motivated religious conflict (Ireland’s John Hume and Britain’s David Trimble, 1998) or quelling civil strife (the Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos, 2016). Occasionally, simply inspiring hope and change on a large scale can be enough, as Barack Obama discovered when he won in the prize in 2009 for, essentially, not being George W. Bush.

I give all these examples to highlight that Abiy Ahmed has been in office for less than two years, and he’s already accomplished all these things. In fact, Abiy did all of this within his first 12 months.

When Abiy came to power in 2018, Ethiopia faced crippling social divisions along nearly every imaginable social fault line, including ethnic protests, religious schism, and the perpetual threat of war with its neighbor to the north, Eritrea. Abiy rolled up his sleeves to tackle each of these crises.

His predecessor resigned in 2018 after failing to quash the worst case of social upheaval Ethiopia had seen in decades. Since 2016, the country’s two largest ethnic communities, the Oromo and Amhara (who together make up a majority of Ethiopia’s population) had been protesting for greater political freedoms. The Oromo, who populate much of the southern half of the country, have for decades been dominated by elites who ruled from the north.

The Oromo have seen the state take advantage of them economically. The most potent example of this is Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, which was carved out of Oromo territory; a plan to expand the city by appropriating more of that territory set off a massive wave of Oromo protests that continued for two years.

The Amhara, meanwhile, are the largest group in the north and once dominated the country; their mother tongue, Amharic, still doubles as the national language, and both the Ethiopian monarchy that existed until 1974 and the communist dictatorship known as the Derg that replaced it were Amhara dominated.

But since the current government took power in 1991 (when a collection of ethnic militias who had formed the EPRDF finally succeeded in overthrowing the communists), power has resided in the hands of a smaller northern group called the Tigray, who provided most of the anti-communist fighters and kept most of the key political and military positions for themselves afterwards. Once the Oromo starting protesting against the government, Amhara discontent at being pushed aside boiled over as well, establishing something of a united front between the two groups.

Abiy Ahmed, who emerged from a contentious internal party battle to become Prime Minister last year, seemed to some to be tailor-made to handle this particular crisis. His heritage reflected both groups: Abiy’s mother was an Amhara and a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (for centuries the predominant social institution within the country, with its roots primarily in the North), while his father was an Oromo Muslim (the Oromo community is a mix of Christians and Muslims, adding to their marginaliation in a country long defined by its Christian identity). Abiy spoke both groups’ languages, as well as Tigrinya and English. He was highly educated and trained in the arts of peacemaking, with a Masters and Ph.D. in leadership and conflict resolution respectively.

Still, many feared that the new, young Prime Minister was simply a figurehead for continued dominance by the Tigray and the EPRDF. Abiy had come up within the ruling party and the military, after all, and it seemed unlikely that the entrenched interests within these institutions would tolerate any genuine change.

But Abiy quickly proved that he was unlike past Ethiopian rulers. He has replaced hardliners within the governments and purged the military of many of its old officers. He reversed many of the oppressive policies that had both sparked the protests and become intensified during the turmoil. Instead of continuing violent repressions of demonstrators, Abiy released thousands of political prisoners and eased press and internet censorship.

Abiy has travelled across Ethiopia and visited diaspora communities abroad, preaching unity (and “preaching” is an apt term: veering away from the religions of his parents, Abiy is an Evangelical Christian). His rallying cry and the slogan for his administration was encapsulated in one Amharic word, Medemer, which literally translates as “addition” but more colloquially stands for “coming together”.

He has combined his grand efforts with a personal touch.  For example, the day after a leading Oromo dissident accused of plotting a coup was released from death row, the Prime Minister shockingly invited him to his office and posed for a photograph.

Abiy’s efforts brought great success and personal popularity. The dissident Oromo Liberation Front agreed to rejoin the political process, Amhara were allowed to form a new political party without government interference, and large crowds in Ethiopia and abroad came out to greet him and adopt his Medemer slogan.

During his first year, Abiy also went about settling a longstanding conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. The country was once part of Ethiopia, but after the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front played a major role in overthrowing the communist Derg, the Eritreans were rewarded with independence. A peaceful split in 1993 turned sour five years later, as a border dispute over a small town named Badme blew up into a three-year conflict that lefts tens of thousands dead on both sides. The war ended in a hostile standoff, similar to that between India and Pakistan in Kashmir or the Koreas along the Demilitarized Zone, until Abiy decided to cede the disputed Badme to Eritrea and personally oversaw the restorations of friendly relations between the two countries.

And then, for good measure, Abiy decided he’d end a decades-long schism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. When the EPRDF overthrew the Derg, it also deposed the Patriarch of the Church, who went into exile in the United States. The new government claimed that the old Patriarch was a Derg collaborator, while the ousted church leader argued that it was a power play by the government, which installed a Tigray to replace him.

For years, this dispute split the Orthodox Church: the “official” church in Ethiopia was led by government-friendly Tigrayan leaders, while many of the millions of Ethiopians abroad remained loyal to the old Patriarch and formed their own branch of the Church.

This all changed last summer, when Prime Minister Abiy flew to America and personally convinced the exiled Church leader to return to Addis Ababa. Now, in an unprecedented move, the two branches have been unified under the co-leadership of both Patriarchs, who split the spiritual and administrative duties of leading the Church between them.

Abiy’s blockbuster 2018 put him on the international radar – he’s been compared favourably with both Obama and Nelson Mandela, and he made Time Magazine’s 2019 list of world’s most influential people. Abiy’s incredible first-year run makes a strong case for awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize, and as recently as January he was seen as a frontrunner for the award. Granting him the prize now could even strengthen his political position while he goes about making deeper reforms within Ethiopia as it prepares for next year’s national elections, which could be the country’s first ever truly democratic poll.

Yet, Abiy’s nomination highlights a risk in awarding the Peace Prize – one that does not exist in the other categories. Nobel science laureates don’t generally go on to take actions that erode scientific advancement, but there have been several times that the Nobel committee has had buyers’ remorse over Peace Prize winners who have gone on to perpetuate war and violence: Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat and Aung San Suu Kyi all come to mind (even Barack Obama’s prize became a political liability as he engaged in large scale drone warfare in the Middle East).

Many critics have argued that Abiy’s reforms have had a dark side: there is an emerging idea that his actions so far have not been a campaign for Medemer or national unity as much as it’s been a campaign against ethnic dominance and, more worrisome, against the Tigray themselves.

Abiy’s reforms to decrease authoritarianism in the country have been coupled with the removal of Tigray officials from top government and military positions. Some of his statements, including references to “saboteurs” and “daytime hyenas” opposing reform, are seen as veiled references to the Tigray, reminiscent of the type of rhetoric that has preceded genocide and ethnic cleansing. Recent anti-Tigray violence seems to confirm his critics’ fears that Abiy is mobilising the rest of the country against the Tigray group.

In this light, even the successes Abiy has had so far can be reframed: pacifying Oromo and Amhara discontent, freeing political prisoners, bringing back the Amharan Orthodox Patriarch to administer the Church alongside his Tigrayan counterpart – all of it can be interpreted as a strategy to chip away at Tigray dominance while building an alternative political coalition. Some have even described the peace with Eritrea as building an international anti-Tigray coalition, with Abiy and the Eritrean government blaming the previous Tigray leadership in Ethiopia for the war.

Beyond the specific anti-Tigray sentiments fomenting in Ethiopia, Abiy’s reforms have stirred up ethnic nationalism throughout the country. Ethiopia has been able to manage its ethnically diverse society more smoothly than many African nations, in part because the country avoided European colonisation in the 19th century. Ethiopia’s border and ethnic mix were therefore determined locally, through a long period of internal state-building and adjustment.

Nevertheless, the mix of previous Tigrayan dominance, current ethnic tensions and promises of greater regional autonomy have all emboldened ethnic hardliners to demand more. Small ethnic groups are now demanding their own states. Interethnic violence has been on the rise, driven by competing ethnic nationalisms. One such nationalist, an Amharan ex-general named Asaminew Tsige, was killed in June after launching what the government called an attempted coup; several government officials were assassinated during this conflict.

In the face of this newfound political violence, Abiy has re-implemented some of the very policies he previously denounced, such as large-scale detentions and a temporary internet shutdown.

Perhaps more worrisome than the policies was the way in which they were announced. Like most Ethiopian rulers before him, Abiy was a military man – he fought the communists as a teenager, served in the war against Eritrea, and led military intelligence before becoming a politician. In his first public address since the reported June coup attempt, Abiy appeared on TV in military dress rather than his usual business suit. He later told the legislature that “we are ready to fight, not with a pen, but with a Kalashnikov”.

The government later tempered fears of a further backslide into authoritarianism by reiterating that it will still hold elections next year, despite the violence, but concerns remain high that the old ways of oppression may return.

The West has not paid much attention to Ethiopia, but continuing to ignore the country would be a mistake. We’ve seen the worst-case scenarios of stirring up ethnic separatism or villainising a small but formerly dominant ethnic minority – the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the near extermination of Rwandan Tutsis being among the most horrific examples. Abiy himself knows these dangers as well; as a young soldier he served in the UN peacekeeping force deployed to Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide.

The best-case scenario should also draw the attention of the international community. An Ethiopia that successfully transitions to peace and democracy, and in turn implements the economic reforms that Abiy has also placed on the agenda to continue the country’s rapid economic growth, could emerge as a regional powerhouse.

The United States and Ethiopia have in recent years been allies in the “War on Terror”, co-operating in an invasion of neighbouring Somalia to displace the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab. Yet popular conceptions of Ethiopia in the West still tend towards the images of famine and destitution that brought us Live Aid in the 1980s, and our foreign policy seems to be stuck on the idea that Ethiopia has a lot of need and little to offer.

Meanwhile, China has been investing heavily in Ethiopia for years and courting the country as a valuable strategic ally; Russia is now taking an interest as well.

The real test for Abiy will come with next year’s election. If he is willing and able to conduct a truly free and fair poll without delay, and abide by its results, he will have demonstrated his peacemaking bona fides. This will be especially true if he peacefully reincorporates the Tigray community in a way that neither repeats the ethnic dominance of years past nor demonises and oppresses this group based on the history of its leaders’ actions.

The international community should support Ethiopia in these efforts, while holding Abiy accountable to the lofty ideals he has expressed. The situation in Ethiopia is precarious, but there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that Abiy both can and wants to accomplish the transition that the country has long desired. That would be worth a Prize.

Dr Christopher Rhodes is a Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies.

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