The jury is still out on Ahmed’s peace prize
There is something risky in awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to a politician who is still holding the reins of power. It is even riskier to award it to leaders such as Abiy Ahmed, this year’s laureate, who has been prime minister of Ethiopia for only 18 months. It may be too early to assess such a person’s achievements; later they may at best merely rest on their laurels, or at worst turn out to be not the peacemakers or human rights champions the Norwegian prize committee believed them to be.
While laureates such as Albert Schweitzer, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai and Nadia Murad are guaranteed a place in the pantheon of champions of peace and improving the human condition, others have been more controversial. Henry Kissinger’s Vietnam Paris peace agreement was more an abandonment of an American ally, and his record on some other international issues does not bear scrutiny. The voice of Aung San Suu Kyi, a dissident turned prime minister who once enjoyed the world’s admiration for fighting for the human and political rights of her people, has been silent over atrocities committed by her country against Rohingya Muslims. Barack Obama, another laureate, made unfulfilled promises about using US influence to advance peace in the world.
The jury remains out on whether the decision to award Ahmed this prize was hasty and premature, or visionary. The signs are good but far from being conclusive. Alfred Nobel, in his will that set in motion this long tradition of awarding prizes to those who advance the cause of humanity, stated that for the peace prize he would expect the laureate to “have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
In their announcement of this year’s winner the committee’s emphasis was on the aspect of fraternity between nations, in recognition of Ahmed’s bold and swift contribution to bringing an end to 20 years of conflict with neighboring Eritrea. His readiness to withdraw from territory, an unusual act in international affairs, most definitely broke the deadlock. Understandably, Ahmed was the one to be recognized, while his co-signatory of the peace agreement, Eritrea’s longstanding President Isaias Afwerki, was ignored; perhaps because a UN investigation panel in 2015 found that he had imposed a reign of fear through systematic and extreme abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity.
The jury remains out on whether the decision to award Ahmed this prize was hasty and premature, or visionary
The prize is also a recognition of Ethiopia’s leader not only for being quick off the mark to end a rather pointless war, but also for initiating far reaching reforms in his first few months in charge, reforms desperately needed after decades of authoritarian regimes. In the words of the prize committee, he injected a dose of hope “for a better life and a brighter future.” Ethiopia’s state of emergency was lifted, thousands of political prisoners were granted amnesty, media censorship ended, outlawed opposition groups are being allowed to operate, and Ahmed has not shied from taking measures to cleanse the political system of corruption. Most impressive has been his drive to include women in the social and political life of the country and promote them to positions of influence. Currently half his cabinet are women, as is his chief justice.
Furthermore, Ahmed’s pledge to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections stood him in good stead and made him almost the perfect peace prize candidate, the poster-boy politician. Thus far he has been riding the waves of general excitement over breaking with the past, ending the war with Eritrea and introducing reforms, as well as his considerable charisma. However, there are worrying signs that the peace agreement is a shaky one; Eritrea has already early this year closed all its border crossings with Ethiopia, and the thorny task of demarcating that border does not seem to be moving forward. Similarly, although his domestic reforms have created much optimism, Ahmed faces an uphill struggle to institutionalize them, and also to address deep social fragmentation and economic hardship, and the challenge of healing a society that has been oppressed for many decades.
Quietly, though dangerously, there is also a crisis brewing with Egypt over the implications of the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on the Blue Nile River, which is nearly complete and has cost nearly $5 billion. For Ethiopia this is a national project which when completed will produce more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity, making the country a major energy producer, and could become a crucial driving force of development. On the other hand, for Egypt this project presents a serious danger to the flow of Nile water downstream, and consequently to that country’s main source of fresh water — a lifeline of its economy and wellbeing. The way Ahmed deals with this delicate issue and seeks to avoid conflict with Egypt will be a true test of his statesmanship.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee has this year opted to reward someone who has shown in his short term in office great promise of becoming a reformer and a man of peace. Only time will tell if he will be able to successfully navigate the many challenges he faces domestically and internationally, and thus fulfil this promise.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg