Fisseha Fantahun Tefera | 16 October 2019
Late last week, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed Ali, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. According to the Committee, Abiy was given the prize, ‘for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.’ The decision made Abiy Ahmed the 100th recipient of the Peace Prize since it was first awarded in 1901. Of course, not everyone agrees that Abiy deserves this prestigious award. Some critics point to growing domestic unrest and displacement within Ethiopia. Others point to Abiy’s Western-friendly economic liberalization and direct foreign investment policy directions. Still others complain that Abiy has good intentions, but an awful lot left to achieve. These concerns are not only understandable; they reflect the politically charged nature of the Nobel institution in general and the peace prize in particular, both of which have faced criticisms in recent years. While I do not suggest that we set these criticisms aside— they are valid and worthy of serious consideration— I do suggest that we look beyond them in order to understand the importance of what Abiy has achieved so far as well as the perils that lie ahead. In doing so, I use Abiy’s term, ‘medemer,’ to explain how Abiy has tried to bring hope to a deeply embattled region of Africa.
Understanding the realities of the Horn of Africa region will put this year’s Nobel peace in context. It is arguably the most politically fragile, economically deprived, and disaster-prone region in the world. With a population of close to two hundred million, the region encompasses six countries, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. While each of these countries faces serious domestic political, security, societal, and economic challenges within their borders, their relationships with one another have also been filled with periodic clashes, tensions, and violent confrontations. And yet, just a few months after his election, Abiy was able to make a historic peace deal with Eritrea, as well as mediate ongoing disputes between Eritrea and Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia, Somalia and Kenya, and among the warring factions in South Sudan. More recently, he negotiated a deal between the military and the civil administration in Sudan after President Al-Bashir was ousted from power in April 2019. While the consequences, durability, and sustainability of these mediation and negotiation deals are the subject of debate, they represent what the Prime Minister has been claiming as his ideological drive since his inaugural speech: the concept of ‘medemer’ (an Amharic term that literally means addition, but contextually denotes synergy, cooperation, and unity).
‘Medemer’ was mostly a welcome message in Ethiopia when Abiy came to power in 2018. Ethiopia had been embroiled in widespread unrest since 2014/2015, and tensions were very high. Abiy thus took control of a government that was practically crippled, and a country at a crossroads. Seemingly undaunted, Abiy managed to amass huge popular support beginning on day one. His speeches advocating ‘medemer,’ healing, love, cooperation, and unity were a much-needed relief in a fragile, divided, and uncertain country.
Abiy’s drive to messages of healing and advocacy for cooperation can also be traced to his background. He speaks the three languages of the ethnic groups that have been engaged in political power struggles for much of the country’s history. While he comes from a Muslim family, he is a Christian, and thus connected to the two major religions in the country. He was born and raised in one of the country’s prominent cities known for diversity, inclusiveness, and strong social bonds. Although he served in the military and in an intelligence agency, the key power institutions of the time, he did not ally himself with the old guard of the political establishment. This detachment from the older political powerbase gave him a unique position to take bold actions that included the peace deal he secured with Eritrea, and the provision of amnesty to individuals that were banned, prosecuted and imprisoned in appalling conditions under the guise of anti-terrorism.
Despite the relative success Abiy managed to achieve in brokering deals across the region, domestically, his administration is facing growing challenges. Consequently, many welcomed the Nobel prize with reservation and caution. This follows the heavy criticism that Abiy is facing domestically for ever-growing ethnic tensions, clashes, internal displacements, and security issues. While this could be attributed to the opening up of the political space that brought out previously suppressed issues to the front, these ongoing tensions and disputes still pose severe challenges to Abiy’s administration and the country’s peace and fate at large. A year and a half after Abiy became Prime Minister, many that had wholeheartedly supported his ascent to power are becoming suspicious of his capabilities, if not intentions, in bringing political solutions to domestic conflicts. What remains intact is Abiy’s conviction to his ethos of ‘medemer’ or cooperation and his aspirations to bring solutions both to Ethiopia and the region at large. If nothing else, this idealism is laudable in a fragile geopolitical region and a polarizing global landscape. Only time will tell if the Nobel Peace Prize will ‘strengthen Prime Minister Abiy in his important work for peace and reconciliation’ and facilitate much-needed changes in the Horn of Africa.
Fisseha Fantahun Tefera is a doctoral student at the School of Global Studies. His research interests include the politics of development in the Horn of Africa and Sub Sahara Africa at large.