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Another Nobel Peace Prize for Africa: what does it mean?

Another Nobel Peace Prize for Africa: what does it mean?

For the second time in a row, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to an African. Though many people believed the Prize would go to Greta Thunberg or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Nobel Committee decided to award the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali for resolving the conflict in Eritrea. We asked Prof. Robert Kłosowicz, head of the Jagiellonian Centre for African Studies, to explain the significance of awarding two subsequent Nobel Peace Prizes to people from the war-torn continent of Africa.

Africa didn’t have to wait long to receive another Nobel Peace Prize. Just one year after it was awarded jointly to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for fighting sexual violence, this year it went to the youngest head of state in Africa, the 43-year-old prime minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed Ali. It’s the 24th Nobel Prize awarded to an African (or the 25th, if you count the award given jointly in 2015 to four organisations forming the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet).

PhD in peace

Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali is a former military intelligence officer and politician. He belongs to the Oromo people, the most numerous ethnic group in Ethiopia. In 2017, he successfully defended his PhD thesis in social sciences, entitled Social Capital and its Role in Traditional Conflict Resolution in Ethiopia: The Case of Inter-Religious Conflict in Jimma Zone State at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of the Addis Ababa University. During his career in the military, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. He then served as the director of the Information Network Security Agency. In 2015–2016, he was the Minister of Science and Technology. He first became interested in politics in the late 1980s, when he joined the Oromo Democratic Party. He became its leader in 2018.

That same year, he became the forerunner of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the main political force in the country. He was chosen as the prime minister in April 2018 in the wake of a political crisis that befell Ethiopia after the sudden resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe. When he took office, the state was overwhelmed with conflict, with many protests and demonstrations – mainly caused by ethnicity-related issues – being brutally suppressed by the incompetent government. It’s safe to say that nobody expected his rule with be a major breakthrough for Ethiopia, and so fast.

The end of a cold war

Map of African conflicts in 1997–2011. Source: Francisco Dans, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at the University College London

In his first one hundred days as prime minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali abolished the state of emergency in Ethiopia, granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, softened media censorship, dismissed corrupt officials from the military and public administration, legalised political opposition groups, and announced free elections at the end of his term of office in 2020. Right from the beginning, he declared the resumption of negotiations with the neighbouring Eritrea, with which Addis Ababa had no official diplomatic relations for nearly two decades. The tense relationship between the two countries was frequently compared to the Cold War. It effectively disrupted cooperation between any institutions that might improve the situation in the region, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a eight-country trade bloc in East Africa that includes countries from the Horn of Africa, Nile River Valley, and African Great Lakes. Abiy Ahmed Ali not only reached out to the Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, but also unconditionally agreed to respect all decisions of the international arbitration committee for borders from 2002, ceding the disputed town of Badme to Eritrea. This allowed the two countries to sign an agreement, improving their relationship.

That event was a milestone not only in the political, but also social sense, as it allowed Ethiopians and Eritreans to cross the border and visit their families – and for many of them, it was the first time in their lives, since from 1952 to 1993, Eritrea was an autonomous province of Ethiopia, only later becoming an independent country. All of this may very well lead to more progressive and liberal ideas spreading in Eritrea itself, resulting in far-reaching political transformations in the future.

A chance for women

Abiy Ahmed Ali quickly engaged in other initiatives in East Africa, such as mediating between Eritrea and Djibouti and participating in peace talks in Sudan after the overthrow of the authoritarian government of Omar al-Bashir. It’s also noteworthy that from the very beginning of his rule, he strongly advocated for women’s rights. About a half of the officials in his government are women, as is its spokesperson. As a consequence of his politics, October 2018 marked the first time in history when the joint chambers of the Ethiopian parliament have elected a woman, Sahle-Work Zawde, as the country’s president. Soon after, in November, another woman, Meaza Ashenafi, was chosen as the president of the Supreme Court. The prime minister’s actions have made him many enemies, which was proven by a failed assassination attempt during his speech an Addis Ababa in June 2018.

Hope for the future

The Norwegian Nobel Committee stated that it has decided ‘to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. The prize is also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions’. Even though winning the Prize is a significant accomplishment on its own, we have to remember that Abiy Ahmed Ali still faces many challenges. In addition to about a million refugees from the neighbouring countries, as many as three million Ethiopians are considered to be internally displaced people (IDP). Ethnic divisions are as visible as ever, sometimes erupting into violent conflicts. The Nobel Prize is meant to foster and encourage more efforts in keeping the peace both in Ethiopia and in the region.

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