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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wins Nobel Peace Prize

He helped resolve a long conflict in his country, and he’s started serious — if imperfect — reforms.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 7, 2019.
Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had only been in office a few months when he jump-started a peace process to finally end a 20-year conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

Now, for those efforts, he’s been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Committee announced Abiy’s award on Friday, citing specifically his efforts to resolve a simmering border dispute that had put Ethiopia at odds with Eritrea for two decades. The committee also nodded to his domestic and pro-democratic reforms, though some of those have been slow to take root.

Abiy, 43, became prime minister in April, after mass protests forced the former prime minister to resign in February. Though Abiy was backed by the ruling coalition, he quickly cast himself as a democratic reformer. It’s led to some comparisons to another young and promising, but still somewhat untested leader, who won the Nobel early in his tenure: President Barack Obama.

But Abiy’s efforts “to achieve peace and international cooperation,” as the Nobel Committee put it, are the big reason he won the Nobel Peace Prize — and they are pretty impressive.

How Ethiopia’s prime minister earned his Nobel Peace Prize

In June 2018, Ahmed agreed to accept Eritrea’s control over a disputed border that had been the source of conflict between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, all of a sudden moving toward peace after a 20-year stalemate.

“It’s long, long, long overdue,” Bronwyn Bruton, deputy Africa director for the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, DC, told Vox in July 2018. “But the speed with which [the conflict] is ending — it’s shocking. It’s really shocking.”

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991, but in 1998, a fight over a border town, Badme, erupted into violence that eventually killed about 80,000. The two countries signed a peace agreement in 2000, and called for an independent commission to resolve the future of Badme.

As Alexia Underwood reported for Vox in July 2018:

But in 2002, when the commission awarded the town to Eritrea, Ethiopia balked and demanded further negotiations. Eritrea refused to negotiate unless it was first given Badme. So the two countries remained locked in a stalemate, marked by occasional flare-ups of violence at the border, for two decades.

That led to a nearly 20-year stalemate between the two, one that would punctuated with outbursts of violence through the years. Eritrea and Ethiopia have deep ties, and the conflict between the two countries cut off most travel and communication between the two, separating and dividing families.

In June, when Abiy moved to accept the settlement, the barriers between the two countries began to break down. In July, Abiy flew to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, to meet with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in a historic meeting between former enemies. And in September 2018, the two countries reopened crossing points, allowing for trade and travel.

The peace is imperfect; Isaias, Eritrea’s leader, is a repressive dictator who has ruled the country since independence. He strengthened his power through the conflict with Ethiopia, under a near-constant state of emergency that led to forced military conscription.

Abiy has also mediated other regional political crisis and conflicts, including in Sudan, where he helped broker talks between Sudan’s pro-democracy protesters and the military to reach a power-sharing for a transitional government.

Perhaps Abiy’s biggest promise — and one still unfulfilled — is his commitment to reforms in Ethiopia. The country had been ruled by a governing coalition that represented Ethiopia’s ethnic minorities, also with a history of corruption and repression. Mass protests forced a change in leadership in February 2018, and when Abiy took over in April, he quickly instigated reforms.

Abiy ended the country’s own state of emergency and an internet blackout. He welcomed back opposition leaders in exile. The prime minister also freed thousands of political prisoners and fired the head of Ethiopia’s prison system over allegations of torture.

But the reforms haven’t been perfect, and Ethiopia has seen a spate of ethnic violence and clashes as some of the reforms, including those ending crackdowns on speech, have unleashed tensions. That’s causing a serious humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands being displaced, and it’s complicated some of Abiy, and Ethiopia’s, ambitions to make the country more free and democratic.

The Nobel Committee acknowledged these challenges, saying in a statement that even as Abiy has sought to promote reconciliation and social justice, “many challenges remain unresolved. Ethnic strife continues to escalate, and we have seen troubling examples of this in recent weeks and months. No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early.”

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement,” the statement added.

A statement from prime minister Abiy’s office welcomed the news, asking Ethiopians and their neighbors to continue “standing on the side of peace.”

Abiy’s Nobel Award rightly acknowledges his accomplishments in his short time in office, while also recognizing that an award based on lofty ideals is hard to judge. There’s been some notable winners, such as Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whose records now look far different from the moment the honorific was bestowed. The Nobel Committee, in awarding the prize to Abiy, seems to be trying to bolster the accomplishments he’s made so far — and maybe send an urgent reminder to the rest of the world that there’s still more work to be done.