Updated: October 12, 2019 10:22:31 am
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for “his important work to promote reconciliation, solidarity and social justice”. In its citation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said: “Abiy Ahmed Ali has initiated important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future.”
What Abiy did
When Abiy became Prime Minister in 2018, Ethiopia had been locked in conflict with Eritrea for 20 years. In July that year, the former Army officer-turned-PM, then 41, stepped across the border, held Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in a warm embrace and signalled the beginning of a peace effort, announcing to the world that war was no longer an option.
The Nobel Committee noted how Abiy, in cooperation with Afwerki, worked out the principles of a peace agreement, set out in declarations the two leaders signed in Asmara during that July visit and in Jeddah in September. It also listed domestic achievements by Abiy in his first 100 days as Prime Minister — lifting Emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalising outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders suspected of corruption, and increasing the influence of women in political and community life.
The conflict, its roots
The stalemate Abiy helped break is about a border dispute that began in 1998. Conflict between the two countries, however, has a longer history.
Eritrea, once an Italian colony, was merged with Ethiopia in 1936 during Benito Mussolini’s regime, then taken over by the British during the Second World War. After the War, a United Nations declaration in 1950 made Eritrea part of a federation with Ethiopia. When Eritrean groups launched a struggle for independence in 1961, Ethiopia dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea in 1962. After a war that lasted 30 years, Eritrea gained international recognition as an independent country in 1993.
Just five years later, however, war broke out over the control of Badme, a border town both countries coveted. The violence, which went on until an agreement to cease hostilities in 2000, claimed 80,000 lives and separated countless families. Since then, the two countries were in a state the Nobel Committee described as “no peace, no war”.
What peace brings
In the two agreements during and after Abiy’s visit, the two countries have announced the resumption of trade, diplomatic, and travel ties and “a new era of peace and friendship” in the Horn of Africa.
“… Telecommunications have been restored, allowing families that were split up in the war to contact each other. In the days that followed this breakthrough, some Ethiopians called Eritrean numbers randomly, and vice versa, just to speak to someone on the other side, simply because they could. Others tracked down parents, siblings and friends,” The New York Times reported.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second largest country by population, but landlocked, while tiny Eritrea is connecting by sea to the Middle East. Through the years of conflict, Ethiopia had depended heavily on Djibouti for access to the Gulf of Aden and onward to the Arabian Sea. The peace deal opened up Eritrean ports for Ethiopian use.
While the peace effort is a step forward, ethnic rivalries in Ethiopia have flared in recent years and the country has millions of internally displaced refugees. “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 Committee said.
It acknowledged Afwerki too: “Peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone. When Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it…”
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