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Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed, Awarded Nobel Prize, Celebrated for “Remarkable Change” in Horn of Africa

StoryOctober 14, 2019
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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the 100th Nobel Peace Prize in an announcement Friday morning. The prime minister last year helped broker a historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where leaders of the neighboring countries signed a “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship” and declared an end to nearly two decades of a “state of war” that lasted from 1998 to 2000 and killed 70,000 people. Soon after the peace declaration was signed, the first direct flights between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 20 years took off from Addis Ababa, headed to Eritrea’s capital Asmara. Ahmed has also lifted the state of emergency, released thousands of political dissidents from prison and appointed women to a record 50% of cabinet positions. We speak with Awol Allo, an associate professor at the Keele University School of Law in the U.K. His recent article for Al Jazeera is titled “Why I nominated Abiy Ahmed for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show looking at this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner.

BERIT REISS-ANDERSEN: The Norwegian Nobel Committee 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 neighboring Eritrea.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Friday in Oslo. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will receive the award December 10th. The committee praised Ahmed for his role in brokering a historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea and for lifting the state of emergency in Ethiopia. He has also released thousands of political dissidents from prison, appointed women to a record 50% of cabinet positions.

For more, we go to Staffordshire, England, to speak to Awol Allo, an associate professor at Keele University School of Law, his recent article for Al Jazeera headlined “Why I nominated Abiy Ahmed for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Well, let’s start there, Professor: Why did you nominate him? And talk about his significance, the youngest leader in Africa today.

AWOL ALLO: Absolutely. I nominated him primarily because of the significant and remarkable changes that he has brought into the Ethiopian state. He is an Ethiopian leader, came to power on the back of persistent struggles by people, a protest that lasted for a period of three years, involving two state of emergencies. This one came essentially out of nowhere, became a prime minister, changed the political fortunes in Ethiopia, lifted the state of emergency, released thousands of political prisoners, allowed a number of opposition forces that were forced out of the country to come back and participate in democratic politics, and really gave hope and optimism for Ethiopians. So, that, in and of itself, is very, very remarkable.

But the Nobel award was not given because he did these things internally. I think, for any leader, it is their duty to do those kinds of things on the domestic level. But he was awarded primarily for what was a transformational, I think, step that he has taken in stabilizing the Horn of Africa region, generally, but specifically what he did in relation to Eritrea, which is a neighboring state with whom Ethiopia has been fighting for a very long period of time. So, when he was appointed as prime minister, in his inaugural speech, one of the most important foreign policy statements that he made was reaching out to Eritrea and saying to the Eritrean leaders and to Eritrean people that it is enough, and we need to move forward. And shortly after he became a prime minister, he unconditionally accepted the Algiers Peace Agreement, he accepted the boundary decisions — the Boundary Commission’s decision, and he made a deal with Eritrea — something that most people thought was impossible. He took risks. He did it against significant internal opposition. He normalized relations with Eritrea and allowed thousands of families who were splintered as a result of the senseless war to reunite once again. So, that was hugely significant.

But beyond Eritrea, as well, he tried to mediate differences between various countries in the region, so between Eritrea and Djibouti, for example, between Eritrea and Somalia, between Somalia and Kenya, in South Sudan, but, most recently, the peace deal that he managed to broker between the opposition alliance and the Transitional Military Council in Sudan itself. So, when you take all of those things together, I think he was clearly a very worthy candidate in terms of the criteria of the Nobel Peace Prize.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaking last year.

PRIME MINISTER ABIY AHMED: [translated] If there is peace between Ethiopian and Eritrean people, the Horn of Africa region will be a region of peace and development. Our people who live scattered as refugees in humiliation will come back with dignity. Our citizens will not be sold and exchanged like commodities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I was wondering if you could give us his biography in a nutshell? An unusual upbringing, interreligious, his family. Tell us about him.

AWOL ALLO: So, he comes from a very diverse background. His dad is a Muslim. His mom is a Christian. He is ethnically an Oromo. He fought as a soldier in the Ethiopian-Eritrean War, so he understands, I think, the miseries that were brought to people who fought in the war, but generally to people in the frontline area. He was, for a time, director of one of the intelligence agencies in the country. He was also a minister of technology. He, in the last four or so years, became the head — the deputy head of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization, the political party that he leads now and from which he comes to become a prime minister. So, he’s somebody that has a hugely diverse appeal to the different sections in Ethiopia’s highly diverse community.

AMY GOODMAN: And was a U.N. peacekeeper in Rwanda. I wanted to turn to an opinion piece in Deutsche Welle by Ludger Schadomsky, who heads the German newspaper’s Amharic desk. The article is headlined “Nobel Peace Prize for Abiy Ahmed a misguided decision.” In it, he writes, quote, “The initial shuttle diplomacy pursued by Abiy and Eritrea’s autocratic ruler Isaias Afewerki has come to a halt. … By now, both countries have rather resorted to forging unholy strategic alliances with countries located beyond the Red Sea, in accordance with that age-old motto that Horn of Africa nations ascribe to: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' … Abiy has received the most prestigious peace prize for a peace that exists, predominantly, only on paper. Worse still: the award could, eventually, even torpedo those peace efforts, if the Eritrean leadership felt put under pressure to an even greater extent than before.” Awol Allo, could you respond to this criticism?

AWOL ALLO: I think I read that piece. I think it was a very cynical piece. It is completely uninformed, with very little knowledge of the Ethiopian political landscape and the Horn of Africa’s politics.

Awards of this nature come with a lot of moral authority. There are certainly risks that they could be abused and used for purposes and ideas that are not consistent with the prize. But at the same time, it is also a very important tool for the recipient to use to advance the peace agenda. This award is not given to the most — you know, to the nicest person or to the kindest person on Earth. It’s given for something very specific: for an individual who did the most in terms of advancing the cause of peace in the previous years. And I cannot really think of anyone around the world who did that better than Abiy Ahmed.

Are there challenges in terms of forging relationships with Eritrea, going forward? Absolutely. Eritrea is a highly authoritarian state, a very closed system. It has concerns, in terms of everything it does, in terms of every bilateral relationship that it enters into. So, in the face of, for example, a democratizing Ethiopia and a country that is opening itself up to plurality of voices, the Eritrean government would certainly have concerns.

But those concerns do not in any way take away from the achievements of the Ethiopian leader or the Ethiopian government, because what Ethiopia did is basically tried to do everything they can to give peace a chance. And I think the segment that you played earlier, where the prime minister of Ethiopia was saying that peace in Ethiopia requires a stable and peaceful Horn of Africa, that the relationship that Ethiopia had with Eritrea, making Eritrea some kind of pariah, where, you know, it is diplomatically isolated through the pledges that Ethiopia was putting on other Western countries, and making Eritrea hell-bent on destabilizing the region, that does not help. It did not help. It will not help in the future. And Abiy’s approach is to say that peace and stability in my county is inextricably tied to peace and stability in the region. And what he did, in my view, is try to address that problem as much as he can. But, obviously, it takes two to make peace. You’re dealing with a highly authoritarian system, a very difficult individual. And there is limits in terms of how much you could push. So, some people, for example, link —

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

AWOL ALLO: — democracy and human rights in Eritrea with this award. So, in a way, I think that what is being claimed here is that Abiy Ahmed is supposed to solve Eritrea’s problem. That’s, I think, a slightly different question.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Awol Allo, I want to thank you very much for being with us, associate professor at the Keele University School of Law in Staffordshire, England. That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. This is Democracy Now!

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