The Nobel Peace Prize, the world’s most prestigious award, with pickings of about $1.15-million in 2020, has been soiled by one of its more recent laureates, who happens to be a son of the African soil. And that is Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister.
When he shot to international prominence in 2018, following his swearing-in as the nation’s new leader, the then 42-year-old seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. He was youthful and, in his early media engagements, he came across as a man in a hurry to fix all that was wrong in the Horn of Africa nation. Within a short period, he had ended hostilities with neighbouring Eritrea that had endured for nearly two decades, freed political prisoners and lifted a state of emergency imposed to quell public unrest. He also fired formerly untouchable civil servants, and when he got round to assembling his Cabinet he gave half the posts to women.
Clearly impressed by this early performance, high-profile bodies rushed to bestow prestigious awards on him. First was the African Union, which named him the winner of the African Excellence Award for Gender in February 2019 for his gender appointments, which, besides his gender-balanced Cabinet, included the country’s first woman President, first woman chief justice and first woman head of the electoral commission.
Then, in May 2019, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) garlanded him with the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize for his role in bringing about peace between his country and Eritrea. The prize, launched in 1989 and named after the founding President of Côte d’Ivoire, is in line with the philosophy of Unesco, whose constitution states in its preamble: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
The big one, of course, was the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in October 2019. In his acceptance speech, in December of that year, he said “war is the epitome of hell for all concerned”, a reference to the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. He concluded that speech by stating: “I have miles to go on the road to peace.”
But just under a year later, in November 2020, Abiy launched a military offensive against the northern Tigray region, saying he was doing so in response to an attack by insurgents on a military base occupied by federal government troops. This was the culmination of months of feuding between Abiy’s government and Tigray’s dominant party, which, for decades, was at the centre of power in Ethiopia but was sidelined after Abiy took office. The conflict is ongoing, and the civilian death toll is now more than 50 000, if claims by opposition political parties are anything to go by. Moreover, as many as two-million people have been displaced.
In the midst of all this, Ethiopians went to the polls last month in an election that was initially scheduled for 2020 but was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Voting did not take place in Tigray, because of the raging conflict, and was postponed to September in two other regions over security concerns and problems with ballot papers. When results were announced earlier this month, Abiy’s party won with a landslide, and he will thus be in office for another term.
Abiy’s sins in the short time he has been in power have tarnished both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Unesco prize. I cannot think of a past Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has had a similar record – perhaps with the exception of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 winner who went on to preside over a government that persecuted the Rohingya Muslim minority.
We all thought he was going to be a breath of fresh air. How wrong we were.