On October 11th, 2019, a friend from England who knows about my interest in Ethiopian politics and the current prime minister Abiy Ahmed asked me if I had heard the news about Abiy Ahmed’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I browsed through mostly western media including Die Zeit, the Guardian, BBC, CNBC and Aljazeera. The consensus amongst them was the appraisal of the minister’s actions, including the release of thousands of political prisoners, the lift of the state of emergency and sealing a peace deal with Eritrea, and appointing a gender balanced cabinet. All of which are considered progressive steps.
In the comment section of Die Zeit people were discussing whether climate activist Greta Thunberg would have been a more worthy winner. Some, like the New York Times, not only praised the young prime minister but also pointed out the obvious fact that Eritreans are still isolated from the world under the Isais Afwerki rule and are forced to flee their country due to the forced military service. Africanews even published an article on 13thof March 2019 about how Human Rights Watch and international rights groups are still worried that the government is abusing the rights of Eritreans by not dismantling the national service. Many Ethiopians and Eritreans may never forget moments such as Ahmed and Afwerki shaking hands to formalize the peace agreement. It was an emotional moment for both countries and communities. However, one must not forget the fate of many Eritreans who are still suffering under Afwerki´s domestic politics.
This brings me to Ethiopia’s own political situation. Abiy has been able to lift Ethiopia out of a crisis brought by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that had been in power since 1991. In 2016 protests arose by young activists in the Oromia region, which were followed by the Amhara. During this time thousands of people were arrested and the government had to call for a state of emergency. Following the resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn, Abiy took to power, released prisoners and lifted the state of emergency. He became a symbol of reform to many Ethiopians coming from the marginalized Oromia region. Nonetheless, upon further investigation, Ethiopian media shares that the peace efforts only bring relief to families who can afford flight tickets from Addis Ababa to Asmara. The border crossing in Zalambessa that may enable transport of people and goods was only opened for a short amount of time. Furthermore, Abiy is facing criticism of only providing benefits to his own ethnic group, the Oromo. Ethnic conflict is still manifesting itself within the Ethiopian political landscape. In the last year 1,200 people have been killed and more than 1.2 million have been displaced due to clashes along ethnic lines. In October there have been incidents of burning down churches that are associated with ethnic Amhara, clashes between regional special forces and a minority ethnic group, killing 20 people in the state of Amhara and attacks in Afar regional state leaving 16 people dead, including women and children.
Already before Abiy came to power the country has been suffering from a deteriorating humanitarian and political situation brought by the previous government´s failings of the implementation of ethnic federalism. The system has led to the division of different ethnic communities. The politicisation of ethnic identity makes it very difficult to call for one Ethiopian identity. How can Ethiopia not be divided when the whole country has been organised along ethnic lines? Despite the prime minister’s successes, many groups do not identity as Ethiopian but rather Oromo, Amhara, Tigray and so on. Abiy Ahmed does deserve respect for his actions, but the prize should also encourage him and his government to find solutions for persisting problems that the country has been facing for many years. It is of pivotal importance to consider the division in the country. Why it has arisen? Why are people still dying? Why are Ethiopians being displaced, when their prime minister received a noble prize?