By Teshome M. Borago
After mass protests – mostly in Oromia and Amhara region – forced the previous Ethiopian Prime Minister to resign in 2018, nobody imagined that his replacement would make drastic reforms inside Ethiopia and the region. However, incoming Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed did just that and now he has won one of the most prestigious awards in the world: the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Yet despite his historic efforts, most of his accomplishments remain incomplete and his leadership challenged.
Weeks after Dr. Abiy was selected for premiership – mainly by the Oromo and Amhara ruling party members of the EPRDF – he released hundreds of opposition prisoners and began dialogue with arch rival Eritrea. 20 years after the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war began, Abiy brokered a peace deal with dictator Isaias Afewerki and officially reopened relations with Asmara. Meanwhile, he gave alive branch to previously outlawed opposition groups Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
Using his “Medemer” philosophy and advocating for Ethiopiawinet (Ethiopian unity), Dr. Abiy quickly became the most popular leader – a Messianic figure – nationwide. Still he kept pushing for more change: advocating privatization of state companies and giving key institutional high-level positions to either qualified professionals or experienced opposition politicians, like Judge Birtukan Mideksa to lead the influential National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). He turned former torture chambers into an open museum and tourist sites. His administration arrested even former ruling party officials for corruption.
However, every one of Abiy’s reforms have either been challenged or stalled. Despite the media and diplomatic fanfare, even the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been closed back and trade deals suspended. All that remains is good will between the two leaders in Addis Ababa and Asmara; but Abiy still needs to convince regional stakeholders like the Tigray state and local border communities. And while his role in South Sudan is exaggerated; even peace there is not a done deal yet.
Most of all, the shortcomings and fragility of his domestic reforms inside Ethiopia will eventually define his legacy; though they are the most overlooked ones ignored by the international media. As a charismatic leader of both Oromo and Amhara ancestry, with Muslim upbringing and Christian faith; Dr. Abiy was embraced by the majority of Ethiopians, as if he was their close family member. But when his government gave unrestrained freedom to all nativist ethnic political movements, various corners of Ethiopia quickly became uncontrollable with ethnic conflict; leading to around 2 million citizens internally displaced nationwide, particularly inside Oromia province and around its disputed boundaries. Since then, Abiy has been walking the fine-dangerous-line between empowering separatist ethnic movements and promoting Ethiopian unity. In this effort, his ODP ruling party seems to swing back-and-forth aimlessly: one day forming alliance with Oromo tribalist groups and another day promising to liberalize his party away from an ethnic affiliation. Therefore, Abiy has been losing public trust in Ethiopia due to conflict between his moderate rhetoric personally and the hyperbole organizational moves of his political party. How long he can hold on to his popular mandate by staying in the middle while Ethiopia continues to divide was the main question of his political career until this week; when the Nobel Peace Prize injected a much needed boost. Therefore, for all who wish peace and co-existence inside Ethiopia; even for his nervous political rivals, this award should be a reason to celebrate.
Abiy will likely interpret this Nobel recognition as a boost to his mandate while most Ethiopians will likely view the award as a stimulus for hope toward lasting change; similar to Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize awarded before much of his utopian domestic and foreign policies actually materialized. Despite some good and mixed results domestically, Obama never lived up to the high expectations of his Nobel award, but his failure was never an existential threat to the survival of the United States; unlike the case in Ethiopia. So Ethiopians will pray that Abiy will perform much better post-Nobel as the stakes of his failure are monumental in Ethiopia and the region.