Abiy Ahmed and the Perils of a Premature Nobel Prize

With new reports of a widespread famine spreading across northern Ethiopia, the world is focused once again on Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Less than two years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy Ahmed is now at the centre of a humanitarian crisis brought about by a war he instigated.

Images of a Nobel Peace Prize winner commanding an army ‘from the battlefront’ look bad enough for the Nobel Committee. When viewed in context with more recent revelations on Abiy Ahmed’s behaviour in the lead up to the war, it should prompt a full on crisis of legitimacy for the organisation.

New reporting has revealed that Abiy Ahmed had been preparing for his war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since before his Nobel Prize had even been awarded. Having formed a relationship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in the months and years before Abiy’s Nobel, the two sought to instigate the conflict to pacify Northern Ethiopia.

This is a shocking revelation. Yet what’s more troubling is the manner in which the Nobel Prize gave Abiy the motivation and cover to carry out his war, and the Nobel Committee’s weak understanding of the Ethiopian Prime Minister when they nominated him.

Prime Minister Abiy offering a speech to troops on the front line.

At first glance, one can hardly fault the Nobel Committee for choosing Abiy. The Prime Minister received the honour for his role in facilitating the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ending decades of conflict between the two nations. The Nobel Prize is awarded to the individual who made “the most significant contribution to peace” in the past year, and to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Yet much of the praise offered for the Ethiopian Prime Minister was centred around what he would do next, not what he had already done. “No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early” the Committee admitted at the time. But Abiy’s efforts “deserve recognition and need encouragement.”

Why was Abiy afforded such patience? In the words of Declan Walsh in the New York Times, “The West [was] eager for a glittering success story in Africa.” In the wake of receiving his prize, Abiy became a global celebrity, and was granted audience with a host of American politicians.

Yet being a Novel Laureate also suggested to Abiy that the West wouldn’t scrutinise him, giving him the confidence to carry out his war against the Tigrayans. “The glitter of the Nobel Prize, and a burning desire for a success story in Africa, blinded many Western countries to his evident faults” said Judd Devermont, a former intelligence officer who specialises in Africa. “We have to acknowledge that we helped to contribute to Abiy’s view of himself. We papered over these challenges very early. We gave him a blank check. When it went wrong, we initially turned a blind eye.”

This view is echoed by other Ethiopian politicians. In an interview with Kjetil Tronvoll, a Norwegian professor and observer of the Nobel Prize, an unnamed official stated that he “will always hold the Nobel committee responsible for destroying our country. After Abiy received the peace prize, he viewed this as a recognition of his politics and would no longer listen to objections or the dangers of recentralised power in Ethiopia.”

Even before being awarded the prize, the democratic reforms Abiy was promising were backsliding. The borders and trade routes between Ethiopia and Eritrea, temporarily restored, were already being shut down again. When he arrived in Oslo to receive the prize, Abiy had embroiled himself in further controversy by refusing to participate in the customary recipient press conference.

The day Abiy was given the award, Eritrean political activist Vanessa Tsehaye published an op-ed in CNN explaining the collaboration between Abiy and Isaias Afwerki that would play out in the months to come. “This peace agreement was not about resolving the border dispute or bringing peace to Eritrea. Instead, it was a strategic political move by Abiy that has benefited both leaders financially and diplomatically, whilst uniting them against their common political enemy” she said.

Clearly the motivations and internal politics surrounding Abiy were known by those in Ethiopia before the award was given, while the political cover it afforded was well recognized. How was such a significant risk missed by the Nobel Committee?

Tsehaye and Tronvoll both suggest that the Committee lacks the expertise needed to make informed decisions on its nominees. Tronvoll argues that it should explicitly include experts on war and peace, international law, and human rights, and expand its membership to international officials, not just Norwegian political elites. In Abiy’s case, a member who was more knowledgeable of the Ethiopian political situation and who wasn’t as susceptible to Western proclivities towards leaders in the global south, would have been beneficial.

As a body of five Norwegian politicians selected by the Norwegian Parliament, the Committee is exclusive by design. It carries blind spots to foreign political issues and has a Eurocentric bias, at least in its membership. Yet by confining the members to Norwegian politicians, it is also able to display a degree of objectivity. Opening the doors to members outside this small club of relatively disinterested Norwegian politicians invites accusations of more overt political bias.

Yet without some form of reform, the Nobel Committee will continue to see its social capital erode. The Abiy Ahmed episode has proven that the current model is not working. Officially opening the Committee to subject matter experts, and making it possible to revoke a Nobel Prize, would go a long way in improving its credibility.

My name is Chris. I work as a Growth Marketer.

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Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards

My name is Chris. I work as a Growth Marketer.

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