Imagine a man negotiating a crushingly repressive governing machine, doing it from the inside, and sweeping to power. Then imagine him immediately throwing the prison doors open to free thousands of political prisoners and journalists, welcoming back exiles, allowing banned opposition figures to run for office, and quickly reaching a peace deal with a neighboring country after decades of war.
That man is Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
In a time when democracy is under assault around the world, the Nobel Committee wisely chose to shine its spotlight on Ahmed, a man who has made it his mission to reverse decades of oppression, push against the global tide, and give peace, freedom and equality a chance in a deeply troubled part of the world. Now imagine that the project to build peace and stability is at risk of collapse.
Many people are disappointed the environmental activist Greta Thunberg, a favorite to win the world’s most prestigious prize this year, did not receive this powerful endorsement. But 16-year-old Greta’s day will come. Today, support for what Abiy is trying to achieve in Ethiopia, and what he has already done deserves the strongest encouragement from the international community.
The story of Abiy is a reminder that one courageous, charismatic person has the power to unravel a system of corruption and cruelty and set in motion a process of positive change. That should give hope to millions who are watching autocratic forces steadily undercut systems of democracy and rule of law in their own countries. It should inspire those losing hope, who fear that the powerful and corrupt cannot be stopped. The Nobel Committee’s choice this year sounds a clarion of optimism at a time when despair is making gains.
At the end of 2018, I noted that Ethiopia’s remarkable story was one of the few bright spots in a year that was nothing short of disastrous for democracy as authoritarian leaders tightened their grip on power.
The Nobel Peace Prize often goes to people whose work does not directly affect peace. In this case, peace is an important component of Abiy’s achievements, even though his mission, which is still a work in progress (indeed, his project to build peace and stability is at risk of collapse), is much larger.
Abiy was a member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the EPRDF, a coalition of ethnic groups that overthrew the communist military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Marian in 1991 and ruled the country ever since. The EPRDF ruled by division, setting up a political system based on ethnicity that stoked rivalries in a country with more than 80 ethnic groups. Under its increasingly repressive rule, Ethiopia’s jails swelled with political prisoners; torture became almost routine. Critics of the government fled abroad. Press freedoms were non-existent, and a border war with neighboring Eritrea became an interminable conflict that killed an estimated 80,000 people and snuffed out chances for peace and prosperity for millions on both sides of the border.
The ethnic Tigray People’s Liberation Front, one of the members of the ruling alliance, dominated the EPRDF but tensions were rising in the ruling coalition when Abiy made his move, joining forces between his Oromo Democratic Party and Amhara members to stage something of a coup inside the EPRDF. He became chairman of the EPRDF and then prime minister.
What followed was a mind-boggling series of moves that triggered euphoria among millions of Ethiopians at home and abroad. Within weeks he granted amnesty to political prisoners, ended media censorship, scrapped the ban on opposition parties, and started firing corrupt figures in the military.
Because of his initiatives, exiles returned, and Eritrea and Ethiopia signed peace agreements. It seemed too good to be true.
Abiy set out to develop an open competitive democratic system, inviting political leaders from opposition parties back home to participate. He set up a cabinet where half the ministers are women, some of them holding the most important cabinet posts. He named a woman, Judge Meaza Ashenaf, as head of the Supreme Court. Meaza’s work and rulings on women’s rights had made her an international figure.
Abiy and his country faced enormous challenges, but none steeper than transforming the political environment from one dominated by allegiance to ethnic groups to one where loyalty to the country comes first. Predictably, not everyone was happy with the changes. Those who benefited from the old system resented the reforms. And, most dangerously, the ethnic rivalries that had been simmering were barely suppressed by the regime.
Once Abiy’s liberalization was launched, the conflicts erupted like a pressure cooker relieved of its lid. Hostility has turned to violence in multiple conflicts, displacing millions of Ethiopians. The euphoria that greeted Abiy’s reforms has turned to nervousness and uncertainty. In June, a coup attempt in the Amhara region left several dead, including the region’s governor. Hours later, Ethiopia’s army chief was shot dead.
Abiy’s liberalizing, democratizing reforms continue, but he faces stiff criticism. Some say the reform process is excessively dominated by a single man and worry that the Nobel Prize will make it more so. As if he didn’t have his hands full at home, Abiy helped broker a power-sharing deal in neighboring Sudan, another tumultuous country with a history of repression that may also usher in democracy.
The Nobel Peace Prize went to a champion of peace. But Abiy is a champion of democracy at a time when, according to Freedom House, democracy has been steadily losing ground. If the prize draws attention to his work, and inspires others to emulate him, it could have an impact far from Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.