In recent years the difficulty, if not the failure, of presidents and prime ministers to effect change has led the Norwegian Nobel Committee to instead award its Peace Prize to international institutions or individuals.
But national leaders still play a vital role in peacemaking. Especially those such as Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, who became a worthy, albeit early, laureate on Friday.
Abiy was named “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea,” the committee said in a statement.
The committee also rightly credited Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
“Peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone,” the committee wrote. “When Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalize the peace process between the two countries. The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes the peace agreement will help to bring about positive change for the entire population of Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
If this positive change is in fact achieved, it will reflect remarkable progress for both nations as they move beyond what was a frozen conflict until it heated up between 1998-2000 and killed up to 100,000 people.
The Norwegian Nobel committee, Africa, and in fact the world should also hope that Abiy’s newfound prestige presages progress elsewhere. He’s already played a larger positive role, with the committee noting his mediation efforts in disputes between Eritrea and Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia, and within Sudan.
There’s internal, especially ethnic, strife in Ethiopia, too, and Abiy’s ability to help mend other rifts depends on successful results at home. He’s made great strides here, too, initiating “important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future,” according to the committee.
Among them, “lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalizing outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, and significantly increasing the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life,” as well as pledging to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.
That’s a lot for a 43-year-old leader only in office since 2018. The committee anticipated that the award may reflect more aspiration than accomplishment when it wrote: “No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early. The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”
Indeed, the committee “often sees its work and the value of the prize not just in recognizing past work but in trying to encourage and support that work that is ongoing,” Joe Underhill, an Augsburg University associate professor of political science, told an editorial writer. Underhill, who is the program director for the upcoming Human Rights Forum (formerly the Nobel Peace Prize Forum), pointed to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as another leader-turned-laureate still implementing a peace process.
For his part, Abiy tweeted, “I am humbled by the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. My deepest gratitude to all committed and working for peace. This award is for Ethiopia and the African continent. We shall prosper in peace!”
It’s also an award for that should make Minnesota’s vibrant Ethiopian community proud. They, and those back home, should certainly celebrate, but also keep pressing their prime minister, and country, to realize Ethiopia’s potential.