Under Pressure to Deliver: Abiy Ahmed and the Nobel Peace Prize

Following the scandal and deep crisis ravaging the Swedish Academy, which seriously undermined and shook confidence in the entire Nobel architecture, the institution has sought to bounce back.

Last month, its Norwegian Nobel Committee entrusted with selecting the Nobel Peace Prize recipients made a rather courageous move by awarding Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali the Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement of the 2019 awardee came as a surprise to many who are less aware of the Ethiopian transition and the Prime Minister’s efforts of transforming Ethiopia and the surrounding region. The main arguments made for awarding Abiy the prize were the groundbreaking and successful efforts to end Ethiopia’s Cold War-like confrontation with Eritrea and the sweeping political and economic reforms that have been unprecedented in a country with a long authoritarian past. The academy also noted Abiy’s efforts to mediate peace in and between some of Ethiopia’s neighboring countries.

Those criticizing the Nobel Committee’s decision have pointed out the short track record of Abiy in power and therefore as a peace advocate. There is the argument that the Prime Minister has not yet demonstrated a long enough trajectory of commitment to advancing peace. Indeed, some would argue that easing up the authoritarian state system has opened up a Pandora’s Box of surfacing ethnic and religious conflicts which the state had previously suppressed. Peaceful management and resolution of these conflicts is an important but daunting task, especially because they expose Ethiopia to external interference, manipulation, and exploitation.

There are also those who doubt that the reforms can be ultimately successful and who prefer to ask what happens next. Some of them warn about the unraveling of the country due to unavoidable political instability caused by next year’s national elections and the sidelined, but still relevant, former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Although any outright collapse of the Ethiopian state seems very unlikely given its well-established nature and external support, political turbulence is likely to continue in the near future and generate localized conflicts and violence. Some would argue, however, that these can be seen as some of the necessary growing pains of transitioning into an increasingly democratic political system. Such a transition would require transforming violent conflict into non-violent forms that would take place within the state’s institutional structures. Ethiopia has long experience and institutional memory of such conflict transformation which can be drawn on when building an increasingly democratic country.

Finally, there are those applauding the Nobel Committee’s decision. Some of these proponents have argued that the prize was given to the Prime Minister to encourage him to do more. Indeed, in the past, Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to candidates with relatively short track records but with the expectation that the laureate will continue advancing peace and establishing a trajectory as a peace advocate in the future. Surely, as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Abiy Ahmed is under pressure to deliver.

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Photo by Flickr Office of the Prime Minister - Ethiopia / Public Domain
The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the authors’ point of view and do not bind the Center for International Studies, its Director or any other researcher.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Aleksi Ylönen

Research Fellow at CEI-IUL. Current work: FCT funded postdoctoral research project, “The ‘Domino Effect’ of Secessions in the Horn of Africa: Exploring Secessionism in Post-Partition Ethiopia and Sudan”.

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