By Max Lyster
In October, Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, won the Nobel Peace Prize 2019. It might have been the case that many people were perplexed by this surprising announcement because they simply had no idea who Ahmed was. On closer inspection, it is clear why he won the prestigious award: being a fighter for democracy, human rights and peace.
Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018, inheriting a country that has long been plagued by ethnic violence, authoritarian practices and a decades-long war with its neighbor to the north, Eritrea. But Ahmed was determined to fix his country, and immediately brought about much-needed reforms aimed at promoting democracy, human rights, and economic prosperity.
Within months of becoming Prime Minister, Ahmed ended the war with Eritrea. The two countries had been at war for twenty years over competing claims to the border town of Badme — a city with no strategic importance or valuable resources. The war turned from a petty dispute to a bloodbath with 100,000 people dying in just two years of fighting. The two countries signed a peace agreement in 2000 and a border commission was appointed to decide the fate of Badme — which was awarded to Eritrea in 2002. However, Ethiopia never recognized the commission’s decision, leading to nearly twenty years of intermittent border skirmishes and tensions between the two countries. Two months after being elected, Ahmed announced that he would honor the commission’s decision and so now the two countries have finally agreed to end the bitter war. The newfound peace has created new economic ties, spurring economic growth in both countries. The two countries had consistently opposed each other on nearly everything, including the war in neighboring Somalia, as Eritrea backed Islamist fighters, while Ethiopia supported the internationally recognized government. The newfound peace will not only bring stability to Ethiopia and Eritrea, but to the entire region, hopefully spurring economic development and stability in the Horn of Africa at large.
In addition to ending the war with Eritrea, Ahmed has introduced many reforms in order to open up Ethiopian society. He fired incompetent bureaucrats, lifted bans on certain newspapers and websites, freed tens of thousands of political prisoners, partially privatized inefficient state-owned companies, ended a controversial state of emergency used to crack down on protestors, appointed women to his cabinet, fired the head of the prison system and shut down the infamous Maekelawi jail, a symbol of authoritarianism and torture. All of these reforms came within less than a year and a half since Ahmed came to power. Ahmed has made incredible progress in democratizing Ethiopia and fostering the beginnings of a society that respects human rights and civil liberties.
For these reasons, its clear to see why Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize back in October. However, today the country has been driven to the verge of collapse while Ahmed no longer seems to be the reformer the world thought he was.
By no longer cracking down on political opponents and allowing more freedom of speech, Ahmed has opened a pandora’s box. Ethnic groups that have been mistreated and silenced by previous dictators are releasing decades worth of anger and strife aimed squarely at Ahmed. This boiling over of tensions has led to renewed ethnic conflict and violence. In July, there was a coup attempt that left the president of the Amhara ethnic region and several military officers dead. In October, protests against Ahmed’s government led to the death of nearly 70 people; which was made worse by the fact that he was in Russia and said nothing about the protests. Ahmed has lost the support of many of those in his Oromo ethnic group after a very influential Oromo activist and media mogul, Jawar Mohammed, claimed Ahmed and his security forces tried to assassinate him. Meanwhile, he has failed to denounce an Oromo ethno-nationalist movement, prompting other ethnic groups to claim Ahmed is favoring Oromos in his government. Lastly, the Tigrayan ethnic group that long-held power in Ethiopia, but makes up only 6% of the population, is supporting ethno-nationalist movements across the country to destabilize the country and Ahmed’s government.
The growing chaos in the country has led to some disturbing, autocratic decisions by Ahmed and his government. Ahmed has threatened to silence media outlets that are “sowing unrest” in Ethiopia, conducted mass arrests of political opponents and shut down the internet, while claims of torture are coming out of the country’s prisons.
The growing unrest and subsequent crackdown by Ahmed has led many to claim there is a serious risk of state collapse in Ethiopia. If Ethiopia is to fail, there would be serious consequences in the Horn of Africa and the West.
Within the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is the main guarantor of stability, as it is surrounded by failed states and dictatorships like Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea. Ethiopia’s collapse could lead to an unprecedented economic downturn and only perpetuate the instability in the region. Ethiopia’s fate has a large impact on neighboring Sudan and protests there fighting for democratic reforms. Murithi Mutiga, the Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group, explains that protesters in Sudan are looking at Ahmed, and if his attempts at democracy fail, it will “embolden the forces that really believe in increasing authoritarianism which have been ascendant in the Horn of Africa.”
In addition, Ethiopia now has one of the world’s largest displaced populations, with over 3 million people being uprooted from their homes because of the growing ethnic violence. Ethiopia is also home to thousands of refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea. State collapse in Ethiopia, a country of over 100 million and home to thousands of other refugees, could lead to a humanitarian crisis. Europe and the U.S. would likely see a large influx of migrants from Ethiopia and the rest of the Horn of Africa, with both areas already reluctant to taking in more refugees as it stands today.
The U.S, the UK and the E.U. should be doing all in their power to urge Ahmed to continue democratization and implore him to engage in efforts to reduce the growing ethnic violence in his country. Ahmed is starting to stumble down a slippery slope towards autocracy, while the threat of state collapse looms large in Ethiopia. The West praised Ahmed and awarded him with a Nobel Peace Prize. It is time for the West to get more involved in Ethiopia, and ensure Ahmed stays true to his early reforms and intentions. The world must push Ahmed to ensure the people of Ethiopia are safe in their country and have their rights protected. If not, the country of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa may plunge into catastrophic violence and instability, putting hundreds of millions of people at risk. It’s time for the world to take Ethiopia seriously.
*Photos are disseminated by Abiy Ahmed’s Office and are public domain images. The pictures are “free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.”