A Peacemaker, Who Might Oversee the Collapse of His Own Country

By Max Lyster
Staff Writer

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.”

SOCCER SCORES NEW GOALS FOR HIV PREVENTION IN AFRICA

Soccer Match in South Africa

By Param Bhatter
Staff Writer

Could soccer be the most popular sport in the world? With the FIFA World Cup approaching, and all of the drama and excitement that it entails, soccer fans all over the world are getting more and more anxious with anticipation for the summer. As perhaps the one sport that is played and watched by all, from any culture, the world stage that soccer employs is perhaps the greatest of any sport. Soccer also happens to be perhaps one of the most democratic sports in the world, with every player, regardless of position, contributing equally to the team and having the ability to score. With over 1 billion people watching the world cup, nobody can deny the power of soccer and its ability to unify people all over the world.

But soccer is no longer just a sport. With such a global presence, soccer is now being utilized as a vehicle for addressing health issues around the world. Used as a tool to help break customary values and longstanding traditions, soccer is promoting HIV awareness in many separate parts of Africa.

In the Nkomazi district of South Africa, medical workers believe that 65 percent of people in the adolescent and young adult age group carry HIV. In this culture, HIV is extremely frowned upon and disregarded, and denial is often the easiest solution for victims of the condition. People who admit to having the disease are often ridiculed by their family and friends and considered outcasts.

In the last five years however, there has been an increase in the awareness of the virus, the options for treatment, and information passed on concerning how to limit its transmission, all accomplished through the sport of soccer. Spearheaded by former Stanford assistant coach, Sarah Noftsinger, the initiative has established a soccer league that runs in over five villages with over 2,500 participants and 160 teams that promote the spread of knowledge of HIV and AIDS. In the league, players receive instruction from trained coaches about topics such as HIV, domestic violence and self-confidence. Players are offered incentives such as nicer jerseys and uniforms for attending these sessions, as well as subjecting themselves to HIV testing after games to make sure they stay in prime athletic condition.

Similar to Noftsinger’s efforts in South Africa, another organization that has now started making tremendous strides towards linking soccer with HIV and AIDS education is Grassroot Soccer. Founded by a small group of French professional soccer players, this project has developed an interactive curriculum that promotes soccer-themed HIV prevention through a so-called “Skillz Curriculum.” By conducting small drills on the soccer field that relate to HIV, the program appeals to many youth who love the sport and can benefit more from the education than from traditional classroom learning. For example, participants set up a bunch of cones that each represent a certain HIV related risk. If a player hits a cone while dribbling, each teammates must do pushups or run, showing how one’s personal mistake affects the rest of the family and community. Coaches are there to help raise awareness regarding all the issues accompanied by HIV, in addition to supporting their team, testing the players regularly, and of course helping them improve their soccer ability.

Many evaluations, conducted by universities such as Stanford and Johns Hopkins have shown that Grassroots is having a positive impact on knowledge and social stigmas related to HIV. Behavioral studies have shown that Grassroot program graduates were nearly six times less likely to engage in activities that could lead to the transmission of HIV. Grassroot has now expanded its programs into several countries in Africa such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, and the group is hoping to take their mission and success story to other continents as well.

With the variety of cultures, ideals and traditions in the world that differ from region to region, philanthropists, doctors and leaders often find it difficult to promote wellness and change stigmas that already exists regarding healthcare. Sports are an underlying aspect of society found in every culture, making them a perfect vehicle for change and reform. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and is now just beginning to be utilized to benefit society in ways besides competition and entertainment. The potential that it possesses to change the world is endless, and we are only now starting to exploit it.

For anyone who would like to get involved, feel free to check out Grassroot’s website and see what you can do today!

Image by digitalrob70

BLOG: THE PROBLEM WITH HUMANITARIAN AID

By Joe Armenta
Senior Editor

A new developmental organization is shaking the international humanitarian aid arena. In 2008, a group of recent graduates from the University of Cambridge developed a model to provide financial assistance to some of the world’s poorest people—one that is actually pretty simple.

Instead of establishing complicated schemes to build communities in the developing world, GiveDirectly distributes cash payments straight to people in need to spend at their leisure. The money comes with no strings attached. Once a recipient is identified, a wireless cash transfer is routed directly to her account and she is given the ability to spend the funds on whatever she chooses.

This goes against the dominant nonprofit industry standard, which advocates sustainable development by teaching skills and offering goods to poor families in hopes of indirectly improving their quality of life. The idea behind these types of programs is proverbial: give a man a fish and you feed him for the day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

The problem with this is that fishing lessons are expensive and time consuming. To provide technical assistance to people requires a highly trained staff, administrative structures and institutional monitoring tools. What is more, the skill sets that people need to achieve long-lasting sustainable development are often unclear. What may seem like a sure way to improve living standards may actually have little impact when the program’s recipients no longer receive aid. With this in mind, it may be more efficient to take the funds that would have otherwise been spent on indirect expenses and give them straight to the targeted individuals.

A full discussion of the benefits of each type of program can be found here, but in debating the efficiency of providing aid to the world’s poor, it should be noted that both types of organizations function as an anti-government solution to addressing poverty. Whether it is providing services or direct cash flow, leaders of both types of organizations attempt to target individuals by transcending national borders.

The problem with this is that widespread poverty in the developing world is the result of bad governance. Poor people emerge out of the inadequate distribution of resources to a country’s citizenry. A report by the Brookings Institute finds that of the 1.2 billion people currently living in poverty, an estimated 595 million live in resource rich countries that experience high rates of corruption and poor institutional frameworks.

Governments are important in addressing the needs of people. They can offer incentives for international investment, build the necessary infrastructure to the connect markets and provide educational training to advance performance. Moreover, good governance, whereby leaders are receptive to the demands of their people, provide an outlet for the poor to demand the greater distribution of wealth in order to increase social mobility.

While it is true that outside non-governmental organizations, such as GiveDirectly, do help individuals access resources, their assistance comes at the cost of letting governments off the hook for providing such services. Why should a government invest funding in programs when it knows that an outside organization will do it for free? More importantly, why should an individual expect its government to provide such services when outsiders will literally give them money for being poor?

Moving forward to eradicate poverty will require a greater emphasis on fostering better governance. This is a slow and tedious process, but its effect will have truly long-lasting and sustainable impacts.

Photo by DFID-UK Department for International Development