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Noble Peace Prize; Empty pride or well-deserved prize – The Eritrean perspective

Scrutinizing 2019 nobel selection: views from the ground

On April 02, 2018, the newly minted Chairman of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Abiy Ahmed Ali formally took the job of an Ethiopian Prime Minister in a swearing-in ceremony held at the nearly full House of People’s Representatives (HPR). On that day, Abiy, perhaps on his widely accepted speech ever, promised to end the protracted hostilities that his country harbored towards its neighbor and once part of—Eritrea. On this landmark speech, the new premier stated in no uncertain terms that the ‘no war, no peace’ situation between the two conditions is no more sustainable and could be continued.

Many pundits at the time were fairly critical of the Prime Minister’s promises and the practicality of the pledge he has made to end tensions with Eritrea. In fact, most were indeed logical to question Abiy’s promises and how he would come about to implement them. At least for a while, these critics seemed in the right since talk of Ethio-Eritrean situation was never to be heard of the hyper-active political environment of Ethiopia and the overall euphoria surrounding the change of guard at helm of the ruling party.

Well, as said earlier, this was just for a while. Then in early June, EPRDF’s top leadership structure—the executive committee—come up with what can be said to be the next step in Ethio-Eritrean relation. The party leadership, although later the oldest member of the Front— Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—expressed reservation, passed the most critical decision to fully accept the terms of the Algiers Agreement to effectively put an end to the long-standing conflict. The decision of exec committee also called up Eritrea to take steps towards peace and normalization of relations between the two nations.

Having responded favorably to this call, the Eritrean side as well appeared keen to restart the severed relations between the people and leaders of the two nations. At the height of this exchange, Prime Minister Abiy took what appeared to be a very bold move of setting foot on Eritrean soil as Ethiopia’s leader. And it suffice to say that his arrival at Asmara was treated as a national holiday and many came out to see this man who changed what looked like an unresolvable conflict. Isaias Afeworki reciprocated the gesture by attending a night of celebration and merriment held at the millennium Hall in Ethiopia’s capital –Addis Ababa.    

And on the dawn of Ethiopia’s New Year, in fact in ceremony held at the Ethiopia New Year, Abiy and Isaias met at the border checkpoint in Tigray to mark the opening of a closed border. The event could perhaps be a signso bit that is seen across the globe. That perhaps is the smoke signal that is picked up by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, body tasked with selecting annual recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Swedish Industrialist who dedicated his estate for the award on his last will and testaments.

Among other things, the impact on lives on the ground was said to be a major consideration that went into the decision of the committee when selecting Abiy and his peace efforts towards Ethio-Eritrea conflict to be recognized this year. Nevertheless, the opinion on the ground regarding the PM’s Nobel Peace Prize is fairly divided with some claiming that it was too early, while some others outright claiming that the PM is not deserving of it.  

For Biniam (name changed because of security concerns), an Eritrean living currently residing in Ethiopia,it is good that PM Abiy received the Noble Peace Prize, and that Eritreans are happy about it.“However, does he deserve it or not is another topic,” he argues. Biniam moved to Ethiopia first when the border first opened. He was one of the first people to move here hoping for a better life. Biniam claims thatat first, there were many changes. He said that “One of the most important changes is that families that were separated due to the conflict where able to reunite, and people imported a lot of things that were in short supply back home”.

All this excitement did not last long, according toBiniam,since the Ethio-Eritrean border was closed shortly after and that now it is almost the same as it was before. “Back home, not much have changed for my people,”Biniam said to The Reporter. He said PM Abiy may have deserved the prize in the beginning, but now not so much. He says the governments must keep up the peace deals and continue to work toward peace and development.

The news of Abiy Ahmed Nobel recognition spread quickly; many have congratulated him. Nevertheless,the Eritrean government is yet to congratulate him. The noble peace price is a huge pride for Ethiopians though it would be hard to say that is for all, pundits said across various media outlets. Some even believe that it is an empty pride and that it is not well deserved.Social media users were quick to express their fillings on twitter as the news broke.Some were disappointed and mocked the noble peace prize and some were happy and claimed that the PM deserved the prize, others where neutral claiming that hopefully this will motivate the government to work harder and strive for peace and democracy.

Anothercommentator, who was born in Ethiopia and moved to Eritrea at the age 7 and lived there for the past 20 years, and who talked to The Reporter on condition of anonymity,generallyadmires the effort of the Ethiopia government and PM in the starting the normalization process between the two countries. “It was an amazing initiative,” he saysthat; “It is nice that he has received the Noble Peace Prize; however, he might have deserved it for taking the initiativebut notso much at the present time.”

She told The Reporter that when the border first opened, she returned back to Ethiopiaand was able to reunite with her family and friends that she had left behind. It was a very exciting moment for her; but that lasted for a very short time. However, she is under the impression that those peacemaking effortsare now wiltingaway through time. Back in Eritrea thingsappears to be business as usual.“There is no significant change for the people on the ground; it is getting back to how it used to be,”another youth Eritrean activist agrees with her.

EphremeBerhe, an Eritrean youth activist residing in Canada, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation(CBC), that he was shocked upon learing that PM Abiy has received the Nobel Peace Prize 2019. Ephremeargues that there is no peace;“It is a very inaccurate statement to claim that there is peace to begin with. The fact of the matter is that Abiy is making alliances with dictator and not with Eritrean people”.

DW (Deutsche Welle), Germans international news service,on their part, holds the opinion that the Noble Peace Prize of Abiy Ahmed was a misguided notion. LudgerSchadomsky, head of Amharic department with DW, said, “That awarding it to a young reformer hailing from Addis Ababa despite the stalled progress on his peace initiative is a wrong choice.” He claims that this Noble Peace Prize might have pushed the possibility of peace talks even further as it has been halted for some time now.

Nevertheless, Ludger believes that the recognition might have some positive spillover effect on the actual pace process on the ground. And he wrote: This peace prize might have turned some heads in the political corners around the world, he says and might diverton the peace talks, which might create pressure on Eritrean leadership greater than before. The government of Eritrea is unlikely to enjoy being snubbed under the eyes of the world by a charismatic politician half his age”.

Others on social media havewondered why the noble prize was not awarded to both parties asPresidentIsaias was not awarded. If Pm Abiy is awarded for bringing peace with Eritrea and then why not PresidentIsaias? After all the “peace agreement” would not be possible without Isaias Afwerki involvement.

The Washington post reported that, Nobel Committee Chair Berit Reiss-Andersen simply acknowledged that “peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone” and said that they hope the “peace agreement will help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea”. Noble Peace Prize has been awarded to multiple parties involved in previous years. For instance, Nelson Mandela Noble peace prize was awarded in joint with President Frederik Willem de Klerk.It was hardly surprising when the Noble Peace Price was only awarded to Ethiopia Prime minister and not to Eritrea. Even though both countries have reached an agreement to end the conflict, in reality not much have implemented and there have been barely any visible benefits for Eritreans according to The Washington post.

Mr. J, editor of Eritrean Press, said they felt “euphoric, ecstatic; we were backing the Prime minister for the Prize last year as well”. Mr. J claims that despite the short period of time that the land border was open, the thought of no more war and communication between the two brotherly people at the border are very significant to the locals as the first major improvement to their better relationship.BBC has reported that Mr. J is the editor of the popular Facebook page known as Eritrean press that provides news from a country with one of the World’s worst records on press freedom, however, no one knows his real identity.

Mr. J told The Reporter that “even though Mandela and De klerk in South Africa, and Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin with Yasin Arafat "for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East" won Nobel Peace Prizes, Eritrean Press strongly disagree with that 'should' assumption. PM Abiy was elected not only for the Eri-Ethio peace initiatives but for reforming the political and economic policy of his country. For example, pardoning of former dissidence is one of the things that set Abiy apart from Isaias. If Isaias had released the political prisoners after he made peace with Ethiopia, Eritreans would have said that he was right all along by refusing to pardon the political prisoners while the country was 'at war' with Ethiopia. He would have a legitimate reason and hailed as a principle man. But not now, and not in the eyes of the Nobel judges”.

The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has existed for a long time. Diplomatic, trade and transport ties were severed, and the countries remained on a war footing, clashing repeatedly and supporting rival rebel groups. From 1998 – 2000, there were borders clashes that resulted in hefty damages for both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

PM Abiy took office in April 2018 and has pushed for many reforms thereafter. One of his Agendas was a peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. As promised during his speeches, PM Abiy and President Isaias signed a peace agreement. The five-point joint declaration of peace and friendship declared the end of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two countries also agreed to resume trade and communication links, diplomatic relations and transportations, implement the EEBC's border ruling, and ensure regional peace and cooperation.

This peace agreement between both countries has also resulted in UN lifting sanctions that were previously imposed on Eritrea. In December 2009, UN had imposed sanctions on Eritrea for its alleged support of Islamists insurgents in Somalia. After the successful peace agreement PM Abiy Ahmed requested for the sanctions to be lifted. Hence in November 2018, UN security council ends nine years of sanction on Eritrea. After the peace agreement, the border had opened up, and many families have been reunited.  There were huge celebrations from both part and a glimpse of hope. However, that faded quickly as the land border in Badme was closed and only few elites get to travel back and forth through air travel.

Contributed by Sesina Hailou