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Why I am ecstatic to see Abiy win the Nobel Peace Prize

I see people point to the troubles we have at home and question whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) “really” deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize 2019. I argue that, within the short time he has had, Abiy has showed enough traits of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and, hence, deserved it.

I think our criticism should have been directed at whether the motivations the Nobel Committee stated were the right ones. The Nobel Committee said that they awarded Abiy the Peace Prize "for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea." Having looked at the tears of joy that were shed as families from the two countries reunited for the first time in two decades, I say yes, that was a great achievement worthy of recognition in and of itself.

However, I think Abiy should have won the Prize for more local reasons, too. Bear with me.

Yes, we have had internal ethnic-based conflicts and ethnically-inspired displacements like never before. We have had rogue elements running around robbing banks, stoning people to death, hanging a person upside down from a pole. Yes, things have been dire. But as a leader who inherited countless problems – most of which were already ongoing and have been brewing for decades, Abiy can only be judged on the basis of how he tried to deal with them. Most of the he-failed-to-enforce-law-and-order criticism often comes with the undertone of “he should respond to violence with more violence”. I have read countless people urging the government to ensure “monopoly of violence”. As a military man himself, I think that is Abiy’s instinctive predisposition, too. However, Abiy rightly diagnosed that unleashing the full force of a security apparatus on which he has yet to have a sufficient grip could easily spiral out of control and beget bloodshed no force could stop. We have seen from our experience in the early 1970s that once a head of government gives the green light for the armed forces to use “whatever means necessary”, it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Just imagine for a moment what it would have been like had Abiy let another round of “revolutionary guards” out to save the reform by using “whatever means necessary”. Another terror, potentially of a darker hue, would have been unleashed. Abiy did avoid that – at least so far. And that is what I think is worth a Nobel Peace Prize. Is Ethiopia still a mess, of course it is. But he has embarked up on the right path. No leader was ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for having completed “the work” of achieving peace. Peace is not a task you complete. Most of the laureates, if not all, were awarded for their “efforts” in the right direction. If we look at the track records of the previous African winners of this distinguished Prize, we see a common trait – they managed to avoid the instinctive trap of responding to violence with violence even under great provocation from the other side and immense pressure from their own constituencies. And by so doing, they avoided even greater violence.

I think the South African brothers provide the perfect example. In 1960, South African chief, teacher and trade unionist, and later president of the African National Congress, Albert Lutuli, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for becoming a “spokesman of a campaign of civil disobedience directed against South Africa's policy of racial segregation”. It would be another three decades before his efforts bore fruit. Similarly, The Nobel Committee recognized in 1984 that “despite bloody violations committed against the black population, as in the Sharpeville massacre of 1961 and the Soweto rising in 1976, [Desmond] Tutu adhered to his nonviolent line”. It was the same with Nelson Mandela. After Mandela was freed, the pressure from his armed constituencies to take the struggle all the way and avenge all the terrible things that happened in the previous half century was immense. When their expectations were not met, people actually started taking matters into their own hands. I learned, during a visit to Nelson Mandela’s Official Exhibition Tour in London, that “The closer South Africa inched to democracy, the more people died in a spiral of political violence. In 1993 – 1994, more were killed than over the previous 30 years.” The Boipatong attack, in which a mob killed more than 40 people with guns, knives and axes, the killing by a white man of Chris Hani, a popular black leader of the South African Communist Party and the subsequent deaths all could have triggered a spiral of violence out of which South Africa would not have emerged the strong and the rainbow nation that it is today. But Mandela acted like the sober adult that he was and responded by asking for calm. He chose to take the less popular (at the time), longer, yet more sustainable way of reconciling South Africa with its past and present grievances. De Clerk and Mandela co-won Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”. Remember, Mandela won the Prize in 1993 and the violence in deed continued into 1994. Four people were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end Apartheid. Democratization and peace building are more like a relay sport than a solo race. No one person does it all. Abiy is not awarded the Prize for having solved the nation’s problems but for choosing the peaceful way of dealing with them.

That is why I was ecstatic when I heard the news that great morning, on my way to work. But I had other reasons, too.

A call to action: In an article he wrote on Al Jazeera, Awol Allo, one of the persons who nominated Abiy for the Peace Prize said, “To be clear, I did not nominate Abiy because I believed he had effectively transformed the peace and security landscape in Ethiopia or the Horn of Africa. Although his achievements were nothing less than stellar, I nominated him partly because I view the Nobel Peace Prize as a call to action.” Abiy is now a prisoner to the key word on the name of the Prize – Peace. With it attached to his name, every time he is confronted with the choice between a peaceful solution and a violent one, he will be more inclined to choose the peaceful route even if that comes at great personal cost.

It will give him legitimacy and authority as a broker of peace and driver of prosperity: It was clear from the outset that Abiy’s road was not going to be a bed of roses. Unfortunately, there are people out there who profit from violence and are committed and able to mobilize millions behind them to that end. Because there are no moral expectations on them, their methods are unorthodox and unpredictable – for which reason they are often mistaken for smart. Abiy was always going to have these groups breathing down his neck, trying to nudge him out of his lane and on to using violent methods to justify theirs, to show the world that they act(ed) the way they did because they had no choice. Abiy was always going to be a thorn on their conscience, a constant reminder of who they could have become. I was happy when Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize because I believed the legitimacy and moral authority that come with the Prize will keep him an inch ahead of them. With that extra inch, I believe, he would be better positioned to put his local, regional and global visions for peace and prosperity into reality.

It’s a long-overdue recognition for Ethiopia’s contribution to peace on the continent

Haile Selassie I - the missing laureate: One of the persons I still wonder why he never won the Nobel Peace Prize is Mahatma Gandhi – with all the issues, of course. We now know that “Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before he was murdered in January 1948”. Somehow, he never made it and for that reason he is referred to as “the missing laureate”. For me, the other missing laureate is HIM Haile Selassie I – who singlehandedly established the largest continental organization in the world in 1963 and helped avoid potential wars on the continent in the post-colonial times. Haile Selassie I did not win it in 1964 perhaps because he was up against the exceptional Martin Luther King Jr that, but I still believe his nomination should have been transferred for the next year just like MLK’s. It didn’t happen. So Abiy only brough home the medal that should have been here long time ago.

Ever since Haile Selassie sent the peace keeping troops to the Congo 1960-1964, Ethiopia has deployed more peace keeping troops across Africa than any other country over the last six or seven decades from Rwanda to Burundi, from Liberia to Cote d’Ivoire, from Abyei to Darfur to South Sudan more recently. Most recently, Abiy capped that feat with what he did in Khartoum. And he laid the foundation for better relations with Eritrea.

Exactly 55 years ago today, on 10 December 1964 (perhaps chosen to coincide with date of adoption of UDHR of 1948), Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, said in his presentation speech: “Today we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered.”

Well, my people, today we pay tribute to Abiy Ahmed Ali, the man who has never abandoned his faith in a united and prosperous Ethiopia and a peaceful and interconnected Horn of Africa, who has suffered a great deal of witch-hunt and abandonment for this faith, who has survived an assassination attempt and a coup, who has been urged to respond with violence to those who tested his resolve, and who nevertheless has never faltered.”

Ed.’s Note: Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete is a graduate student of Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached on Twitter @behailus.

Contributed by Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete