Brandt School Universität Erfurt

Commentary on the 2019 Nobel Prize Winner Abiy Ahmed Ali by PhD Student Jalale Getachew Birru

We have all heard by now that Ethiopian prime minster Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali is the winner of the 100th Nobel Peace Prize of 2019. He is recognized "for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea"[i]. Indeed, he should be recognized for this achievement. This reunited families who have been apart for two decades. It is heartbreaking to hear about their journeys - how children grow up with out either their father or mother; how separated siblings grow old in two different countries etc. This peace deal opens doors to sustain peace in the Horn of Africa. Dr. Abiy brought together leaders of Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya to further strengthen the Horn’s peace and bring development. Even though in practice the peace agreement remains largely unimplemented, it is in motion. For instance, in the near future, Ethiopia can use the Red Sea ports in Assab in the south of Eritrea, and in Massawa in the north. Ethiopia currently spends over $1.5 billion annually for the use of Djibouti ports. Eritrean industries, on the other hand, will gain access to Ethiopia’s 100 million consumers. Furthermore, Ethiopia stepped in to re-building the strained relationships between Eritrea and Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia as well as Eritrea and Sudan to bring regional cooperation on security matters.

However, without diminishing this regional achievement, I want to bring to the spot light how he turned the path of Ethiopia and took a step towards establishing peace in the country. Before he came to power, Ethiopia was minutes away, figuratively speaking, from a civil war. Just imagine the consequences of an ethnic based civil war in a country which comprises around 108,386,391 population[ii], the second most populated country on the continent, with about 80 ethnic groups in Horn Africa which is already pin pointed as one of the most conflict-prone regions of the world. The people of Ethiopia knew where they were heading. When I visited the country in 2017, most people had lost hope. One can see the tensions building up among different ethnic groups from the rising number of political prisoners and Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

Since 1991, the country was ruled by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an alliance of four political parties: the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is organized in Tigri Region; the Oromo People Democratic Organisation (OPDO), which is based in the Oromia Region; Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) based in the Amhara Region; and Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM) based in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region. Though, TPLF which comes from an ethnic group which comprises 6% of the country’s ethnic composition, dominated the government. The regional governments did not have autonomy as stated in the constitution. They were governed by TPLF either directly or indirectly. The government has always been recognized as an authoritarian government. Especially after the 2005 general election of the country, all democratic rights were removed from the table. Before the next general election in 2010, the Ethiopian government issued several laws which are viewed as restrictive by many stakeholders.  Few of these laws are the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation no. 590/2008, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation no. 652/2009 and the Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009. The electoral law was amended in 2007, restricting the activities of CSOs in the electoral process. Civil Society Organizations that worked on human rights and democracy were abolished through a draconian 2009 proclamation. Moreover, there was structural violence which created an “us and them” mentality among different ethnic groups. Hence, tension was building up based on identity.

The proximate reason which instigated civil unrest began in May 2014, when the government announced the “Addis Ababa Master Plan” which aims to expand the capital city into surrounding farmland of the Oromia region. Even though the government rejected the claim by explaining that the plan was intended only to facilitate the development of infrastructure such as transportation, utilities and recreation centers, the unrest which started in small town of Oromia region spread to the whole region which contains the country’s majority ethnic group - Oromo. Then in July 2015 civil unrest started in Amhara region which contains the second largest ethnic group - Amhara. The people started to demonstrate against the bad governance of EPRDF and demanded change. Until the end of 2017, more than 1,000 people had died, and the government put in place state of emergency twice. The unrest continued to spread to other regions. During this period more than 11,000 people were arrested without access to a lawyer, their family or a judge.[iii] Most of these prisoners were tortured or faced other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Furthermore, violent attacks based on ethnic background were spreading. By the end of 2017, there were 731,001 IDPs because of internal conflict in Ethiopia in addition to the 528,939 IDPs due to natural disaster and 900,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers from neighboring countries.[iv]

In the verge of civil war, in April 2018 Dr. Abiy was appointed by the EPRDF's internal committee after winning an internal struggle among the four parties. Starting from the first day he preached about hope, love and forgiveness. He asked forgiveness from the Ethiopian people for the previous ill treatment of the government by admitting that security forces relied on torture. He reminded the people of Ethiopia that only with forgiveness, love and the “Medemer” concept the country can go forward. The “Medemer” concept literally means “addition” but the concept could be translated as synergy, stresses on building on the rich heritages of the country while working together for the future of the country. In 2018 Dr. Abiy stated that

“our ‘Medemer’ concept is greater than the basic principle of ‘BODMAS’ rule of mathematics. The first rule of mathematics is to bring down the bracket. For us, according to the ‘Medemer’ calculation, the first action is to destroy the hate wall. What makes the ‘Medemer’ concept greater than the basic mathematics concept is when you and I are added we are not going to be two people as the basic mathematics rule predicts. We will be ‘we’… This ‘we’ can represent two or five or ten or ten thousand or ten million people. Our ‘Medemer’ concept also has a concept of subtraction. We subtract trespassing, resentment, evil act, hate, laziness, dishonesty and hate towards the nation and the people. The weapons of subtraction are forgiveness, mercy, compassion and love. Our ‘Medemer’ concept also has division. We divide (share) love, kindness, wisdom and money…. When we share the good and subtract hatred we will be under the concept of ‘Medemer’. By subtracting wicked action, by multiplying and dividing the good we will be ‘we’ which is better than ‘I’. Dear beloved and heroic people of Ethiopia… through ‘Medemer’ concept we can build our future but without it we will loss much more…’’[v]

Within a few days of his appointment, he lifted restrictions on access to the internet, committed to legal reforms of repressive laws and introduced numerous other reforms, paving the way for improved respect for human rights. He closed the infamous Makaelawi detention center, known for torture and mistreatment of political prisoners. He also travelled to different regions of the country which faced the largest unrest and tried to ease the relationship of the people with the government. After forming his government which contains 50% female minsters, he started to tour the US and Europe under the slogan of “Let’s demolish the wall and build a bridge” to reconnect with the diaspora which has an influence in the country’s political arena. He preached the same concept of hope, forgiveness, love and “Medemer”. The people of Ethiopia started calling him the Mosses of Ethiopia - the one who is leading Ethiopians just like Mosses led his people to their promised land.

He also released all political prisoners and invited opposition political parties which were listed as a terrorist group under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation no. 652/2009. He appointed a member of an opposition party in 2005, who was listed as part of the government’s list of terrorist group as the Chairwoman of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. He also promised to hold a democratic election in May 2020. His cabinet drafted and adopted a new Civil Society Law which reopened doors to CSOs which work on human rights and democratization processes. Until the beginning of October 2019, he managed to collect $4,952,000 from the diaspora for the development of the country by asking them to donate one dollar a day. Furthermore, he resolved disputes which split both the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church and Muslim. 43.5% of the population are followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church while 33.9% are Muslim.[vi] Since Dr. Abiy’s father is a Muslim and he is a Christian he knows both religions deeply. As a result, it was easy for him to bring the principles of these religions to resolve the internal disputes of both religions. This created an arena for the followers of these religions to feel connected to him.

When I went back to Ethiopia six months after his appointment, one could see the hope of peace in peoples face. People were talking about politics in cafes without any fear of being detained; they can put a flag of an opposition party on their car without any fear of being detained. There is a sign that democratization process has started. But still the country in under the negative perks of democratization elements- participation and competition. Since there are weak or no framework of institutions which can monitor these elements of democratization process there are still unrest in the country. For instance, inter-communal conflict along the Benishangul Gumuz - Oromia border in September 2018 displaced people inside Benishangul Gumuz region and across the border into western Oromia. Similarly, in November 2018 inter-communal related conflict in Amhara region between the Amhara and the Qemant communities led to displacements in the western part of the region. When Abiy took office in April 2018 the total number of IDPs were 1,613,436 and by June 2019 the number of IDPs doubled- 2,235,290 out of these IDPs 1,645,867 are conflict affected IDPs.[vii] Even though, Dr. Abiy is trying to appoint ministers who can implement his democratization process the change is not visible in most institutions.

Moreover, his government should start taking measures to control random militia attacks in the country. Most people who live outside of the capital do not fill safe. For instance, there are attacks towards civilian in the west Oromia region and in Amhara region. Major roads are blocked for days by a group of people which is affecting people’s day to day life. The government needs to monopolize security in the country.

There is no question that much work is needed to change a country which has never experienced democracy. His government needs to invest in establishing and strengthening framework of institutions which are capable of monitoring the democratization process and effectively resolve any dispute which rises from participation and completion.  The Office of the Prime Minister stated that “the key pillars that will sustain the judicial, political, economic and institutional reforms undertaken over the past few months are rooted in: 1) moving past our age-old grievance narratives; 2) developing a forward-looking perspective; and 3) manifesting the MEDEMER philosophy”.[viii] Nonetheless, the country has started to take steps to establishing positive peace because of the hope, forgiveness, love and Medemer concept of prime minster Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali. As the Nobel Prize Organization stated “[n]o doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early. The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement”.[ix] Indeed this prize will encourage Abiy to move forward in implementing democratic reforms in the country which, hopefully, we will first witness in bringing democratic elections in May 2020.

 


[i] The Nobel Peace Prize 2019. Fri. 11 Oct 2019. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2019/summary/

[ii] Central Intelligence Agency. 2019. Ethiopia. In The world factbook 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_et.html

[iii] Amnesty International. 22 February 2017. Amnesty International Report 2016/17 – Ethiopia. Retrieved from: https://www.refworld.org/docid/58b033ffa.html

[iv] International Organization for Migration. 2018. Appeals for 2018: Ethiopia. Retrieved from https://humanitariancompendium.iom.int/appeals/ethiopia-2018

[v] Abiy Ahmed Ali. 15 July 2018. Speech during the welcoming ceremony of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Millennium Hall, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The original speech is in Amharic.

[vi] Central Intelligence Agency. 2019.

[vii] IOM. August 2019. Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) Ethiopia. Round 17: May to June 2019. Retrieved from https://displacement.iom.int/ethiopia

[viii] The Office of the Prime Minister. 23 February 2018. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/PMEthiopia/status/1099568812431691776

[ix] The Nobel Peace Prize 2019. Fri. 11 Oct 2019.

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