BY BRONWYN BRUTON | FOREIGN POLICY
Abiy Ahmed took up the reins of government in Ethiopia at a time of profound strife, and through a serious of deft political gestures, including the release of thousands of political prisoners and overturning highly repressive restrictions on civil society and political groups, he probably averted a civil war.
His reforms may have been symbolic—critics have called them superficial—but there is no question that his leadership channeled the anger of the streets into a productive passion for reform, quelled protests, and thereby spared Ethiopia from a wave of unrest that many feared could have culminated in a bloodbath.
For that, he certainly should be revered inside Ethiopia, and he deserves the recognition and gratitude of the Western powers, which were spared a nasty reckoning with the consequences of the disastrous regional policies they have pursued since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Prime Minister Abiy has done a spectacularly good job with a dauntingly bad hand, and he deserves most of the praise that’s been heaped on him in the wake of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won last week. But his prize is a continuation of the West’s historically bad habits in dealing with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s previous regime, which was dominated by an ethnic minority party called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), brought Ethiopia to the edge of civil war through its decimation of the political opposition, destruction of civil society, and violations of religious freedom. But despite the immense human rights abuses of which the old Ethiopian government was guilty—including the imprisonment and torture of tens of thousands of political prisoners and the deliberate provocation of ethnic conflicts—it was nevertheless enthusiastically supported by Western nations.
More specifically, the architect of that repressive regime and the principal founder of the TPLF, Meles Zenawi, was personally lionized by Western leaders, especially during the Obama administration. Lest you think “lionized” is too strong a word, it is worth watching former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s gushing eulogy for the authoritarian Meles.
Meles was feted at the World Bank, United Nations, countless think tanks, and the International Monetary Fund. He was showered with billions of dollars in aid and security assistance, and consulted on all aspects of U.S. security policy in the Horn of Africa. Western leaders also turned a blind eye to Meles’s horrific regional adventures, which included invading Somalia and occupying Eritrea’s border territory for two decades.
Western enthusiasm for Meles was to some degree understandable; after all, he carried a lot of water for Washington in its so-called war on terrorism. But his domestic and regional policies—and the West’s uncritical deference to his agenda—are at the root of much the instability that now plagues the Horn of Africa.
It is patently unfair to compare the reformist Abiy with Meles. Abiy is, after all, earnestly working to undo Meles’s legacy of ethnic competition and corruption. But cynical observers of the region should nevertheless feel a small prickle of alarm over the way that the international enthusiasm for Abiy has outstripped his domestic support.
Though he is adored by some Ethiopians, many, including among Abiy’s own Oromo ethnic group, are ambivalent about his leadership and intentions. This ambivalence is evident in the ballooning number of rival ethnonationalist movements in the country—one of the many worrying trends in Ethiopia that Abiy has yet to confront, and that may yet plunge Ethiopia into greater civil unrest or even, in a worst-case scenario, into the kind of ethnic Balkanization that has plagued neighboring Somalia.
As with Meles, the international community’s idolization of Abiy feels disproportionate to his actual accomplishments.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize is also very poorly timed, occurring only seven months before elections that are widely expected to plunge the country into further unrest. Abiy has already repeatedly shut off the internet and locked up protesters, and he may yet do worse. How will that reflect on the Nobel Prize?
In bestowing its prize on Abiy, the Norwegian Nobel Committee acknowledged the prematurity of its choice, conceding that that it was attempting to reinforce and encourage Abiy’s ongoing efforts at regional peacemaking and domestic reforms. Many commentators have compared Abiy’s prize to the committee’s decision to award the Nobel to Barack Obama less than a year into his first term as U.S. president.
But the comparison is hardly fair: Obama was an elected leader, and, more importantly, he was not facing impending elections in a few months. Abiy was anointed the head of the governing coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and replaced the outgoing Hailemariam Desalegn; he has not yet won a nationwide popular vote (and the elections that have kept the EPRDF coalition in power over the years have hardly been free or fair).
Given the likelihood that these elections will be fiercely contested by Abiy’s rivals and that they may well involve widespread unrest and violence—both by protesters and Abiy’s own security forces—the committee’s decision seems both risky and extremely political: Intentionally or not, the Nobel Committee has surely put its finger on the scales of Ethiopia’s election.
Indeed, given the flimsiness of the peace that Abiy has agreed with Eritrea, it’s hard to see the Nobel’s intentions in any other light. Abiy has, after all, done nothing to resolve the border conflict, which was never a war between the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea but merely a power struggle between two authoritarian political parties: namely, Meles’s old party, the TPLF, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, now renamed the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.
Abiy has not reduced the animosity between those combatants at all: They remain entrenched and growling on either side of the contested border, unwilling to give ground. Because the Eritrean border lies mostly in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the Tigrayan-led TPLF is dominant in the area, largely administers the border, and will necessarily be a major player in any genuine moves toward peace. (Hence the lack of any meaningful progress in demilitarizing or physically demarcating the border.)
Abiy has served his own short-term interests well by forming an alliance with Isaias—the move has helped to contain anti-reformist forces in the TPLF. But Abiy has shown no real inclination whatsoever to pursue a real peace with Eritrea; that would require progress on the deep ideological disagreements lurking between his government and Isaias’ on human rights, political space, and a host of customs and trade issues.
Until those rather profound differences are resolved, and until the TPLF agrees to honor the international ruling on the border, peace will remain an aspiration and a photo opportunity for both Abiy and Isaias. Abiy’s Nobel Prize is unlikely to move the needle on peace by one inch: After all, he has little control over the TPLF and even less sway over Eritrea’s internal politics. It remains an open question whether Abiy will ultimately want to pursue a robust partnership with Eritrea. If Isaias persists in his authoritarian governance, should he? Many admirers of the Nobel Prize would say no.
Indeed, receipt of the Nobel Prize aggravates Abiy’s domestic troubles. Some commentators have been prone to see a snub of Isaias in the committee’s refusal to give him a Mandela-de Klerk moment, but Isaias by now is fairly inured to international condemnation. The sting of this award is far more likely to land on the TPLF, which will surely read the Nobel Prize as a repudiation of the party and of Meles, whose wars and political legacy Abiy is justifiably being applauded for dismantling.
This Nobel Prize is a nod to the rightness of Abiy’s rise to power. That may irk not only the old guard on the border, but Abiy’s pro-democracy political rivals, too—many of whom are also working tirelessly to find a way out of Ethiopia’s identity politics and may not feel that the international community has earned the right to cast a vote on Ethiopia’s future.
Bronwyn Bruton is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center in Washington, D.C.