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A peace prize winner goes to war
Sensemaker audio

A peace prize winner goes to war

A peace prize winner goes to war

Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago. How has he ended up accused of war crimes?


Transcript
Nimo omer, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo, and this is the Sensemaker.

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, how a Nobel peace prize winner turned to war. 

***

Your majesties, your royal highnesses, distinguished members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, fellow Ethiopians, fellow Africans citizens of the world, ladies and gentlemen.

Nobel Lecture: Abiy Ahmed Ali, Nobel Peace Prize 2019

That’s Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. 

I am honoured to be here today and grateful for the Norwegian Nobel Committee for recognising and encouraging my contribution to a peaceful resolution the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Nobel Lecture: Abiy Ahmed Ali, Nobel Peace Prize 2019

He’s addressing the great and the good in Oslo in December 2019, having just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Abiy Ahmed has won the prize just a year after coming into office for brokering a peace deal with Eritrea. A two decade-long military stalemate is at an end.  

He’s enjoying his moment in the sun, having been chosen ahead of hundreds of others, including, rumour has it, the teenage climate campaigner, Greta Thunberg. 

Leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party (the EPRDF), Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister at just 42, making him one of the world’s youngest leaders.  

His party replaced the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or the TPLF, who had been in power since 1991. 

And his reformist agenda quickly made him the new darling of the international community… 

He released thousands of political prisoners, he filled half of his cabinet with women – giving them important roles in defence and the economy and crucially, Abiy Ahmed made moves to democratise the country. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has promised free and fair elections in 2020 he also added that the polls should not be delayed due to the ongoing reforms in the Horn of Africa.

CGTN

But two years later, the hopes invested in Abiy Ahmed have been tarnished. 

Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered the military to launch its final offensive against rebel leaders in the northern region of Tigray in a conflict that aid groups fear could worsen the humanitarian crisis.

BBC News

Ethiopia has been mired in a civil war since November 2020. 

And the conflict is escalating:

The federal government has declared a nationwide state of emergency prime minister Abiy ahmed has asked all Ethiopians to mobilise and fight back against the rebels. 

Al Jazeera

Abiy Ahmed has gone from being the global poster child for peace to being accused of crimes against humanity. 

How did things implode so quickly? 

*** 

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country with the second largest population on the continent. 

And it should be pointed out that before Abiy Ahmed became prime minister, Ethiopia was doing well for itself. 

When the TPLF was in charge, poverty rates almost halved in 20 years.  And the number of women who died in childbirth fell from 1,080 per 100,000 live births to 353.  

Huge investments in infrastructure and education led to improvements in living standards. 

But a rift was brewing. 

Because even as the country grew more prosperous and more stable, there were concerns about human rights and democracy. 

You see, Ethiopia is a massive country with a number of different ethnic groups that have had historic tensions. 

And in 2014, for example, the Ethiopian government, then ran by the TPLF,  faced an uprising from the Oromo ethnic group. 

The anti-government protests lasted for two years and were a response to the decades of marginalisation faced by the Oromo.  

Dozens of people have been killed in a new wave of anti-government protests in Ethiopia several thousand people gathered.

Al Jazeera

And so when Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister a few years later, he decided the best way to address these concerns was to reboot. 

He created a new party and removed key TPLF officials from the government who had been accused of corruption and human rights violations.

But the thing is, the TPLF still had a big stronghold in Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, that is largely self-governed because of the federal system.

And these moves by the Prime Minister infuriated TPLF leaders. 

They were seen as an attempt to undermine the federal system, and centralise power in Addis Ababa. 

Tensions eventually boiled over when Tigrayan officials were accused of attacking a federal army base.

And that was it. It was war. With Abiy Ahmed’s government on one side, allied with Eritrea, and Tigray on the other. 

So what does this mean for the rest of the rest of Africa?

*** 

The impact of this civil war goes beyond Ethiopia’s borders. 

Over 68,000 people have fled to neighbouring country Sudan, which is in the middle of its own domestic crisis, and that number is rising. 

This is a problem because Sudan and Ethiopia have been locked in border disputes for years. 

Ethiopia and Sudan are warning each other against worsening a historic border dispute they fought over Al Fushqa for a century.

Al Jazeera

The fragile political situation means the area is at risk of a conventional war breaking out. 

This would be disastrous for the whole region because it could suck in regional allies and further destabilise the Horn of Africa.

The scenes in Tigray have been horrific: two million people displaced from their homes, thousands dead, hundreds of thousands more living in famine-like conditions. 

Ethiopia is now in a nationwide state of emergency with Abiy Ahmed encouraging civilians to take up arms and protect themselves.

There has been international condemnation and warnings of trade embargoes but this hasn’t quelled the violence. 

There have been allegations of ethnic cleansing and sexual violence being used as a weapon of war. 

Abiy Ahmed came in promising democracy and an end to the tensions that have troubled Ethiopia for decades. 

But just two years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy Ahmed is resorting to authoritarian tactics like arresting journalists and protesters and shutting down the internet.

And he seems to be in no hurry to end the violence, as he marked the one year anniversary of the civil war by saying “we will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again.”

Today’s story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Imy Harper.