Ethiopians are jubilant at the Nobel Peace Prize for Abiy Ahmed. Eritreans are not so sure

The award recognises the peace deal between the two countries, but many in Eritrea see it as premature.

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The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been met with a mixture of jubilation and incredulity in the Horn of Africa. “I am so humbled and thrilled, thank you very much,” the prime minister said on hearing the news. “It is a prize given to Africa, given to Ethiopia, and I can imagine how the rest of Africa's leaders will take it positively to work on peace-building process on our continent.” 

Abiy's peace deal signed last year with Eritrea ended a 20-year military stalemate following their 1998-2000 border war. The Nobel committee said the prize was given “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

Congratulations flowed in from across the world, with UN secretary general António Guterres declaring: “His vision helped Ethiopia and Eritrea achieve a historic rapprochement, and I was honoured to witness the signing of the peace agreement last year.” 

In Ethiopia itself Ahmed’s achievements were widely welcomed. William Davison, of the International Crisis Group reacted: “Millions of Ethiopians will rightly take pride in this award and hopefully use it as building block to strive for a broad consensus that will allow democratisation to flourish, which in turn means Ethiopia could become an engine of peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.”

But the prize also recognised the role of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. “When Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries,” declared the Nobel Committee. 

Eritrea is one of the most repressive countries in the world and government critics were swift to register their disgust. “The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a man who has befriended and whitewashed a dictator next door for his nation’s own interests whilst prolonging the suffering of the Eritrean people. I am not celebrating anything today,” declared Vanessa Tsehaye, whose uncle – the journalist, Seyoum Tsehaye – has been imprisoned without trial since 2001.

Even in Ethiopia the prime minister is not without his critics. Since his confirmation as the country’s leader there have been at least two attempts on Ahmed’s life. While his decision to release political prisoners, lift censorship and plan elections for 2020 have been seen as positive, there is another side to the balance sheet. “As the state loosened its grip and free speech blossomed, various conflicts escalated,” wrote Tom Gardner of the Economist. “Nearly 3 million people were internally displaced in 2018, more than anywhere else in the world.” 

There is a long tradition of awarding the Peace Prize to participants in conflicts that are by no means finally resolved, as a means of encouraging their efforts. Perhaps the most notorious award was to Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state and his Vietnamese opposite number, Le Duc Tho. The pair were honoured in 1973 for their efforts to end the Vietnamese war, yet the conflict continued for a further two years and was finally resolved by the victory of the Vietcong, when they captured Saigon. 

Since Prime Minister Ahmed signed the peace deal with President Afwerki, relations between the two countries have deteriorated. The land border is once again closed and there are few signs that the peace agreement is leading to real benefits for communities on either side of the border. “Premature” is the main reaction from many Eritreans to the Nobel Peace Prize – while Ethiopians naturally bask in the welcome appreciation of their leader’s diplomacy. 

Martin Plaut is a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and author books including Understanding Eritrea and a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.