For his visionary and transformational leadership, which has been the main driver in his attainment of “peace and international cooperation, and in particular, his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea,” the 43-year-old Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has been rewarded with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. With barely 18 months in office and an award at the risk of being considered too hasty, Ahmed has brought the prestigious honour back to the continent eight years after another illustrious African, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was similarly honoured.
This is a breath of fresh air in a continent that appears to be perpetually defined by an acute leadership deficit, the real reason for it remaining in an arrested state of development, enduring backwardness, poverty and stagnation. It is indeed heartening that an authentic African leadership contender is already shaping up in the person of Ahmed in a continent where the usual depressing story grabbing the headlines is that of one so-called leader, the “African Big Man,” trying to elongate his tenure after already spending aeons in office, hunting down opposition or corruptly enriching himself and his family.
Without a doubt, the continent’s leadership deficit has been quite stark; it has been so pronounced that the promoters of a leadership award, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, have found it difficult to identify a leader worthy of that honour. What is supposed to be an annual prize award for African heads of government has gone for seven of its 12 years in existence without a worthy recipient.
It is not a coincidence, therefore, that Ahmed has been chosen for the latest Nobel award. The man who instituted it, Alfred Nobel, before his death, wrote that the award should “go to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Promoting peace and “fraternising between nations” are exactly what the Ethiopian leader has been doing since he mounted the saddle in a fractious country torn by ethnic, political and religious conflicts.
To achieve his goal, the man who was a lieutenant-colonel in the Ethiopian Armed Forces and headed the Cyber Intelligence Service, has been promoting the philosophy of “Medemer,” meaning inclusiveness or togetherness. His motive is to ensure that the different ethnic groups, especially his Oromo people, who claim to have been sidelined in the power game despite being the majority, the Amharas and Tigrayans, live harmoniously. It is not an accident that it has taken a man of cosmopolitan disposition like Ahmed, born of an Amharic Christian mother and Oromo Muslim father, to drive this vision.
Ahmed’s vision is only natural, given the fact that he succeeded Hailemariam Desalegn, whose tenure as prime minister was marked by massive unrest and demonstrations in which up to 1,000 people reportedly died and about 20,000 others were detained. Ahmed, with a doctorate in peace and security studies, has set free thousands of civil society members, journalists and opposition politicians detained following a clampdown by his predecessors. Within his short tenure, a country that was on the verge of disintegration is now witnessing some degree of calm and stability.
Not only has he embraced a policy of reconciliation, he has introduced important democratic reforms, preparatory to a multi-party general election next year. The prime minister started calming frayed nerves by ending the state of emergency that he inherited from his predecessors, paving the way for those who fled their homes and country to return. With political stability has flowed economic resurgence in Africa’s second most populous country. Ethiopia has the fastest growth rate on the continent. The IMF/World Economic Outlook predicted a growth rate of 8.5 per cent for this year.
Most importantly, Ahmed’s visit to neighbouring Eritrea was an icebreaker, signalling an end to 20 years of frosty relationship mired in conflicts. Currently the youngest African head of government, he agreed to cede a disputed border town of Badme to Eritrea, a country formerly under the rule of Ethiopia, as part of the peace deal. For the first time, relations cut off by border closure were able to interact with family members across the border. This was significant as the long conflicts were prefaced by a war between 1998 and 2000 that reportedly claimed up to 100,000 lives from both sides.
Beyond his borders, Ahmed the peacemaker was also involved in resolving the crisis that broke out in Sudan, following the forced exit of that country’s long-time dictator, Omar al-Bashir. He successfully brokered peace between the military and the civilian protesters, leading to the formation of a power-sharing transitional government. He has also played a mediatory role between Djibouti and Eritrea, as well as Kenya and Somalia. In South Sudan, he facilitated a meeting to reconcile the President, Salva Kirr, and the rebel leader, Rick Machar.
One of the most important lessons of the Nobel prize awarded to Ahmed is the fact that a leader does not have to spend decades in office to make a mark. This is particularly important for African leaders, who always feel that the country would not survive one day without them. Within 18 months of his stay in office, the Ethiopian leader has shown that what matters most is how a leader’s action can impact positively on the people he leads. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, also needs visionary leaders to set the pace in Africa.
There is no doubt that Ahmed has done well for his country and deserves his award, but it is early days yet. There are still much that he can do. Let the award not just be for what he has achieved, but let it be a catalyst for achieving more. There are still some wounds that need to be healed amongst the people of Ethiopia. Besides, next year’s elections offer an acid test of his true leadership. Hopefully, he will not derail.