Why a peace prize befits Ethiopia's leader

Like a 21st-century Mandela, Abiy Ahmed prepared himself with a mental peace to be able to bring it to others.

Reuters
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki, right, receives a key from Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018.

When Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, much of the world knew not only of his achievement – creating a democratic and “rainbow” nation in South Africa – but how he did it. He rejected bitterness and hatred. He embraced his captors. He assumed whites were willing to treat blacks as equal. He replaced racial hate with nonracial kindness. Like a wise shepherd, he proclaimed, “No one is free until the last one is free.”

“You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself,” he famously said.

Now another African leader, Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. His achievements and his peacemaking methods are much less known. Yet they should certainly resonate as much as Mandela’s.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2019 prize to Mr. Abiy mainly for his leadership in ending a 20-year conflict between his country and neighboring Eritrea. In a dramatic gesture soon after taking office last year, he handed over disputed lands to Eritrea. The generous concession led to an instant warming of frozen bilateral ties left over by a war that had killed more than 70,000 and divided families.

He was also praised for liberating Ethiopia itself from decades of harsh rule, freeing political prisoners and setting Africa’s second most populous nation on a path to democracy.

Yet little was said by the Nobel Committee of his methods which, nonetheless, are still at work in his peacemaking efforts in other parts of Africa, such as Sudan.

Just by biography alone, Mr. Abiy seems tailored to reconcile people.

He is the youngest leader in a continent with the youngest demographic. After serving in the military, he earned a doctorate in peace studies, having seen the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide as a United Nations peacekeeper in 1995.

In a country coping with complex ethnic and religious differences, his lineage is unique. He has a Muslim father from Ethiopia’s largest tribe, the Oromo, and a Christian mother from the second largest tribe, the Amhara.

His doctoral thesis focused on how peace was restored between Muslims and Christians in Jimma Zone after a breakout of violence. He wrote of how respected Muslim and Christian leaders, representing faiths of peace, came together to reknit social bonds. They encouraged grassroots dialogue and restored shared norms and the joint social life of the two groups, such as celebrating each other’s religious holidays. To end hundreds of personal disputes, local elders relied on jarsummaa, a traditional practice of conflict resolution.

“The single most important area of focus has been the work on the attitude of community members,” Mr. Abiy wrote.

After becoming prime minister, he would often begin talks to Ethiopians with this line: “Today, if you all decide, if you commit to healing, then we as Ethiopia will write a new story.” He invites audiences to soar like an eagle over stormy clouds to see a bright future. When an emergency arises, he comforts with phrases like “love always wins.”

He also uses an Amharic word, medemer, which is associated with mathematics and means “to be added to one another.” He sees Ethiopian identity not as a suppression of tribal or religious differences but as a beautiful blending of positive traits of each group.

The war with Eritrea, in which he lost a cousin, had a profound effect on him. According to associates, he developed an inner harmony and humility. Last year, when he traveled to Eritrea’s capital to seal a peace deal with President Isaias Afwerki, the two men looked like old friends. With Mandela-like wisdom, Mr. Abiy can become known for this bit of advice: “Only peace can lead to peace.”

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