Many are asking why the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed, the last Nobel Peace Laureate, is waging war in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. When Abiy Ahmed assumed the premiership, some two years ago, he promised to release political prisoners, expand the democratic space and free up the press. He also made a peace deal with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki in an attempt to end a stalemate between the two countries that fought a devastating war two decades ago, which claimed tens of thousands of lives.
When Abiy Ahmed received the Prize, one of his accomplishments read: “After 16 years of “no war, no peace” between the two countries [Ethiopia and Eritrea], Abiy Ahmed broke the deadlock and accepted the decision. In September 2018, he and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a historic peace agreement.”
Many of us were elated but those of us who know the region and Isaias Afwerki were cautious. The latter is not known to be a peace-loving politician. More importantly he harbors an unmatched animosity against Tigray and its current leaders (TPLF). The latter were instrumental in effectively neutralizing his widely known belligerent intentions and actions that led to a UN sanction against him, which Abiy Ahmed helped undo. Today, these TPLF leaders, who are very popular in Tigray, are managing their regional business after a peaceful transfer of power, albeit within the same party, that brought Abiy Ahmed to his current position. The TPLF voted for Abiy Ahmed and moved on to lead a peaceful region in Ethiopia since Abiy Ahmed’s arrival while other parts have been largely in chaos under the latter’s leadership. So, why did Isaias Afewerki accept the peace deal and why are the two coordinating attacks on Tigray now?
When a Nobel Peace Prize is linked to a peace deal, it is customary for the Prize to be shared by the two parties, but Isaias Afewerki was not part of this. Since 1991, he has led a pariah state that is often referred to as Africa’s North Korea. The Nobel committee seems to have taken note of this fact. What it did not consider or was unaware of is Isaias Afewerki’s malicious intentions to avenge, once Tigray and its leaders find themselves between Eritrea to the North and the rest of Ethiopia now under Abiy Ahmed’s leadership to the south. In Abiy Ahmed, Isaias Afewerki saw a formidable tool to achieve his goals. Consistent with what many predicted and in concert with Isaias Afewerki, Abiy Ahmed has now prompted a perilous and unsolicited war against his own people and effectively moved the war from the border to his own country. By doing so, the “no war, no peace” situation, which the Nobel committee said had ended has now evolved into a full-blown civil war between heavily armed parties in Ethiopia with Eritrea’s active involvement. As I write this piece, Isaias Afewerki has taken steps to attack Tigray as he intended when he signed the peace agreement. To my knowledge, this is the first Nobel Prize winning peace agreement that essentially birthed a more dangerous war.
The second accomplishment cited by the Nobel committee was that “in his [Abiy Ahmed] own country, he granted an amnesty to political prisoners and abolished press censorship”. When Abiy Ahmed came to power many of us had high hopes at least in regard to democratization and free press and we applauded when political prisoners and journalists were released. This was in fact part of the sweeping reforms that were already promised by the then leading party, which included the TPLF. Abiy’s predecessor, Mr. Haile-Mariam Desalenge, essentially ordered the release of most. To many people’s dismay, however, tens of thousands including many politicians and journalists who were released are now back in prison with many more added. Eskindr Nega, Bekele Gerba, Lidetu Ayalew and Jawar Mohamed are some prominent examples. The latter played a key role during the civil unrest that brought Abiy Ahmed to power and even renounced his American citizenship (Ethiopia does not allow for dual citizenship) with hopes to take part in a peaceful political process.
Abiy Ahmed’s third accomplishment reads: “Democratisation poses serious challenges in a country with 100 million inhabitants and more than 80 different ethnic groups. In 2019, Ethiopia, a country with no tradition of free elections and democracy, was still racked by major internal conflicts. At the time Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize, there was considerable suspense as to whether he would succeed in fulfilling his promise of free and fair elections in 2020.” Unfortunately, there is no suspense anymore. There were no elections. Abiy Ahmed postponed the elections indefinitely using the COVID pandemic as a pretext. Tigray however went ahead with regional elections that saw an unprecedented turnout and the TPLF won. Ironically and tragically, Abiy used this regional election, which was conducted against his wishes, as a ploy to wage war against Tigray. Tigray is being punished for voting. Moreover, he is fulfilling Isaias Afewerki’s aforementioned dream of subjugating an Ethiopian region and its leaders.
What has unfolded in the aftermath of Abiy Ahmed’s Prize is extremely frightening. His efforts to undermine and subjugate the people of Tigray, with the help of a foreign power led by one of the most repressive regimes in Africa, is a recipe for an unparalleled humanitarian crisis in Tigray. It also could lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia and destabilization of the region in general. Like many of us, the Nobel Prize committee saw hope in the young Ethiopian leader. They however were oblivious to the intentions of Isaias Afewerki and what Abiy Ahmed had promised to bring him to the table. It is apparent today that the deal between the two men was to find a way to defeat Tigray rather than bring peace. They both hope that by waging war against this region, Abiy Ahmed could consolidate his grip on Ethiopia where he is losing control of many parts and where killings have become rampant while Isaias Afewerki would realize his objectives of revenge while extending the now three-decade old pain of the Eritrean people. To me a Nobel Peace Prize is sacred. That it was given to a person who was already in negotiations with the vindictive and warmongering Isaias Afewerki, to attack his own people, defeats all purpose and reason. The “no war, no peace” may have ended but now we have a looming genocidal civil war that has already claimed hundreds of lives. The Peace Prize has indeed birthed a war! I urge the Nobel Peace Committee to look into this before their laureate does more damage to a minority group in Ethiopia, disintegrate the country and destabilize the region. I also urge the international community to open its eyes before we see another Rwanda.