H.E. Abiy Ahmed Ali (PhD), Nobel Peace Prize winner and the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed was born on August 15, 1976 in the small town of Beshasha, located near Agaro, Oromia. Raised by a Muslim father and a Christian mother, the values of tolerance and understanding across divides were instilled in him at an early age.
H.E. Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia on April 2, 2018. Inheriting a divided society, in all his speeches and actions Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has made national unity, peaceful co-existence, shared growth and regional integration a central theme of his administration. His inaugural speech inspired hope and renewed collective sense of purpose in Ethiopia.
He has rich and wide-ranging experiences serving government in different roles, offering a unique blend of leadership, vision and knowledge in professional and organization skills. Determined to resist the oppression of the Ethiopian people, as a young man, H.E. Abiy Ahmed first joined the armed struggle against the Dergue Socialist regime. While serving at the Ethiopian National Defense Force, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Among his various roles in government, he has served as the Head of the OPDO Secretariat; Vice President of the Oromia Regional Government; Minister, Ministry of Science and Technology; founding Director of the Information Network Security Agency and founder and Head of the government research institute, Science and Technology Information Center.
Since being sworn into office as Prime Minister, he broke with tradition – launching deeper political and economic reforms that swept across the country. An original change agent and a blunt reformer, breaking the walls of division and building bridges of reconciliation and peace constituted the defining themes of his reform efforts. Under his leadership, thousands of prisoners were released; open discussions and consultations held with opposition political parties – some of whom were previously dubbed as “terrorists”; a historic rapprochement and peace agreement was concluded with neighboring Eritrea; a transformational agenda for legal and justice sector reform has been set in motion; and some of the largest public enterprises are to be partially privatized as part of a broader market liberalization and economic reform agenda.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed holds an MA in Transformational Leadership, a Master’s in Business Administration and a PhD from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University. He and his wife—First Lady Zinash Tayachew–are proud parents of three daughters and a recently adopted son.
Abiy Ahmed’s major foreign policy success has been the normalization of relations with Eritrea after twenty years of discord, bringing a massive peace dividend to a vast area of the Horn of Africa that had long been undermined by proxy conflicts between Addis Ababa and Asmara. Within weeks of a landmark July 2018 meeting between the prime minister and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, essential services were restored. Nonetheless, fundamental challenges remain in the relationship, including the need to outline details of a lasting political and economic cooperation framework.
The establishment of a sub-regional trilateral committee comprised of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia is positive; however it should not be at the expense of maintaining good relations with traditional allies Djibouti, Sudan and Kenya; or impede reforms needed to make the Intergovernmental Authority on Development a truly functional regional organization.
Abiy Ahmed’s role in improving prospects for lasting peace in the Horn has created a significant reservoir of regional and international goodwill. Yet if lasting solutions are to be found, he will need to engage with multilateral organizations rather than relying on one-to-one dialogues.
Ethiopia’s relationship with the Gulf states has also significantly improved over the past year, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE playing a role in brokering peace with Eritrea, Addis Ababa partnering with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to improve economic integration in the Horn, and several new agreements on economic and military cooperation, including the UAE pledging $3 billion in aid and investment.
Ethiopia’s political landscape shifted on its axis when Abiy Ahmed came into power in April 2018 following large-scale anti-government demonstrations that had brought the country to the verge of national collapse.
Prior to Abiy’s election, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), nominally a coalition of four ethnically based parties, had been dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for over 25 years. The prime minister is the country’s first leader from the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), representing an ethnic group that accounts for around 35 per cent of Ethiopians. For many, being ruled by an Oromo redresses a historical imbalance in power dynamics that had favoured the people of the northern highlands.
Abiy Ahmed has largely discarded the revolutionary ideology and developmental state economic model that glued the EPRDF together and favours Western educated technocrats over loyal party cadres for senior positions. However, the EPRDF has a membership of nearly 8 million people – a vast network that cannot simply be abandoned. Disputes have intensified between member parties amid a widespread perception that ODP is replacing TPLF as a hegemon.
The prime minister has talked about creating a national party that moves beyond ethnic lines and altering the constitution to institute a presidential system that he argues would be more egalitarian and inclusive, enabling ‘any Ethiopian living in any corner of the country’ to become president. His short-term calculation is more likely that universal suffrage, coupled with regional alliances increase the likelihood of a populist figure like himself being re-elected. Abiy has also suggested installing a two-term limit, although this is yet to be enacted.
While the 2020 elections could provide the mandate that the prime minister needs to deliver such changes, the parameters for this vote have yet to be decided and the current security environment makes it difficult to conceive of viable elections being held.
Abiy Ahmed inherited a parlous security situation. Inter-ethnic violence has resulted in nearly 3 million internally displaced people in Ethiopia, the highest of any country in 2018. In addition, disputes between and within regional states have worsened. The worst has been the Guji and Gedeo crisis, resulting in the displacement of 1 million people, many whose farms and homes have been destroyed and for whom access to humanitarian assistance has been restricted.
The security situation has worsened partly because Abiy has targeted Ethiopia’s authoritarian security agencies to gain popular support and remove threats to his leadership. Senior officials have been relieved from their positions or arrested under corruption charges. This has resulted in the TPLF and Tigrayans feeling targeted by the government and has caused a damaging power vacuum.
The prime minister has failed to respond adequately to these complex crises beyond establishing ad-hoc commissions, including one for Reconciliation and one for Administrative Boundary and Identity Issues. The government must move beyond symbolism and empower institutions – particularly the recently established Ministry of Peace – to deliver local reconciliation efforts that are linked to a genuinely inclusive nationwide peace process.
While Ethiopia boasts the highest GDP growth in Africa, it slowed below 8 per cent in 2018. Abiy Ahmed has disrupted Ethiopia’s state-led developmental model and instead sought to tackle Ethiopia’s debt and currency crisis by renegotiating Chinese loans, seeking financial and technical support from the World Bank, and courting new investment from the Gulf and Western partners.
The government has also begun a cautious move to private sector-led liberalization, with initial privatizations planned in the telecoms and logistics sectors. This will be a staged process, starting with regulatory reform and a greater role for business in job creation.
Tackling youth unemployment is a critical challenge in a country of 100 million people, with two million young people entering the job market every year. Ethiopia plans to create a million jobs a year through the expansion of its industrial parks and rapid growth in the manufacturing and services sectors. Cognisant of the role of youth in toppling the previous EPRDF leadership, Abiy has focused on transforming the capital city rather than rural areas, claiming that ‘if you can change Addis…you can change Ethiopia’. However, to reduce Ethiopia’s inequalities, transformation needs to start in the rural areas, home to approximately 80 per cent of the population. It is another difficult balancing act.
Abiy Ahmed has made great strides in his first year by challenging the status quo and disrupting the authoritarian state machinery. In his second year he must strive towards building a plural, democratic and stable political order, focusing on developing lasting institutions. For the prime minister’s reforms to stick he needs to revitalize the EPRDF under a new common vision and implement a sound economic strategy that consolidates hard-won recent gains. Most importantly, Abiy needs to address a deteriorating security situation that threatens the survival of the country.
Ultimately, Ethiopia’s many challenges are far more than one leader can tackle alone, and Abiy Ahmed must trust in the expertise around him to ensure the support and goodwill generated in his tumultuous first year is not squandered.
The Nobel Peace Prize for 2019
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. The prize is also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions.
When Abiy Ahmed Ali became Prime Minister in April 2018, he made it clear that he wished to resume peace talks with Eritrea. In close cooperation with Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea, Abiy Ahmed quickly worked out the principles of a peace agreement to end the long “no peace, no war” stalemate between the two countries. These principles are set out in the declarations that Prime Minister Abiy and President Afwerki signed in Asmara and Jeddah last July and September. An important premise for the breakthrough was Abiy Ahmed’s unconditional willingness to accept the arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission in 2002.
Peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone. When Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries. The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes the peace agreement will help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
In Ethiopia, even if much work remains, Abiy Ahmed has initiated important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future. He spent his first 100 days as Prime Minister lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalising outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, and significantly increasing the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life. He has also pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.
In the wake of the peace process with Eritrea, Prime Minister Abiy has engaged in other peace and reconciliation processes in East and Northeast Africa. In September 2018 he and his government contributed actively to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Djibouti after many years of political hostility. Additionally, Abiy Ahmed has sought to mediate between Kenya and Somalia in their protracted conflict over rights to a disputed marine area. There is now hope for a resolution to this conflict. In Sudan, the military regime and the opposition have returned to the negotiating table. On the 17th of August, they released a joint draft of a new constitution intended to secure a peaceful transition to civil rule in the country. Prime Minister Abiy played a key role in the process that led to the agreement.
Ethiopia is a country of many different languages and peoples. Lately, old ethnic rivalries have flared up. According to international observers, up to three million Ethiopians may be internally displaced. That is in addition to the million or so refugees and asylum seekers from neighbouring countries. As Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed has sought to promote reconciliation, solidarity and social justice. However, many challenges remain unresolved. Ethnic strife continues to escalate, and we have seen troubling examples of this in recent weeks and months. No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early. The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes that the Nobel Peace Prize will strengthen Prime Minister Abiy in his important work for peace and reconciliation. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and has East Africa’s largest economy. A peaceful, stable and successful Ethiopia will have many positive side-effects, and will help to strengthen fraternity among nations and peoples in the region. With the provisions of Alfred Nobel’s will firmly in mind, the Norwegian Nobel Committee sees Abiy Ahmed as the person who in the preceding year has done the most to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019. – The Norwegian Nobel Committee, Oslo, 11 October 2019
Abiy Ahmed Ali Biography and Profile (Abiy Ahmed, Chatham House)