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Nobel Prize for Ethiopian prime minister renews scrutiny of ‘premature’ awards

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When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation and his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea, I knew the celebrations would be short-lived.

The Nobel Committee said in its citation: “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, legalizing 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.”

It was only a matter of time before commentators would second-guess the wisdom of the Nobel Committee for playing politics — with national elections just months away — and for “doling out premature praises,” to an untested leader.

And it was not unexpected that political opponents, in a nation with a history of conflict and ethnic fragmentation, would be emboldened to speak out given the global scrutiny that comes with the award. “Protests in Ethiopia Threaten to Mar Image of Its Nobel-Winning Leader” read the headline in the New York Times. “Ethiopian activist slams ‘authoritarian’ Nobel winner Abiy Ahmed” reported the Financial Times.

I figured as much — because I was in Oslo, Norway, in December, 2011, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, then the President of Republic of Liberia, was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Like in Ethiopia, the Liberian political opposition were outraged, suggesting that Sirleaf’s international friends were trying to protect her from political defeat, awarding the Prize barely a month before the highly competitive elections for her second term in office.

“Her star status as the first female president of an African country has hoodwinked a considerable section of the international community into believing that the president is running a progressive regime,” said a leader of the opposition CDC party.

The criticisms of the Nobel Committee for rewarding leaders prematurely are understandable — in Liberia in 2011, in Ethiopia in 2019, and most notoriously so, in 2009, when the Nobel Peace Prize went to President Obama for his, “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” only nine months after taking office, and nominated 9 days after his inauguration.

At the time of the award to Sirleaf, “the International Crisis Group found that … ‘resentment is growing that the government is “not listening to ordinary people” … and that 63 percent of Liberians’” still believed that corruption “remained pervasive at all levels.”

Since the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize to the Ethiopian leader, opposition demonstrators have been arrested, and an alleged assassination attempt of a media personality critical of the government set off a protest leaving 78 persons dead. Meanwhile millions remain internally displaced.

But if you believe that the individual spirit is drawn to aspiration and hope, that it takes courage to challenge the status quo, and if you consider that the will of Alfred T. Nobel was to recognize leaders who have the power to confer “the greatest benefit to humankind,” then celebrating AbiyAhmed’s youthful transformative leadership and Sirleaf’s emergence from a post-conflict state as the first democratically elected female leader makes sense.   

Africa is at a demographic tipping point. The most recent report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation suggests that the continent is running out of time to create inclusive policies that propel growth with a population that is expected to double by 2050 to 2.5 billion and where 1 in 5 people in the world will be African and of those, 60 percent will be youth.

With this unassailable arithmetic, incremental progress in governance can no longer be abided. Africa needs to break the legacy hold of patriarchal geriatric leaders and open up governance to political outsiders, to women and to youth — to those like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Abiy Ahmed — disrupters with new ideas, and not captive to vested interests.

Prize or no prize, Abiy Ahmed has an uphill climb, and unlike Sirleaf, he is appointed, not elected, with the longevity and durability of his reforms dependent on the patience of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and his ability to translate his ‘star power’ into popularity during next year’s national elections. 

So — well done to the Nobel Committee for drawing attention to Abiy Ahmed’s leadership and the importance of a reform agenda to the second most populous country in Africa, anchoring the northeastern edge of a continent where translating a demographic surge into a demographic dividend will define our global stability.

Kenyan Professor Peter Kagwanja, writing for the Daily Nation, recommends that, “as Africa enters the phase of democratic consolidation, the Nobel Committee might consider redirecting attention to institutions propelling Africa’s peace and development,” and co-awarding the prize. In this year’s case, the Professor would include the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-country trade bloc that includes countries in the Horn of Africa.

I like the co-award idea, but IGAD wouldn’t get my vote, it would go to Ethiopia’s civil society, acknowledging their courage to take to the streets in 2015 demanding reform and change, ultimately forcing the resignation of prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn. They are representative of the rise of Africa’s activist generation, the most substantial political development on the continent in the past two decades.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Abiy Ahmed Barack Obama Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Ethiopia Nobel Peace Prize

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