These changes came in concert. The border dispute over a dusty town with little in the way of natural resources was described when it began as “two bald men fighting over a comb,” but they fought bitterly for decades. Mr. Abiy believed Ethiopia would not be stable unless the region around it was, too. His commitment to pushing policies that enriched all of his country’s people rather than those in the upper echelons of government cracked a once-uncrackable conflict.
But presiding over a fledgling democracy after years of repressive rule isn’t easy. The persistent threat of punishment for any dissent kept many tensions at a simmer, and now the pot is boiling over. Ethiopia led the globe last year in internally displaced civilians. A coup attempt in Amhara resulted in the assassination of the region’s leader. Some problems could perhaps have been preempted by closer attention in Addis Ababa to local grievances, and others might have been inevitable in a nation made up of nine ethnic states that are often at odds. The response from the government has been to revive some of the same liberty-squashing behavior that Mr. Abiy at first made it his mission to root out.
The peace with Eritrea isn’t complete, either. The border has not been demarcated or demilitarized, and the people living along it have not been settled. President Isaias Afwerki might be loath to give up the despotic practices he has long justified as necessary in wartime, and the ruling party in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is particularly ill-disposed toward its northern neighbor.
Mr. Abiy should hold fast to the reality that animated him at the outset: A healthy nation is essential to a healthy Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has started a truth and reconciliation process. It should include community leaders from across the country, including the Tigray region, who can articulate their concerns — and then the government should actually address them, whether that means accountability for past abuses or concessions for present qualms. Mr. Abiy has earned this award. Now he has the chance to honor it.