Meanwhile, surging ethnic tensions within Ethiopia displaced more people from their homes in his first year in office than in any other country in the world. His ruling coalition holds all 547 seats in the country’s Parliament, though he has pledged to hold multiparty elections next year.
But now Abiy is refusing to engage with the international media when he receives the prize Tuesday in Oslo — refusing even to field questions from the young students who traditionally are offered that opportunity at an event hosted by Save the Children — and the Nobel Committee is scrambling to get him to change his mind and spare it a major embarrassment.
“The Nobel Institute and the Nobel Committee wishes Abiy Ahmed had said ‘yes’ to meeting Norwegian and international press,” Olav Njolstad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and secretary for the committee that annually awards the peace prize, told the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.
Njolstad traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, last week in an attempt to persuade Abiy to attend at least one of the four news conferences traditionally scheduled over the three-day ceremony, which begins Monday. He was rebuffed.
“We have been very clear about this and have clarified that there are several reasons we find this highly problematic,” Njolstad said.
According to Henrik Urdal, research director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, this is the first time a peace prize recipient has declined to take questions in at least three decades, if not ever. In addition to the Save the Children event, there is usually one news conference the day before the award is given, one big interview done by a major news outlet (it was supposed to be Al Jazeera this year), and one news conference the day after alongside the Norwegian prime minister. (The Save the Children event will go on, just without the guest of honor.)
Abiy will still give his acceptance speech as scheduled Tuesday. The prize comes with nearly $1 million, a gold medal and a diploma.
Abiy’s press secretary, Billene Seyoum, has pushed back against what she said are “erroneous” interpretations of Abiy’s decision.
“At a personal level, the humble disposition of the Prime Minister rooted in our cultural context is not in alignment with the very public nature of the Nobel award,” she said in a statement. “The Prime Minister is humbled and grateful for the recognition and he has previously stated that ‘it is 10% celebration and 90% responsibility for him to work harder for peace’ which he is doing each day.”
She added that Abiy is one of the most accessible Ethiopian prime ministers to date. Since taking office a year and a half ago, however, he has held less than half a dozen news conferences and granted very few interviews to the international media.
Although Abiy has soaked up public adoration during morale-raising events such as rallies and tree-planting drives, he has often stayed silent for weeks after incidences of ethnic tension, which have been frequent and often bloody over the past two years.
Abiy’s refusal to take questions may be an indication that the expectations placed on him by the award are at least partly unwelcome. Any comments he might make about Ethiopia’s sensitive domestic politics could have serious ramifications or even spark violence.
Though the media environment in Ethiopia has opened up under Abiy, and numerous journalists charged under dubious laws have been freed from prison, critics of his government say his reluctance to freely engage with the media belies a tendency toward restriction of information.
“It is not clear that the Government sees access to information as a priority. The most alarming example of this position is frequent resort to shutting down the internet in times of public protest and even school exams,” wrote David Kaye, the U.N. special representative on freedom of expression following a trip Monday to Ethiopia. He also expressed concern that new legislation to combat hate speech might contain “excessive vagueness” and be open to abuse.
The prize shines a light on Abiy’s delicate tightrope-walk right when he needs to be paying the closest attention to mending deep wounds across his exceptionally divided country.
“There’s a question of whether he may think it may not be helping him — as it certainly raises the stakes, maybe making it harder for him,” Urdal said. “I certainly think Obama felt it was almost a burden.”