NAIROBI — President Trump’s speech at a rally in Ohio on Thursday night was typical in that it laced thoughts about current events together with criticism of his opponents. But his comments Thursday included a remark that caught the attention of many in Ethiopia, whose prime minister was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, largely for his work securing a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea after decades of hostilities.
“I made a deal, I saved a country, and I just heard that the head of that country is now getting the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the country. I said, ‘What, did I have something do with it?’ ” Trump asked the crowd.
“Yeah,” Trump said, answering his own question. “But that’s the way it is.”
Trump played no apparent role in the Eritrea peace deal, but Washington has played a convening role in another deal Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is seeking with Egypt that will regulate how quickly Ethiopia can fill a new dam it has built in the upper reaches of the Nile River that has major implications for the flow of water Egypt relies on economically.
The apparent conflation of the two led to widespread befuddlement on social media in Ethiopia and elsewhere, though by and large the comments were not taken seriously.
The U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia referred reporters to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks in October congratulating Abiy for his prize.
The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday tweeted “Trump is confused” about why Abiy was awarded the prize.
Trump is confused.— House Foreign Affairs Committee (@HouseForeign) January 10, 2020
PM @AbiyAhmedAli was awarded the @NobelPrize for his efforts to bring peace to the Horn of Africa, not stalled negotiations about a new dam on the Nile.
If they gave the Nobel for deals that didn’t happen, the Pres. would have a shelf full of them. #Ethiopia https://t.co/WhJ6nLvb6Z
“He was talking about Egypt and Ethiopia,” a senior Ethiopian government official told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter. “President Trump really believes he avoided a war as such … but that was not the case.”
Ministers from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, which controls a stretch of the Nile between its two sparring neighbors, will meet in Washington next week to discuss the ongoing impasse in talks concerning the dam.
Ethiopia’s peace deal with Eritrea led to a reopening of borders and diplomatic relations. Eritrea was part of Ethiopia until it seceded in 1993 and then fought a bloody war to retain its independence that began in 1998. The war resulted in at least 80,000 deaths. Eritrea still has mandatory conscription, which tens of thousands have sought to avoid by migrating to Europe and countries on the nearby Arabian peninsula.
Trump, for his part, has rarely commented on African affairs, and while he is often criticized for neglecting the continent, he remains popular in Kenya and Nigeria, according to a recent poll that similarly neglected to survey most of the continent’s 54 countries.