A peace accord between Abiy and his Eritrean counterpart, Isaias Afwerki, formally ended a 20-year military standoff that followed Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1993. As many as 100,000 people were killed between 1998 and 2000 when a border dispute flared into an all-out war.
Abiy, a 43-year-old former intelligence officer, has ushered in an era of hope for peace and greater freedoms in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most-populous country, which has long been governed by authoritarian regimes. Upon taking office in April 2018, Abiy initiated the release of thousands of political prisoners, lifted bans on various political organizations, prosecuted former officials accused of torture and vowed to move Ethiopia toward its first free, multiparty elections in 2020.
Abiy has also made bold moves to broker peace in neighboring Sudan and South Sudan, both beset by civil conflict. Abiy spearheaded rounds of talks between opposing sides in both countries, and he has sought a role in mediating other regional conflicts, such as a maritime dispute between neighboring Kenya and Somalia.
In a statement, Abiy’s office said that “this victory and recognition is a collective win for Ethiopians, and a call to strengthen our resolve in making Ethiopia — the New Horizon of Hope — a prosperous nation for all.”
Abiy’s recognition by the Norway-based Nobel Committee was reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s 10 years earlier. Like Obama at the time, Abiy is near the beginning of his term and has not yet fully implemented the broad changes and peace deals he has set out to accomplish. But his initial decisions in office have prompted an outpouring of hope that those stated objectives will be achieved.
“No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early,” Reiss-Andersen said in her announcement of the prize. “The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”
Ethiopia remains one of the world’s most insecure countries, with more than 3 million people displaced from their homes and more than 1,000 killed in 2018, mostly because of ethnic strife. The country’s economy is dangerously weak, and tens of thousands of Ethiopians have become refugees in search of less dire conditions. Abiy’s proposed changes are also seen by some in Ethiopia as likely to exacerbate ethnic tensions, and he has already survived one assassination attempt.
Abiy’s peace deal with Isaias also has yet to result in a full resumption of normal ties, largely because of Eritrean reluctance. Conscription is still mandatory in Eritrea, despite the end of the military standoff with Ethiopia.
“The peace deal unfroze diplomatic relations, reopened telephone lines and has allowed some travel between the two countries,” said William Davison, an Ethiopia analyst with the International Crisis Group. “But key border disputes are unresolved, and Eritrea remains without constitutional government, so there has been no peace dividend yet for its long-suffering citizens.”
Abiy was born to parents who belonged to different ethnic groups, which is unusual in Ethiopia. Some analysts say that background makes his calls for unity more effective in a country divided politically into nine semiautonomous sub-nations. In interviews with local media, he has recalled a poor upbringing, sleeping on the floor and lacking electricity and water — both still unavailable to large portions of Ethiopia’s population.
Abiy is the third sitting head of government from sub-Saharan Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize, after Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and F.W. de Klerk of South Africa, who won jointly with Nelson Mandela in 1993 as South Africa transitioned out of its apartheid era.
Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Denis Mukwege, 64, a Congolese doctor who treated thousands of women who were raped or sexually assaulted as a result of conflict, and Nadia Murad, 26, who advocated for the support of Yazidi women captured and held as sex slaves at the hands of the Islamic State.
Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.