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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo 2019. Source, Wiki Commons.

How a Nobel Laureate lost his reputation and disgraced Ethiopia

I was driving home from work while listening to National Public Radio when I heard the announcement: “The Nobel Peace Prize committee has awarded this year’s prize to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.”

Goosebumps sprang up over my entire body. I felt happy and emotional. I imagined how this could change the image of my birth country for the better. I saw into the future and imagined Abiy peacefully stepping down at the end of his term and retiring and living in Ethiopia without risk of exile as Mengistu Hailemariam did. He was expected to help redress historical injustice and set a positive example for African leaders. His early days were full of promise. Abiy continued to bring pride, not only to Ethiopians but also to Africans in general. In fact, his Nobel prize was celebrated as a “win for Africa.”

Abiy won the prestigious honor for two key reasons: the domestic reform he initiated and a peace deal with Eritrea, which ended one of the most intractable conflicts in the Horn of Africa. Ironically, these same reasons have now cost him the reputation and goodwill he garnered in the eyes of the Ethiopian people and the world.

Within a year, the proud image of Abiy delivering the 2019 Nobel Lecture in front of the entire world was replaced by the searing images of vulnerable and malnourished Ethiopian refugees fleeing to Sudan for safety. The same international media outlets that praised Abiy in 2019, showering him with honor and the benefit of much positive reporting, are today raising the specter of grave human rights violations.

The domestic reforms that Abiy promised have gone down the drain. His regime has returned to the oppressive style of his predecessors. Once more, the government is killing and jailing Oromo activists and civilians in Oromia. The detention centers—briefly emptied, even painted—are filling again with Oromo detainees. The atrocities committed by the military against the Oromo people have resumed. The Oromo people are once again protesting and contemplating another chapter of the struggle. Abiy and his allies see the Oromo as a threat to his power unless he silences them.

In November 2020, Abiy launched a war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF had once dominated the political economy of Ethiopia. Abiy continues to insist that his effort is to restore law and order in the region. To the people of Tigray and those outside of Ethiopia, it is a full-on war with a devastating human and humanitarian toll.

Abiy’s supporters and Addis Ababan elites cheered on the war and celebrated the premature news of its conclusion with ululations. They rallied in the streets and waved flags. They donated blood and money.

The conflict has exposed deeper ideological rifts and cut off the Tigray region from the rest of Ethiopia. Abiy has also severed communication lines and the internet to prevent the world from seeing the ravages of the war. He presented a picture of a surgical operation with “no civilian” casualties. The limited media reporting and stream of refugees from Tigray tells a different story — of civilian deaths, displacement, and starvation.

The Abiy administration has also targeted Tigrayans in the capital, Addis Ababa. Tigrayans have faced ethnic profiling, their bank accounts frozen, their businesses closed, and their movements restricted. They have been fired or laid off from jobs. Tigrayan journalists are arrested and jailed. Ethnic Tigrayans have been prevented from traveling out of the country, even those who hold proper visas and documents.

The Abiy government has restricted the domestic media environment. The heartbreaking stories from Tigray are primarily told by foreigners. Foreign media continue to carry gruesome headlines. The massacre of civilians, the growing number of refugees fleeing to Sudan, the alarming food and medical supply shortages, the damage to and looting of the historic mosques and churches, etc., have been brought to the world’s attention. Despite this, in Ethiopia, religious leaders, respected elders and members of civil society, and other influential individuals have remained silent over the suffering of Tigrayans.

The lack of sympathy and support for ordinary Tigrayans, as distinct from the TPLF leadership, has been deeply disappointing. One does not have to be an ethnic Tigrayan to condemn Abiy’s war and stand up for the grieving Tigrayans but to have the moral fiber to reject injustice. What has damaged Abiy’s reputation the most is his refusal to allow the United Nations and other aid agencies to provide humanitarian relief in Tigray, leaving them starving. His refusal to allow independent and transparent UN-led investigations into the death of civilians compounds the damage.

The peace deal with Eritrea helped Abiy win the Noble Peace Prize. It has become a source of national shame as reports emerge of Eritrean soldiers looting, killing, raping, and abusing civilians. Abiy’s invitation to Isaias, a notorious and vengeful dictator, to interfere in Ethiopia’s domestic affairs will go down in history as a colossal mistake. It will take a long time to wipe this shame from the history of Ethiopia.

The disturbing part of the war is not just that it has permitted Eritrean troops to destroy Tigray but that it has given them complete access to refugee camps where nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees, fleeing from the cruelty of Isaias, had been staying. The war has shattered the protection these Eritrean refugees had enjoyed in Ethiopia for so long. It has caused an uproar from the United Nations Refugee Agency and other aid organizations, which have appealed to Abiy for access to the camps at Shimelba, Mai-Ayni, and Adi Harush to check on the well-being of the refugees.

In response, Abiy and his government have used bureaucracy to hinder and restrict these agencies from visiting, his reasons all too obvious. If these agencies visit the camps, they might confirm the harrowing stories. Worse, it could expose him to accusations of war crimes and violations of humanitarian law. The only option Abiy has is to deny full access to these organizations.

At the refugee organization where I work, Eritrean refugees are among the population I serve. A month after the war began in Tigray, an Eritrean client came to my office to enquire about his immigration case. His sad eyes gazed at my desk. He tried to tell me about his family but was unable to utter a word. He paused for long minutes while shading his eyes to hide his tears, which ran down onto his black jacket. He could not wait until I handed him a tissue but wiped his tears with his hand.

The only words he was able to force out before he exited my office were, “I cannot find my wife and children, who were staying at the refugee camp. No phone works. I have not slept for weeks. I will be back another time.” He left without asking me the questions he came to ask. I have since learned that his family is among those forcibly returned to Eritrea.

The fate of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is unknown, nor do we know the extent of the terror they are facing. Three months into the war, troubling reports from humanitarian agencies indicate that about 20,000 Eritrean refugees were missing. In light of these stories, more aid agencies continue to appeal to Abiy’s government to grant them full access. Foreign leaders have begun urging the Ethiopian government to allow humanitarian agencies into Tigray and end the war. The condemnation of Abiy’s war is growing, particularly from Europeans and the new U.S. administration.

The worst fear is that Abiy might adopt the attitude of his mentor, Isaias, and ignore the international community’s call for respect of human rights. Isaias is known for ignoring human rights concerns and cutting Eritrea from the world, weathering sanctions and isolation for more than two decades. Nurtured and shaped under Isaias, many now worry that Abiy may turn into a ruthless one-man dictator, the like of which Ethiopia has never seen. The signs are there. Abiy has jailed his opponents, journalists, and human rights activists. He is eyeing a sham election that key opponents are boycotting.

It is anyone’s guess if Abiy’s war will end soon. The difficulty for him is asking Eritrean troops to leave Ethiopia. His allies in the Amhara state have already annexed significant parts of Western Tigray, sowing the seeds for a future conflict. Abiy hesitates to apply pressure on both as if they are holding a gun to his head. Many people are anxious to see the fate and destiny of Abiy. He is likely to remain in power regardless of the outcome and process of the June 2021 election. But can he avoid the humiliation of being the first Nobel laureate to face a trial for war crimes? Will he be ousted and end up in exile, leaving Ethiopia for good? Will his Amhara and urban allies ultimately turn against him, leading to a coup? Will he ask forgiveness and begin the process of inclusive national dialogue and healing, particularly with the Tigrayans and the Oromo?

This man, regarded almost as a messiah by some and admired by many, is now as divisive as the TPLF, whom he once worked for but opposed after they lost power. Regardless of whether or not the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Abiy too soon, there is no doubt that such a prize brings responsibility and added scrutiny. It is not clear how Abiy would like to be remembered. He has a small window of time to change tack and return to the promising transitional path he had outlined three years ago. He can do that by initiating an all-inclusive national dialogue today. The world is watching him closely.