ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to a dynamic young African leader whose sweeping reforms and surprising embrace of a bitter rival have been praised as an inspiration to the continent and a hopeful counterpoint to strongman movements far beyond it.
Now the task for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is reining in the ethnic violence that followed the loosening of repressive controls, and resisting any urge to crack down.
“He deserves it and the new challenge is keeping it,” one outspoken African activist, Nigerian Shehu Sani, said of the award.
Abiy, a favorite to win despite speculation about young climate activist Greta Thunberg, told the Nobel committee he was humbled and thrilled to receive its 100th peace prize, calling peace “a rare commodity in our region.”
He hoped the award would encourage other African leaders.
The 43-year-old has embraced the concept of “medemer,” a term in Ethiopia's Amharic language that means unity and inclusivity, and has lived it. The son of a Muslim and an Orthodox Christian, and of mixed ethnic heritage, he is a symbol of what he would like to achieve in a country of about 80 ethnicities and about 110 million people. That fractious mix could also bring him down.
“No doubt some people will think this year's prize is being awarded too early,” the Nobel committee said. But “it is now that Abiy Ahmed's efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”
Abiy seemed to come out of nowhere, taking office in early 2018 after widespread protests pressured Ethiopia's longtime ruling coalition and hurt one of the world's fastest growing economies. Within weeks, Africa's youngest leader shocked the long-turbulent Horn of Africa region by fully accepting a peace deal ending a 20-year border war with neighboring Eritrea that saw about 80,000 people killed.
Suddenly, one of the world's longest-running conflicts was ending.
The visibly moved Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, soon visited Addis Ababa and diplomatic, communications and transport links were restored. For the first time in two decades, long-divided families made tearful reunions.
The Nobel committee cited that peacemaking in awarding Abiy the prize and acknowledged that “peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone.” When Abiy “reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it.”