Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel Peace prize accolade

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Tayo Oke

Anyone who is not a keen observer of world events would not have heard the name: Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, only since 2018, and at 42, the youngest head of government on the continent. Ahmed is a charismatic, daring, belligerent, scholastic, yet, unassuming nation-builder extraordinaire. A man content to be referred to as “Mr.” despite earning a doctorate from his country’s top university. He has been awarded the coveted Nobel Prize for Peace for 2019. The announcement was made by the Nobel Committee in Oslo last Friday, for Ahmed’s tireless efforts “to achieve peace and international cooperation”, and also for his “initiative in resolving the conflict between Eretria and Ethiopia”.

In response, Ahmed said: “Thank you very much, it is a prize given to Africa, given to Ethiopia and I can imagine how the rest of Africa’s leaders will take it positively to work on peace-building on our continent”.

The audio of the telephone conversation between him and the Secretary of the Nobel Committee was put on YouTube minutes after they both hung up. Listening to it was such a breath of fresh air; an ultimate act in openness and transparency.

The accolade of a Nobel Peace Prize has now catapulted Ahmed onto the world stage in a more impactful way than hitherto. As a matter of fact, this column had singled him out as a peace icon of international repute back in January this year. (See, “Will Nigeria disintegrate? Lessons from Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed”. The PUNCH, January 29, 2019.) The piece attracted and provoked numerous reactions from online readers (mostly positive) from different parts of the globe. How much the tiny input may have contributed to moulding international opinion in the direction of the Nobel Prize award for Ahmed, subsequently, is a matter for conjecture.

Be that as it may, aside from the audacious, fearless and extremely articulate climate change activist, the Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, there could not have been an equal or better candidate for the award. Thunberg and Ahmed made the final shortlist for the award, but the Nobel Committee opted for Abiy Ahmed. But, that notwithstanding, Greta’s own time will come, surely. She is only 16 after all.

Having made the preliminary remarks above in respect of Ahmed, and without the slightest intention of disparaging his well-deserved honour, the award is not for “Africa”, nor is it even for Ethiopia for that matter. It is an award for Abiy Ahmed; a personal accomplishment. It is an award primarily given for the promotion and contribution to world peace, and so it is for the world (including Ethiopia and Africa) to celebrate the winner. It was not something that was simply chucked to Africa for special effect. The award, first made in 1901, belongs in the world community; it is for humanity, pure and simple. It calls on leaders throughout the world to sit up in admiration of the fabulous work of one of their own: Abiy Ahmed. His African origin is simply coincidental, and we must insist that such exemplary leadership is not a rarity on the continent. In the last 60 years alone, the Prize has been awarded to several distinguished sons and daughters of Africa: Albert Luthuli (South Africa, 1960), Anwar al-Sadat (Egypt, 1978), Desmond Tutu (South Africa 1984), Nelson Mandela (South Africa, 1993), Wangari Maathai (Kenya, 2004), Mohammed Elbaradei (Egypt, 2005), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia, 2011), among others. In the field of literature, it has gone to an African three times; the first one of which was to the grandmaster of literature, Prof Wole Soyinka. Incidentally, if the award had gone to Thunberg, no one would be claiming it was an award for Europe or Sweden. Yes, let us celebrate one of our own for winning such a prestigious award, but we must reject the patronising coverage that tends to come with these things via the news media.

As this column has acknowledged before, there are a number of lessons that we can usefully draw from the giant strides Ahmed has made and is making in Ethiopia. The country was home to the first Assembly of African leaders under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, now transformed into the African Union since 2002, but still headquartered in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. It is the country, the only one in Africa, never to have been directly colonised by any external power as was the case with the rest of the continent. Furthermore, it is home to the ancient Orthodox Church, “Tewahedo”, known to be indigenous and homegrown. It is generally thought in the history books that Western missionaries brought Christianity to Africa. Well, there had been Ethiopian orthodox Christians long before there were Christians in Europe, in fact. It is also Ethiopia, through its Emperor, ‘RasTafari’, Haile Salassie, that the Ras-tafari (ans) in the Caribbean founded their religion, believing the Emperor to be the direct descendant of King David, the “Lion of Judah”. Politically speaking, therefore, Ethiopia is a natural African leader, but the country has been punching so much below its weight, held back, obviously in the cesspool of internecine war and constant civil strife of their own making. It has now, as if by miracle, turned a new page.

With an economy growing at a phenomenon rate of almost 10%, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Ethiopia can no longer afford the setbacks of the senseless warring years. Ahmed has created a political atmosphere where ‘opposition’ is no longer the kill-me-or-I kill-you duel it is normally taken to be in African political power game. Ethnicity is no longer the curse on the African as it has seemed across the continent for many decades in the past. It is in fact possible to live in peace with compatriots even though they have fundamental political differences. Above all, it has now been demonstrated that knowledge and human intellect alone can move mountains in the struggle to build a viable nation in an African country. This is the significance of Abiy Ahmed. Politics and nation-building can co-exist without the need to blow each other’s head off. It is a privilege to witness this phenomenal transformation in our lifetime. The worry though, is that, it may not last.

Unless Ahmed’s vision and decency become commonplace in Ethiopia, then, the transformation he is currently superintending may not survive him. Consequently, he must not succumb to the temptation of becoming a cult figure. He must remain a political leader whose time in office must justly come to an end to allow for new brooms to take over from wherever he will have left off. He must resist the temptation of staying in power for a third, fourth, fifth, sixth term in office as is usual with the “adorable” “father of the nation” syndrome in many leaders across the continent. They usually cannot see anyone but themselves to run the country, the country always needs them, as there is no one else who can ‘unite’ the nation as well as they can. If, after decades in power, and still no one else can run the country but you, then, that is the surest evidence that the leader himself has failed. That was the diplomatic slapdown former US President Barack Obama delivered to African leaders on his first historic visit to Ghana in 2009. Only when Ahmed has built institutions capable of protecting his legacy regardless of who takes over after him, would he truly have earned a permanent place in the pantheon of human history. We continue to wish him and the Ethiopian people well.

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