A Bittersweet Nobel Prize for Ethiopia’s Leader

Abiy Ahmed
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in January. Photo: Getty Images.

(hrw)–The awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for his efforts to achieve “peace and international cooperation” will come as bittersweet news for many in Ethiopia and neighboring countries.

Abiy has ushered in a wave of greatly needed human rights reforms during his first year in office and taken praiseworthy steps in the region. But such international acclaim may be premature.

He has released tens of thousands of political prisoners – locked up in horrific conditions by his predecessors – and initiated the reform of repressive legislation that has been used to clamp down on free speech and decimate human rights monitoring. He also invited members of formerly banned opposition groups home, and publicly acknowledged past abuses.

But at the same time there has been increasing ethnic conflicts and an ongoing breakdown in law and order across much of Ethiopia. Abiy’s government should have done more to resolve these ethnic problems. Instead it has responded to resulting large-scale displacements by coercing displaced people to return to their home areas when many still felt they were unsafe.

In the region, Abiy’s government helped to resolve the stalemate with neighboring Eritrea, signing a peace agreement. Yet many of the trickier issues around the agreement remain unsettled: Eritrea’s borders remain closed, the border between the two countries has not been demarcated, and the exodus of Eritreans fleeing the brutal restrictions imposed by their government continues. Regional tensions, notably over use of the Nile with Egypt, still simmer.

The Nobel Prize should remind Abiy, all Ethiopians, and the country’s international partners of his wide-ranging reform agenda. It should also serve as a call to action for Abiy and his government to redouble efforts to ensure the reforms have meaningful, lasting impact.

Ensuring accountability for past crimes, along with reconciliation and healing, will be key not only for dealing with Ethiopia’s legacy of abuse, but also with the heightened political and ethnic tensions and violence affecting much of the country. Abiy should also use ongoing negotiations with Eritrea to press for urgently needed rights reforms there.

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