From Nobel Peace Prize to Civil War: How Ethiopia’s Leader Beguiled the World

When Abiy Ahmed took power in Ethiopia, he was feted at home and abroad as a great unifier and reformer. Two years later, terrible violence was raging. How did people get him so wrong?

Tom Gardner in The Guardian: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about Abiy Ahmed.” The message flashed up from someone I had been told to call Napoleon. It was the middle of 2023, six years after I had first arrived in Ethiopia, and one year after I had left, in the midst of a war which was tearing it apart. Ethiopia was lurching from crisis to crisis, and behind each of them loomed one figure larger than any other: the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Napoleon was in the US. He had known Abiy when the two of them had worked together as cyber-intelligence officers in the 2000s. A mutual contact had prepared him for my call, and assured me that he was ready and willing. Just one day earlier, Napoleon had told me himself, via text message, that he would share with me what he knew of the character of the man who, five years earlier, had won control of the Ethiopian state. Now, though, Napoleon was having second thoughts. When I tried to ring, he blocked my number.

The closer someone had been to Abiy, it seemed, the less likely they were to talk about him. Even those living far away in safe countries in the west were often too afraid to speak with me. Some would read my messages and then block my number. A few would reply, promising to schedule an interview, only to disappear. Many would not answer my calls at all.

Over the six years I had been living and working in Ethiopia, I had tried to speak with as many people as possible who had known and worked with Abiy. Despite the appearance of openness that characterised his early days in power, almost everyone agreed he was an enigma. Later, as their lives, and those of all Ethiopians, were profoundly altered by the political decisions he made, many sought further explanations: who is Abiy, really, and what does he want?

When he came to power in 2018, Abiy was feted in the west as a liberal reformer, one who would shepherd an Ethiopia bedevilled by factional politics and competing identities into a democratic future. As the first national leader in Ethiopia’s modern history to identify as Oromo, the largest but historically underrepresented of the country’s many ethnic groups, Abiy was thought to be a unifier after years of fracture.

He was also hailed as a visionary peacemaker. In July 2018, Abiy struck a historic peace accord with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s smaller neighbour which had seceded in 1993 and then – between 1998 and 2000 – fought a bloody border war that claimed as many as 100,000 lives. For his role in this, the new prime minister was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2019.The Nobel committee’s chair praised not only Abiy’s peace deal with Eritrea, but also his domestic reform efforts, including the release of tens of thousands of prisoners and the return of once-banned opposition groups. Accepting the prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Abiy declared war “the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I was there.”

But the world got Abiy wrong.

Little more than a year later, one of the worst wars of the 21st century erupted in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region. For much of the preceding three decades, Tigray’s authoritarian ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had held pre-eminent power in a national coalition government. Abiy, too, had been part of the coalition – but over time had grown resentful of his Tigrayan superiors (the Tigrayan ethnic group comprises just 6% of the population of Ethiopia). The war, which ended in late 2022, would be fought over conflicting ideas of Ethiopia but also over the raw matter of power. Abiy was not solely responsible for this catastrophic conflict – which some have described as a genocide – but he was arguably more to blame than anybody else. He may go down as the most controversial recipient of the Nobel peace prize since Henry Kissinger.

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