A light shining through darkness

Published by The i paper (14th October, 2019)

History is a harsher judge than people appointed by Norway’s parliament, but there have been some terrible picks over 118 years of Nobel Peace Prizes. Early choices included Elihu Root, an American politician held responsible for savage occupation of the Philippines that left huge numbers dead. Then there was Henry Kissinger, who oversaw a secret war in Cambodia.

More recent laureates included Aung San Suu Kyi, who is accused of not standing up for the Rohingya Muslims, and Barack Obama, who ended up his nation’s first two-term president with military forces at war every day in office.

This year there is a more deserving winner. Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, is a charismatic politician of rare courage often compared to Mikhail Gorbachev as he loosens the shackles of a long-standing autocracy.

He is little known in the west, despite the magnitude of achievements that send a welcome shaft of light in this darkening world for democracy. Difficulties lie ahead as this former army officer encourages fledgling freedoms to take flight. Yet so instant was his impact that just three months after he took power I suggested he deserved this prize.

The accolade was given mainly for Abiy’s ‘decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.’ The two nations had been locked in one of the planet’s most futile border disputes for two decades after a war that led to heavy losses. Within weeks of becoming prime minister, he brokered peace with Isaias Afwerki, the veteran dictator next door who used the threat of conflict to force his citizens into servitude. There were warm words about building a ‘bridge of love’ as diplomatic links were restored, phone lines reopened, flights resumed. Divided families could meet, hug and talk again.

Critics carp that land border crossings have closed and diplomatic progress stalled, yet this is down to the intransigence of Afwerki, who fears that freedom might infect his own brutalised people. Presumably this is why the prize was not shared, as before with Nobel recognition of significant peace deals.

Yet in many ways, the domestic reforms unleashed by this dynamic leader of Africa’s second-most populous country are even more remarkable. Bear in mind Ethiopia previously endured a corrupt feudal emperor interrupted by colonial invasion, then a murderous Marxist dictatorship and finally a ruthless one-party regime. Abiy, a former spy, took office as the compromise candidate for a party that had run the nation for almost three decades.

It was a coalition dominated by Tigrayans – who comprise only six per cent of citizens in a country with 80 ethnicities – that controlled every seat in parliament, relied on rigid repression, slaughtered pro-democracy protesters, jailed journalists and tortured dissidents. As so often, depressingly, it was backed by torrents of British aid.

Few expected significant change. But in his first 100 days Abiy lifted the state of emergency, emptied torture chambers, freed dissidents, ended media censorship and legalised banned opposition groups. Then he dismissed corrupt officials, introduced market reforms and turbocharged the influence of women symbolised by election of Ethiopia’s first female president. ‘You can look in his eyes and trust him,’ I was told by Andargachew Tsege, a democracy activist freed to return to his family in London after being held on death row.

Abiy even intervened in neighbouring Sudan to broker a peace deal after the ousting of its repulsive dictator.

The path to democracy in Ethiopia remains pitted with problems. Abiy has survived at least one assassination bid. Ethnic and federal tensions unleashed by new freedoms bubble dangerously close to boiling point, forcing millions from their homes and fuelling fears of violent fragmentation. Critics accuse the prime minister of being more focused on polishing his image than resolving internal struggles.

Yet none of this should negate admiration for Africa’s youngest leader, who offers such contrast to the brutal old thieves clinging to power in too many of the continent’s nations as he preaches reconciliation and reform.

The Nobel award recognises Ethiopia’s advances while encouraging its leadership not to slide back into autocracy. Yet it felt like there was palpable disappointment the judges did not honour climate change activist Greta Thunberg, underlining the lack of interest in seismic changes taking place in such an influential African nation.

In our country this is partly down to the self-absorption of Brexit. But even before our bizarre national breakdown, African political events were largely ignored although the continent is predicted to hold one-third of the global population by the end of this century and we have such strong social, historic and cultural ties.

Contrast minimalist coverage of Ethiopia’s stunning recent story with the relentless diet of negative news – fed by cash-hungry aid agencies and ill-informed politicians trying to look compassionate – that shores up hoary stereotypes of African disaster, poverty and starvation. The prevailing image of Ethiopia for many Britons remains one of famine, since the only time there has been much interest in one of the most amazing countries on earth is when there were desperate children with distended bellies to film.

This leads to a blinkered perspective on such places, seen through the prism of supposed Western salvation fused with nativist fears of migration. Britain remains trapped by patronising, neo-colonial aid policies while rival nations from all over the world rush in to trade with rapidly growing African populations that are becoming better educated, healthier and wealthier each year. The legacy of our myopic vision is striking disinterest about significant changes – and opportunities.

Abiy is one of the most fascinating politicians on earth as he challenges his country – and by implication others on his continent – to modernise. He is also challenging us all to adopt a more progressive perspective on Africa, which is why the award of this honour merited the warmest applause.

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