“The art of building peace is a synergistic process to change hearts, minds, beliefs and attitudes that never ceases. Before we can harvest peace dividends, we must plant seeds of love, forgiveness and reconciliation in the hearts and minds of our citizens,” Abiy said during his valedictory Nobel lecture in December 2019. In its citation for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the awarding committee celebrated his “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.” Abiy was hailed as a transformational figure in the Horn of Africa.
A year later, though, Ethiopia was harvesting far more strife than peace. Abiy’s attempts at opening up the country’s political space led to deepening polarization among its ethnic factions. Violence and unrest intensified, as did political repression. As Ethiopia staged long-deferred parliamentary elections On Monday, Abiy denied to the BBC at a polling station that Tigray faced a hunger crisis. Abiy had intended the vote as a major step for his program of liberalization. Some political factions called for boycotts and no ballots were cast in a fifth of the country’s polling stations. The United States, once a close ally, has sanctioned top government officials for their alleged roles in serious human rights violations in Tigray, and said it was gravely concerned about the election environment. Whatever happens next, Abiy’s Nobel radiance is lost. His lieutenants defend him with the same sort of nationalist language once invoked by the supporters of the detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Peace Prize in 1991 as an icon of democracy, but decades later would defend Myanmar’s military against allegations of ethnic cleansing and war crimes against the ethnic Rohingya minority. “The prime minister need not be a darling of the west, east, south or north. It is sufficient that he stands for the people of Ethiopia and the development of the nation,” Abiy’s spokeswoman told reporters last week. Now, some analysts wonder whether the premature delivery of the award which led to Abiy’s lionization in the West had a role to play in the ongoing crisis.