A Nobel Prize That Will Live in Infamy

The audience roared when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressed the people of Tigray in April 2018. Delivered in Tigrigna, hardly any statement went by without a deafening applause. The joy was genuine and heartfelt. Here was an Oromo soldier who took the time to learn Tigrigna, and here was a leader who visited Tigray soon after he assumed power. This young man promised the world to an otherwise anxious Tigrayan people — and they were delighted.

Abiy opened his speech by acknowledging regional leaders, freedom fighters and citizens. “Tigray is the origin of Ethiopia,” he said. “Tigray is home of a heroic people. Ethiopian history was made in Tigray and Tigray is our pride. Both Christianity and Islam came to Ethiopia through Tigray.” Perhaps one line that touched the hearts of so many Tigrayans was this: “Tigray without Ethiopia, and Ethiopia without Tigray, is a vehicle without an engine — meaningless.” The speech went on and so did the ovation. Many Tigrayans saw it as the beginning of a new chapter — that of equality and peaceful co-existence with other regions in Ethiopia.

Even the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who had tried to block Abiy’s ascent to power a couple of few weeks prior, could not resist his charm offensive, including the chairman, Debretsion Gebremichael. Watching Debretsion’s excitement on TV, an astute businesswoman in Addis Ababa asked, “Why is this guy acting as if his lover (wushima) had just come?”

Little did the crowd, assembled in that modern hall in Mekelle city, know what was in store for them. Two and half years later, many of them would be gone, some of them dead, leaving the cities and monuments they built in the hands of a great many forces, including Abiy’s federal forces, the Eritreans, militias sorties and, according to several reports, even some from the failed state of Somalia. Drones, from Assab, Eritrea, reportedly owned by UAE, would devastate the region. Tigray would plunge into lawlessness and cruelty rarely seen on world stage. “Choose — I will rape you or kill you,” headlined Reuters. “Slaughtered like chickens,” said The Guardian. “Refugee camps torched, hospitals looted,” reported Canada’s The Globe and Mail. “Eritrea soldiers loot and kill in Tigray,” according to the Associated Press. “The situation is so extreme that people are forced to eat leaves to survive,” says the UN.

Now, the Tigray War has become not only a battle against the TPLF, but also against the entire Tigrayan people, using all means imaginable, including starvation. In this conflict, Abiy Ahmed may have crossed so many lines of criminality — all at once. He allowed foreign forces to invade his country. He starved an entire people by denying basic services (including trade and access to banks and humanitarian agencies). On his watch, mothers and sisters were raped at gunpoint. All sorts of institutions were looted and destroyed. Thousands were killed randomly. Indeed, this is nothing but a declaration of medieval war against a people. The repercussions to Ethiopia and the region have just begun.

Tigray war, image from tghat.com

Who is Abiy Ahmed?

Lost in the excitement of the last three years was perhaps one simple fact: Abiy Ahmed is the product of the EPRDF, the much-vilified organization by many Ethiopians. He served in the organization for two decades, and he did it well. As anyone who remotely knows the EPRDF will tell you, no one rises through its ranks as a human rights activist — you must do what you need to do to thrive.

By all indications, Abiy Ahmed has been a very ambitious fellow who claims his mother told him he would be Ethiopia’s seventh king when he was just seven years old. Abiy further claims this thought was in his mind ever since, and he dreamed about it every day. His upbringing was otherwise unremarkable. He joined the coalition of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) just before it seized power in Addis Ababa in 1991. He later served in the Ethiopian army, which then catapulted him to the Ethiopian intelligence services.

In 2008, he became the head of the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA). In this capacity, he helped Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government build INSA to monitor and control political activities in cyber space. Ethiopia started blocking hundreds of websites, becoming one of worst and least free countries for Internet access. In 2018, he denounced this abuse, but only to reverse course a year later and start tampering with Internet access all over again.

Following INSA, Abiy quickly rose to positions of greater power. He became a member of the Ethiopian parliament in 2010, Director-General of Science and Technology Information Center in 2014, and Minister of Science and Technology in 2015.

His big break came when, starting in 2015, he seized an opportunity and became the central figure in the fight against Addis Ababa City Master Plan, in what is called the fight against “land grabbing.” This was basically a campaign to limit Addis Ababa’s ability to expand into outlying Oromo areas. Addis Ababa is a multi-national city of some five million people and the seat of the African Union. This earned him more influence within the Oromo youth and the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). In 2016, he became its Deputy Chair and Deputy President of the Oromia region. Finally, in 2018, he became the OPDO nominee for Prime Minister of Ethiopia and was soon elected Prime Minister on April 2, 2018.

Abiymania

Following the Mekelle speech, Gondar of the Amhara state was his next destination. In full traditional Amhara garb, Abiy unloaded exactly what the Amhara people wanted to hear. “Amhara, the center of modern Ethiopia, the land of the proud, the far-sighted and the beautiful people,” Abiy declared. The speech was well-received, with nearly as much applause as there were lines. Other cities soon followed in quick succession, each time with the same delivery and the same outcome.

Abiy received perhaps his most euphoric reception in foreign cities. Ethiopians in the diaspora welcomed Abiy as if the Messiah had arrived. In Washington, DC, Los Angeles and, later, in Minneapolis, people were head-over-heels just to see him and touch him, barely contained by the fences separating the two. In a spectacle for the ages, some were dropping to their knees to kiss his feet. The speech in Washington, DC started with chants of “Abiy, Abiy!” “Today is the day we will demolish the wall — by embracing one another,” Abiy Ahmed said. The crowd went wild.

After decades of disappointment, Ethiopians at home and abroad saw Abiy Ahmed as the savior, their Nelson Mandela. To the delight of millions, Abiy Ahmed fed that hope with soaring speeches. He spoke of love, forgiveness and unity (Medemer). For a while, Abiymania was everywhere. No single Ethiopian leader (since perhaps Emperor Hailesilassie in his prime) commanded so much adoration. Abiy Ahmed stickers were plastered on cars, windows and walls, posted by the people, genuinely and spontaneously. His image would be on a great many T-shirts, social media profiles and phones. CNN headlined, “Why Ethiopians believe their new PM is a prophet.”

The support Abiy Ahmed received was not limited to Ethiopians. Governments in Africa and elsewhere were also touched by his talks about peace and cooperation. His message resonated so far and wide that the Noble Committee awarded him its 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. The normally cautious Nobel committee did not need any demonstrable proof that Abiy Ahmed was genuine. They took him at his word in what now seems like an historic error and embarrassment.

Abiy with Noble Prize, image from nobelprize.org

The rude awakening

For Ethiopians at home and abroad, the euphoria did not last long. Soon, they were in for a rude awakening. Gaps between his talks and deeds started appearing and gained momentum in the months that followed. Ethiopia would see killings, displacements and lawlessness on a scale never seen before, much of it originating in his home state of Oromia, where his followers and local thugs acted with near impunity.

Whole communities in Southern Ethiopia were attacked by mobs from Oromia, forcing millions to leave their homes. At one point, Ethiopia became home to the largest internally displaced people in the world, estimated to be, at the time, 2.9 million. Characteristically, Abiy did not address the nation when the tragedy was unfolding. When he did speak, weeks later, he tried to downplay it, even questioning the number of those displaced, which various relief organizations had reported.

He was also accused of limiting access to humanitarian assistance to hide the truth. For him, the optics was more important than the rehabilitation. Under him, Internet and media blackouts became routine, costing the country hundreds of millions. The blackout in Tigray is the grandest and longest of all. As he has demonstrated time and again, Abiy lives and thrives by manipulating the symbolic and the emotional like no other Ethiopian leader before him.

In January 2019, banks, businesses and institutions were robbed or occupied at gun point in various parts of Oromia. Some people believed this was impossible without the tacit approval of local law enforcement officials. Indeed, the Oromia regional officials would downplay the incidents or shift blame to others. To this day, we do not know how many of the perpetrators were held accountable.

Abiy’s government could not even protect university students inside campuses in some parts of the country. Students were gunned down at multiple universities, some thrown from heights. In December 201, about eighteen Dembi Dollo University students in Oromia state, mostly Amhara girls, were abducted. Following a period of no comment, Abiy’s government first denied it, then gave highly conflicting accounts. The whereabouts of these abductees is still unknown. Tens of thousands of university students left their campuses at one point due to the violence.

With each passing month, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed became more autocratic. Sadly, the Ethiopian media is now less free than it was when he assumed power. A draconian media law he once derided is back. The prisons he emptied and showcased as symbols of repression to the world are full again, with the likes of Eskinder Nega, a human rights activist. Some of his former friends and supporters went to jails and house arrests, as well. Thus, one after another, Abiy trampled upon the very ideals that won him the Nobel Peace Prize just over a year ago.

Abiy must be held accountable

Contrary to the speeches of love, forgiveness, and unity he preached elsewhere, Abiy Ahmed was and remains all about gaining power, by sectarian means when necessary. In February 2020, he delivered a highly divisive speech in Bale, Oromia. Speaking to an Oromo audience, his base, he said, “We have humiliated those who humiliated us before. We have defeated those who defeated us before. We control their movements as much as they controlled ours.” These are hardly the words of a man preaching peace. They are tribal. They are about war.

Now, the overarching question is: what will happen to Ethiopia? Can peace prevail any time soon after Abiy declared war on all of Tigray? After all the turmoil in Southern Ethiopia and the animosities he created among different ethnicities by what he did and did not do? And the foreign involvements he invited?

Now, we believe the only thing that stands between Ethiopia and the abyss are foreign powers and friends of Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed and his allies, including Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, must be condemned and stopped before they wreak more havoc in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. And that should start with the Nobel Committee, which must admit its mistake and denounce Abiy Ahmed. Abiy Ahmed does not belong to the finest among us, like African Nobel Laureates Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan. He is tribal, authoritarian and a war criminal. He must be held accountable.

I write about Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa