What Other World Leaders Can Learn from Nobel Peace Prize Winner Abiy Ahmed Ali


What Other World Leaders Can Learn from Nobel Peace Prize Winner Abiy Ahmed Ali

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

The term “populist leader” has become something of an alarm bell for liberals across the world, and it’s no surprise. Consider the various heads of state who have landed the title, and it reads like a laundry list of bogeymen of the global left/liberal crowd: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and our very own Narendra Modi. Their brand of leadership is one defined by muscular nationalism and a strongman personality, a self-serving approach that could alienate potential allies, but still seems to be spreading itself across the world. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, another so-called populist leader. But after a little over a year in power, Abiy has proved that there’s a crucial difference between him and other populists – he’s also popular.

Abiy took up Ethiopia’s highest office on April 2 last year, after the unexpected resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn. Just a year-and-a-half later, he is being recognised by the Nobel Committee for “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.” The “decisive initiative” that the Nobel Committee is referring to is his decision to give up disputed border territory to Eritrea, in the process bringing an end to two decades of brinkmanship and ushering in peace after twenty years. When he entered office, the thought of the Ethiopian and Eritrean heads of states shaking hands and smiling for a photograph was a far-fetched fantasy, but Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki made that a reality last year.

In a world, where leaders are insistent on building walls and putting states under lockdown, Abiy’s efforts stand out. Unlike other populists, he doesn’t pander to majoritarian tendencies within his borders, despite himself belonging to Ethiopia’s single-largest ethnic community, the Oromo. With an outlook toward building regional ties, Abiy has not only reopened the Ethiopian-Eritrean land border after 20 years, but also participated in brokering a political armistice in neighbouring Sudan after the collapse of Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship. After his part in restoring peace to the turbulent region, Abiy’s reputation for statesmanship saw a spike.

With his popularity soaring only months after taking office, by September 2018 he had managed to imprint his belief in freedom of expression on how the country’s ruling coalition, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), conducted affairs. Political dissidents, including the leader of the opposition movement Ginbot 7, returned to Ethiopia after overseas exile. Ginbot 7’s leader, Berhanu Nega, made his return after fleeing Ethiopia in 2005. Diversity of political opinion is being celebrated, as reported by The Guardian, which wrote, “Residents who once feared speaking publicly about politics now talk of little else. Flags and symbols long banned by the EPRDF blossom across the city.” Making sure his commitment to diversity was intersectional, Abiy, on October 16, also took the move of appointing women to half the ministerial posts in his government.

Receiving the prestigious award will go some way toward boosting Abiy’s international profile, which in turn should empower him to carry out further reforms.

As the leader of the African continent’s second-most populous nation, Abiy is in a position to bring positive change to a part of the world often defined by strife. And the signs, at least in the short period that he has been in the international spotlight, point to a leader who champions progressivism and international cooperation. In a time of movements like Brexit in UK and the rise of the right-wing the world over, Abiy’s approach is a breath of fresh air. This year, that was enough for the Nobel Committee. In its announcement, the committee said, “No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early. The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.” Sometimes you have to strike while the iron is hot.

When it comes to the urgency of recognising Abiy’s achievements, there is truth to the committee’s justification. Receiving the prestigious award will go some way toward boosting his international profile, which in turn should empower him to carry out further reforms. Some have called the excitement he inspires in the Ethiopian citizenry “Abiymania”, and long may it prosper.

This year, Abiy Ahmed Ali proved that peace, harmony, and populism can co-exist, despite evidence to the contrary. The Nobel Peace Prize is just a formal recognition of the fact.