The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. The 43-year-old former intelligence officer came to power in April 2018 and undertook ambitious democratic reforms, including lifting bans on opposition political parties and media outlets, releasing thousands of political prisoners, and bringing to an end the country’s state of emergency. Abiy is seen as having a unique ability to traverse the country’s ethnic and religious divides because of his mixed Christian and Muslim background and fluency in three of the country’s primary languages. The changes made under Abiy’s regime have set the stage for the country, Africa’s second most populous, to hold its first free, multiparty elections next year. The committee acknowledged the strides made domestically during Abiy’s short tenure, but stressed the importance of his leadership in ending a decades-long standoff with neighbor Eritrea following a bloody 1998-2000 border war.
“When Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in April 2018, he made it clear that he wished to resume peace talks with Eritrea,” the committee said in a statement. “In close cooperation with Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea, Abiy Ahmed quickly worked out the principles of a peace agreement to end the long ‘no peace, no war’ stalemate between the two countries… An important premise for the breakthrough was Abiy Ahmed’s unconditional willingness to accept the arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission in 2002.”
The peace deal reestablished diplomatic ties between the two countries, as well as everyday bonds, like phone lines and flights between the two sides that share ethnic and cultural bonds. “In the days that followed this breakthrough, some Ethiopians called Eritrean numbers randomly, and vice versa, just to speak to someone on the other side, simply because they could. Others tracked down parents, siblings and friends,” the New York Times notes. “When the first commercial Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, landed on July 18 last year, passengers stepping off the plane fell to their knees and kissed the ground. Two sisters separated from their father in the war, stuck on opposite sides of the border, embraced him for the first time after 20 years of growing up without him.”
Some other contenders for the 2019 prize were 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, the pro-Democracy activists in Hong Kong, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her response to the Christchurch shooting.