Abiy Ahmed’s Defining Moment

“There is no longer a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia because a bridge of love has destroyed it”. – Abiy Ahmed on July 8th,  2018, a day before he traveled to meet Eritrea’s President Afwerki in Asmara. 

When taking a look at a leader’s biography, there are one or two events that can be distinguished from others due to their significance for the individual’s emergence as a leader. This, being a “defining moment”,  marks a before-and-after in the individual’s career, and its significance is shown through the consequences it brings about for the leader’s world. Furthermore, this is a “defining moment” because the event showcases the individual’s guiding, or defining, values. In the case of Abiy Ahmed, his defining moment (in his role as a climate leader) is the 2019 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize for his “Decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea (…) and for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation”. 

One might argue that this event is not related to Abiy’s emergence as a climate leader. However, this event is as “generous” as a defining moment could be for the correct understanding of the leader’s profile; it showcases the leader’s relationship with climate action as best as possible, with his acceptance speech clearly outlining the logic behind his agenda prioritization. The speech is particularly interesting because it is a primary source — a retelling through his own words — of the “romantic” perspective through which he views his country’s environment and landscape. This speech highlights his pragmatic thinking, wherein he avoids referring to sustainability and environmental action as crucial spheres in policy making. 

Furthermore, the event portrays Abiy’s characterization of a “messiah” and reveals psychological traits such as his realist logic, his experiences throughout his childhood, his focus on ethnic and religious unity and, on some occasions, hints of populist rhetoric. Thus, the event is not only a milestone in Abiy’s career and an element he has used to pursue other actors into following his lead; but it also enables the spectator to grasp his doctrine in a more rounded manner through the narrations of his childhood and his vision for Ethiopia’s future. 

The background

Until July, 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea had been locked into a state of “neither peace nor war”, in the aftermath of 30 years long conflict that had separated families, complicated geopolitics and taken 80,000 lives. The dispute comes from historical border distortions emerging from colonial treaties in the nineteenth century, as well as from ethnic nationalistic sentiments mainly being fought for by Tigrayans and Eritreans. 

In 1991, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia but fighting soon followed, and by 1998 the two states were locked in a portion of their shared border. The war is reported to have caused about 70,000 casualties on both sides, and over 370,000 Eritreans and approximately 350,000 Ethiopians were affected by the war. The war, alongside other recurring events such as droughts and climatic catastrophes, exacerbated the existing food crisis which affected 8 million people. In addition, According to Human Rights Watch, thousands of detainees suffered cases of torture, rape or other degrading treatment. 

What led Abiy Ahmed to put an end to the “no peace-no war” state that had threatened the region for 18 years? On a psychological ground, the signature of such a historically disruptive accord is one of the main factors that pushed him to prove his groundbreaking nature as a leader. The change of the 30-years-long established machinations in both countries’ relations was yet another proof of how modern and reformist the character of the leader was. 

Aside from the psychological analysis, there are other, structural, reasons that pushed Ahmed to sign the accords with President Afwerki of Eritrea. On the one hand, Ethiopia, being landlocked, had recurred to the Djibouti port for access to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea to access global markets more easily. The peace accord gave Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s Red Sea ports in Assab and Massawa. 

Although the signature of the treaty allowed both nations to embark on a new path of peace and dialogue, it brought consequences to Abiy Ahmed’s leadership that led to Ethiopia’s current internal political state: a civil war. The military and strategic cooperation agreements between Eritrea and Ethiopia sparked tensions with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), as it was not involved nor consulted in the most recent agreement. The TPLF, the party that had ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until Abiy’s rise, had been excluded from Abiy’s new coalition, and a peace treaty between both nations was non-viable until then as the TPLF had blocked any peace attempts over the UN 2002 arbitration. In this regard, the change in the political paradigm and party structure as Abiy came to power was the tool that allowed both Abiy and Afwerki to cooperate, with the “public” objective of fostering peace relationships among nations, and the more “private” goal of combatting the TPLF. 

The Speech

Abiy Ahmed’s acceptance speech for the Nobel peace prize provides a good summary of the significant psychological and systemic pressure points that have followed him since his youth. 

For instance, Abiy makes several references to the importance of regional unity, and Africa’s integration with the rest of the world. By stating “while our two nations were stuck on old grievances, the world was shifting rapidly and leaving us behind”, Abiy Ahmed highlighted the manner in which he’s a constraint challenger, breaking away from “old grievances” and following the liberal world’s “trends” in terms of government and leadership.. He later referenced a widely used proverb “yoo ollaan nagayaan bule, nagaan bulanni” to appeal to unity and the need for peacemaking. By driving on a notion known by his enemies and allies alike, he is laying a common ground through which cooperation can be achieved. Furthermore, Abiy recounts his own life and depicts his own experiences in warfare as a sufficient reason for the need for peacemaking between the two nations, “War is the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I have been there and back”. 

Here, he is not only referring to his own experience, but also using those events to guide the fate of a nation. Besides pointing out regional unity, Abiy appeals to Medemer and inter-ethnic unity throughout his speech. He not only presents the idea of Medemer as the guiding value for peacemaking between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but also presents his own ideology to the international audience, in his own words. Here, he also draws from his own personal experiences as a child in his hometown in order to more clearly explain what Medemer stands for. 

Drawing on his past experiences, he paints a picture of Ethiopia’s fate that embodies the struggles of all the people in Ethiopia and, at the same time, depicts himself as the correct person to lead Ethiopia into a better future. 

Abiy also mentions his government’s focus on development and economic growth, and how their “focus has now shifted to developing joint infrastructure projects that will be a critical lever in our economic ambitions”. 

Lastly is the relationship being drawn between nature and pacemaking: “​​For me, nurturing peace is like planting and growing trees. Just like trees need water and good soil to grow, peace requires unwavering commitment, infinite patience, and goodwill to cultivate and harvest its dividends. Peace requires good faith to blossom into prosperity, security, and opportunity. In the same manner that trees absorb carbon dioxide to give us life and oxygen, peace has the capacity to absorb the suspicion and doubt that may cloud our relationships”.

Here, he is not only using rhetoric known by all audiences, but he is especially speaking to Ethiopia’s large agricultural population to create a poetic narration of how unity should be fostered. However, if there is one important aspect of Abiy’s leadership being depicted here, is that he does not necessarily put climate action (or a focus on the environment) as a main priority. Instead, there is another sphere of government he deems as more important: security. This quote particularly shows how his rule is not necessarily motivated by environmentalism, but that climate action only enters into play if it helps “explain the need for peace-making”; eg: if it contributes to another, more prioritized (under his realist agenda) sphere of government. 

The impact of Abiy Ahmed’s defining moment

Systematically, The Nobel Prize award is a double-edged sword, a weapon that can be fired both by Abiy or by the western liberal international community. It is a pressure point that must be analyzed, as it can be used both to gain western allies and as a point of significant accountability from those same newly-gained allies. 

On the one hand, winning a Nobel Peace Prize provided Abiy Ahmed with international recognition and highlighted his moment of highest national popularity. The prize, in this regard, was a source of legitimacy for a leader who had just been elected, had just passed his first 100 days in government and was beginning to gain international recognition for his liberal reforms. Further, the event portrays the Medemer ideology in full display, as well as a clear outlining of how he understands domestic and regional politics. In this sense, this moment helped him divulge his Medemer ideology to an international audience, and, more importantly, to neighboring African states. The award comes directly before the peak in Abiy’s journey of democratic reform and rebuilding Ethiopia’s political institutions. On the other hand, the Nobel Peace Prize has been used by international media outlets to highlight the irony and hypocrisy in Abiy Ahmed’s turn towards totalitarian practices and involvement in a civil war only two years after being awarded such honor.