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Closing the Gap between Imagery and Reality: What the Nobel Prize Brings to Ethiopia

Closing the Gap between Imagery and Reality: What the Nobel Prize Brings to Ethiopia

By Elias Dawit 10-25-19


“Nobel Prize Winning Prime Minister Faces Protest.” “Ethiopian Activist Calls for Calm after 16 Die in Clashes.” “Deadly Ethiopia Unrest Poses Fresh Challenge to Nobel Winner.”

These are just a sample of the many headlines reporting on Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and the violence this week that has taken at least 16 lives. The disconnect between the accolades of the Nobel Peace Prize and the situation on the ground in Ethiopia is symptomatic of the narrowing gap between the imagery and reality that has dominated the Prime Minister since taking office.

Peace with Eritrea: A One-Way Ticket Out for Eritreans but Nothing Tangible for Ethiopians

Let’s first talk about the peace with Eritrea.

In 2000, following a brutal two-year war instigated by Eritrea, according to the findings of the Algiers Agreement, both parties signed a cessation of hostilities agreement. Despite efforts by the Boundary Commission to demarcate the disputed boundaries between the two countries, there was a stalemate described as “no war, no peace,” between the two countries.

One of the first steps taken by Prime Minister Abiy was a rapprochement with Eritrean President and strongman Isayas Afewerki. Around the world, media coverage showed emotional footage of family reunification, people dancing in the streets and an embrace seen around the world between the leaders of the two countries. The imagery was powerful.

The reality, however, is in stark contrast to the perfect photo opportunities orchestrated by the Prime Minister’s office and his new coterie of advisors from Washington, D.C. The border temporarily opened, and tens of thousands of Eritreans crossed into Tigray to escape the repression and brutality of the once international pariah, their own President Isayas Afewerki. Flights resumed between the two countries, giving Eritreans lucky enough to have a passport and money for a plane ticket the opportunity to flee in a quieter way.

So, other than opening the door for Eritreans to flee, what have been the benefits of the peace?

For many Eritreans, an open border, although temporary, offered an escape route. The same benefit came from the resumption of flights.

At the same time, however, Isayas’ reputation was elevated from pariah to peacemaker. Once known as the leader of Africa’s North Korea, Isayas was reinvigorated by the positive media attention he received around the world. Eritrea “came in from the cold” and his brutal and repressive government was given a high-five, along with a bounty of foreign aid, by the United States and its Middle Eastern allies.

Videos From Around The World

The only Eritreans who have benefitted from the peace agreement, which has not yet been implemented, are those who were able to flee the country. And, of course, Isayas, who benefitted from all the foreign assistance given to him to keep his repressive state afloat.

For Ethiopians, there have been few benefits. In Tigray, the resumption of trade when the border was officially opened, added a modicum of cash infusion into the economy. However, the economic benefits were offset by the rise in prices for housing and other commodities that came with the influx of Eritreans.

No one disagrees with the peace. Yet, the situation on the ground remains what it was in 2000 with the signing of the Algiers Agreement. The border is closed. The disputed areas have not been demarcated. There are still soldiers and weapons deployed at the borders.

If the threat of violence with Eritrea ended with the peace, the reality of violence inside Ethiopia is getting worse.

And in Ethiopia, the Violence is Worsening

Just this week in Ethiopia, Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed was awakened in the middle of the night by the security detail given to him by the Prime Minister. The security team informed Jawar that they were being ordered to vacate his compound by the police. Jawar, a master at social media, immediately posted to Facebook, “The plan was to remove my security and unleash civilian attackers and claim it was a mob attack,” he said in the Facebook post.”

Reading between the lines, Jawar is accusing the Prime Minister of used mob violence to kill him.

Oromia’s president, Shemelis Abdissa, a member of the Prime Minister’s own party, responded by demanding an investigation of the incident. The head of police, General Endeshaw Tassew, dismissed Jawar’s allegations by saying that there are a number of security details being pulled from individuals.

Thousands of people took to the streets across Ethiopia protesting the Prime Minister’s decision to pull the detail. To date, sixteen people are now dead from this most recent protest.

This event, although horrific as a standalone, has become the norm.

Since Prime Minister Abiy took power, there have been thousands more deaths from violence; many of the deaths were ethnic-based murders. Three million people remain displaced in the country—the largest in the world—from ethnic violence that is fueled by the current political discourse that demonizes certain ethnic groups to exploit the surge of populism in Ethiopia.

The Prime Minister has been agile in taking no responsibility for the violence, ethnic tensions, displacement and weakening of institutions under his watch.

The Nobel Prize actually might be the undoing of Prime Minister Abiy. The Nobel Prize has put a microscope on Ethiopia’s worsening reality and the imagery so carefully orchestrated by the Western-backed Prime Minister is beginning to blur.

For the first time, the international media is beginning to understand the reality in Ethiopia and not the imagery.  The protests in Oromia against the Prime Minister are clear signs of the Prime Minister’s waning support among his own ethnic group and across Ethiopia. The 2020 elections are just months away and Abiy’s Western supporters should be asking themselves if they put their money on the wrong horse.

If Abiy’s Nobel Prize is “being awarded too early,” as Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, has acknowledged. “The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”

Using this logic, we would have expected the committee to award Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki the prize as well.

In the meantime, let the scrutiny that the Nobel Prize brings to Ethiopia and the Prime Minister close the gap between reality and imagery.

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