Ethiopian PM’s Nobel win is not enough to silence domestic criticism

Addis Ababa Letter: Many are concerned at Ethiopia’s direction under Abiy Ahmed

A man reads  a local newspaper in Addis Ababa, with the news of Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize the previous day. Photograph: Michael Tewelde/AFP via Getty Images

A man reads a local newspaper in Addis Ababa, with the news of Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize the previous day. Photograph: Michael Tewelde/AFP via Getty Images

 

Abiy Ahmed’s motorcade left the Imperial Palace in Addis Ababa on a recent Thursday night after a long day during which the Ethiopian prime minister played host to various heads of east African states and other dignitaries.

The day had seen the inaugural opening of Unity Park, a €140 million revamping of a section of the 40-acre grounds that have housed Ethiopia’s rulers since Emperor Menelik II, which Abiy has now opened to the Ethiopian people for the first time.

As well as giving the concrete jungle that is Addis Ababa a much-needed new green space, unveiling this once hermetically sealed compound is meant to serve as a symbol of a government moving away from authoritarian ways to democratic values.

It’s an example of the willingness of Ethiopia’s young and dynamic PM to think outside the box and the bold style of leadership that has garnered him so much international attention and praise.

Prime minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Photograph: Alex Welsh/The New York Times
Prime minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, who has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Photograph: Alex Welsh/The New York Times

That reached its zenith on the morning after the event at the Imperial Palace, with the news Abiy had been awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of his “efforts to achieve peace and international co-operation, and in particular his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”.

The Norwegian Nobel committee also cited the efforts of Abiy and other stakeholders “working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the east and northeast African regions”.

Locals I spoke to on the day the award was announced said Abiy deserved it for his mediating around the Horn of Africa region, and that they were happy for him personally and for what it meant for Ethiopia on the world stage.

In a bar that evening, a man showed me a Facebook post on his phone with Abiy in front of the Ethiopian flag and a message in Amharic reading “Congratulations to our Abiy”.

But, at the same time, Twitter carried many posts from Ethiopians – both home and abroad – criticising the committee’s choice. “The mystical Ethio-Eritrean deal continues to win awards and make headlines without actually making any differences on the ground,” tweeted one user, Selan Kidane. “I think it should become the ninth wonder of the world.”

Checkpoints closed

Since jubilant scenes of relatives from either side of the border embracing for the first time in decades, Eritrea has closed its checkpoints, and there appears little dialogue now between the two countries.

At the same time, recognition of Abiy as a peacemaker in Ethiopia is being called out. After winning plaudits in early 2018 for rapid-fire reforms, including releasing political prisoners and lifting bans on opposition parties, Abiy is now accused of sanctioning increasing repression to contain dissenting voices.

Locals are also increasingly questioning his ability to tackle domestic policies. “His focus is on the international level,” says Jerusalem Mebat, a 25-year-old doctor. “He should start small with the things in Ethiopia that need addressing.”

Both Jerusalem and her twin sister, Bethlehem, another doctor, said that while they are pleased Abiy won the Nobel, they can’t forget his reaction to a doctors’ strike over poor pay and long hours that they participated in earlier this year. “He met with the strike leaders and was insulting, saying we should just be glad to serve the public,” Bethlehem says. “About 98 per cent of doctors here are not happy and want to leave the country.”

Over coffee with the chairman of an opposition political party, I hear concerns that Abiy doesn’t have a strategic roadmap for implementing his reformist agenda, and how his approach is erratic and detached from reality. Hence the criticism from some that Unity Park, a personal initiative of Abiy’s, illustrates his propensity for style over substance, and that the money would have been better spent elsewhere.

Less comfortable

At the Imperial Palace Abiy exuded energy as he showed those heads of states around the smart grounds, landscaped with funding from the United Arab Emirates. But later during a silver service dinner, occasionally during a lull in the conversation at the head table I thought his eyes had the look of a less comfortable man.

Bodyguards with hefty rifles stood outside each entrance to the banqueting hall. Abiy has already survived one assassination attempt.

A day after the Nobel announcement, talk in Addis about Abiy’s award was eclipsed by discussions about whether a protest rally about city governance would happen the next day in Meskal Square, a large open area at the heart of the city.

The authorities refused permission for the rally and a clampdown ensued. Traffic was held up at checkpoints around the city and along major roads to the capital, leaving some buses full of travellers reportedly held up for two days.

A day later again, a Sunday morning, only pedestrians, bystanders and joggers, as well as some playing games of soccer, populated the square. By mid-morning, Addis Ababa police sergeants were congregating at cafes while their charges remained in the back of pickup trucks.

“People will be pleased about the Nobel but disappointed about the protest being banned,” Beles Yohannes (64) says outside a cafe near the square. “I understand why it wasn’t allowed with all the current problems, but others will be annoyed.”

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