Journey to Hell Led Ethiopian Nobel Winner to Eritrea Peace Deal

Mike Cohen and Samuel Gebre

(Bloomberg) -- Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for forging an end to almost two decades of conflict with neighboring Eritrea, described how his personal exposure to the horrors it wrought drove him to seek a rapprochement.

“War is the epitome of hell for all involved,” Abiy, who served as a radio operator in the Ethiopian army and was the only survivor of an artillery attack on his unit during the war, said in his Nobel lecture in Oslo on Tuesday. “I know because I have been there and back.”

Abiy, 43, became Africa’s youngest leader when he was appointed prime minister in March 2018, and immediately announced a swathe of political and economic reforms. Three months later, he and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki agreed a peace accord to end a stalemate that followed a 1998-2000 border war in which as many as 100,000 people died.

Abiy described Isaias as his partner and said his goodwill and commitment played a vital role in bringing about the deal that persuaded the United Nations to lift decade-old sanctions on Eritrea.

“We understood our nations are not enemies,” the Ethiopian leader said in a prepared speech. “Instead, we were victims of the common enemy called poverty. We recognized that while our two nations were stuck on old grievances, the world was shifting rapidly and leaving us behind.”

While parts of the peace accord remain unimplemented, including territorial demarcations outlined by a 2002 boundary commission and the reopening of several border crossings, Abiy described the two nations’ commitment to peace as “iron-clad.”

At home, Abiy’s unbanning of Ethiopian opposition and rebel groups, has stoked political fragmentation and long-suppressed rivalries among ethnic communities. That’s led regional groups to intensify calls for more self-determination. Reforms have also faced mounting opposition from anti-government groups and within the ruling party, which has factionalized under his rule.

Abiy said the returns of reform would be seen in the years to come, and that his administration remained committed to maintaining multiparty democracy, media freedom and human rights.

Abiy’s visit to Norway was also marked by his decision not to attend a press conference -- traditionally an integral part of the Nobel Peace Prize award program. In unusual criticism of a laureate, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said last week the snub was “very unfortunate.”

The Nobel Committee went as far as sending its secretary to Addis Ababa to try to convince Abiy to talk to the press during his visit, but to no avail, said Chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen. U.S. President Barack Obama also skipped the press conference when he claimed the prize in 2009, taking only two questions from selected media.

Born on Aug. 15, 1976, in the small town of Beshasha in Ethiopia’s Oromia state, Abiy holds masters degrees in business administration and transformational leadership and a PhD in traditional conflict resolution. He’s served as a lieutenant-colonel in the Ethiopian National Defense Force, an acting director of the country’s cyber-security intelligence agency and science and technology minister.

Reiss-Andersen said Abiy has seized the initiative during the transition in power in Ethiopia to swiftly address the deadlock in the standoff with Eritrea, and was the main architect behind the peace deal.

“You have chosen a path that we believe will consolidate peace and prosperity in your country,” she said. “You represent a new generation of African leaders who realize that armed conflict and ethnic hostilities must be resolved by peaceful means.”

The peace prize, along with awards in literature, physics and medicine, was created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. Abiy is the second successive African recipient -- in 2018, Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege was the joint winner of the award for his work against sexual violence. Past laureates include former South African President Nelson Mandela and U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

--With assistance from Mikael Holter and Jonas Cho Walsgard.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Cohen in Cape Town at;Samuel Gebre in Abidjan at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Richardson at, Michael Gunn

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