Nobel for an Unsung Hero of an Unknown War

Nobel for an Unsung Hero of an Unknown War

T P Sreenivasan

T P Sreenivasan

Nobel Peace Prizes evoke positive and negative responses almost every year as the criteria for the award are interpreted broadly and the Norwegian Nobel Committee has been choosing winners who may not necessarily be seen as deserving the honour. The award of the Peace Prize to President Barack Obama within months of his assumption of office surprised everyone, including Obama himself. The explanation given was that the award was given to him to encourage him to take bold action to build peace. As it happened, the prize was vindicated because Obama made a major contribution to world peace subsequently.

Another controversial award was the one given to Wangari Mathaai, whose claim to fame was that she had planted thousands of trees in Kenya to save the environment. The awards given to the European Union, a regional Governmental organization and the Secretariat of the Chemical Weapons Convention were questioned as they were simply doing their job. The awards to Kailash Sathyarthi for opposing child labour and Malala for women’s education were also not in accordance with Alfred Nobel’s wish that the prize should be awarded to the person who “in the preceding year, shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace.”

The Nobel Committee should have corrected its historic mistake of not giving the Nobel Prize to Mahatma Gandhi by awarding it to him on the 150th Birth Anniversary of the Mahatma this year. There were other claimants from President Donald Trump to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. But the prize was awarded to the unsung hero of an unknown war, Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia "for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

The long and festering war between Etniopia and Eritrea did not attract global attention, but the war devastated both countries. The issue of determining the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea led to a major conflict, and in November 1997 a border committee was set up to try to resolve that specific dispute. But the failure to determine a new border led to border incidents .On 13 May 1998 Ethiopia, in what Eritrean radio described as a "total war" policy, mobilized its forces for a full assault against Eritrea. The Claims Commission found that this was in essence an affirmation of the existence of a state of war between the belligerents, not a declaration of war, and that Ethiopia also notified the United Nations Security Council, as required under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

The fighting quickly escalated to exchanges of artillery and tank fire, leading to four weeks of intense fighting. Ground troops fought on three fronts. On 5 June 1998, the Ethiopians launched air attacks on the airport in Asmara and the Eritreans retaliated by attacking the airport of Mekele. The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the use of force and welcomed statements from both sides to end the air strikes.

There was then a lull as both sides mobilized huge forces along their common border and dug extensive trenches. Both countries spent several hundred million dollars on new military equipment. This was despite the peace mediation efforts by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the US/Rwanda peace plan that was in the works. The US/Rwanda proposal was a four-point peace plan that called for withdrawal of both forces to pre-June 1998 positions. Eritrea refused, and instead demanded the demilitarization of all disputed areas along the common border, to be overseen by a neutral monitoring force, and direct talks.

With Eritrea's refusal to accept the US/Rwanda peace plan, on 22 February 1999 Ethiopia launched a massive military offensive.

By the end of May 2000, Ethiopia occupied about a quarter of Eritrea's territory, displacing 650,000 people and destroying key components of Eritrea's infrastructure.

After many efforts by African states and the United Nations, which failed, the Ethiopian government under the leadership of new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed unexpectedly announced on 5 June 2018 that it fully accepted the terms of an earlier peace agreement (2000). Ethiopia also announced that it would accept the outcome of the 2002 UN-backed Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruling. The Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki noted these as “positive signals.” The Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh led the first Eritrean delegation to Ethiopia in almost two decades when he visited Addis Ababa in late June 2018. At a summit in July 2018 in Asmara, Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a joint declaration formally ending the state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Following the peace agreement, on July 18, 2018, the communications were resumed and the twenty year war ended because of the bold initiative of Abiy Ahmed.

The pace of change in Ethiopia was so fast since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018 and this was why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The reforms he had introduced were unthinkable not so long ago. For many years, the government seemed impervious to criticism from human rights groups that the state stifled free expression, sidelined and imprisoned opposition leaders and cracked down on protests.

It also appeared steadfast in its disagreement with a border commission ruling that was meant to end the two-decade conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. Although there were threats to his life on account of his reforms, he persisted with his peace moves and became a true peace maker.

Abiy Ahmed inherited a long war, but he ended it in record time because of his genuine love for peace. Though the world was not unduly worried about the war, its end marked a big difference to the warring nations. He fulfilled the criteria willed by Alfred Nobel by promoting peace and fraternity among nations in real time. This year’s prize was the least controversial because it was recognised that Abiy Ahmed’s personal contribution to peace in the region was unquestionable and he became a model for others by showing that a single man can change the destiny of his country and its neighbours.