Editor’s Note: Below is an expanded version of a piece we have published in the current issue of National Review.
Every now and then, East Africa breaks into world consciousness. It happened in the mid 1980s, when Ethiopia underwent a terrible famine. Teams of pop stars made two hit “charity singles”: “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The world again turned to East Africa in the mid 2000s, when the Sudanese dictatorship committed genocide against people in Darfur, a region in the west of the country. (That genocide has not quite ended.)
Today, Ethiopia is again in the news, for war in Tigray, a region in the country’s north. What is happening there is worse than war, if such a thing is possible: Tigray is a theater for war crimes and crimes against humanity. To make it all the more interesting — if that is the word — Ethiopia’s head of state is the 2019 Nobel peace laureate: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Ethiopia is a challenge to govern, no doubt. With 112 million people, it is the second-most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria. There are more than 80 ethnic groups, and as many languages. Abiy Ahmed speaks the handful of major languages in the country. In many ways, he would seem unusually well suited to national leadership.
Born in 1976, he is the son of a Muslim and a Christian. Both of his parents — now deceased — were of the Oromo people. His father, a farmer, spoke only Oromo; his mother spoke both Oromo and Amharic. Abiy himself married an Amhara woman. He is a Pentecostal Christian, said to be devout.
When a teenager, he fought against the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, known as “the Stalin of East Africa.” Later, in the Ethiopian military, he fought in the Eritrean–Ethiopian War. He served as a U.N. peacekeeper in Rwanda, after the genocide in that country. Abiy was educated — extensively — in Addis Ababa and London. He rose in the military, and intelligence, and business. In 2010, he was elected to parliament.
After Mengistu was toppled in 1991, Ethiopia was ruled by a coalition called “the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front” (EPRDF). It was composed of four parties, based on ethnicity. The dominant party was Tigrayan: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). A Tigrayan, Meles Zenawi, was boss of the country from 1991 until his death in 2012.
Though Tigray has just 6 percent of the Ethiopian population, it long had outsize influence in national affairs.
In 2018, after mass popular protests, particularly in the Oromo and Amhara regions, the coalition elected Abiy Ahmed to serve as prime minister. He quickly established himself as a new kind of leader. It is “high time for us to learn from our past mistakes,” he said, “and to make up for all the wrongs that have been done.” He apologized for the brutality and corruption of the EPRDF.
Indeed, he established a new party — the Prosperity Party — to replace the old coalition. Three of the four parties of the EPRDF joined Prosperity; so did a slew of lesser parties. The Tigrayans — the TPLF — declined to join.
Abiy released and pardoned thousands of political prisoners. Many had been labeled “terrorists” simply for opposing the government. He dismissed officials who had been thought “untouchable.” He invited exiled media outlets to return to the country.
What’s more, he at last ended the Eritrean–Ethiopian War. Formally speaking, the war lasted from 1998 to 2000. The two sides signed a peace agreement in December 2000. One of the things they agreed to was that an international commission would decide the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia. When the commission drew its boundary, it placed the town of Badme on the Eritrean side. At this, Ethiopia — the EPRDF — balked. The Ethiopians had control of Badme, and they would not let it go.
Badme was important. In fact, another name for the Eritrean–Ethiopian War is “the War of Badme.”
For 18 years, there existed a condition between the two countries known as “no peace, no war.” Then Abiy agreed to hand over Badme. He and his Eritrean counterpart signed a joint declaration, officially ending the war, once and for all. They restored full diplomatic relations between their countries. And they threw open the border. Families, long split by the conflict, were joyously reunited.
Nor was Abiy through with his peace efforts. There are various conflicts in the Horn of Africa: between Eritrea and Djibouti; between Somalia and Kenya; etc. Abiy Ahmed offered his services, usefully.
Given all of the above — especially a resolution to the Eritrean–Ethiopian War — it was no surprise that the Norwegian Nobel Committee made Abiy its laureate in 2019. In a press release, the committee said it was doing so “with the provisions of Alfred Nobel’s will firmly in mind.”
What did they mean by those words?
Though few know it, Alfred Nobel directed that his prizes — all of them, not just the peace prize — go to work done “during the preceding year.” The Nobel prizes are not supposed to be lifetime-achievement awards. They are to reward and encourage people relatively early in their labors. Sometimes, Nobel committees have abided by the will, sometimes — often — not.
The principal criterion for the peace prize, by the way, is “fraternity between nations.”
In announcing its selection of Abiy, the Norwegian committee issued a caveat: “No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early. The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”
A university student in Addis Ababa, Tsege Afrassa, was quoted in the New York Times: “It is great that he won the prize when I think of what it means for the country.” She added, “But he has a lot more to do to restore full peace in the country. The prize brings more responsibility with it.”
That is a common sentiment, when it comes to the Nobel Peace Prize.
At the ceremony on December 10, 2019, Abiy Ahmed gave one of the most beautiful, poetic, and moving speeches in Nobel history. (I have read them all.) Here is a taste — a passage on the hell of war, an old theme, and one that will ever recur:
“War is the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I have been there and back. I have seen brothers slaughtering brothers on the battlefield. I have seen older men, women, and children trembling in terror under the deadly shower of bullets and artillery shells.
You see, I was not only a combatant in war. I was also a witness to its cruelty and what it can do to people. War makes for bitter men. Heartless and savage men.”
Then, Abiy told a story:
“Twenty years ago, I was a radio operator attached to an Ethiopian army unit in the border town of Badme. The town was the flashpoint of the war between the two countries. I briefly left the foxhole in the hopes of getting a good antenna reception. It took only but a few minutes. Yet, upon my return, I was horrified to discover that my entire unit had been wiped out in an artillery attack.
I still remember my young comrades-in-arms who died on that ill-fated day. I think of their families too.”
Three months after the Nobel prize ceremony, the pandemic set in. A general election scheduled for August, Abiy Ahmed postponed till the middle of 2021. Up in Tigray, the TPLF was furious. The Tigrayans thought Abiy was acting dictatorially. In defiance of Addis Ababa, the TPLF held regional elections in September. In retaliation, Abiy redirected federal funds from the TPLF — the regional leadership — to local governments. Tensions between the TPLF and the federal government were boiling. This was a contest of wills.
Be aware that the TPLF is armed. That is, they have some 250,000 men under arms, while the federal government has some 350,000.
The terrible moment came on November 4 — the moment that an American might think of as the Fort Sumter moment. As near as can be determined, TPLF forces attacked the headquarters of the federal government’s Northern Command. Abiy Ahmed then swept the Ethiopian National Defense Force into Tigray. He and his government have referred to the war in euphemisms: “law-enforcement operations”; “rule-of-law operations.”
Talk about “the epitome of hell”: This war has been a shocking spasm of bombings, massacres, and rape. I will spare the details, except for a few.
In the second week of November, Tigrayan forces committed a massacre in the town of Mai Kadra. Chief among the victims were migrant workers from Amhara. The killers hacked their victims — hundreds of them — to death.
In late November, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces — working together — shelled the town of Aksum. This was apparently indiscriminate shelling, killing unarmed civilians. Then, Eritrean forces massacred hundreds of Tigrayans within Aksum.
Rape has long been a weapon of war — in Sudan, the Balkans, Burma, and any number of other places. Rape in Tigray is on a mass, horrific scale. On January 21, a U.N. official, Pramila Patten, issued a statement. She is the U.N. “special representative” on the subject of “sexual violence in conflict.” I will quote just the first two sentences of her statement:
“I am greatly concerned by serious allegations of sexual violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, including a high number of alleged rapes in the capital, Mekelle. There are also disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence.”
Who is responsible for the hell in Tigray? The prime minister, the Nobel peace laureate? The assignment of blame would take many pages of analysis. Suffice it to say, Abiy Ahmed is to blame for a lot, including the cut-off of communication between Tigray and the outside world, and the delay of humanitarian aid — desperately needed — to the region. Many are calling for the revocation of Abiy’s Nobel Peace Prize.
As it happens, the Nobel Peace Prize is neither revokable nor returnable. I will offer a page or two on Nobel history.
There was never a time when the Nobel Peace Prize was uncontroversial. The first award ever given — in 1901, when the committee divided the prize between Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, and Frédéric Passy, a veteran peace campaigner — was very controversial. Almost no Nobel selection meets with universal acclaim. This includes the 1979 prize to Mother Teresa.
The most controversial Nobel prize ever awarded — in any field — was the peace prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, in 1973. They received the prize for the Paris Agreement, which they had negotiated. It was signed in January 1973. The Paris Agreement was a ceasefire in the Vietnam War. The Nobel committee hoped that the parties would “feel a moral responsibility” to abide by the agreement and, ultimately, end the war. North Vietnam, of course, shot the agreement to hell.
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, Kissinger tried to return his share of the prize. He said he felt “honor-bound” to do so, given the fate of Vietnam. The committee explained that Nobel prizes are not returnable. They further reminded Kissinger that he had been honored for certain work. Events in Vietnam, they said, did not negate his “sincere efforts to get a ceasefire agreement put into force in 1973.”
One way to put this is: A Nobel prize is not conditional.
In 1950, the committee honored Ralph Bunche, the American diplomat working for the United Nations. The year before, on the isle of Rhodes, he had negotiated a series of armistice agreements between the new state of Israel and four of its enemies. Those enemies, of course, blew the agreements to hell.
While we are on the Arab–Israeli conflict: The award to Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin was given in 1978, for the Camp David Accords. Those were preliminary accords, not a peace treaty. The treaty was not consummated until March 1979. But the Nobel committee wanted to put the parties on the hook, so to speak.
Sadat did not attend the ceremony in December 1978. His stated reason: A final treaty had yet to be negotiated. The real reason, almost certainly: The Arab world was already inflamed at him, for his peacemaking with Israel; a personal appearance in Oslo, with Begin, would have fanned the flames. Two and a half years after the peace treaty was signed, Sadat was assassinated.
As was Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, less than a year after he received the prize. The Israeli prime minister received it along with the foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. The three were awarded for the Oslo Accords, which had their origin in the Nobel committee’s hometown. The committee wanted to hold the parties to the accords. Arafat was not to be held.
The peace prize to Barack Obama, the American president, in 2009 was very controversial—and not just among his critics at home. Many people, including past honorees, decried the award, especially when, less than two weeks before the Nobel ceremony, the president announced a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan.
In recent years, many people have wanted the Nobel prize of Aung San Suu Kyi revoked. She won it in 1991. By 2016, she was the leader — or the civilian leader, sharing power uneasily with the military — of her country, Burma. She seemed shockingly indifferent to the genocide of the Rohingya people. But did she deserve her prize in 1991? Few have deserved the prize more.
Today, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has egg on its face. Aung San Suu Kyi aside, the committee’s 2019 laureate is presiding over this murderous, monstrous mayhem in Tigray. But the 2019 award made sense, on Nobel terms. Classically, a committee asks itself, “Who has done the most or best work for fraternity between nations during the preceding year?”
The hell in Tigray may go on and on. It may spread, making Ethiopia a failed state. The leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Debretsion Gebremichael, speaks in clear separatist and secessionist terms: “Give in? You have to understand, we will continue fighting as long as they are in our land.”
Ethiopia is complicated, but I have advice for any Ethiopia-watchers, or watchers in general. It is not my advice, but the advice that Elie Kedourie, the great British historian, born and raised in Baghdad, gave to David Pryce-Jones: “Keep your eye on the corpses.”