Last week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic engagement with neighboring Eritrea and initiating a host of domestic reforms. USIP’s Susan Stigant explains how the award shines a light on his accomplishments and “sets an expectation that he will continue to provide that leadership going forward.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had been in office about a few months when he started a peace process to end a 20-year conflict with Eritrea and now has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This is not a name, a household name. Quite frankly, what's going on in Ethiopia and Eritrea is probably not something you talk about a lot. But it's an important issue and one that deserves some conversation which is why we are lucky that Susan Stigant can join us. She is the director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace tweeting @SusanStigant. Susan, welcome. Thank you for being here.

Susan Stigant: Thanks for having me on.

Tim Farley: Who is this man who won the Nobel Peace Prize?

Susan Stigant: Dr. Abiy comes from an interesting background. Ethiopia is a country with mixed religion. He comes from mixed parentage, so his mother, Christian, his father, Muslim. He was involved in the intelligence and security services in Ethiopia. He has a PhD in Peace and Security Studies. He became prime minister at a very young age. He's now 42 years old. As you said, he's really provided leadership and ushered in a massive reform process in his own country in Ethiopia, but also helped to end to what was a 20-year war that was frozen. No active fighting but no peace, borders closed, family separated, and has really, I think, given hope in a place where people were really doubtful of the possibilities of peace.

Tim Farley: When you said young and I looked at his picture, I said, "Wow, he is young." He's not as young as Greta Thunberg. A lot of people thought maybe she was in the running. But this sounds in its own way significant in that it calls for bringing some people together, I guess. How did he do that?

Susan Stigant: Well, I think as in a lot of first steps, it takes some courage. It takes somebody to stand up and extend the hand forward. I think this was very much the case between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Their part of the outstanding issue was a disputed border area. Dr. Abiy also had to convince those within his own country that there was a way to move forward on that disputed border.

I think that's been an incredibly important step. He didn't do this entirely alone. I think there was some interesting support and encouragement from partners, particularly in the United Arab Emirates who helped to provide some financial incentives to make this deal look attractive. Of course, the United States has worked for many years to try to bridge this gap and resolve this war that at the time led to an estimated a hundred thousand deaths of people and thousands of people being displaced.

Tim Farley: Now, Eritrea has only been independent of Ethiopia since what? 1991. Is that right?

Susan Stigant: 1991 was when the peace agreement was signed between the two countries, but they were previously one country. Importantly, Eritrea has the border with the coast. Ethiopia is a landlocked country. A landlocked country of 110 million people.

Tim Farley: On the Red Sea, right?

Susan Stigant: Exactly. Exactly.

Tim Farley: Yeah. Well, and this is important, I think, for people who are trying to locate in their minds and maybe not thinking about Africa, but Ethiopia, Eritrea right there on the Red Sea, but right across from there is Yemen. Ethiopia is East of Somalia. Djibouti's right there. It's not exactly a calm place in the world. We can only imagine that trying to form a peace process there, [it’s] is a challenge at the very least.

Susan Stigant: It's definitely a challenge between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but I think just as important as that is that this Nobel Peace Prize shines light on the transition that's taking place within Ethiopia. When Dr. Abiy started as prime minister in April of 2018, he initiated massive reforms in his own country. Opening up free media, releasing political prisoners, welcoming opposition party back. This is, I think, a very welcome change.

There's been important progress, but with elections on the horizon next year, a very complex political, ethnic, religious composition of the country, his leadership is very much needed to take the country forward. Really, the country needs to figure out how they want to go forward together and how they can form a political settlement, a peace agreement internally, to make sure that these reforms really take root and lead to a more peaceful Ethiopia.

Tim Farley: Susan Stigant with us. United States Institute of Peace director of Africa programs. We're talking about the Ethiopian prime minister winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I was reading one account that said that Dr. Abiy, he's been compared in some ways to Barack Obama. In other words, he had won the Nobel early in his tenure and maybe he was untested at this point. It was more aspirational. What's your assessment of that?

Susan Stigant: Well, I think Dr. Abiy won the prize based on some of his key accomplishments, namely the reforms he initiated within Ethiopia and the start of a peace agreement and peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea. I think the committee was very clear, the Nobel Peace Prize committee was clear that it also sets an expectation that he will continue to fight that leadership forward.

Peace agreements don't come just with a handshake. They have to be grounded in changes in people's lives. They have to be grounded in institutions and organizations that connect people and that can manage conflicts when they arise. That's very much true in terms of what's needed between Ethiopia and Eritrea going forward and within Ethiopia itself.

Tim Farley: Susan, I want to ask a question more general about Africa because as we mentioned at the outset of this conversation, the United States often leans toward Africa. Each president says, "We need to make it a priority." What is sort of the state? I know we're talking about the entire continent here, but is the United States on target when it comes to try to focus on some of the key emerging issues in that continent, on that continent? Where are we when it comes to those concerns about Africa?

Susan Stigant: Well, you mentioned earlier the neighborhood where Ethiopia finds itself and some of the ongoing violent conflict and security challenges. I think it's important to note that Ethiopia matters to the United States because they have been a long time security partner. Particularly in Somalia where there's a shared interest in addressing the threat of Al Shabaab, the violent extremist organization.

I think Africa is a continent of great promise. It's the place where consistently in public opinion polling, young people in particular talk about their desire and their aspirations for democratic system, for a better life, for employment, for education. I think those are values that very much align with what the United States has consistently articulated in its own policies and its own priorities. There's very much an open door for U.S. engagement in Africa.

Tim Farley: Is economic engagement possible also? I mean, we often hear about trade and so on, but I wonder, there are certain countries that have economic security, others are dirt poor. I just wonder where that's going.

Susan Stigant: Yeah. The economic engagement is really a critical piece. I think we too often separate that from peace and security issues. If you'll use a really prime example where the median age in the country is something like 18 and a half years. Young people are going to school. They're educated. But even though Ethiopia has one of the largest growth rates on the continent, it can't keep pace in terms of providing jobs to young people.

So investments and engagement by U.S. companies is really critical to helping to secure the peace. That's not just Ethiopia, that's more broadly. But that has to be coupled with some confidence for international U.S. businesses that their investments are secure. That their regulatory environment is consistent and predictable. I think this is where the reform process and the business side, they really need to come together, I think, to be a little bit more closely aligned going forward.

Tim Farley: Susan, I do appreciate you being on the program today. Thank you so much.

Susan Stigant: Thanks so much. Great to talk to you. Tim Farley: Susan Stigant, director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace overseeing programming on places like South Sudan, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya and more. Just wanted to get her general sense of Africa, but really focusing on the prime minister of Ethiopia being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Prime Minister Abiy, as she noted, is just 42. Well, she said 42 while someone reported he is 43, but a very young man. But was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for what he had been doing with Eritrea. We wanted to bring a focus on that. She, by the way, is tweeting @SusanStigant.

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