How a Nobel Peace Prize led to war in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was seen recently in fatigues commanding troops on the battlefront, and insists that war was foisted upon him, writes Declan Walsh

Saturday 18 December 2021 00:01
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<p>Tigrayan rebels celebrate regaining territory from Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in June 2021 </p>

Tigrayan rebels celebrate regaining territory from Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in June 2021

Secret meetings with a dictator. Clandestine troop movements. Months of quiet preparation for a war that was supposed to be swift and bloodless.

New evidence shows that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been planning a military campaign in the northern Tigray region for months before war erupted a year ago, setting off a cascade of destruction and ethnic violence that has engulfed Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous country.

Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate seen recently in fatigues commanding troops on the battlefront, insists that war was foisted upon him – that ethnic Tigrayan fighters fired the first shots in November 2020 when they attacked a federal military base in Tigray, slaughtering soldiers in their beds. That account has become an article of faith for Abiy and his supporters.

In fact, it was a war of choice for Abiy – one with wheels set in motion even before the Nobel Peace Prize win in 2019 that turned him, for a time, into a global icon of non-violence.

The Nobel win stemmed largely from the unlikely peace deal Abiy struck with Isaias Afwerki, the authoritarian leader of Eritrea, within months of coming to power in 2018. That pact ended two decades of hostility and war between the neighbouring rivals, and inspired lofty hopes for a transformed region.

Instead, the Nobel emboldened Abiy and Isaias to secretly plot a course for war against their mutual foes in Tigray, according to current and former Ethiopian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals or protect family members inside Ethiopia.

‘He felt he was one of the most influential personalities in the world’: Abiy Ahmed in June 2021

In the months before fighting erupted in November 2020, Abiy moved troops toward Tigray and sent military cargo planes into Eritrea. Behind closed doors, his advisers and military generals debated the merits of a conflict. Those who disagreed were fired, interrogated at gunpoint or forced to leave.

Still dazzled by Abiy’s Nobel win, the West ignored those warning signs, the officials said. But ultimately it helped to pave the way to war.

“From that day, Abiy felt he was one of the most influential personalities in the world,” says Gebremeskel Kassa, a former senior Abiy administration official now in exile in Europe.

“He felt he had a lot of international support, and that if he went to war in Tigray, nothing would happen. And he was right.”

Abiy’s spokeswoman, the information minister of Eritrea and the Norwegian Nobel Committee did not respond to questions for this article.

Supporters of Ahmed hold a rally in Addis Ababa in November 2021

The quick and easy military victory Abiy promised has not come to pass. The Tigrayans routed the Ethiopian troops and their Eritrean allies over the summer and last month came within 160 miles of the capital, Addis Ababa – prompting Abiy to declare a state of emergency.

Recently, the pendulum has swung back, with government forces retaking two strategic towns that had been captured by the Tigrayans – the latest twist in a conflict that has already cost tens of thousands of lives and pushed hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions.

Analysts say Abiy’s journey from peacemaker to battlefield commander is a cautionary tale of how the west, desperate to find a new hero in Africa, got this leader spectacularly wrong.

“The west needs to make up for its mistakes in Ethiopia,” says Alex Rondos, formerly the European Union’s top diplomat in the Horn of Africa. “It misjudged Abiy. It empowered Isaias. Now the issue is whether a country of 110 million people can be prevented from unravelling.”

An 11-year-old Tigrayan soldier holds a handmade rifle

The nobel committee takes a chance

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2019, Abiy, a former soldier, drew on his own experience to eloquently capture the horror of conflict.

“War is the epitome of hell,” he told a distinguished audience at Oslo City Hall. “I know because I have been there and back.”

To his foreign admirers, the soaring rhetoric was further proof of an exceptional leader. In his first months in power, Abiy, then 41, freed political prisoners, unshackled the press and promised free elections in Ethiopia. His peace deal with Eritrea, a pariah state, was a political moonshot for the strife-torn Horn of Africa region.

Even so, the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee knew it was taking a chance on Abiy, says Henrik Urdal of Peace Research Institute Oslo, which analyses the committee’s decisions.

Abiy’s sweeping reforms were fragile and easily reversible, Urdal says, and the peace with Eritrea centred on his relationship with Isaias, a ruthless and battle-hardened autocrat.

“My partner and comrade in peace,” Abiy called him in Oslo.

A destroyed building in Tigray. the result of Ethiopian and Eritrean shelling

Many Ethiopians also wanted to believe in Abiy’s promise. At a gala dinner for the new prime minister in Washington in July 2018, Kontie Moussa, an Ethiopian living in Sweden, announced to applause that he was nominating Abiy for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Back in Sweden, Kontie persuaded Anders Österberg, a parliamentarian from a low-income Stockholm district with a large immigrant population, to join his cause. Österberg traveled to Ethiopia, met with Abiy and was impressed.

He signed the Nobel papers – one of at least two nominations for Abiy that year.

In selecting Abiy, the Nobel committee hoped to encourage him further down the path of democratic reforms, Urdal says.

Even then, though, there were signs that Abiy’s peace deal was not all it seemed.

Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighters in June 2021

Its initial fruits, like daily commercial flights between the two countries and reopened borders, were rolled back or reversed in a matter of months. Promised trade pacts failed to materialise, and there was little concrete cooperation, the Ethiopian officials say.

Eritrea’s spies, however, gained an edge. Ethiopian intelligence detected an influx of Eritrean agents, some posing as refugees, who gathered information about Ethiopia’s military capabilities, a senior Ethiopian security official says.

The Eritreans were particularly interested in Tigray, he says.

Isaias had a long and bitter grudge against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018. He blamed Tigrayan leaders for the fierce border war of 1998 to 2000 between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a former province of Ethiopia, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed. He also blamed them for Eritrea’s painful international isolation, including United Nations sanctions.

For Abiy, it was more complicated.

TPLF fighters after taking the Tigrayan capital of Mekele in June 2021

He served in the TPLF-dominated governing coalition for eight years and was made a minister in 2015. But as an ethnic Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, he never felt fully accepted by Tigrayans and suffered numerous humiliations, former officials and friends say.

Tigrayans fired Abiy from his leadership position at a powerful intelligence agency in 2010. In power, he came to see the Tigrayans as the biggest threat to his burgeoning ambitions.

A spy chief among the singers and dancers

Abiy and Isaias met at least 14 times from the time they signed the peace deal until war broke out, public records and news reports show.

Unusually, the meetings were mostly one-on-one, without aides or note-takers, two former Ethiopian officials say.

They also met in secret: On at least three other occasions in 2019 and 2020, Isaias flew into Addis Ababa unannounced, one former official says. Aviation authorities were instructed to keep quiet, and an unmarked car was sent to take him to Abiy’s compound.

Abiy viewed the Tigrayans as a threat to his authority – perhaps even his life – from his first days in power

Around that time, Eritrean officials also regularly visited the Amhara region, which has a long history of rivalry with Tigray. Crowds thronged the streets when Isaias visited the ancient Amhara city of Gondar in November 2018, chanting, “Isaias, Isaias, Isaias!”

Later, a troupe of Eritrean singers and dancers visited Amhara. But the delegation included Eritrea’s spy chief, Abraha Kassa, who used the trip to meet with Amhara security leaders, the senior Ethiopian official says. Eritrea later agreed to train 60,000 troops from the Amhara Special Forces, a paramilitary unit that later deployed to Tigray.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in February 2019, Abiy advocated an effective merger of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti – a suggestion that dismayed Ethiopian officials who saw it as straight from the playbook of Isaias.

Aides also saw the remarks as further proof of Abiy’s impulsive tendencies, leading them to cancel his news conference during the Nobel ceremonies in Oslo 10 months later.

Eritrean refugees at a camp in Azezo, Ethiopia, after being forced out of Tigray

Irreconcilable visions lead to war

Abiy viewed the Tigrayans as a threat to his authority – perhaps even his life – from his first days in power.

The Tigrayans had preferred another candidate as prime minister, and Abiy told friends he feared Tigrayan security officials were trying to assassinate him, an acquaintance says.

At the prime minister’s residence, soldiers were ordered to stand guard on every floor. Abiy purged ethnic Tigrayans from his security detail and created the Republican Guard, a hand-picked unit under his direct control, whose troops were sent for training to the United Arab Emirates – a powerful new ally also close to Isaias, a former Ethiopian official says.

The unexplained killing of the Ethiopian military chief, Gen. Seare Mekonnen, an ethnic Tigrayan who was shot dead by a bodyguard in June 2019, heightened tensions.

The rift with the Tigrayans was also driven by profound political differences. Within weeks of the Nobel Prize decision, Abiy created the Prosperity Party, which incarnated his vision of a strong, centralised Ethiopian government.

Ahmed salutes soldiers after being sworn in for a second five-year term in October 2021

But that vision was anathema to the millions of Ethiopians who yearned for greater regional autonomy – in particular the Tigrayans and members of his own ethnic group, the Oromo.

Accounting for about one-third of the country’s 110 million people, the Oromo have long felt excluded from power. Many hoped Abiy’s rise would change that.

But the Prosperity Party catered to Abiy’s ambitions, not theirs, and in late 2019 violent clashes between police officers and protesters erupted across the Oromia region, culminating in the death in June 2020 of a popular singer.

Against this tumultuous backdrop, the slide toward war accelerated.

Ethiopian military cargo planes began to make clandestine flights at night to bases in Eritrea, says a senior Ethiopian official.

Ahmed wins the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019

Abiy’s top aides and military officials privately debated the merits of a war in Tigray, the former official says. Dissenters included Ethiopia’s army chief, Gen. Adem Mohammed.

By then the Tigrayans were also gearing up for war, searching for allies in the Northern Command, Ethiopia’s most powerful military unit, which was based in Tigray.

In September the Tigrayans went ahead with a regional election, in open defiance of an order from Abiy. He then moved troops from the Somali and Oromia regions toward Tigray.

In a video conference call in mid-October, Abiy told governing party officials that he would intervene militarily in Tigray and that it would take only three to five days to oust the region’s leaders, says Gebremeskel, the former senior official now in exile.

On 2 November the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, publicly appealed to both sides to halt “provocative military deployments”. The next evening, Tigrayan forces attacked an Ethiopian military base, calling it a pre-emptive strike.

Eritrean soldiers flooded into Tigray from the north. Amhara Special Forces arrived from the south. Abiy fired Adem and announced a “law enforcement operation” in Tigray.

Ethiopia’s ruinous civil war was underway.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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