Prime Minister Abiy Wins Nobel Peace Prize Amid Tensions


On 20th November 2019, the Sidama people voted overwhelmingly in support of the creation of a new federal region, with 98 percent choosing autonomous rule. More than two million people were eligible to vote on whether they wanted their own regional state within Ethiopia's ethnically federated system. The new state, largely home to the Sidama ethnic group, who make up about 4 percent of the country's population, becomes the country’s tenth state, and will control local taxes, education, security and laws, and break away from the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) which they have shared with 50 other groups for more than two decades. The vote was largely peaceful, despite violence surrounding the initial stages of the vote in July 2019, as previously reported on the Monitor. Prime Minister Abiy congratulated voters who took part in the peaceful referendum.

On 22nd November 2019, it was reported that three out of four members of the ruling party - Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition - voted in favour of merging the coalition’s parties to form a single party called the Prosperity Party.

The plan was backed by Prime Minister Abiy in an attempt to break down ethnic divisions and unite the country. The EPRDF was made up of four parties - the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM). The TPLF, which dominated the government before Abiy came to power, however refused to participate in the voting exercise, which it claimed was undemocratic and did not follow procedures.

Separately, in an initiative that is hoped to be a win for human rights defenders (HRDs), on 13th December 2019, HRDs in the country came together to found the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a countrywide network of individuals and organisations, with the aim of working together to create a safe and enabling working environment for HRDs in Ethiopia, protect HRDs at risk and actively engage with national, regional and international mechanisms. This marked the first real attempt to bring together civil society under a cohesive network since this was eradicated by a series of repressive governments and draconian legislation from 2006 to 2018. 

In other developments, in December 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prizefor his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. The news was largely received with praise, both domestically and internationally, although not everyone applauded the decision. Pro-democracy activists in Eritrea argued his peace initiative with Ethiopia’s northern neighbour has not brought true change in Eritrea, but simply legitimised the regime of President Isaias Afwerki. Abiy’s much-lauded domestic reforms have also been undermined by recent ethnic and religious conflicts that have left thousands dead. For instance, at least 86 people were killed in October 2019 alone, mostly in the Oromia region. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights raised concern over the escalating ethnic violence in the country.