Hailed as a visionary and reformer, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to resolve the long-running conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
Abiy was honoured "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 Nobel Committee said.
The award is seen as a welcome boost for Africa's youngest leader as he faces worrying inter-community violence ahead of a parliamentary election in May 2020.
"I was so humbled and thrilled when I just heard the news," Abiy told the Nobel Committee in a phone call posted online on the Nobel Prize website.
In a later interview on the same website, Abiy said he thought the prize would invigorate regional peace efforts.
"This is great news for Africa, great news for East Africa. A place where peace is a very expensive commodity, and I am sure it will give us energy to work towards peace and to realise peace within our region," Abiy said.
This is the second year in a row that an African has received the award, after Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege shared the prize with Yazidi activist Nadia Murad in 2018 for their work combatting sexual violence.
Since taking office in April 2018, the 43-year-old Abiy has aggressively pursued policies that have the potential to upend society in the Horn of Africa nation and reshape dynamics beyond its borders, after years of civil unrest.
On July 9, 2018, following a historic meeting in Eritrea's capital Asmara, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki formally ended a 20-year-old stalemate between the countries in the wake of the 1998-2000 border conflict.
Abiy swiftly released dissidents from jail, apologised for state brutality, and welcomed home exiled armed groups.
'Winds of hope'
His actions have sparked optimism in a region of Africa marred by violence.
"I have said often that winds of hope are blowing ever stronger across Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is one of the main reasons why," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said.
The peace agreement with Eritrea has "opened up new opportunities for the region to enjoy security and stability," and Abiy's "leadership has set a wonderful example for others in and beyond Africa looking to overcome resistance from the past and put people first."
The Nobel jury stressed the Peace Prize was "also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions".
It singled out the Eritrean leader for praise, noting that "peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone".
"When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reached out his hand, President Afwerki grabbed it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries."
However analysts believe there is still some way to go before a lasting peace, and the enthusiasm has been mixed with frustration. The border between the two countries has once again been closed, the countries still lack trade agreements and Ethiopia – a land-locked country – still has no access to Eritrean ports.
And last June, Abiy faced the greatest threat yet to his hold on power when gunmen assassinated high-ranking officials including a prominent regional president and the army chief.
Amnesty International said the prize should spur Abiy to enhance reforms on human rights.
"This award should push and motivate him to tackle the outstanding human rights challenges that threaten to reverse the gains made so far," the group said, pointing to "ongoing ethnic tensions that threaten instability and further human rights abuses".
Ethnic violence has been on the rise in recent years, causing Ethiopia to record more internally displaced people last year than any other country.
The right direction
Recognising that some would consider the prize premature, the Nobel Committee said that while much remained to be done, the award should serve as encouragement, and pointed to the criteria set by prize creator Alfred Nobel -- namely that the award should go to one "who has made the most significant contribution to peace within the past year."
"We are confident that by far this is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and we are also hopeful that the peace prize could perhaps be a push on the peace initiatives in the right direction," Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told AFP.
The committee had to choose from more than 300 nominations this year.
Online betting sites had put Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg – who has already received Amnesty's top honour and the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes dubbed the "alternative Nobel" – as the one to beat.
This year's prize will be presented at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of Alfred Nobel, who was a Swedish philanthropist and scientist.
The award consists of a gold medal, a diploma, and nine million Swedish kronor (around US$912,000 or 828,000 euros).
by AFP/Johaness Ledel