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Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (second left) and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (middle) hold hands as they wave at the crowds in Addis Ababa on July 15, 2018. Image Credit: AP

Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, for his work in restarting peace talks with neighbouring Eritrea, ending a long stalemate between the two countries.

Abiy, 43, broke through two decades of frozen conflict between his vast country, Africa’s second-most populous, and Eritrea, its small and isolated neighbour. When he became prime minister of Ethiopia in 2018, he made it clear that he wished to resume the stalled peace process, doing so in close cooperation with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea.

The two nations share deep ethnic and cultural ties, but until July last year they had been locked into a state of neither peace nor war, a conflict that had separated families, complicated geopolitics and cost the lives of more than 80,000 people during two years of border violence.

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.

- Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

In its official announcement, the Nobel Committee detailed a litany of accomplishments for Abiy in his first 100 days as prime minister: lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalising outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders suspected of corruption, and increasing the influence of women in political and community life. But while the two countries have made strides toward a lasting peace, challenges still remain within Ethiopia. Ethnic rivalries have flared in recent years and the country has millions of internally displaced refugees.

“No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, acknowledged. “The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”

Reiss-Andersen noted as she made the announcement that Abiy had yet to be reached by phone.

“If he is watching me now, I would just convey my warmest congratulations,” she said.

The peace accord signed more than a year ago between Abiy and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea has only slowly translated into concrete steps to reconnect the two nations.

But it has been held up as an example of how historic change can come about in even the oldest and most intractable conflicts. Diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have resumed, and the two leaders and senior officials from the two nations have met frequently to discuss how to reconnect their nations.

“Peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone,” Reiss-Andersen said as she announced the award yesterday. “When Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries.”

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Importantly, telecommunications have been restored, allowing families that were split up in the war to contact each other. In the days that followed this breakthrough, some Ethiopians called Eritrean numbers randomly, and vice versa, just to speak to someone on the other side, simply because they could. Others tracked down parents, siblings and friends.

When the first commercial Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, landed July 18 last year, passengers stepping off the plane fell to their knees and kissed the ground. Two sisters separated from their father in the war, stuck on opposite sides of the border, embraced him for the first time after 20 years of growing up without him.

In an official statement, Abiy’s office called the award a “timeless testimony” to the ideals of “unity, cooperation and mutual coexistence that the prime minister has been consistently championing.”

“Today, as the world takes note and celebrates his achievements through bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize, we invite all Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia to continue standing on the side of peace,” the statement read.

Within the country, the news was met with enthusiasm by some, including Ashenafi Sintayehu, a taxi driver in the capital, Addis Ababa.

“I am happy that he brought the prize to Ethiopia,” he said. “I was telling to my fellow friends that this is a great achievement. I believe he will use this recognition for the better.”

Unpredictable and peril-strewn rise

The son of poor villagers, a spy boss, and now the man behind dizzying attempts to reform Africa’s fastest-growing economy and heal wounds with Ethiopia’s neighbours, Ahmed has seen an unpredictable and peril-strewn rise to fame.

He rose to lieutenant-colonel before entering government, first as a securocrat — he was the founding head of Ethiopia’s cyber-spying outfit, the Information Network Security Agency.

He then became a minister in the capital Addis Ababa, and a party official in his home region of Oromia. 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.

Despite the challenges, Abiy’s allies predict his deep well of personal ambition will prompt him to keep swinging big.

— With additional inputs from agencies