Editor’s Note: Vanessa Tsehaye is an Eritrean activist and founder of One Day Seyoum, an organization campaigning against all human rights abuses in Eritrea. The organization continues the work of notable regime critics who were imprisoned in 2001, one of whom is Tsehaye’s uncle.
The opinions expressed in this article are hers alone.
When the Norwegian Nobel Committee gives the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize medal to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Tuesday, celebrations will be undercut by many expressions of disappointment and outrage. Local and international voices criticizing his domestic record attracted considerable media attention, while some took to opinion pages to develop their arguments further.
But Abiy’s domestic record was not why he was awarded the prestigious prize. According to the committee, he was chosen for “his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea,” resulting in a peace deal they hope “will help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
Yet the impact of this “peace” in Eritrea has had little coverage. One needs to only look a little more deeply at the relationship between the Ethiopian leader and Eritrea to understand why the decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize was wrong and makes a mockery of the Eritrean people’s suffering.
The mainstream narrative around the peace agreement has been that the two countries had long been locked in “no peace-no-war” hostilities until Ethiopia got a fresh-faced and courageous leader who began the peace process expected to lead to positive change for the Horn of Africa. However, Abiy’s decision to initiate peace talks with Eritrea was neither novel nor brave – and he had no interest in improving the lot of the Eritrean population.
The 17-year conflict has been portrayed as one between Eritrea and Ethiopia when it instead should be viewed as one between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the then leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EFRDF) coalition Abiy now leads, and the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki.
After Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in the early 90s, a failure to resolve a border dispute resulted in a deadly two-year war, beginning in 1998, costing more than 80,000 lives across the two countries.
Although the Algiers agreement in 2000 formally ended active hostilities, TPLF refused to demarcate the border in accordance with the deal, which put the two governments in a no-peace-no-war stalemate. Diplomatic relations were severed and the border and air routes between the neighbors closed.
This negatively affected both countries, as all trade stopped, while Ethiopia lost access to the coast and used its powerful position on the international scene to diplomatically isolate Eritrea. Afwerki’s regime compounded the impact on the Eritrean people. It argued that the failure to demarcate the border was a threat to Eritrea’s national security, as it put the country at constant risk of war.
And it used this threat as an excuse to refuse to implement the Eritrean constitution, conscript to indefinite national service, imprison countless people without trial in poor conditions, and shut down the free press and other democratic institutions.
Occupying Eritrean land
More than a year after the lauded peace agreement was signed, the Algiers accord from 2000 has still not been implemented. Ethiopian soldiers remain at the border and continue to occupy Eritrean land. Neither country has made the details of the latest pact public.
The terms from the Algiers accord was demarcation and that has still not happened. How did Abiy manage to get Afwerki to agree to a peace deal without fulfilling any of Eritrea’s prior demands? It might sound like Abiy performed a miracle, but the reality is far different.
Abiy currently leads the Oromo Democratic Party, which succeeded the TPLF in its leadership of the EPRDF Coalition, and consequently, the Ethiopian state. His party has historically had disagreements with the ruling TPLF elite.
When young people in Oromia began to organize massive protests against TPLF-backed policies, Abiy and his party were selected to lead Ethiopia in the hopes of alleviating Oromo protests and other problems in that region.
Afwerki had spent the last ten years backing Ethiopian opposition groups and cultivating a relationship with key Oromo ones, among others.
An uncomfortable reality
The uncomfortable reality is that, in addition to the obvious financial benefits a peace agreement would lead to, Abiy and Afwerki came together under the guise of peace to isolate the TPLF, which scored political points for the both of them. The TPLF and Eritrean government remain enemies and the Eritrean-Ethiopian border is not demarcated. There is still no peace between the groups who initiated the original border conflict.
Many Ethiopians have asked me why I criticize the decision to award Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize from an Eritrean perspective, arguing that he has no responsibility to fix our internal problems. I do it for two reasons. Firstly, because awarding him the prize for the potential this deal might have is wrong when it never had the potential nor intention to benefit the Eritrean people.
The Nobel Committee hopes that it still can, and relies on the assumption that the conflict was the main obstacle to peace in Eritrea. However, it has not been the root of the extreme human rights abuses in Eritrea that has caused hundreds of thousands to flee. The internal actions taken following the border dispute were disproportionate to the threats posed by the conflict and were never formally sanctioned by any Eritrean legal process. The war was simply used as an excuse by the regime.
A flawed decision
There have not been any reforms or improvements in Eritrea following the peace agreement. The borders that were briefly opened were quickly closed. The constitution has still not been implemented, national service is still indefinite and dissidence is still strictly forbidden. In October last year, three months after the peace agreement, a former finance minister was imprisoned for writing a critical book about the Eritrean regime.
Secondly, and most importantly, I criticize the Nobel Committee’s flawed decision because, in addition to the lack of domestic prospects for change, Abiy has actively supported and legitimized Afwerki’s regime, thus hindering efforts to bring peace to Eritrea.
In combination with Europe’s desperation to stifle migration from Eritrea, Abiy’s constant appearances alongside Afwerki and his rallying of Ethiopia’s allies have softened the international pressure on the dictator. I was invited to speak at the United Nations earlier this year and was shocked by the overwhelming support for Eritrea.
Abiy reportedly also recently told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who for years has tried multiple ways to deport Eritrean refugees, that his friendship with Eritrea can help him come up with “innovative projects to deport them back.”
That is despite the fact that returned refugees face an imminent threat of torture and that their deportation would constitute a violation of international human rights principles.
This peace agreement was not about resolving the border dispute or bringing peace to Eritrea. Instead, it was a strategic political move by Abiy that has benefited both leaders financially and diplomatically, whilst uniting them against their common political enemy.
One Twitter user joked that Abiy was given the wrong prize and that he and Afwerki instead should have received an Oscar for their performances. They went from strangers to best friends in the span of a few days, dressed up in wedding clothes, cut cake, exchanged rings, drank champagne, and constantly spoke lovingly about each other – all to send a strong message to their audience, the TPLF.
This is political opportunism, not an effort to create peace in the lives of the Eritrean people.
What hurts me, and many more Eritreans, is that none of this is hard to understand for a competent and well-resourced body like the Nobel Committee. Disregarding the Eritrean people and their suffering was not a lazy oversight but an informed and deliberate decision.
I hope that the rest of the world does not follow their lead and instead supports the Eritrean people’s efforts for peace and justice.