The Nobel Peace Prize can help heal a troubled region

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 09, 2018 Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (C) welcomes Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki upon his arrival at the airport in Gondar, for a visit in Ethiopia, on November 9, 2018. - Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who was mentioned in the Norwegian Nobel Committee's announcement but not given a share of the prize himself, has offered no public reaction to the news, leaving the world to puzzle over how he views it. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP) (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr. Abiy Ahmed/AFP via Getty Images
Ethiopia's Prime Minister — and 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate — Abiy Ahmed (center) welcomes Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki at the airport in Gondar, for a visit in Ethiopia, on Nov. 9, 2018.

It was the end of a bitter geopolitical rivalry, but it went mostly underreported and ignored across the world.

Now, with the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, last year’s historic rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea has put a well-deserved global spotlight on the Horn of Africa. Two decades of hostility in the region are yielding to new possibilities that deserve the international community’s support.

The prize was awarded to Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, who earned the award “in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.”


That conflict began in 1998 as a brutal war over the demarcation of the border between the two countries. It lasted until 2000, left at least 70,000 people dead, and led to human rights violations in both countries. Since then, Ethiopia and Eritrea had been locked in an impasse — a “no war, no peace” limbo that Eritrea’s authoritarian president, Isaias Afwerki, had used to justify oppressive policies that kept many Eritrean citizens in a form of modern slavery.

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Enter Abiy, who engineered the thaw in relations, only three months after becoming Ethiopia’s prime minister, by offering to return some land to Eritrea. The countries reopened border crossings and restored flights and telephone connections. It led to scenes of Ethiopians calling random Eritreans on the phone, just because they suddenly could.

Abiy also embarked in a modernization of Ethiopia’s political system — releasing political prisoners and allowing independent political parties to organize — and his Nobel Peace Prize is a well-earned honor. Still, many regional observers have called it premature. Partly that’s because Abiy hasn’t yet realized all his promises for domestic political and economic reform. But it’s also because the peace is still tenuous, and has yet to yield the kind of benefits for Eritreans that would be needed to make it sustainable.

Hopefully, the prize itself can help. By focusing the world’s attention on the region, the prize should push Eritrea to open up its government to reform and to respect basic human rights.

Eritrea, a nation of 5 million people that gained independence from Ethopia in 1993, is a dictatorship — it has never held elections. Isaias Afwerki is the only president the country has ever known. He rules with an iron fist and allows no dissent. According to a ranking by the Committee to Protect Journalists last month, Eritrea is the world’s most censored country (yes, worse than North Korea).


Isaias has also imposed indefinite conscription, which in Eritrea goes well beyond a traditional military draft and looks a lot more like forced labor. For instance, anyone can be drafted to serve as a teacher or to work at construction sites. In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, “fewer than one-fifth of conscripts have military roles.” This form of quasi-slavery is the main reason there’s been an exodus of Eritreans in recent years — a half-million of them have left, according to one estimate. Most of those fleeing are youths.

Yet despite the end of the territorial conflict, there has been no indication that Isaias is inclined to reform conscription. There has also been some backsliding on the deal: In a reversal, border crossings that had been opened were soon closed again by Eritrea. There are an unknown number of political prisoners held inside Eritrea, and the country does not admit independent observers.

Without real progress inside Eritrea, the peace itself might evaporate, said Michael Woldemariam, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and an expert in the Horn of Africa. “This peace deal is really quite fragile,” Woldemariam said. “The international community — whether it’s Washington, the European Union, or the United Nation member agencies — can make a difference focusing on the issue of reform within Eritrea, a hyper-authoritarian state, and the domestic transformation happening in Ethiopia.”

The peace prize is a global affirmation of the thaw between the countries, and a recognition of the political courage that it took to achieve it. Now the global community should work to make sure that accomplishment leads to a durable peace.