The Nobel Peace Prize has always been shrouded in irony. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of Dynamite, used the prize as an attempt to give his name nonviolent connotations after his invention had become such a booming success. It was the equivalent of an arsonist giving out a prize for architecture.
The recipients of awards have been no less paradoxical. Henry Kissinger won the prize for ‘Ending the War and restoring peace in Vietnam,’ even if he achieved that war’s end by bombing North Vietnam into submission. And achieved peace only in the sense that an American retreat meant that there was nobody left for the Vietcong to shoot at. Tom Lehrer witheringly quipped, “When Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, satire died!”
The 2019 prize, however, has transcended this tradition of contradiction and has gone to a deserving man in whom no such irony can be found, Abiy Ahmed. The 43-year-old Ethiopian Prime Minister helped bring about an end to years of conflict with Ethiopia’s Eritrean neighbour, by accepting the findings of the International Boundary Commission on where the Ethiopian-Eritrea border should be.
On first observation, this may not seem like a great feat. Is this really an example of endeavour in the name of peace? The short answer is yes. Looking at conflicts from the outside in it is easy to ignore the emotional core at their centre. The International Boundary Commission is designed to be a neutral mediation service, but to actors in a dispute, its rulings look like a bunch of foreign outsiders dictating what is and what is not their country. In 2016 the Philippines won a case against China 5-0 that the Chinese sea border exceeded International Maritime law and was Infringing on Filipino waters. Beijing after agreeing to have mediation decided to ignore the decision after it lost.
This is what makes Ahmed actions so extraordinary, because for 16 years Ethiopia took the same unflinching path as China. It was in the year 2002 that the International Boundary commission ruled that the town of Badme be on the Eritrean side of the border, but every Ethiopian Prime Minister since then has refused to accept the judgement until now. When a nation cedes territory, it is a momentous act. Especially if you view the world through the eyes of a realist in International Relations. Kenneth Waltz argued that the International System was a ‘self-help’ one and that no territory sovereignty meant no nation at all.
Yet, what was so unique about Ahmed for him to do this? Or as the Nobel Committee put it what made him “reach out his hand” to Eritrea. The concept of ‘Happy Warrior’ style of leadership provides the best answer. A style of leadership where a leader is prepared to make what seem to be losses for long term gains. Gorbachev is a prime example of this approach. He essentially did what Ahmed did to the extreme. Through ‘The My Way Doctrine’ he allowed Soviet Satellites to form more distant relations with the USSR. This eventually lead to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. All because Gorbachev put a higher price on peace than maintaining an Empire whose foundations had been wobbling for decades.
It has taken 118 years for an Ethiopian to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Some may argue that this has been 118 years too many, as war and peace affects all parts of the world. Yet, credit where credit is due: the Nobel Committee has made a positive contribution to diversity by awarding the prize to 32 non-Europeans in its history. Ahmed now is, and deserves to be, one of them. One final irony is that it was he as a former militia fighter and solder in the Ethiopian army that created peace for his nation.
IMAGE: Flickr / World Economic Forum