Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has received the Nobel Peace Prize and hailed the role played by former foe Eritrea in resolving the long-running conflict between the two countries.
“I accept this award on behalf of Ethiopians and Eritreans, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of peace,” Abiy said on Tuesday after he received the prestigious award in a formal ceremony at Oslo’s City Hall.
“Likewise, I accept this award on behalf of my partner, and comrade-in-peace, President Isaias Afwerki, whose goodwill, trust and commitment were vital in ending the two-decade deadlock between our countries,” he added.
Abiy, 43, said his horrifying experiences as a young Ethiopian soldier informed his determination to seek the end of the conflict.
“Twenty years ago, I was a radio operator attached to an Ethiopian army unit in the border town of Badame,” he recalled.
“I briefly left the foxhole in the hopes of getting a good antenna reception … It only took but a few minutes. Yet, upon my return, I was horrified to discover that my entire unit had been wiped out in an artillery attack.”
Abiy won the prize, in part, for making peace with Eritrea after one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts.
Just two months after becoming prime minister he announced that Ethiopia would fully accept the terms of a peace agreement with longtime foe Eritrea.
More than 80,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes during a two-year war that broke out between the neighbors in 1998.
A United Nations-backed peace deal in 2000 awarded the disputed border territories to Eritrea, but the agreement was never implemented and skirmishes continued.
Following the rapprochement, Abiy visited Asmara, becoming the first Ethiopian leader to visit Eritrea in about 20 years.
The two countries soon resumed flights and re-established phone lines. But the land border between the two East African countries still remains closed.
“Unfortunately, we have seen some regression in terms of the closure of some of the main road crossings by the Eritrean government,” William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.
“We think that is primarily due to some of the lingering tensions between Ethiopia’s northern-most province – Tigray, which has a long border with Eritrea, and the government in Asmara,” Davison said.
“While there has been a warming of relations between the two governments and between the two leaders, there are still some serious political hostilities between the Eritrean government and aspects of the Ethiopian political scene. Until those issues are resolved it might be difficult to move to the formalisation of relations,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Nobel festivities have been tainted by Abiy’s refusal to field questions from the media, as the ex-intelligence chief has considerably shortened the traditional Nobel program and cut out all news conferences.
The head of the Nobel Institute, Olav Njolstad, called the decision “highly problematic”, noting that a “free press and freedom of expression are essential conditions for a lasting peace in a democracy”.
Abiy’s entourage responded that it was “quite challenging” for a sitting leader to spend several days at such an event, especially when “domestic issues are pressing and warrant attention”.
They also said Abiy’s “humble disposition” contrasted with “the very public nature of the Nobel award”.
The Nobel Peace Prize consists of a diploma, gold medal and a cheque for nine million Swedish kronor ($945,000).
The other Nobel prizes for literature, physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics will also be handed over on Tuesday, but in Stockholm.