All across the continent, old men such as Cameroon’s Paul Biya were running again in elections despite having already served 36 years as President.
Announcing the prize in Oslo, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said Ahmed’s “efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”
Abiy was the second favorite to win after the climate change activist Greta Thunberg, according to bookmakers Betfair and William Hill.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister tweeted that he was “humbled” by the win. “My deepest gratitude to all committed and working for peace. This award is for Ethiopia and the African continent. We shall prosper in peace!” he wrote on his Twitter account.
Awol Allo, a fellow Ethiopian and an associate professor of law at Keele University in Britain, said the Prime Minister deserves the prize for his role in ending the conflict – a largely pointless war over disputed border territory that came at a huge financial and human cost to both countries.
“I think what Abiy did with the Eritrea issue was very courageous and remarkable. I think a lot of people have considered that what he has done is worthy of such a recognition.
“The two countries are no longer in the state of war. Families have been reunited because flights are now running between the two countries. Relations that have been severed for 20 years have been rekindled,” Allo said.
The 43-year-old Abiy also recently won plaudits for his role in helping to broker a power-sharing deal in neighboring Sudan, after a political crisis that led to the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the country’s ruler for almost three decades.
“That also speaks to someone who takes peace and stability in the Horn of Africa seriously,” Allo said.
A modern day African leader
Abiy became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in April 2018, the first Oromo to lead his country. The Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, had never been in prominent positions of power. Grievances of their economic and political exclusion drove anti-government protests across the country.
Abiy joined the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation as a teenager. He stayed close to his people, even as he claimed victory in an internal Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front vote on March 27 to become chairman of the ruling party.
That victory secured his place as Prime Minister of an East African powerhouse which has a population of more than 100 million people.
The early months of his premiership were marked with bold and progressive decision making; he released the country’s political prisoners, denouncing their torture and also freeing jailed journalists.
Before the new Abiy era, rival politicians and unfavored journalists were either in exile or locked in Ethiopia’s jails, including Addis Ababa’s infamous Maekelawi prison, where many alleged abuses took place. Abiy later shut down the prison.
In June last year, as prisoners were being released on his orders, a legislator in the Ethiopian Parliament asked the Prime Minister if it was constitutional to release people who had been jailed for terrorism and corruption.
Abiy reportedly responded: “Jailing and torturing, which we did, are not constitutional either. Does the constitution say anyone who was sentenced by a court can be tortured, put in a dark room? Torturing, putting people in dark rooms, is our act of terrorism.”
This was a profound admission by a Prime Minister, unheard of in modern-day Africa.
He also met with the political opposition and civil society to discuss reform and invited previously exiled political parties to return to their country. He embarked on major institutional reforms, including the security and justice sectors.
Women not left out
Women were not left out of his progressive agenda. Abiy showed his commitment to gender equality by appointing women to half of his cabinet. Ethiopia’s parliament even appointed the country’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde, and the nation’s first Supreme Court chief, Meaza Ashenafi, was sworn into office.
The style of leadership was different from anything seen before in Ethiopia’s ruling party. There were “listening rallies” attended by tens of thousands, town hall meetings in which the vision of true democracy and unity were re-emphasized.
The changes were part of a new agenda, which he pledged would respect freedom of expression. “In a democratic system, the government allows citizens to express their ideas freely without fear,” he said in April 2018.
Internet kill switch
However, Abiy faced criticism for several nationwide internet shutdowns in June this year.
Atnaf Brhane of Zone9, a human rights blogging collective, said the internet shutdowns had created “a bad record for a ‘reformist’ leader.”
The blackouts became pronounced following an attempted coup in the country’s Amhara region.
The network was gradually restored, however there was no formal explanation from the government but the state-owned provider, Ethio Telecom, the country’s lone telecoms provider, issued an apology and told CNN at the time the company would credit customers for services that were affected during the shutdown.
The international community has largely embraced his initiatives and reforms, such as the recent planting of millions of trees in the country to curb the effects of climate change.
This has led to accusations of “appeasing Westerners” and some like blogger Daniel Berhane do not believe he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
Berhane, a prominent blogger based in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa spoke to CNN ahead of the decision.
He said: “I do not think he will or should win. If that happens, it will be an endorsement of a person that does not like institutions or teamwork but just churns out half-baked ideas aimed at appeasing Westerners,” he told CNN.
“A win will exacerbate his narcissism and would be detrimental to the prospects of institutionalized reform and stability of the country.”
Jawar Mohammed is an influential political figure within Ethiopia and within the country’s large diaspora communities in North America and Europe.
He applauds Ahmed’s work so far but believes there is still a long way to go before his reforms can bring stability to one of the most troubled regions in the world.
“Prime Minister Abiy has done a wonderful job in bringing peace with and within the neighboring countries,” Mohammed, the executive director of the Oromia Media Network, told CNN.
“However, he has to do a lot more to bring peace and stability domestically and to ensure the transition to democracy succeeds.”
The end of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea catapulted Abiy and Ethiopia into a different status – and redefined the Horn of Africa nation as a regional powerhouse.
The Arab Gulf states across the Red Sea took notice for their own reasons – primarily the Horn of Africa’s proximity to Yemen and the clear desire to be part of a fast-growing economy.
The tremors of these vast changes have been felt beyond Ethiopia. Eritrea and now Djibouti and Somalia are all feeling the Abiy effect.
Ethiopian airlines landed in Mogadishu, Somalia, for the first time in 41 years. Djibouti is in talks to share access to its port to service Ethiopian needs. The idea of peace coming to this region at last is an exciting prospect.
However, Abiy has been grappling with the displacement of people in different parts of the country, including in Oromia and Amhara regional governments.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, about 2.9 million people were newly displaced in 2018 because of conflict in Ethiopia.
The lack of security is threatening the foreign direct investment pouring into Ethiopia since Abiy opened up state-controlled telecoms, electricity and even the national airline to investors.
The country’s gross domestic product is expected to reach about $100 billion by 2020, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.
CNN’s Samuel Getachew reported from Addis Ababa and Stephanie Busari wrote and reported from Lagos, Nigeria.