The most extraordinary moment of Abiy Ahmed’s tenure as prime minister of Ethiopia, from a long catalogue of extraordinary moments, occurred in October 2018. He had been in office for just over six months, but already he had changed the face of Ethiopian politics forever: releasing thousands of political prisoners, lifting restrictions on opposition parties, and opening up the space for independent media.
Not everyone was happy.
On one typically grey morning in Addis Ababa, several hundred uniformed soldiers descended on Abiy’s office in the capital. At first, weary residents thought it might be a coup attempt, that Abiy’s revolution had finally gone too far and that the old guard was striking back. Instead, the soldiers demands were more prosaic: they wanted a pay rise.
For any head of state, being besieged by your own soldiers is a bad look, and would usually be met with force. But Abiy is not any other head of state. He insisted on going to meet the troops personally. He spoke to them, he joked with them, and then he rolled up his sleeves and challenged them to a push-up competition. With cameras rolling, the prime minister got down on the floor and showed the soldiers how it was done. They soon joined him, smiling and laughing and showing off their muscles. They were totally won over, and returned to their barracks shortly after.
That moment illustrates the qualities which have come to define Abiy Ahmed, making him the most transformational leader in Africa’s recent history — and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner. He refuses to bow to orthodoxy, to do things the way they have always been done. He takes on impossible challenges — like making peace with Eritrea, or sidelining the most powerful figures within the security establishment — and achieves through force of will and personality. It is impossible not to be inspired.
He is not perfect, and question marks linger over how deep his reforms have really been, and over how long they can last. In a tragic irony, it is true that incidents of violence have increased under his watch — although incidents of state-sponsored violence have decreased dramatically.
Watch the very moment the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize is announced.
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 11, 2019
Should he fail in his mission to revolutionise Ethiopia, however, it will not be for lack of trying. And should he succeed, he will have achieved more for his country and the region than any of his counterparts on the continent, some of whom have been in power for more decades than Abiy has years. Already, the Ethiopia he presides over looks totally unlike the Ethiopia he inherited just 18 months ago.
The Nobel Peace Prize will only strengthen his hand.
Given that his party remains fractured, and that there are many disgruntled figures within the establishment who stand to lose out in the new dispensation, this may be just the boost he needs to realise his vision. Ethiopia, and Africa, will be all the better for it.
In a world where precious few leaders are rising above the traps of populism and self-interest, the Ethiopian prime minister is an exception. Abiy Ahmed, along with the young, smart team that surrounds him, is a worthy winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.