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Nobel Peace Prize 2019 awarded to Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a news conference at his office in Addis Ababa
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a news conference at his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, August 1, 2019. REUTERS

Oslo — The Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 was awarded to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia for his efforts to end his country's two-decade border conflict with Eritrea. The Norwegian Nobel Institute also praised the "important reforms" that Abiy, Ethiopia's leader since April 2018, has launched at home. 

The Nobel committee acknowledged there was still much work to be done to see democracy thrive in Ethiopia, but said Abiy had taken great strides in the right direction and they hoped the Peace Prize would help him push further democratic reform.

"Prime Minister Abiy's achievements have not been completed," the committee said. "We recognize that it might be debatable whether it is too early or not... but the committee believes now is the time to recognize, and to encourage."

Last year, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki formally restored relations, ending 20 years of enmity and severed ties between the East African nations. They signed agreements to open embassies in their respective capitals, restore flight services and use port facilities in Eritrea. Citizens from both counties immediately began phoning each other to get back in touch.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Abiy was "one of the main reasons" he believes the "winds of hope are blowing ever stronger across Africa."

"His vision helped Ethiopia and Eritrea achieve a historic rapprochement," Guterres said. "Prime Minister Ahmed's leadership has set a wonderful example for others in and beyond Africa looking to overcome resistance from the past and put people first."  

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At home, Abiy has offered one political surprise after another. He released tens of thousands of prisoners, welcomed home once-banned opposition groups and acknowledged past abuses. People expressed themselves freely on social media, and he announced that Ethiopia would hold free and fair elections in 2020. Media groups noted last year that for the first time, Ethiopia had no journalists in prison.

The new prime minister also announced the opening-up of Ethiopia's tightly controlled economy, saying private investment would be welcome in major state-owned sectors.

Abiy now faces pressure to uphold the sweeping freedoms he introduced, and critics warn that his ability to deal with rising domestic unrest may be slipping. Ethiopia is facing rising ethnic tensions, as people once stifled by repression now act on long-held grievances. Some 1,200 people have been killed and some 1.2 million displaced in the greatest challenge yet to Abiy's rule. 

Amnesty International secretary Kumi Naidoo said the award should "push and motivate (Abiy) to tackle the outstanding human rights challenges that threaten to reverse the gains made so far."

"He must urgently ensure that his government addresses the ongoing ethnic tensions that threaten instability and further human rights abuses," Naidoo said. 

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Other names flying around for the award included 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and activists in Hong Kong.

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