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How Abiy Ahmed’s background helped him broker Nobel-winning peace

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize this week for his work lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners and increasing the role of women in political life. But his most significant accomplishment was making peace with neighboring Eritrea. Amna Nawaz talks to the Center for International Policy's Salih Booker for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to an inspiring story that won the Nobel Peace Prize.

    In their official announcement today, the Nobel Committee listed a series of accomplishments for Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, all achieved in his first 100 days in office.

    Amna Nawaz has the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    But his most significant accomplishment was in making peace with neighboring Eritrea soon after he became prime minister last April. The two countries had been at war for two decades in a bitter border conflict that drove hundreds of thousands of people into exile or internal displacement.

    They now have diplomatic relations, and many families kept apart by war were reunited last year, after the first commercial flight between the two nations in 20 years.

    Now, Prime Minister Abiy has a doctorate degree in peacemaking and served as a U.N. peacekeeper in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

    For more on who he is, I'm joined by Salih Booker. He's the president and CEO of the Center for International Policy, and he served as director of Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Salih Booker:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Prime Minister Abiy, he is just 43 years old. Tell us about him.

  • Salih Booker:

    Well, he is the youngest head of state in any African country.

    He was the child of a mixed marriage, in religious and ethnic terms. His father was a Muslim Oromo, his mother an Orthodox Christian Amhara. So, at a very young age, he learned the value of tolerance and understanding across religious and ethnic divides and, later, socioeconomic divides.

    He joined the rebellion against the autocratic Marxist regime as a teenager. And around the time of the fall of Mengistu in '91, he then became — got formal training, became a soldier in '93. And, of course, as you mentioned, he was served as a U.N. peacekeeper in Rwanda after the genocide.

    He did his first degree in Addis Ababa University while still with the military. Then he went to London, got an M.A., came back, entered politics, but continued studying and eventually earned his Ph.D. only in 2017.

    And so his rise has been meteoric. And he became prime minister only in April of 2018.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This conflict that he's now being credited with bringing about to some kind of peace accord, walk me through very basically, what's at the heart of that conflict between these two nations?

  • Salih Booker:

    Well, the short history is that Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, which was a former Italian colony, in 1962. And that began the beginning of a three-decade armed struggle to topple first the monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie and then the regime of Mengistu followed Selassie.

    So when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, along with the coalition of Ethiopian rebels, toppled the Mengistu regime in '91, the Eritreans pushed for independence. They had a referendum backed by the U.N. in '93. And the vast majority voted for independence.

    The countries split, stayed on good terms, but, five years later, they were at war. And, at the time, people said, well, this is a ridiculous war. It's the equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb. It wasn't about strategic resources. It was very much about the egos and the national pride of these two leaders, who had been friends and allies during the struggle, but who were trying to assert who was going to be the primary new generation of African leaders.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And these two nations sort of stayed in this state of not really at war, not really at peace.

    But with this peace accord that Prime Minister Abiy was able to bring forward, it's not without criticism, even with the prize today. Some people say, look, across the border in Eritrea, there is still repression.

    Does this Peace Prize come too early? What do you think?

  • Salih Booker:

    Well, I don't think it comes too early. And I think it's deserved and it's also aspirational, to encourage the peace process; 100,000 people died in the first two years of that conflict, and then it was a cold war.

    But the stubbornness of both sides prevented any resolution. Prime Minister Abiy, within his first 100 days, he traveled to Eritrea. He accepted the rulings of the U.N.-backed commission. He returned territory to Eritrea, and creating this incredible peace and restoration of ties between these two countries.

    He cannot be held responsible for the internal reforms that need to happen in Eritrea. What he's done is removed the rationale for the Eritrean government to continue its repressive and restrictive rule.

    The people of Eritrea are going to be demanding the kind of reforms they see happening in Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, this hopefully leads to continued path towards more peace for both nations.

  • Salih Booker:

    Yes, indeed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Salih Booker, always good to have you here. Thank you.

  • Salih Booker:

    Thank you.

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