Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner in 2019, waited the statutory two years before launching his genocidal war in Tigray last November.
‘Statutory’ is the right word. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who won the Peace Prize in 1973 for ending the Vietnam War, even admitted that he only wanted a ‘decent interval’ of two years after the U.S. withdrawal before North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam – which it did in 1975.
Whereas Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader who won the Prize in 1991, waited almost 20 years before defending the genocide against the Rohingya committed by the government she nominally led before the International Court of Justice.
They should all remember Groucho Marx’s rule: “I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member.” The Peace Prize Club has some very dodgy members, so I went back and looked at what I wrote when these luminaries first won their prizes. (I’ve been in this game for a long time.) It turns out that I sort of defended all of them.
Henry Kissinger wasn’t trying to win a prize. He knew the United States had lost the war in Vietnam and he wanted to get out, but he needed to disguise the defeat in order to bring the more ignorant nationalists in Congress and the country along with his policy. So he signed a ‘peace treaty’ that neither he nor his North Vietnamese counterpart expected to last.
Cynical realpolitik, if you like, but they were actually trying to minimise the killing, knowing full well that there was more yet to come. That’s the defence that I also offered for Aung San Suu Kyi. She couldn’t stop the army from massacring the Rohingyas, and she defended its actions internationally because she thought that might stop it from seizing power again.
If that was her motive, she failed: look at the bloodbath in Burma now. Was that really her motive? It’s impossible to tell, because she has repeated the military’s racist lies about the Rohingya with more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary just to placate the generals. But you can see both her and Kissinger as intelligent people trying to choose the lesser evil.
This defence is not available to Abiy Ahmed, who got the Peace Prize just 17 months after ending the ‘frozen conflict’ with Eritrea and 19 months after taking power in Ethiopia. As with the preposterous Peace Prize for Barack Obama only 10 months after he took office in 2009, the selection committee just jumped too soon.
At least Obama did not start a war, whereas in retrospect it seems likely that Abiy Ahmed signed a peace treaty to end the 20-years-dormant military confrontation with Eritrea because he saw it as a likely ally in the war he already foresaw with his own erstwhile allies in Tigray. (Tigray is an Ethiopean province that shares a border with Eritrea.)
The war was almost inevitable, because Abiy’s rise to power marked the end of a 27-year period when members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated Ethiopia. (Abiy belongs to one of the countries two biggest ethnic groups, the Oromo.)
Tigrayans are only six per cent of Ethiopia’s 100 million people, but their fighters outnumbered everybody else in the guerrilla army that finally overthrew the Derg dictatorship, so they just naturally slid into the seats of power in 1991 – and stayed there semi-permanently.
Every other ethnic group was seeking a way to oust the TPLF without a civil war, and Abiy seemed a good choice because he had fought alongside Tigrayan rebels from the age of 14 and spoke fluent Tigrinya. But that wasn’t enough to reconcile Tigrayans to their loss of power, of course, and Abiy and the TPLF both knew it would probably end in war.
Which it has, and the Eritrean army joined Abiy’s Ethiopian federal troops in invading Tigray. The TPLF’s regular forces were defeated in a few weeks, and the years-long, maybe even decades-long war against Tigrayan guerrilla resistance has begun. So have the mass murders, the mass rapes, the looting and random destruction that are the hallmarks of ethnic wars.
Now the first videos are appearing of Ethiopian troops shooting unarmed young Tigrayan men and kicking their bodies over a cliff. (Why do they always make these videos? Are they proud of it?) By the end of this year, we will be probably be officially calling it a genocide, but that won’t stop it. Nothing will, for a long time.
And can I defend Abiy Ahmed too? I understand how difficult his situation was, and all the other separatist pressures in Ethiopia, and the fact that he started out as a child soldier, but no, I can’t.
Message to the Nobel Peace Prize committee. Next time, wait a little longer.