When Norway’s Nobel Committee chose Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for this year’s peace prize, they knew it would generate controversy.
As with Barack Obama a decade earlier, Abiy, 43, was awarded one of the world’s most prestigious prizes at the beginning his first term — more of a nod to the world’s high expectations than for any particular achievement. He had deftly handled a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, but many saw that as low-hanging fruit.
Meanwhile, surging ethnic tensions within Ethiopia displaced more people from their homes in his first year in office than in any other country in the world. His ruling coalition holds all 547 seats in the country’s parliament, though he has pledged to hold multiparty elections next year.
But now Abiy is refusing to engage with the international press when he receives the prize in Oslo on Tuesday — refusing even to field questions from the young students who traditionally are offered that opportunity at an event hosted by Save the Children — and the Nobel Committee is scrambling to get him to change his mind and spare them a major embarrassment.
“The Nobel Institute and the Nobel Committee wishes Abiy Ahmed had said ‘yes’ to meeting Norwegian and international press,” Olav Njølstad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and secretary for the committee that annually awards the Peace Prize, told Norwegian Broadcasting.
Njølstad traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, last week in an attempt to convince Abiy to attend at least one of the four press conferences traditionally scheduled over the three-day ceremony, which begins Monday. He was rebuffed.
“We have been very clear about this and have clarified that there are several reasons we find this highly problematic,” Njølstad said.
According to Henrik Urdal, research director at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, this is the first time a peace prize recipient has declined to take questions in at least three decades, if not ever. In addition to the Save the Children event, there is usually one press conference the day before the award is given, one big interview done by a major news outlet (it was supposed to be Al Jazeera this year), and one press conference the day after alongside the Norwegian prime minister. (The Save the Children event will go on, just without the guest of honor.)
Abiy will still give his acceptance speech as scheduled on Tuesday. The prize comes with nearly $1 million, a gold medal, and a diploma.
“There are no parallel situations, as far as I know,” said Urdal. “It is understandable that Abiy is a busy head of state, and that he might not be able to participate in every event, but to decline all of them —a busy schedule of course cannot be the only explanation.”
Abiy’s press secretary, Billene Seyoum, has pushed back against what she said are “erroneous” interpretations of Abiy’s decision.
“At a personal level, the humble disposition of the Prime Minister rooted in our cultural context is not in alignment with the very public nature of the Nobel award,” said Billene. “The Prime Minister is humbled and grateful for the recognition and he has previously stated that ‘it is 10% celebration and 90% responsibility for him to work harder for peace’ which he is doing each day.”
She added that Abiy is one of the most accessible Ethiopian prime ministers to date. Since taking office a year and a half ago, however, he has held less than half a dozen press conferences and granted very few interviews to the international press.
Why Eritrea didn’t win a Nobel for its peace accord when Ethiopia did
While Abiy has soaked up public adoration during morale-raising events like rallies and tree-planting drives, he has often stayed silent for weeks after incidences of ethnic tension, which have been frequent and often bloody over the past two years.
Abiy’s refusal to take questions may be an indication that the expectations placed on him by the award are at least partly unwelcome. Any comments he might make about Ethiopia’s sensitive domestic politics could have serious ramifications, or even spark violence.
Though the media environment in Ethiopia has opened up under Abiy, and numerous journalists charged under dubious laws have been freed from prison, critics of his government say his reluctance to freely engage with the press belies a tendency toward restriction of information.
“It is not clear that the Government sees access to information as a priority. The most alarming example of this position is frequent resort to shutting down the internet in times of public protest and even school exams,” wrote David Kaye, the U.N. special representative on freedom of expression following a trip to Ethiopia on Monday. He also expressed concern that a new draft law to combat hate speech might be “excessively vague” and open to abuse.
The prize shines a light on Abiy’s delicate tightrope-walk right when he needs to be paying the closest attention to mending deep wounds across his exceptionally divided country.
“There’s a question of whether he may think it may not be helping him — as it certainly raises the stakes, maybe making it harder for him,” said Urdal. “I certainly think Obama felt it was almost a burden.”