Ethiopia's prime minister Abiy Ahmed. Picture: REUTERS/ TIKSA NEGERI
Ethiopia's prime minister Abiy Ahmed. Picture: REUTERS/ TIKSA NEGERI

In his congratulations to this year’s Nobel Peace prize winner, President Cyril Ramaphosa prominently acknowledged "the governments and peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea".

The feat of the laureate, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in ending the 20-year impasse between the two countries was enormous — particularly as he did so within 100 days of his appointment as head of the government last year.

Emotional scenes of close relatives reunited for the first time since war broke out in 1998 spoke to this achievement.

But Abiy didn’t do this alone. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s co-operation was crucial. So some in Ramaphosa’s office felt Afwerki should have been a co-recipient rather than merely being acknowledged in the Nobel committee’s announcement on Friday. On the other hand, critics who believe Afwerki to be a military dictator — he’s been in power since 1993 and unlike Abiy has not released political prisoners — felt the committee went too far.

SA experienced its own Nobel Peace prize controversy in 1993, when Nelson Mandela and the then apartheid president, FW de Klerk, were co-recipients. Mandela had to convince his fellow ANC leaders that, for reconciliation to succeed, he needed to accept the award with De Klerk, whose government perpetrated many human rights violations.

The rest is history.

While Abiy’s Nobel prize is in large part for his peace efforts with a neighbouring country, he shares with SA’s 1993 recipients a measure of achievement in uniting the citizens of his own ethnically fractured country.

Like Mandela, he received the prize a year before his popularity could be tested in a national democratic poll. And, again like Mandela, his reconciliation initiatives were often undertaken without consulting fellow party leaders.

The Nobel committee recognised Abiy for lifting the state of emergency, granting amnesty to political prisoners, ending media censorship, legalising outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders suspected of corruption, and appointing women in key positions. It added that he has "pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections".

With deep ethnic and political fractures still present in Ethiopia, success in next year’s elections will require hard work and wisdom — much as it did for SA’s 1994 polls.

Mandela’s path could hold some lessons for Abiy.

Verne Harris, head of leadership & knowledge development at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, says Nobel laureates have to "choose for themselves" what responsibilities they want the peace prize to confer on them.

"Madiba regarded his prize as one he accepted as the representative of a movement [the ANC]. He honoured the award, and chose to maintain a continuing relationship with the Nobel Institute," he says.

However, Harris says the award "never compromised [the] positions [Mandela] took in relation to the SA state during the transition".

As Nobel laureate and head of state, Mandela had the advantage of wielding "significant potential power as a changemaker and peacemaker".

The risk, however, is that things could go wrong. "Political power is a space of considerable uncertainty and ‘messiness’," Harris adds.

For Abiy, next year’s elections will be an important litmus test of that political power, says Zerihun Mohammed, an analyst with the Forum for Social Studies in Addis Ababa.

"Abiy needs to work more internally to bring peace and stability," he says. "However, he is caught between two forces: those who think the reform is too much, and those who expect a fast pace."

Mohammed says sceptics portray Abiy’s reforms in Ethiopia and the peace with Eritrea as a means for the West to control the Horn of Africa, but in his view the reforms have genuinely been aimed at national unity and improving lives.

SA’s former ambassador to Eritrea, Iqbal Jhazbhay, says Ethiopia has been a fractured country since the time of Haile Selassie (1930-1974).

Though prime minister Meles Zenawi, who died in office in 2012, tried to balance the divisions, his model of ethnic federalism didn’t work.

Jhazbhay believes Abiy could draw lessons from Mandela on how to bring Ethiopia’s ethnic communities together.

"The idea of nonracialism is important in the way Mandela did nation-building and handled the issue of race and class," he says.

Like Mandela in the period after SA’s transition to democracy, Abiy will need to manage the army and intelligence services carefully, following ethnic power shifts and his efforts to weed out corruption in military ranks.

In June an attempted coup by an army general was foiled in the state of Amhara.

Exactly a year before this, there was an attempt on Abiy’s life at a rally, where a grenade attack killed two people. At that rally, Abiy wore a T-shirt bearing Mandela’s face and the slogan: "No-one is free until the last one is free."

Should this be his compass, Abiy’s toughest work has only just started.