The Norwegian Nobel Committee is grappling with some awkward challenges just days before the man they selected to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize arrives in Oslo. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has made it clear he won’t attend any event where he could publicly be asked questions, either by the press or even children, and the committee finds that “highly problematic.”
“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 Broadasting (NRK).
“We have been very clear about this and have clarified that there are several reasons we find this (Abiy’s refusal to go along with the Nobel Institute’s program) highly problematic,” Njølstad said.
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Abiy’s decision to avoid any events in which he’d need to answer questions has thus resulted in a highly amputated program for the “Nobel Peace Prize Days” that should have begun in Oslo on Monday December 9. Events traditionally kick off with meetings at the Nobel Institute with committee members and a large press conference with the Peace Prize winner that’s broadcast live. For the first time in many years the Nobel press conference has been cancelled, as have traditional in-depth interviews usually conducted by NRK, the BBC and Al Jazeera.
Nor will Abiy attend a large outdoor peace rally scheduled for just before Tuesday’s award ceremoney that’s always held on December 10, the anniversary of prize benefactor Alfred Nobel’s death. The rally is organized annually by the Norwegian chapter of Save the Children (Redd Barna), at which Norwegian school children have been able to pose questions to the Nobel Peace Prize winner themselves. That event is also usually attended by members of the Royal Family and it will still be held, but without the guest of honour.
Avoiding questions throughout entire stay in Oslo
Abiy’s staff has told Njølstad that the Ethiopean leader will appear before the press with the Norwegian prime minister after their traditional meeting the day after the Peace Prize is awarded, on December 11, but only to deliver a statement. He reportedly won’t take any questions. Even the official opening of the new exhibit at the Nobel Center, and his tour of it, has been listed as an event closed to the press and public.
Asked why Abiy wasn’t going along with the Nobel Institute’s program that’s planned long in advance, Njølstad replied that he thought “it may have partly to do with the challenges he faces at home (in Ethiopia) and with his religious beliefs and personal humility.”
Njølstad initially seemed to offer excuses for Abiy’s looming absence from Nobel events, telling Norwegian news bureau NTB that Abiy would be arriving “too late in the afternoon” of December 9 to attend what’s usually an afternoon press conference. Njølstad later told NRK that the Nobel program has become steadily more extensive in recent years and sitting government leaders can’t devote as much time to Nobel events as many others can. Njølstad also noted that Abiy leads a country with “much bigger economic, social and political challenges” than those faced by, for example, US President Barack Obama when he won the Peace Prize in 2009.
Njølstad noted that Abiy will be in Oslo twice as long as Obama was 10 years ago. He thinks critics should nonetheless be careful in their response to Abiy’s refusal to answer questions, even though the Nobel Committee itself wishes he would.
Peace Prize-winning efforts have stalled
Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this autumn because of how he was able, shortly after winning government power, to initiate a peace pact with neighbouring Eritrea after decades of conflict. He also launched efforts to speed up democracy in Ethiopia itself. Kjetil Tronvoll, a Norwegian professor who has specialized in following Ethiopia over the years, notes, however that Abiy “doesn’t have much to boast about” from the period after his first six months in office.
“There is now great tension in Ethiopia, as great as it’s ever been,” Tronvoll told NTB. He said the peace process with Eritrea has slowed while unrest within Ethiopia is reaching new heights. That’s reflected in messages sent out recently by Abiy’s opponents who are keen to hold protest rallies in Oslo next week. They want “to hold Abiy Ahmed accountable” for a recent wave of ethnic and religious violence in Ethiopia. Abiy’s supporters, meanwhile, have reportedly called those taking part in any demonstrations against Abiy “unpatriotic” and “jealous” of his prize.
Tronvoll notes that by refusing to meet the press in Oslo, Abiy will be able to avoid difficult or uncomfortable questions about the peace process that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, about the current unrest, and about what increased fragmentation within Abiy’s own party can mean.
‘Rising insecurity and uncertainty’ in Ethiopia
“The most important thing right now is that ordinary Ethiopians are feeling a rising degree of insecurity and uncertainty,” Tronvoll told NTB. “They don’t rely on the state being strong enough to protect them.” He stressed that Ethiopia is currently deeply split between those supporting Abiy’s calls for national unity and those favouring ethnic autonomy. Some opponents are calling his Peace Prize “Bloody Nobel” even before it’s awarded.
It all indicates that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has once again made a problematic choice, just as the choice of Obama was, the ceremony occurring while the now-disputed Nobel prize winner from Burma/Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is in The Hague to defend her government’s handling of ethnic violence and genocide against the Rohingya muslim minority. Many have claimed she should be stripped of her Peace Prize, but no Peace Prize can be revoked.