Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali arrived in Oslo late in the day on Monday, and faced an immediate glare of camera lights and questions he couldn’t avoid. The smiling winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize answered a few but then had to be whisked away for the delayed beginning to his visit that will barely last 48 hours.
Abiy and his staff have been criticized in recent days for dropping events in the Nobel Peace Prize program where he’d face questions, not just from the media but also from school children. For the first time in many years there was no traditional press conference with the Peace Prize winner on the day before the prize is awarded. There would be no live public interviews after receiving the prize on Tuesday either, other appearances have been closed to the public, and he wouldn’t allow time for questions during traditional meetings at Parliament or with government leaders.
His staff, after statements of disappointment and even criticism from the Norwegian Nobel Committee, denied he was intentionally avoiding questions and blamed the criticism on a “misunderstanding.” No question-taking sessions were restored to the program, however, despite pleas from the committee.
No morning events
After landing at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen late Monday afternoon, Abiy met Nobel Committee members, traditionally signed the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s guest book and then headed straight for dinner with the committee. He dropped a traditional outdoor meeting Tuesday morning with thousands of school children on Oslo’s City Hall plaza, sending one of his ministers instead. There were no scheduled appearances until a short audience with Norway’s royal family at noon at the Palace, just before the Peace Prize ceremony traditionally begins at 1pm.
Abiy had no Prize-related scheduled meetings or appearances in the afternoon either, until he’s expected to make a traditional appearance on the balcony of the prize-winner’s suite at the Grand Hotel just before the Nobel banquet begins at 7pm. Prize winners are always greeted during the brief appearance by cheering Norwegians holding flaming torches in the dark December evening.
He was due to meet both Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide Wednesday morning and visit the Parliament before heading home to Ethiopia.
‘Needed time for government business’
His staff contended that as prime minister, Abiy needed time during his Oslo visit to attend to government business at home. Few argue that Abiy faces enormous challenges as Ethiopia sinks into a new wave of violent unrest.
“He won the Peace Prize based on what he did in 2018, reaching a peace agreement with neigbouring Eritrea and launching democratic reforms in Ethiopia,” noted Jon Harald Sande Lie, a senior researcher at Norway’s foreign policy institute NUPI. “But this year the situation is worse. There’s a peace agreement, but no peace process with Eritrea, and the border between the two countries has closed again. In Ethiopia, there are many conflicts and tension. The situation is enormously unstable. It can go both ways.”
The situation in Ethiopia has worsened just since his Nobel Prize was announced in early October. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) managed to pose two questions just after Abiy arrived in Oslo. Asked how he would describe the situation in his country now, Abiy said it was going through “a paradigm shift” and he admitted to “considerable challenges.” He claimed, however, that “without challenge there is no way we can do something new,” and that he and hs staff view the challeges as “a great opportunity … to do something positive.”
Asked whether he was glad to be in Oslo to receive the Peace Prize, or whether it only created more problems for him, Abiy responded with a laugh that he couldn’t comment “because I’m just arriving. Ask me tomorrow, I’ll get back to you.”