The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s carefully orchestrated Peace Prize ceremony dissolved into laughter on Tuesday when the committee’s leader almost forgot to award this year’s prize. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali received it in end, though, as some members of the audience wiped away tears and created a bit of a mob scene on his departure.
It wasn’t exactly the flawless event that Norwegian organizers strive for year after year, but in some ways it illustrated the humanity and emotion reflected in Abiy’s Nobel address. The entire Nobel Days program has been altered and shortened this year, to suit the winner, but also because he genuinely seems more concerned with his work than personal glory.
Nobel Committee leader Berit Reiss-Andersen made a point of referring to his “profound humility” as she spoke directly to him during her opening remarks. “You rarely speak publicly about your own achievements,” she said. Her job was thus to go into more detail as to why the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose him for this year’s prize, even as his efforts to ensure peace with Ethiopia’s neighbour Eritrea have stalled.
She cited his goals of furthering peace and democratic reforms, and the “significant changes” he ushered in after becoming prime minister just last year. She stressed how half of the cabinet members he’s appointed are women, and how he created a “peace minister’s” post that’s held by a woman as are the positions of president and chief justice. Andersen noted how Abiy has worked to abolish public censorship, develop a free press, ensure free speech and promise free and democratic elections. At the same time he must improve education, health care and infrastructure, while also maintaining new diplomatic relations with Eritrea and trying to quell a rise in ethnic violence and border conflicts.
“The Norwegian Nobel Committe stands behind you,” Andersen announced from the podium inside Oslo’s decorative City Hall that featured flowers from Ethiopia. She stressed that the committee “has no opinion” on candidates in the promised upcoming election, but supported the reforms underway.
Andersen claimed that Abiy, at age 43, represents “a new generation of African leaders” who have realized that conflicts must end and peace must prevail if the continent is to move forward. She said the Nobel Committee hopes that the Nobel Peace Prize can further that effort, while remarking how Ethiopia itself is a cradle of civilization and drawing applause when she said, “in a way, we are all Ethiopians.”
After concluding her remarks with a sincere “thank you” directed at Abiy, Andersen went back to her seat, only to quickly realize that she’d forgotten to actually award him the prize. “I got lost in words,” she said through laughter that quickly turned into a standing ovation when she added that “I’m here to give you an award, in the form of a diploma and a gold medal.”
After an upbeat session of Ethiopian music, Abiy then delivered his Nobel address and formally accepted the Peace Prize on behalf of many others including the leader of Eritrea whom Andersen also had credited for grasping Abiy’s outreached hand. Abiy spoke about the horrors of the war with Eritrea that he experienced first-hand as a young man in the 1990s. “War is hell on earth for all involved,” he stressed, making people “bitter, and savage.”
It was followed by the long period of “no war, no peace” and ongoing conflicts that threatened to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa. Abiy believed that ending the uncertainty was necessary: “We understood that our nations are not enemies,” he said, adding that the only common enemy in both Ethiopia and Eritrea is poverty.
He claimed that “our commitment to peace is iron-clad,” despite recent violence and border closings. “Peace is a labour of love … that requires unwavering commitment” and he repeatedly stressed the importance of “love, forgiveness and reconciliation” as “our young men and women cry out” for social justice, prosperity and an end to corruption.
Abiy accepted the applause that followed while holding a hand over his heart. After Norway’s royal family congratulated him and left the large hall, the committee’s own ceremonial departure came to a halt when Abiy paused to greet supporters and fans sitting along the aisle, who in turn seized the opportunity for selfies. The Nobel Committee’s deputy leader, philosopher Henrik Syse, kept smiling as he tried to prod Abiy along, as did visibly concerned security guards. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, other members of her government and dignitaries including the president of the Parliament, the chief justice of Norway’s Supreme Court, ambassadors and the roughly 990 other guests invited to the ceremony, had to patiently wait to leave themselves.
Abiy was due to be hailed with a traditional torchlight parade in downtown Oslo Tuesday evening before being the guest of honor at the Nobel Banquet at Oslo’s Grand Hotel. Abiy planned to return to Ethiopia on Wednesday.