Dressed in a sharp black suit in front of an illustrious audience, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed strode onto stage at Oslo’s ornate City Hall on December 10, 2019 to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
“War is the epitome of hell – I know because I have been there and back,” he said, recalling time as a young soldier in a 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea where tens of thousands died in trenches and minefields on scrubland.
Africa’s youngest leader, a fervent Pentecostalist from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group the Oromo, said that as a radio operator he left his foxhole to seek a better signal only to return minutes later to find his entire unit killed by shells.
“I have seen brothers slaughtering brothers on the battlefield. I have seen older men, women and children trembling in terror under a deadly shower of bullets and artillery shells,” he continued in Oslo after being awarded the prize for brokering peace with Eritrea in 2018.
Now the 44-year-old Abiy is defying international appeals for mediation as he presses an offensive against the rebellious northern region of Tigray.
The conflict pits him against former comrades both in the war against Eritrea and, years later, as partners in government.
Born to a peasant farming family, Abiy’s father was Muslim and his mother Christian.
As a teenager, he joined the armed struggle against the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fell in 1991 at the hands of Tigrayan-led rebels. He was a United Nations peacekeeper in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Ethiopian army.