‘Highly problematic’ Nobel Peace Prize winner silent, Nobel committee director says

6 Dec

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

OSLO/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will not talk to the news media when he is in Oslo next week to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, drawing rare criticism from the award committee, which says a free and independent press is vital.

The Ethiopian leader won the prize in October for his peacemaking efforts which ended two decades of hostility with longtime enemy Eritrea.

Nobel Peace Prize laureates traditionally hold a news conference a day before the official ceremony on Dec. 10. But Abiy has told the Norwegian Nobel Committee he will not do so.

Neither will Abiy take questions from reporters after his meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, nor will he participate at an event with children celebrating peace held every year at the Nobel Peace Center, a museum.

That drew rare criticism from the secretive award committee, composed of Norwegian politicians and academics, which tends to refrain from commenting on past laureates.

Asked whether it was problematic that Abiy was not holding a news conference, Olav Njoelstad, Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said: “Yes, we would very much have wanted him to engage with the press during his stay in Oslo.”

“We strongly believe that freedom of expression and a free and independent press are vital components of peace,” he told Reuters.

“Moreover, some former Nobel Peace Prize laureates have received the prize in recognition of their efforts in favor of these very rights and freedoms,” said Njoelstad.

He added that the committee’s position had been made “very clear to the Prime Minister and his staff”.

Nobel Peace Prize laureates who have attended the ceremony but not given a news conference include U.S. President Barack Obama, when he received the award in 2009.

Abiy will still meet Prime Minister Erna Solberg, as well as King Harald V, and visit the Norwegian Parliament.

He will also deliver the Nobel lecture at Oslo City Hall on Dec. 10, the day of the ceremony and the anniversary of the death of the Nobel Prizes founder, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel.

Abiy’s spokeswoman said the PM had to make priorities given the “extensive program” and his responsibilities back home.

“It is quite challenging for a sitting Head of State to dedicate that many days, particularly where domestic issues are pressing and warrant attention,” Billene Seyoum told Reuters.

“Therefore, the Prime Minister will be attending essential and prioritized programs, agreed upon in consultation with the Nobel Institute, to honor and respect the Nobel tradition.”

“At a personal level, the humble disposition of the Prime Minister rooted in our cultural context is not in alignment with the very public nature of the Nobel award,” she added.


Peace Prize winner avoids questions

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.

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 Ethiopian 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.”

As director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and secretary to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Olav Njølstad is always standing close by when the committee’s leader, now Berit Reiss-Andersen, announces the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. He speaks for the committee in telling NRK that the new winner’s decision to publicly avoid questions is “highly problematic.” PHOTO: NRK screen grab

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.

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.


‘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.



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