To many familiar with recent events in East Africa, it was no surprise that Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. After all, Prime Minister Abiy has embarked on an unprecedented campaign of democratic reform and peacemaking since his election in April 2018. He has released thousands of political prisoners, re-affirmed the right of Ethiopian citizens to the freedoms of speech and of the press, restored diplomatic relationships with neighboring Eritrea after two decades of conflict, and even established gender parity in his ministerial cabinet.
Threatening his reform agenda, however, is the prevalence of ethnic conflict across Ethiopia and the vast humanitarian concerns which have resulted. This reality was explicitly recognized by the nominating committee, which argued that “Abiy Ahmed has sought to promote reconciliation, solidarity, and social justice… The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that [his] efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”
Needless to say, the politics and optics of these prizes are influential.
The Nobel Prize not only celebrates outstanding achievement in the areas of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace-making but actually lifts individual, specific accomplishments to the gleam of the international spotlight, establishing them as the golden standard for success and expertise in a given field. Through a Nobel Prize, winners and their host institutions, communities, and even countries are granted indisputable legitimacy, the potential value of which cannot be overestimated — in Prime Minister Abiy’s case, many were convinced that the award could even mitigate domestic conflict.
It is within this context that we can better understand the legacy of the Nobel Prize in Africa.
Over 800 individuals have been awarded Nobel Prizes since the inception of the competition in 1901 and yet only three percent of these recipients were born in Africa (more than half of which hail from South Africa or Egypt). In fact, only thirty-one countries are represented by Nobel Peace Prize awardees and the top five awarded countries are all Western, some even former colonial powers – the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Sweden. It took 50 years for the first white African to receive a prize, 59 years for the first Black African, and more than nine decades for the first women to be awarded. Wangari Maathai, a prolific Kenyan political, social, and environmental activist, was the first Black African woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 2004.
Given the significance of the Nobel Prize, the African continent’s historic marginalization within the Nobel Laureate system must not go unaddressed. Additionally, this trend cannot be understood through the lens of internal challenges alone, such as poverty, conflict, or education gaps. It also reflects a general under-appreciation by the international community of African accomplishments and expertise as well as the unique challenges faced in the nominating process by scholars from marginalized backgrounds and those separate from prestigious Western institutions, scholars who might face more obstacles establishing strong networks with and perceived reputations by those with sway in the Nobel system.
It is important, of course, to recognize the successes of those who have received these prestigious awards. Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for example, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in establishing women as vital components of peacemaking processes. Kofi Annan, the Seventh Secretary General of the United Nations, and former South African President Nelson Mandela, were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 and 1993. 2018 Nobel Prize Winner Denis Mukwege was celebrated last year for his revolutionary work in treating, both physically and psychologically, women who have suffered sexual violence. Indeed, Prime Minister Abiy’s award seems to build on this momentum of recognition.
That said, we must use this victory as an opportunity for both acknowledgement of African leaders and scholars like Abiy and reflection on what more we — and the Nobel Committee — can do to make sure that their achievements are recognized more regularly.
Written by Rebecca Hanks.