It was quite the week for Africa with Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge making history by completing a 42-kilometre marathon in 1:59:40 in Vienna, Austria, becoming the first recorded human being to run the distance in under two hours.
In no less a feat, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had in the same week been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for among others, his democratic reforms and peacemaking efforts with Eritrea.
Earlier on February 14, this year, in an opinion published here, I had written that PM Abiy deserved a Nobel.
Kenyans will, without prompting, set aside ethnic differences in times of great tragedy like the Westgate terror attack or to celebrate one of their own as happened with Lupita Nyong’o winning the Oscar or President Barack Obama’s 2015 homecoming.
Speaking in Nairobi, Obama said; “Old ethnic divisions can still be stirred up—a politics that is based solely on ethnicity is a politics that’s doomed to tear a country apart… whatever the challenge you will be stronger if you face it not as christians or muslims, Maasai, Kikuyu, Luo or any other — but as Kenyans.”
Kipchoge’s win prompted an outpouring of inspiring messages across a seemingly unified Kenya building on his mantra of “no human is limited” even as pessimists asked, “how long will it take Kenyans, after the Kipchoge-inspired unity to resume divisive politics?”
In Ethiopia, similar scenes of intense national pride were witnessed with recollections of defining moments of shared glory such as the famous battle of Adwa, led by Emperor Menelik II when Ethiopian forces defeated an invading Italian force.
Can PM Abiy rally his country against prevailing ethnic divisions? Violence and renewed calls for secession are partly exacerbated by the 1995 ethnic federal constitution entrenching ethnic identity in the preamble and demarcating states on ethnicity rather than geography.
This has spawned ethnic-based political parties, militias and even banks. Ethnic militia’s advance their objectives particularly through grievances on for instance, land use.
Past regimes entrenched ethnic hatred by jailing or exiling people with different opinions.
With millions displaced by ethnic violence, Abiy’s plate is full, however the Nobel may strengthen his hand in demonstrating Ethiopians have more commonalities than differences. In Ethiopia, communal co-existence and kinship ties cutting across ethnicities go back centuries.
Abiy has also appealed to Ethiopian historical greatness by transforming Emperor Menelik II’s 19th century palace into a museum featuring histories of all Ethiopia’s ethnicities. He has also set up a national reconciliation commission, tasked to establish root causes of ethnic violence.
Abiy needs to ensure no ethnic community group feels disadvantaged. He can cement relationships by government's provision of basic services.
Tigrayans, for instance, who have been at the forefront in calling for secession, pledged to build an obelisk in Abiy’s name if he solved their water problems. It is the same in fertile Gambella, where people frame their issues from a medical care, schools and water needs perspective.
Militias, dangerous in this context because of their decentralised nature, need to be made into an unattractive source of security by professionalizing the security sector.
To promote a government approach and political and security cooperation, Abiy has an uphill task both in institution building and strengthening horizontal ties between the national government, the nine ethnically-based administrative regions and the two self-governing administrations of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.
In Ethiopian restaurants worldwide, one often sees Ethiopians eating from one plate and occasionally, scooping food to feed each other. This is called “Gursha.”
It is done in the spirit of sharing and shows the importance of not eating alone. In the event that Abiy decides to submit his name for party nomination to run in the upcoming elections, he will need the ‘‘Gursha’’ spirit from all Ethiopians to unify the country.
Obama’s departure ended the ethnic unity Kenyans enjoyed in his three-day presence. Maintaining Eliud Kipchoge’s revival of this elusive unity needs its own analysis in a different column.
Will the Nobel award support Abiy’s methods of reconciliation or has it restrained him as a leader? It is clear, from the grenade attack and assassination of the head of Ethiopian army and his advisor in the recent past, that Ethiopia is also dealing with internal extremists.
Allowing impunity will degrade trust in Abiy’s government and encourage reprisals. How Abiy wears his reconciliation velvet glove over an administrative iron fist is a topic for many more columns.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]