“There… are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder.” This wisdom by President Ronald Reagan was borne out by two ground-breaking events in the Horn of Africa.
First, Eliud Kipchoge (34), the Kenyan long-distance runner who set the marathon world record of 2:01:39 in September 2018, achieved a new time of 1:59:40 in Vienna, Austria, on October 12, 2019.
But for understandable reasons, Kipchoge’s victory cannot be a new world marathon record.
The event was neither open nor were standard competition rules for pacing and fluids strictly followed.
However, the feat has entered the Guinness World Records as the “Fastest marathon distance (male)” and “First marathon distance run under two hours”.
Second, on October 11, 2019, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali (43) for his audacious initiative to end over 20-year post-war territorial deadlock between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Abiy’s award also followed a slew of political and economic reforms at home and laudable efforts to broker peace in the Horn of Africa.
Abiy becomes one of 25 persons from Africa to win any of the six Nobel Prizes awarded to individuals and organisations who break new grounds in the fields of chemistry, physics, literature, peace, medicine and economic sciences.
He joins a pantheon of 900 or so individuals and organisations who have received the awards between 1901 and 2017.
In many ways, Abiy’s award reflects the new spirit of Africa. At the turn of the century, British Prime Minister Tony Blair described Africa, rather sardonically, as “a scar on the conscience of the world”, appealing to the world to heal the wounds of the continent.
But Abiy’s award is a recognition of an Africa rising, progressively taking charge and healing its own wounds guided by the mantra of “African Solutions to African Problems”.
It also reveals Africa’s long walk to freedom and development. The historic “Wind of Change” speech by UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town on February 3, 1960 set the stage and tone of the subsequent Nobel Peace awards - which focused on contributions to a peaceful end to colonialism and apartheid.
Unsurprisingly, the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize went to Chief Albert Lutuli, president of the African National Congress (ANC), for his role in the non-violent struggle against apartheid.
After the Soweto Uprising in 1976 and the Apartheid government's ‘total onslaught’ policy, the Committee directed attention to emboldening leaders fighting apartheid by peaceful means.
The 1984 Nobel Peace Prize went to the Anglican cleric, Desmond Tutu, for his role in the opposition to apartheid.
In 1993, the Committee co-awarded the Peace Prize to Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk for brokering a peaceful end to apartheid and laying the foundations for a democratic South Africa.
In the 1970s, the Committee also focused on contribution to peace in the Middle-East.
It awarded the Peace prize for 1978 to Anwar al-Sadat, President of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, for their contribution to the two frame agreements on peace in the Middle East, and on peace between Egypt and Israel, which were signed at Camp David on September 17, 1978.
However, in the 21st century, the Nobel Committee turned its attention to contributions to sustainable development and democracy.
The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize went to Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.
It also co-awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Roberta Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist, for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women.
Denis Mukwege, Congolese gynaecologist and Pentecostal pastor, was also awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with women raped by armed rebels.
By awarding Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, barely 18 months since ascending to power in April 2018, the Nobel Committee has been accused of “doling premature praises”.
But the committee sought to achieve two goals: to recognise Abiy’s contribution to peace and to strengthen his hand in the face of looming challenges within Ethiopia and the larger Horn of Africa.
However, while peace prizes based on campaigns are usually not controversial, those based on peace deals often tend to be intensely stormy, and to often come unstuck.
Similarly, peace awards calibrated to strengthen their recipients may have good intentions, but they often fail.
No other Nobel Peace Prize has ever elicited more attention and controversy than the 2009 prize to President Barack Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between people”.
Writing in his memoir in 2015, the Secretary of the Nobel Committee, Geir Lundestad, admitted that awarding the prize to Obama was a mistake because the award failed to strengthen him as its designers hoped it would.
Abiy’s award has the potential of shaping the culture of leadership across Africa.
But as Africa enters the phase of democratic consolidation and development, the Nobel Committee might consider redirecting attention to innovations and institutions propelling Africa’s peace and development.
A more sustainable approach is to co-award prizes to individual leaders and regional organisations that provided mandate to peace efforts such as IGAD or African Union.
While the Nobel Committee has awarded peace prizes 27 times to organisations between 1901 and 2019, only one of these is from Africa.
This is the National Quartet of Tunisia, which received the 2015 Nobel Prize in recognition of its contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.
The Committee needs to recognise innovations such as M-Pesa, the most successful mobile-phone-based financial service in the developing world.
Be that as it may, as long as the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal lasts, it sets the stage for Abiy to consolidate a legacy of peace, democracy and development.
Professor Kagwanja is former Government Advisor and Chief Executive, Africa Policy Institute