Hailed as a visionary and reformer, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to resolve the long-running conflict with neighbouring foe Eritrea.
Abiy was honoured "for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea", the Nobel Committee said.
The award is seen as a welcome boost for Africa's youngest leader as he faces worrying inter-community violence ahead of a parliamentary election in May 2020.
Abiy told the Nobel Committee he was "humbled and thrilled" by the prize, and said he thought the award would invigorate regional peace efforts.
"This is great news for Africa, great news for East Africa. A place where peace is a very expensive commodity, and I am sure it will give us energy to work towards peace and to realise peace within our region," Abiy said in a phone call posted on the Nobel Prize website.
This is the second year in a row that an African has received the Nobel Peace Prize, after Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege shared the 2018 honour with Yazidi activist Nadia Murad for their work combatting sexual violence.
On Friday, Mukwege congratulated his fellow laureate.
"Your efforts for reconciliation in the horn of Africa have been inspiring well beyond borders," he said in a Twitter post.
Since taking office in April 2018, the 43-year-old Abiy has aggressively pursued policies that have the potential to upend society in the Horn of Africa nation and reshape dynamics beyond its borders, after years of civil unrest.
On July 9, 2018, following a historic meeting in Eritrea's capital Asmara, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki formally ended a 20-year-old stalemate between the countries in the wake of the 1998-2000 border conflict.
Abiy has since released dissidents from jail, apologised for state brutality, and welcomed home exiled armed groups.
- 'Winds of hope' -
His actions have sparked optimism in a region of Africa marred by violence.
"I have said often that winds of hope are blowing ever stronger across Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is one of the main reasons why," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said.
The peace agreement with Eritrea has "opened up new opportunities for the region to enjoy security and stability", and Abiy's "leadership has set a wonderful example for others in and beyond Africa looking to overcome resistance from the past and put people first".
The Nobel jury stressed the Peace Prize was "also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions".
It singled out the Eritrean leader, noting that "peace does not arise from the actions of one party alone".
"When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reached out his hand, President Afwerki grabbed it, and helped to formalise the peace process between the two countries."
However analysts believe there is still some way to go before a lasting peace, and the enthusiasm has been mixed with frustration.
The border between the two countries has once again been closed, the countries still lack trade agreements and Ethiopia -- a land-locked country -- still has no access to Eritrean ports.
Amnesty International said the prize should spur Abiy to enhance reforms on human rights, pointing to "ongoing ethnic tensions that threaten instability".
Ethnic violence has been on the rise in recent years, causing Ethiopia to record more internally displaced people last year than any other country.
- Push in the right direction -
Recognising that some would consider the prize premature, the Nobel Committee said that while much remained to be done, the award should serve as encouragement, and pointed to the criteria set by prize creator Alfred Nobel -- namely that the award should go to one "who has made the most significant contribution to peace within the past year".
"We are confident that by far this is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and we are also hopeful that the peace prize could perhaps be a push on the peace initiatives in the right direction," Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told AFP.
However, some Eritrean human rights activists were critical of the decision, seeing in it an implicit endorsement of the Eritrean regime -- which the democracy advocacy group Freedom House ranks as one of the most repressive in the world.
"The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a man who has befriended and whitewashed a dictator next door for his nation's own interests whilst prolonging the suffering of the Eritrean people," democracy activist, and niece of jailed Eritrean journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, Vanessa Tsehaye wrote on Twitter.
This year's prize will be presented at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of Alfred Nobel, who was a Swedish philanthropist and scientist.
The award consists of a gold medal, a diploma, and nine million Swedish kronor (around $912,000 or 828,000 euros).