YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A leading Catholic aid agency in Ethiopia is working to “foster lasting peace and address the root causes of the conflict” affecting the country, and hopes the recent Nobel Peace prize for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will “spotlight” the positive results recently achieved in the East African country.

“We applaud Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, for being awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Ahmed’s leadership on restoring peace with Eritrea is an important reminder to us all that progress is indeed possible, even under the most trying of circumstances,” John Shumlansky, the Ethiopian country representative for the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) told Crux.

CRS is the official international development arm of the U.S. bishops conference.

The 43-year-old Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for sweeping political reforms and for making peace with long-time rival Eritrea.

Eritrea – a former Italian colony – was later joined with Ethiopia in 1955. The province fought a decades long insurgency before officially gaining independence in 1993.

However, border disputes continued, and the two nations fought a 1998-2000 war that left over 100,000 people dead. A peace agreement wasn’t signed until 2018, when Abiy made several unilateral concessions to push it through, even though Ethiopia held the stronger military position.

Abiy also introduced sweeping political reforms in the authoritarian country, allowing greater civil liberties, freeing political prisoners, and allowing dissidents living in exile to return home.

However, the new open political climate has led to new challenges, as long-simmering ethnic tensions to bubble to the surface, creating conflicts.

The fighting has caused over 2 million people to be displaced in the country of just over 100 million people.

Shumlansky said he hopes the Peace Prize will also help bring peace to the country’s battling ethnic groups.

“It’s our hope that this award can shine a spotlight on all of the tireless peace building efforts happening within Ethiopia to bring about an end to internal conflict,” he told Crux.

He said CRS and Ethiopian Catholic Church “are working closely with the Government of Ethiopia on peacebuilding efforts in the country’s Oromia and SNNPR regions, where some 2.9 million people were uprooted from their homes due to ethnic conflict since 2018.”

“The ultimate aim of our work is to foster lasting peace and address the root causes of the conflict. Our experience working in Ethiopia has taught us that working for peace at the local level is imperative to creating lasting change. Before we can begin encouraging people to talk about peace, we know that we must first address their humanitarian needs including the need for clean water, shelter and food security,” Shumlansky said.

He said the CRS, along with local partners, has “provided critical services like food, shelter, water, sanitation, hygiene, economic support and other assistance to displaced families and returning families.”

“Through the generous support of USAID Food for Peace and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) we’ve helped to build over 1,500 homes, helped provide nearly 75,000 people with access to water, and provided food to an average of more than 400,000 displaced people per distribution. These distributions take place about every 45 days,” said Shumlansky.

“As part of our peace building efforts, we bring together people from both sides of the conflict and encourage them to work together on ‘connector’ projects that benefit their communities as a whole. As a result, people who were embroiled in conflict not long ago end up working side by side to refurbish their schools and health clinics or build and manage new water distribution points and wells. In the process, they also find common ground and the time to talk openly about the path to sustainable peace,” he said.

Although Abiy has been celebrated for his peacebuilding efforts, he has recently warned that Ethiopia is ready to go to war with Egypt has tensions rise over an Ethiopian dam on the Nile river.

Egypt has expressed concerns the project will stem the flow of the country’s main source of freshwater, with some officials saying it’s a national security issue that might require a military response.

“Some say things about use of force. It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam,” Abiy said on Tuesday. “If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs. But that’s not in the best interest of all of us.”

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