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Ethiopia PM Sidesteps Trump’s Head Scratching Nobel Prize Comments

President Donald Trump pauses in front of the press as he and first lady Melania Trump prepare to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Jan. 13, 2020.

Ethiopians and U.S. foreign policy observers are trying to unravel a comment made by President Donald Trump last week where he claimed to have "saved a country" and implied he should have been given the Nobel Peace Prize for the achievement.

Trump made the comments during a rally in Toledo, Ohio, and appeared to be referencing Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose Nobel Peace Prize was announced in October. "I made a deal, I saved a country, and I just heard that the head of that country is now getting the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the country. I said, ‘what? Did I have something to do with it?’"

Abiy received the prize for his efforts to end nearly 20 years of hostility between Eritrea and Ethiopia relating to disputes over their shared border.

Observers believe Trump was referring to White House efforts to mediate discussions between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over water usage from the Nile River. Ethiopia is building a massive hydroelectric power project known as the Grand Renaissance Dam, but countries downstream on the Blue Nile are concerned it will deplete their principal water source.

The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee wasted no time jumping on what they believed to be a gaffe by Trump. "Trump is confused. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to the Horn of Africa, not stalled negotiations about a new dam on the Nile," the committee said on its Twitter account on January 10.

The committee, which is chaired by a Democratic lawmaker, also pointed out that the negotiations have not been successful. The three countries continue to be deadlocked and have been unable to reach an agreement as they approach a January 15 deadline to resolve the issue.

"If they gave the Nobel for deals that didn’t happen, the Pres. would have a shelf full of them," the Foreign Affairs Committee Twitter account stated.

Trump has not elaborated on the comments since then. When asked about the meaning, the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia referred reporters to comments made in October by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulating Abiy on the award, the Washington Post reported.

For his part, Abiy did not appear bothered by the statement. "To be honest, I don’t have any clue about the criteria [of] how the Nobel committee selects an individual for the prize. So, the issue of President Trump must go to the Nobel Prize Committee," Abiy said on January 12 during a press conference in South Africa.

Abiy added that he is more concerned with progress toward peace in the region than awards. "I am not working for the prize. I am working that peace is a very critical thing for our region and if they recognize and if President Trump complained, it must go to Oslo, not to Ethiopia," he said.

Ambassador Herman Cohen, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said these types of confounding, off-the-cuff remarks have become a hallmark of Trump’s presidency. "He has this tendency to make comments without first looking in the background. That's the way he operates," Cohen told VOA’s Amharic service.

But Cohen said the U.S. has the potential to play a leading role in relieving tensions among the Nile River countries. Representatives from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia met at the White House on November 6. This week, the delegations are continuing to negotiate. They have meetings scheduled with Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and President of the World Bank David Malpass.

"Egypt has been in a very tense situation with Ethiopia. And what President Trump did was he called both countries and said ‘come to the United States and we’ll mediate your dispute.’ And this caused a drop in the tension between Ethiopia and Egypt," Cohen said. "And for that, I think President Trump deserves a lot of credit. Now, maybe he'll get the peace prize for that next year."

VOA Horn of Africa's Amharic service reporter Solomon Abate contributed to this story.