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Nobel Peace Prize Winner To Belligerent Warmaker: Ethiopia Under Abiy Ahmed

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just a year ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but now a country with decades of battle scars is in conflict once again. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on how a Nobel laureate became a belligerent.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Two years ago, Ethiopia was on the brink. Huge pro-democracy protests and a violent response by the government threatened to tear the country apart. But suddenly, Ethiopia rallied around one man.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHMIC CLAPPING)

PERALTA: Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as the country's new prime minister. Lemma Tsedale, the editor of the Addis Standard, says you cannot underestimate the importance of that moment. For centuries, bloodshed marked any change of power in Ethiopia. It's a distinct characteristic.

LEMMA TSEDALE: A country that was born out of violence, governed by violence.

PERALTA: But here was Abiy, the youngest leader on the African continent, making a huge promise. Ethiopia would become a democracy, and its differences would be solved with dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER ABIY AHMED: (Speaking foreign language).

PERALTA: From Arat Kilo, the seat of power in the capital, Addis Ababa, he was humble, apologizing for state brutality suffered by Ethiopians.

TSEDALE: This was the first time power was transferred from one man to another without us having to drag the dead bodies from Arat Kilo.

PERALTA: And things did change in Ethiopia. Abiy welcomed back exiled dissidents. He ended a state of emergency, declared peace with Eritrea, and gave Ethiopians the freedom to speak their minds. Last year, the world noticed - he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At the Oslo City Hall, he was feted with a German art song. In a speech, he railed against war. He said it makes for heartless and savage men.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

PERALTA: But at home, things were once again deteriorating. Ethnic violence was tearing the country apart, killing scores and displacing millions. Without presenting evidence, Abiy accused the former rulers of Ethiopia, the TPLF, of driving that unrest. Elections this summer were supposed to settle these grievances. But citing the pandemic, Abiy canceled them. The TPLF held them anyway, raising tensions. They traded threats. And two weeks ago, the TPLF launched a surprise attack on government military bases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

PERALTA: Abiy responded by sending troops into northern Ethiopia and bombing rivals in his own country. Lemma Tsedale, the magazine editor, says Ethiopia couldn't escape the pull of violence.

TSEDALE: We succumbed and we invoked our memories, our lived memories, that we cannot become state without inflicting pain on each other, without killing one another, without turning our guns into our own brothers and sisters.

ZADIG ABRAHA: There was no other way.

PERALTA: No other way. That is Zadig Abraha, Ethiopia's minister for democratization. He says if there was any failure by Abiy, it was that he was too patient with the TPLF. He says military action was the only acceptable move after the TPLF attacked government forces.

AWOL ALLO: So what government would tolerate this? This is treason in every sense of the term.

PERALTA: Awol Allo is a professor of law at Keele University in the U.K. He was one of the people to nominate Abiy Ahmed for the Nobel Prize, and now he feels betrayed.

ALLO: It became very clear that there was basically a widespread deception about the character and identity and the belief of the prime minister.

PERALTA: He says Abiy fell in love with power, with the idea that the only way to hold Ethiopia together was with a forceful central government. And he began picking off anyone who didn't agree with him. Yesterday, the government issued an arrest warrant against dissenters, including Awol. The government's minister says the broader crackdown is a temporary setback to remove, quote, "roadblocks to democracy." Allo says, either way, Ethiopia is once again gripped by violence.

ALLO: You cannot justify that - you cannot.

PERALTA: At least, he says, not at the hands of a Nobel Peace laureate. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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