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How did Ethiopia go from its leader winning the Nobel Peace Prize to war in a year?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ethiopia is engulfed in one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century, as we have been reporting on this program. The war began with violence in the northern region of Tigray, what U.S. officials have called an ethnic cleansing campaign. The violence has now spread to other parts of the country. So what has contributed to that violence? Here are Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, the co-hosts of our history podcast, Throughline.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Ethiopia is a place with many pasts. Some call it the cradle of humankind. It was home to a great Christian empire, where legend has it, the famous Ark of the Covenant resides. Throughout its long history, many emperors have claimed lineage to that holy past.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: But as Ethiopia transition from empire to modern nation-state in the late 1800s, it faced a major challenge - how to unite more than 80 different ethnic and religious groups in the country under one national identity.

ABDELFATAH: Since then, that question has led to a series of revolutions and civil wars in Ethiopia.

GEBREKIRSTOS GEBRESELASSIE GEBREMESKEL: I grew up in the setting hearing, you know, guns and bombardments, as well.

ABDELFATAH: This is Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie Gebremeskel, an activist who grew up on a farm in Ethiopia's ethnic minority region of Tigray in the 1980s, where he witnessed violence and poverty under a military regime that believed homogeneity was the only path to a shared national identity. But then in 1991, everything changed.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The old dictatorial regime collapsed on Monday after rebels from the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front surrounded the capital, Addis Ababa.

ABDELFATAH: A group called the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, toppled the military government and took power.

ARABLOUEI: They wanted to treat each of the major ethnic groups as nations within Ethiopia, which translated to less centralized power in the country's capital and the creation of nine semi-autonomous regions for each of those ethnic groups. Tigray was one of them, and for a while it seemed like progress.

SARAH VAUGHAN: Ethiopia had incredibly high rates of economic growth, some of the highest on the planet.

ARABLOUEI: That's Sarah Vaughan, author of a book called Understanding Ethiopia's Tigray War.

VAUGHAN: So people started talking about Ethiopia as a kind of African lion.

ARABLOUEI: Child mortality declined. More primary schools and universities were built. Access to health care improved. International investment boomed.

GEBREKIRSTOS: There was a lot of activity, good initiatives in Tigray.

ARABLOUEI: After a lifetime spent experiencing both political violence and the brutal reality of famine, Gebrekristos and others in Tigray believed the future looked bright.

GEBREKIRSTOS: There was, you know, the sense that, well, we are out from this forever.

ABDELFATAH: Although the new Ethiopian government was made up of four political parties, the TPLF party, the party from Tigray, was seen as the one running the show. In the minds of many people, the Ethiopian government was the TPLF, and it was authoritarian. So as more investment funneled into Tigray, questions surfaced about whether the TPLF was privileging its own ethnic group. It's hard to say whether that was the case, but it created trouble.

VAUGHAN: There was a satellite TV station based in the diaspora which was actively encouraging attacks on Tigrayans, who they held responsible for the federal system that they didn't like.

GEBREKIRSTOS: It says, basically, Ethiopia's problem is not a political party. It's not the TPLF. It is the 5% ethnic Tigrayans that see themselves as rulers of Ethiopia.

ABDELFATAH: By the 2010s, life was getting harder in Ethiopia. The cost of living was rising. Many faced poverty. People could be arrested or even killed for opposing the government. And the party from Tigray was seen as responsible for the situation.

ARABLOUEI: This all came to a head in 2014, when the government proposed a plan to expand the capital city into lands owned by the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in the country. The Oromo then formed a resistance movement to take down the government. A man named Abiy Ahmed, whose father was Oromo, became the protesters' favored leader.

VAUGHAN: He's good-looking. He was a young, different kind of leader.

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PRIME MINISTER ABIY AHMED: (Non-English language spoken).

VAUGHAN: He's got this ability to tell different people what they want to hear in a smattering of their own languages.

ARABLOUEI: And he leaned into his identity as a devout evangelical Christian, harkening back to Ethiopia's long and proud holy past.

VAUGHAN: Some people are delighted to see Ethiopia returning to God. That sort of sense of Ethiopia as a kind of spiritual project is something which Abiy Ahmed has recaptured.

ARABLOUEI: In 2018, with the backing of the Oromo resistance, Abiy Ahmed was elected prime minister.

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ABIY: I accept this award on behalf of Ethiopians and Eritreans.

ARABLOUEI: And in 2019, he won a Nobel Peace Prize after brokering a peace deal between Ethiopia and its neighbor, Eritrea, ending a decadeslong violent border dispute.

ABDELFATAH: But while it seemed like Abiy Ahmed was ushering in a new progressive era for the country, ethnic divisions and political unrest remained a threat. So he decided he needed to centralize power, beginning with the group that he had just seized power from, the TPLF. And in 2020, he carried out a war against all Tigrayans.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Ethiopia's government has declared a national state of emergency.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Reports of horrific abuses.

GEBREKIRSTOS: They spared no one.

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EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: We don't know what the death toll is.

GEBREKIRSTOS: The people of Tigray have been made to feel - those that have survived - we don't kind of belong in this world.

ABDELFATAH: In November 2022, a cessation of hostilities was reached, but it's believed that as many as 600,000 people have already been killed in this war. And peace remains elusive.

ARABLOUEI: And the situation has only gotten more complicated. Violence continues in other parts of the country. In particular, it's now targeting the Oromos. And Tigrayans still face a precarious situation as Abiy Ahmed seeks to consolidate power and build a single Ethiopian identity.

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INSKEEP: Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, hosts of NPR's history podcast, Throughline. Hear the whole episode wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.