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Ethiopia's Prime Minister Takes Strides In Solidifying Peace With Eritrea


This week, we've been looking at historic changes in Ethiopia, and there's one man driving a lot of them - Abiy Ahmed. He's the young prime minister of Ethiopia chosen to lead by the ruling party. Since he took office, he has pushed reforms few thought possible in one of the world's most authoritarian countries. He's beloved for this, but there have also already been attempts on his life. Here's more from NPR's Eyder Peralta.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Back in June, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians show up to Meskel Square in the middle of Addis Ababa. They come to show support for the reforms being instituted by their new prime minister, and he basks in that adoration.




PERALTA: As seen on state TV, he delivers a hopeful speech. And when he's done, he waves, smiles, and the emcee takes over the mic.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is the day that Ethiopia has become proud.


PERALTA: That pop, it was a grenade thrown into the crowd. The intent was to assassinate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. A few weeks later, Meskel Square is much quieter. Kids play soccer. Runners weave up and down the stone steps. I sit next to Asefa and Abiyi Habtamu, two friends who are taking a break from work. Abiyi Habtamu, who is 25, says we could not have sat here to talk before the new prime minister came to power. The military would have beat us with sticks by now.

ABIYI HABTAMU: (Through interpreter) We know that life, how difficult it was. Some people were killed. Some people were missing, arrested. It was terrible time.

PERALTA: In the years preceding Abiy's inauguration, Ethiopia was crumbling. Young people took to the streets across the country, and the government reacted violently. The country seemed headed into civil war. What happened instead is the prime minister resigned and the ruling party, the EPRDF, which came to power after an armed rebellion in 1991, they made a U-turn. It was a party that had been ruled by old revolutionaries, mostly from the Tigray minority. But they elected Abiy, 42 years old and Oromo, a historically marginalized ethnic group. To Asefa, who is 45 and still afraid to give his full name, it felt like a miracle.

ASEFA: (Through interpreter) And we didn't expect that this man will come out from this fire and nobody doesn't bring him to power. He came by the help of God.

PERALTA: Abiy moved at lightning speed. He freed political prisoners. He ended the state of emergency. He declared peace with Eritrea. He mended the rupture in the Orthodox church, and he gave Ethiopians the freedom to speak their minds. Suddenly, Abiy's face was on bumpers and billboards and T-shirts. Across town at a coffee shop, I meet Petros Beyene, a veteran opposition leader in Ethiopia. He says this fervor for Abiy, that belief that he can carry Ethiopia across the breach, is superficial.

PETROS BEYENE: That comes out of desperation, out of frustration over the last 28 years.

PERALTA: Petros is skeptical because Abiy comes from the ruling party, the same government with one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Abiy, he says, has a Muslim father, a Christian mom, he fought in the war against Eritrea, he became colonel, and he led Ethiopia's cyber intelligence unit.

BEYENE: So (laughter) therefore, Abiy is not an ordinary person. He's been perhaps - somebody must have been preparing him for this.

PERALTA: Petros says the EPRDF was facing an existential threat. Protests had gone on for three years, and they knew they could not cling to power by force. They needed to do something.

They needed to save themselves.

BEYENE: Yeah, yeah, right. And Abiy is the guy who could do it, and I think they were right.

PERALTA: But politics in Ethiopia is complicated. Abiy has faced most resistance from his old friends. The day before my talk with Petros, hundreds of armed soldiers marched to Abiy's palace. State TV said they were demanding a pay raise and showed footage of Abiy doing pushups with the military men.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Amharic).

PERALTA: But in a somber speech a few days later, Abiy revealed the truth. Someone had sent those troops to kill him. He did the pushups with a smile to defuse the situation, but he also realized, he said, that if Ethiopia remained divided, he wouldn't be in power much longer. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Addis Ababa.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.