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Ethiopia To Hold Critical Election Amid Period Of Political Turmoil


Ethiopia is set to hold what its government has called the first truly democratic elections in that ancient country's history. The vote later this month is one of the central promises of Ethiopia's reformist prime minister. But it is occurring not just in a period of political turmoil, but violence and war. NPR East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta joins us. Eyder, thanks so much for being with us.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And in the midst of turmoil and violence, which you've reported, what are the prospects for a truly democratic election?

PERALTA: Not many. I mean, I think there are many indications that this is going to be a flawed election. And the reason that this is heartbreaking is because just a few years ago, Ethiopia - it was a fairy tale. It was a country that had been ruled by monarchs and dictators for centuries, and it was finally opening up. They released political prisoners and welcomed back all of their critics. People who had been branded terrorists by the previous authoritarian regime - they were out in public, they were talking on TV, on stages. It was really, truly a vibrant country. And there was so much change that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

But today, pretty much all of his critics are in jail, so these elections are happening with no credible opposition. In the war zone, there will be no elections at all. I got two calls late last night, one from a political activist who told me that the country's most prominent opposition leader, Jawar Mohammed, has started another hunger strike in jail, and another one from a local journalist who has worked with NPR, and he says his family was interrogated and his electricity was turned off. He's afraid that the government is about to arrest him because of his work.

SIMON: You mentioned the Nobel Peace Prize and the fact that Ethiopia's prime minister has been lauded in many spots around the world. Does he retain international support through these elections?

PERALTA: Relations are strained between Ethiopia and the world. The U.S. has imposed sanctions. And this week, there was a concerted effort by a bunch of Western countries to try and pressure Ethiopia into peace talks and into letting humanitarian aid flow into the Tigray region. Right now, lots of people are going hungry in Ethiopia. And the international community - they are worried that if nothing is done, hundreds of thousands of people are at the risk of starving to death.

On Thursday, the Ethiopian government said that they were committed to allowing aid in and that Eritrean troops, which have been accused of some of the most horrific acts against civilians in this conflict, have agreed to return to their country. But Ethiopia has made those promises before, and little has changed. So we'll see.

SIMON: Eyder, what are the prospects for peace at the moment?

PERALTA: There are no negotiations happening, and that's complicated by the fact that the damage that has been done during this war is so personal. Homes have been burnt. Mothers, grandmothers, daughters have been gang raped. Families have been destroyed. Human Rights Watch released a report that found that a quarter of all schools in the Tigray region have been damaged. Many of them are being used for barracks for soldiers.

While I was in Tigray, we saw Ethiopian troops at a huge high school in the city of Mek'ele (ph). And when they left, we went into the school. Teachers and administrators joined us. And we found it totally destroyed. Almost all the walls had been tagged with hateful graffiti. Let's listen.

The windows are broken. All of the computers have been opened, and the hard drives have been taken.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Really, I am very sorry. I didn't have any words to explain.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And here we have (speaking Tigrinya), now what we are left with is to destroy all Tigrayans.


And, Scott, just to explain, we were looking at a wall with graffiti. And what it said there is, what is left to do is to destroy all Tigrayans. This war has become ethnic in nature, so healing will be tough.

SIMON: NPR East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta, thanks so much.

PERALTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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