The Hidden War : Throughline How does a country go from its leader winning the Nobel Peace Prize to all-out war in just one year? That's the question surrounding Ethiopia, which has become embroiled in one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century. The U.S. has called it an ethnic cleansing campaign against Tigrayans, a minority group in the country; some human rights organizations have called it a genocide. But many people outside Ethiopia and its diaspora had no idea it was happening. In U.S. media, it's hardly discussed, even as violence has intensified throughout the country. In this episode, we tell the story of Ethiopia — the oldest independent country in Africa — and the political, cultural and religious factors that led to this war.

The Hidden War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1190018372/1200556131" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

A warning before we get started. This episode contains descriptions of sexual violence and war.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

It was a cloudy day in Oslo, Norway, when the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize was announced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali.

ARABLOUEI: Abiy Ahmed had brokered a deal with Ethiopia's neighbor, Eritrea, to end a decades-long violent border dispute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ethiopia is Africa's second most populous country and East Africa's largest economy.

ARABLOUEI: Ethiopia is located on the eastern tip of Africa, a region nicknamed the Horn of Africa. Some call it the cradle of humankind. In more recent years, however, Ethiopia has been plagued by conflict. So when Abiy Ahmed managed to strike this peace deal with Eritrea, many believed he was ushering in a new dawn that would echo throughout Africa and around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Prime Minister.

(APPLAUSE)

PRIME MINISTER ABIY AHMED: I accept this award on behalf of Ethiopians and Eritreans, especially...

(SOUNDBITE OF , "")

GEBREKIRSTOS GEBRESELASSIE: We are going to just go ahead and create a hero that is absolutely immaculate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There is almost religious fervor to what has been dubbed Abiy mania.

GEBREKIRSTOS: Abiy mania.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He has positioned himself as a beacon of peace.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This dynamic young new prime minister...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And end of domination by a few.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...Come in with a massive political reform agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABIY: I also accept this award on behalf of citizens of the world for whom the dream of peace has often been turned into a nightmare of war.

GEBREKIRSTOS: It was a complete facade.

ABDELFATAH: Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie Gebremeskel watched all of this unfold through a TV screen in Amsterdam, where he was going to university. But he was born and raised in Ethiopia, in the northernmost region known as Tigray, which borders Eritrea. And he, like other Tigrayans, would come to suspect that this peace deal the international media and Nobel committee were celebrating might actually be...

GEBREKIRSTOS: A war pact.

ABDELFATAH: ...A war pact.

GEBREKIRSTOS: We were alerting the world that a danger was coming.

ABDELFATAH: And within one year of Abiy Ahmed walking across that stage in Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, he, alongside Eritrea's president, carried out what would become one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century, a war that would overwhelmingly target Gebrekirstos's home - Tigray.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) My son and husband left for the house to see what was happening. Then a soldier came and killed them both.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: They looted everything in the town. We had nothing to eat for.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) Four military soldiers from the Amhara got me and took me to a house. There, two of them raped me for days.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Killing people, just shooting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Yeah. I couldn't say goodbye my mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: For many of us in the U.S., our attention has been focused over the last few years on the pandemic, the political saga surrounding former President Donald Trump and the war in Ukraine. But during that same time, another war was unfolding in Ethiopia that may have been much deadlier, yet has rarely made headlines here. It's believed that as many as 600,000 people have been killed in this war. Sexual violence is pervasive, and millions have been displaced. Some of the voices you heard above are the victims of that conflict, including a reading from a Human Rights Watch interview, voiced by an actor.

ARABLOUEI: U.S. officials have called it an ethnic cleansing campaign against Tigrayans. Many Tigrayan activists like Gebrekirstos call it a genocide.

GEBREKIRSTOS: I have been really dedicated to chronicling and documenting the atrocities in this war.

ARABLOUEI: The violence that began in Tigray has intensified in other regions of Ethiopia as well - most significantly, the southern region of Oromia. And Tigrayans continue to face discrimination and hostility.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile, the international community has done little to help, perhaps because Ethiopia sits in a delicate position on the global stage. Its capital, Addis Ababa, is home to the headquarters of the African Union and is seen as the political capital of the continent.

ARABLOUEI: Economically, Ethiopia is a valuable chess piece between competing powers in the East, like the Gulf States and China, and the West - Europe and the U.S.

ABDELFATAH: And religiously, Ethiopia is sandwiched between majority Christian and majority Muslim countries. Its own population is two-thirds Christian and one-third Muslim.

GEBREKIRSTOS: It's a very complex history. And people live there very much in history as they do in the present. Wars happen when they want to control narrative, to own narrative. And that is also part of the war on Tigray today.

ARABLOUEI: Tigrayans make up only about 6% of the population in Ethiopia, a country that has more than 80 different ethnic groups, which makes a single narrative difficult to agree on.

ABDELFATAH: And like so many nations today, that narrative battle remains unresolved. After all, about 200 years ago, various empires around the world, with many people of different ethnic, religious and geographic backgrounds, began to gradually transform into nations, nations which aspired to create shared identities with a single story of themselves.

ELLENI CENTIME ZELEKE: I guess the question is, what does it mean to be a nation-state in this world? And I think the big question in Ethiopia is, what does it mean for all of these different groups that have lived within the territory that is now called Ethiopia - what does it mean for them to live together? What does it mean to manage diversity and plurality?

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And I'm Rund Abdelfatah. On this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, we'll dig into Ethiopia's long struggle to define itself as a nation and how its leader went from winning the Nobel Peace Prize to all-out bloodshed within one year.

ARABLOUEI: Coming up, the emperor who dared to defy the world and won.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELBA: Hi. This is Melba (ph) in Springfield, Ga., and you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Part 1 - Touched by God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: In the morning of the world, when the fingers of love swept aside the curtains of time, our dusky mother, Ethiopia, held the stage. It was she who wooed civilization and gave birth to nations. George Wells Parker.

ARABLOUEI: Ethiopia is a place with many pasts. Five million years ago, it's believed our human ancestors lived there among the trees. Around 2,000 years ago, it became known as the Kingdom of Aksum, based mainly in what's now the region of Tigray and the country of Eritrea. To this day, both assert they are the rightful heirs to this ancient empire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God. Psalm 68:31.

ABDELFATAH: Then Christianity reached its shores and became the state religion even before Rome, a point of great pride for many Ethiopians. One of the most famous Christian stories told in Ethiopia to this day is that of Sheba and Solomon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Legend has it the Queen of Sheba was ruling over Ethiopia when she caught wind of a ruler in Jerusalem who was exceptionally wealthy and wise. His name was King Solomon. Intrigued, she decides to travel to his court and meet him.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

ABDELFATAH: When she arrives, she's immediately taken in by the depth of his knowledge, and they soon become enamored with one another. Eventually, the Queen of Sheba returns home to Ethiopia, bearing Solomon's wisdom and a newborn son. When that son grows up and goes to visit Solomon in Jerusalem, he too returns with something special - the famous Ark of the Covenant, which is said to have contained the tablets for the Ten Commandments. Ethiopia's possession of this relic was seen as evidence of God's light shining down on his chosen people.

RAYMOND JONAS: I mean, this is, like, the stories that any country will tell about itself. Whatever that thing is that sets it apart, whatever that thing is that says that this is a country that's predestined for greatness - that exceptionalism that every nation seems to want to claim for itself.

ARABLOUEI: This is Raymond Jonas.

JONAS: I'm a professor in history at the University of Washington in Seattle. I'm the author of "The Battle Of Adwa: African Victory In The Age Of Empire."

ARABLOUEI: And he says while the story of empires in Ethiopia goes back millennia, the story of Ethiopia as a nation begins in the 1800s.

ABDELFATAH: With an epic battle and a man named Menelik II.

JONAS: Menelik likes to wear a crucifix high on the neck and claims to be descended from a liaison involving Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There's no way of verifying it, of course. That puts him in a dynastic line that offers a claim on the Ethiopian throne.

ABDELFATAH: By the time Menelik II entered the world in 1844, the Queen of Sheba and the Kingdom of Aksum were long gone. Aksum was eventually replaced by the Kingdom of Abyssinia in the Middle Ages, also known as Ethiopia. Menelik was from a region in the middle of Ethiopia, known as Shoa, and he was made king of that region from a young age.

ABDELFATAH: Part of this has to do with geography. Ethiopia's a mountainous country. It doesn't lend itself to, you know, an extensive road system or navigation by river. And what this means in terms of power is that power is compartmentalized.

ABDELFATAH: But by the time Menelik was an adult, the tectonic plates were shifting in Ethiopia thanks to a technological breakthrough.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORN BLOWING)

JONAS: The Suez Canal was opened in 1869.

ARABLOUEI: Stretching 120 miles, the Suez Canal in Egypt connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, the sea Moses is said to have parted. Before that, if you wanted to get to Asia from Europe, you had to travel all the way around the southern tip of Africa. The canal made the journey to Asia way easier and faster for Europeans, who were establishing colonies around the world at this time but whose power was being threatened in a changing world.

JONAS: There's a profound anxiety that the future belongs to continental powers like the United States and Russia. And this completely destabilizes European conceptions of power.

ARABLOUEI: With a new canal making places in East Africa like Ethiopia more accessible, European empires rushed to lay claim to various parts of the continent. This came to be known as the scramble for Africa.

JONAS: The equivalent of Manifest Destiny, if you like, for Europeans.

ABDELFATAH: So back to Menelik - he knows that the Europeans are circling the continent looking to get in on this scramble. And he knows that the Italians have set their eyes on Ethiopia in particular.

JONAS: So for the Italians, first of all, there isn't much left. The French and the British have taken the choice portions, especially the coastal portions of Africa. But Ethiopia remains stubbornly independent.

ABDELFATAH: So Menelik hatches an idea.

JONAS: What Menelik does is to accept the overtures of the Italians who are looking for someone they can sponsor.

ABDELFATAH: It was a Faustian bargain. He would help them gain access to resources within the empire, and in exchange, they would help him build his own power beyond Shoa.

JONAS: The Italians are delighted, and Menelik doesn't let on that he has other ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: So over the next few years, he and a small army traveled around Ethiopia.

JONAS: Pillaging, looting.

ARABLOUEI: Seizing weapons, livestock and people, recruiting some into their army.

JONAS: The defeated are taken away also as slaves.

ARABLOUEI: All the while building up his power, his army's numbers and his name.

JONAS: There is an aspect of internal colonization that took place under Menelik's rule.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: And the culmination of his campaign of internal colonization was naming Addis Ababa, a city in his home region of Shoa, as the capital of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa means new flower in Amharic, the language spoken by Menelik's people, the Amhara.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks to this campaign, by 1895, Menelik had what he wanted, control of the Empire - well, nearly all of it. The Italians held on to one region, Eritrea, which sits right along the Red Sea. It was an important access point for Italian shipping merchants. Menelik was cool with that until the Italians started to eye other parts of the empire, places where he was in control.

JONAS: This, you know, plays into Menelik's hands because it allows him now to position himself as the only possible defender of Ethiopian sovereignty. And so he puts out a call to the people of Ethiopia, telling them to gather, to arm themselves and to prepare to drive out the invader.

ABDELFATAH: On March 1, 1896, Menelik and his army of 80,000 prepared to face off against an Italian army of 20,000. They met in the town of Adwa, which is located in Tigray, alongside the ancient city of Aksum. And at the break of dawn...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

ABDELFATAH: ...The Battle of Adwa began.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Gunshots erupt, too many to count. Battle cries morph into screams of agony. Blood streams down the mountainside. According to one account, Menelik and his wife were deep in prayer that morning, the descendant of Sheba and Solomon kneeling before God to save Ethiopia from the invader.

JONAS: The fighting begins at around 6 a.m. By 9 a.m., the scene is one of utter chaos. And one by one, these Italian forces get taken down. For Menelik, this is a great success.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Menelik II of Abyssinia is on his way to Aksum for the purpose of being crowned emperor of Ethiopia, the successor of the Queen of Sheba. The Evening Herald, St. John's, Newfoundland.

JONAS: The reputation of Menelik travels very quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Crowds of people crying long live Menelik, long live anarchy.

JONAS: Portraits start showing up in newspapers in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

SASHA SOLOVYEVA, BYLINE: (Reading) The Italian defeat in Abyssinia has produced a profound impression here, and the possibility of a new grouping of the powers is discussed. Saint Petersburg, Russia.

JONAS: In the diaspora, the African Diaspora, there is this enthusiastic reaction to the story of Adwa. It's an African victory over a European army. It's the victory of a Black army over a white army.

ARABLOUEI: At a time when Jim Crow was still in effect in the U.S., when lynchings were common, when equality was still a far-off fantasy for Black Americans, here was a story of a triumph, of a victory, of hope. Ethiopia was one of only two places in Africa to remain uncolonized by European powers.

ABDELFATAH: It's a recipe for a great myth, right?

ELLENI: Absolutely.

ARABLOUEI: This is Elleni Centime Zeleke.

ELLENI: I am assistant professor of African studies in the Department of Middle East, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University in New York. I am the author of "Ethiopia In Theory."

ARABLOUEI: And she's working on a new book about the current conflict in Ethiopia.

ELLENI: The book is titled "A Jewel In The Ear: The Ethiopian Civil War Of 2020 And The Limits Of Pan-African Political Thought."

ABDELFATAH: Elleni was born in Ethiopia, and she is also Amhara. She says that for many Ethiopians, Menelik is an almost mythical figure, the hero who built modern Ethiopia. But she says while this myth is founded in a real victory, it obscures some of the murkier parts of the story.

ELLENI: The way the story is told is as if this battle is holding up something that, you know, we inherited from, like, 3,000 years ago. Again, that straight line from Aksum - it mystifies what the actual process is in terms of establishing the modern nation-state that is Ethiopia.

ABDELFATAH: What came after the battle of Adwa set the stage for a century of conflicts there.

ELLENI: The Italians lose, but they also behave in a very shady way, and Menelik is forced to give them some territory.

ARABLOUEI: He decides Eritrea can remain under Italy's control.

JONAS: I think it needs to be said that while Menelik was just the right guy to defend Ethiopian sovereignty against European encroachment, he's pretty clearly the wrong guy to manage the transition to modern Ethiopia.

ARABLOUEI: After all, people still remembered what Menelik had done to consolidate his power, that brutal campaign of internal colonization.

JONAS: Certainly, the vision of Ethiopia that Menelik had was one where constituent elements of the empire were expected over time to conform to a certain ideal.

ABDELFATAH: An ideal that centered his identity as an Amhara Christian as the identity of Ethiopia, glossing over the vast ethnic and religious diversity within the Empire. And that attempt to flatten Ethiopia's national identity created ripples of discontent that would grow into tidal waves in the future.

ARABLOUEI: Coming up, the struggle to build a nation spirals out of control.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JESSIE HELEN: Hi. This is Jessie Helen (ph) from San Francisco, Calif. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Part 2 - The Last Emperor.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: (Reading) In 1935, there was just one man who rose out of murky obscurity and carried his country with him up and up into brilliant focus before a pop-eyed world.

ABDELFATAH: This is the 1936 announcement for the Time Magazine Person of the Year. His name - Haile Selassie.

KATAYAMA: (Reading) In his motionless face, only his eyes seem alive - brilliant, elongated, extremely expressive eyes.

ABDELFATAH: It's full of backhanded compliments, to say the least.

KATAYAMA: (Reading) Above all, Halie Selassie has created a general, warm and blind sympathy for uncivilized Ethiopia throughout civilized Christendom.

ABDELFATAH: After the death of Emperor Menelik II in 1913, the crown passed from hand to hand until eventually finding its way to Haile Selassie. It was 1930 when he was crowned emperor, and the early years on the throne were tense. More and more countries were looking to strong leaders who could unify and lead them into global power. One kind of leader that was emerging was the fascist dictator.

ABDELFATAH: And the world's first fascist regime was led by Benito Mussolini of Italy. He wanted to expand Italy's power in Africa and still believed it could take Ethiopia. So in 1935, Italy invaded for a second time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Mussolini was ready. Italy at the time had the foremost air force in Europe. Two years after it had begun, the war was over.

ARABLOUEI: Haile Selassie was forced into exile. While in exile, he pleaded with Europe and the rest of the world to help him regain Ethiopia. But the response was muted.

ABDELFATAH: Until World War II. Axis and allied powers battled in the Red Sea off the coast of East Africa. Controlling the Red Sea meant controlling supply routes and military movement. Ethiopia was also symbolic in the fight against fascism, since Italy had occupied one of the only African countries never colonized by European powers. So the British sent troops to Ethiopia to help take out Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: The Italian fascists had lost the war in Africa, as well as in Europe. And in May 1941, Haile Selassie was restored to his throne.

ELLENI: I think Haile Selassie really understood himself as a modernizer. I think what it meant to be a modernizer at that time was to create a nation-state.

ARABLOUEI: After the war, Selassie's goal was to align his country with the rising Western powers.

ELLENI: When I say nation-state, what I mean is this idea that you have closed boundaries, that they're defined clearly. People speak one language more or less. You have a modern bureaucracy. He's not really interested in autonomy for the regions.

ARABLOUEI: A key part of Selassie's plan to unify, modernize and align with the West was education. He set up modern schools and universities, and by the 1960s, he was being hailed as a visionary for the continent. He was named the first president of the Organization of African Unity, a group that emerged to help lead African nations towards independence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAILE SELASSIE: Until there are no longer first class and second-class citizens of any nature. Until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes. But until...

ARABLOUEI: A speech he made to the United Nations in 1963, in which he called for peace, decolonization and Pan-Africanism would become the inspiration for the Bob Marley song "War."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR")

BOB MARLEY: (Singing) That until there are no longer first class and second-class citizens of any nation, until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes. Me say war.

ABDELFATAH: But the thing is, by the 1960s, Selassie had been in power for three decades. And while some saw him as a modernizer, he hadn't figured out how to truly unify Ethiopia. And all those students who'd been brought up in Selassie's modern schools started questioning whether he was still the right leader for Ethiopia.

ELLENI: And it's really that generation that starts to really think about, well, what is this Ethiopia project? What is the nation-state? What is the legacy of empire?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: In our Ethiopian context, the true revolutionary is one who has shattered all sentimental and ideological ties with feudal Ethiopia. Our rallying points are not a common history, a feudal boundary, the legendary Solomonic fairy tale, religious institutions, regional, ethnic, linguistic affiliations, but the cause of the oppressed classes. November 1969, editorial in Struggle, a publication of the University Students Union of Addis Ababa.

ABDELFATAH: For this generation of students, Haile Selassie was a relic of an outdated past who was preserving social and class structures they were looking to tear down. Under Selassie, peasants held very little land, and there was what many saw as a privileging of the elite Amhara Christian identity that Menelik II had also been a part of.

ELLENI: So by the 1960s in Ethiopia, all the questions about what it means to create a nation-state, what it means to be modern, what it means to eradicate poverty, you know, what it means to be anti-colonial are being answered primarily through the framework of Marxism.

ARABLOUEI: This intellectual insurgency was part of a broader global struggle to define what nations should look like in the Cold War era.

SARAH VAUGHAN: There was lots of real kind of excitement about things needing to change, and that also kind of stirred up all sorts of thinking about, you know, what were the models? Was it Mao? Was it the Soviet Union? Leninism was really of interest to lots of different groups.

ARABLOUEI: This is Sarah Vaughan.

VAUGHAN: I'm a researcher based in the U.K. I've been working on Ethiopia since the late 1980s. And I've recently co-authored a book called "Understanding Ethiopia's Tigray War."

ARABLOUEI: As Marxist ideas spread around Ethiopia, it became clear that the future of Ethiopia didn't involve Haile Selassie.

ABDELFATAH: Because in order to truly establish a nation, you needed to get rid of all traces of the monarchy.

ARABLOUEI: And so in 1974, a revolution broke out to dethrone Haile Selassie and make him the last emperor of Ethiopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: The revolution was fueled by students, intellectuals, workers and people from all kinds of ethnicities. But one group emerged as the dominant force - the Derg. The Derg were mostly members of the Ethiopian army. Many of the Derg regime leaders were also Amhara, as Menelik II and Haile Selassie were. But they claimed to want to establish a Marxist socialist state in Ethiopia in which ethnic identities would theoretically be irrelevant, and they'd get their chance after a successful coup.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMAN ANDOM: Ethiopia has been made to languish under the most dictatorial regime. The interests of the people were completely ignored.

ABDELFATAH: This is a Derg general speaking after the coup, signaling that Haile Selassie's 40-year rule had come to an end. Selassie was put under house arrest and eventually died in 1975 under mysterious circumstances. The Derg had seized control of the country.

VAUGHAN: When he fell in 1974, there was real kind of wondering what was going to happen. You had this military Marxist group that came to power, initially allied with the U.S., but then there was a really dramatic reversal.

ARABLOUEI: The Derg regime did make some pretty big changes soon after taking power. The monarchy was abolished. So was feudalism. All land was transferred to the state and then allotted to peasants, who wanted to farm themselves. There was nationalization of industry and other reforms. But despite all of this, they didn't fundamentally change the elite structure that put Amhara Christian identity above the rest, and they ruled with an iron fist.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: (Through interpreter) They came to my home, and they hit me with a stick, with the butt of a gun.

ARABLOUEI: What followed was years and years of civil war.

VAUGHAN: So these civil wars of the 1980s were really a reflection of other groups - the Oromos, the Tigrayans, the Somalis and so on - to try to get out from under what they saw as a kind of ethnocratic dominance by an Amhara elite or at least an elite that spoke Amharic and used Orthodox Christianity.

ABDELFATAH: The violence and death under the Derg regime was made worse in the 1980s when a historic drought was followed by unfathomable famine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: (Through interpreter) They're hoping that God will give them rain and grow more food.

ABDELFATAH: One of the hardest-hit regions was Tigray, which was also an area where rebels aggressively resisted the Derg. The human rights group Africa Watch reported that the Derg destroyed markets and farmland in Tigray. They diverted food from peasants to their soldiers.

VAUGHAN: I would certainly argue that the government was using food as a weapon of war, as a means to try to pressurize the opponents it was facing.

ABDELFATAH: Throughout the 17 years of civil war, hundreds of thousands died in the fighting. The famine is estimated to have killed 1 million people, and millions of families were uprooted and displaced, including Gebrekristos Gebreselassie's family. He was just a child living on a farm in Tigray when the famine began.

GEBREKIRSTOS: I grew up in the setting hearing, you know, guns and bombardments as well. We had to hide, you know, every time we see something flying in the sky.

ARABLOUEI: Resistance to the Derg was growing, and the two biggest groups pushing back against the regime were the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which was initially formed during Haile Selassie's reign to push for an independent Eritrea, and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, which was composed of four main political parties, the strongest being the Tigray People's Liberation Front, or TPLF.

ELLENI: And the Tigray People's Liberation Front in the '70s and '80s conducted not just guerrilla warfare, but they actually mobilized people in terms of distributing land, in terms of, you know, organizing women's groups, youth groups.

ABDELFATAH: And the TPLF helped families, including Gebrekristos' family, after they were forced from their homes.

GEBREKIRSTOS: And so the TPLF decided to take us to Sudan to get relief aid there. And so I remember, for example, as a child seeing these fighters as some kind of saviors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Rebels in Ethiopia are continuing to close in on the Capitol.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Today they moved to within approximately 20 miles of the Capitol.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: The old dictatorial regime collapsed on Monday after rebels from Ethiopia...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: Nobody knows exactly what the rebels will be demanding then. They seem to have all the cards.

ABDELFATAH: In 1991, the EPRDF, led by the TPLF, along with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, took down the Derg, and they rose to power. This new government led by Tigrayans signaled the dawn of another new era for Ethiopia. People were hopeful, especially people in Tigray. But the same questions that had plagued Ethiopia since Menelik II's time remained unresolved.

ARABLOUEI: Coming up, how the idea of peace and equality becomes a cover for war.

DAVE: Hi. This is Dave calling from Sydney, Australia. You know, they call this the lucky country, but really, we're all lucky because we're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Part 3 - The Blueprint.

ABDELFATAH: On October 10, 2019, one day before the Nobel Peace Prize was to be announced, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed opened a project he'd been working on since taking office a year earlier. He called it Unity Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABIY: (Non-English language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: Unity Park had cost more than $160 million, and it showed - stretching a hundred acres, it features extravagant sculptures, lush gardens, a zoo, an artificial cave filled with bird and insect sounds and a historical museum. There's even a life-sized wax statue of Haile Selassie. And maybe most significantly, the park is built on the old palace grounds of Menelik II, with parts of his original palace still intact, serving as a bridge between Ethiopia's past and present, between Menelik II and Abiy Ahmed.

VAUGHAN: Abiy Ahmed grew up west of Addis Ababa in one of the more lush and fertile areas of the country, which is not food insecure.

ARABLOUEI: His father is Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country. His mother is Amhara, same as Menelik II. These identities would become more important when the EPRDF government came to power in 1991, when Abiy was a teenager. He joined their military during this time of transition.

ABDELFATAH: The EPRDF government saw itself as a break with the past and rejected the Derg regime's fixation on homogeneity as the answer to Ethiopia's nationality question.

ARABLOUEI: The correct answer, as they saw it, was to treat each of the major ethnic groups as nations within Ethiopia, a nation of many nations, which translated to less centralized power and the creation of nine semi-autonomous regions for each of those ethnic groups. Tigray was one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) Tigray, Tigray, Tigray.

ARABLOUEI: Around the same time, this new Ethiopian government allowed Eritreans to hold a referendum on independence. And in 1993, Eritrea finally became a sovereign nation. After all, it had remained under Italian rule for decades before rejoining the rest of Ethiopia. So Eritrea had arguably, since the time of Menelik II, been the odd man out in Ethiopia.

VAUGHAN: The government had spent the first decade of the 1990s setting up new federal structures of government. And in the second decade, things really started to take off. Ethiopia had incredibly high rates of economic growth, some of the highest on the planet.

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

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

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

ABDELFATAH: After experiencing the political violence of the Derg regime and the brutal reality of famine, Gebrekirstos 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 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 as more investment funneled into Tigray, questions surfaced about whether the TPLF was privileging its own people. And it's hard to say whether that was the case. On the one hand, you could see the investments paying off. For example, Tigray had the best health system in the country. But according to Gebrekirstos, in order to ward off those accusations of favoritism...

GEBREKIRSTOS: They continued to impoverish Tigray in many senses.

ARABLOUEI: But the perception that Tigrayans were being privileged above the other ethnic groups in the country stuck and would create a world of trouble for them in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: During this period, Abiy was rising through the ranks of the Ethiopian military, where he met a fellow soldier who rocked his world, his future wife, Zinash Tayachew.

VAUGHAN: She's a very well-known gospel singer, and both of them are evangelical Christians, very active in the church.

ARABLOUEI: The '90s saw a surge in evangelicalism in Ethiopia. Once the Derg fell, religious freedom in the country was restored, and evangelicalism exploded. After all, this was a place with a long and proud Christian heritage. And the evangelical message of personal salvation, individual empowerment and prosperity resonated at a time when the country was in transition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED TELEVANGELIST: (Non-English language spoken).

ARABLOUEI: Ethiopian televangelists took to the airwaves, and...

VAUGHAN: Many evangelical Christians joined the ruling party. So, you know, Abiy Ahmed is part of a phenomenon which has grown in the last 20 years.

ARABLOUEI: Abiy Ahmed wore his religion on his sleeve, and like Menelik II, came to believe that he was ordained as the country's leader, that it was just a matter of time before he took power.

ELLENI: As soon as EPRDF came into power in the early 1990s, there was a group of people in Addis and within the Ethiopian diaspora that were like, hell no are these people going to, like, stay in power.

VAUGHAN: It was an authoritarian party, and I think that generated a lot of enemies, people who were excluded from that political arrangement.

ELLENI: And I think from the mid-1990s on, there was a concerted effort by people to organize themselves to bring that regime down.

ABDELFATAH: For the opposition, the easiest way to bring down the TPLF regime was to bring down all Tigrayans.

GEBREKIRSTOS: The demonization of Tigrayans started, really, in media.

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: They presented what I call a blueprint for today's genocide. It says basically Ethiopia's problem is not a political party. It's not the TPLF. It is the 5% ethnic Tigrayans that sees themselves as rulers of Ethiopia. The way to remove a stinking fish is to drain the sea.

ELLENI: TPLF and the Tigrayans are a scapegoat. They're a scapegoat for a complicated geopolitical and economic situation.

ABDELFATAH: By the 2010s, life was getting harder in Ethiopia. The cost of living was rising. Many faced poverty. Urban expansion was stripping farmers of their land in a nation that's heavily agrarian. Allegations of stolen elections, corruption and political persecution were rampant. People could be arrested or even killed for opposing the government.

ARABLOUEI: Meanwhile, Ethiopia was suspended in a tense stalemate with Eritrea. The two countries had gone to war in the late 1990s over a border dispute which left both worse off, constantly teetering on the edge of violence. Resolving that stalemate would be what won Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize.

ABDELFATAH: In a way, winning the Nobel Prize was the culmination of Abiy's very quick ascent to power that began with an uprising among his father's ethnic group, the Oromo. Although they're the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, since the time of Menelik II, they have arguably been relatively disempowered from national politics.

ARABLOUEI: And in 2014, when the government proposed something called the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which would have expanded the capital city into Oromo lands, the Oromo rose up against the EPRDF/TPLF government.

ARABLOUEI: And Abiy Ahmed was the protesters' favored leader.

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

ABDELFATAH: A sophisticated shapeshifter.

VAUGHAN: He's spectacularly good at communications.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABIY: (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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ABIY: Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen.

(Non-English language spoken).

(Non-English language spoken).

VAUGHAN: And 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, and that's one of the secrets of his success, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABIY: (Non-English language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: And in 2018, with the backing of the Oromo resistance, Abiy Ahmed was elected prime minister. And with him at the helm, the ruling coalition rebranded itself from the EPRDF to the Prosperity Party. At last, his prophecy was being realized.

ARABLOUEI: But while he was seen as a departure from the past, the truth was he had cut his teeth in the TPLF/EPRDF government and saw up close what their answer to the nationality question had exacerbated - a nation in which various ethnic groups were still frequently in conflict with one another and calling to secede, only now they had their own federalized regions with which to identify.

ABDELFATAH: So when Abiy got power, he moved swiftly to centralize control. After all, there was already a blueprint in place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #6: Ethiopia's government has declared a national state of emergency.

NYAGOAH TUT PUR: Internet and phone lines to Tigray were cut off.

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

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #7: Reports of horrific abuses...

PERALTA: ...Fully a guerrilla war.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #8: As this conflict escalates, so too does the language.

GEBREKIRSTOS: The adviser to the prime minister said even researchers shouldn't find any evidence for the future about them to say that they - you know, they existed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Special Forces told us to disembark. They lined us up in rows, cocked their guns and sprayed us with bullets.

GEBREKIRSTOS: They spared no one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: They said, Tigrayans don't die easily. Shoot again.

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

VAUGHAN: A lot of people say, oh, well, you know, there's lots of different ethnic groups in Ethiopia, and the divisions run very deep, and the history is very divisive. But I think for me, I go back to contemporary decisions which were taken by contemporary politicians which could have been otherwise. History has been mobilized to justify positions, but history didn't cause the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: In November 2022, a cessation of hostilities was reached, but peace remains elusive, and the situation has only gotten more complicated. Violence continues in other parts of the country as Abiy Ahmed works to suppress any threat to his power and to the national unity of Ethiopia.

ABDELFATAH: In particular, he has targeted Oromos, many of whom are still pushing for self-determination. He's vowed to dismantle regional paramilitary forces, which the Amhara are protesting, and Tigrayans still face a precarious situation.

VAUGHAN: So it is extraordinary to me that this hasn't garnered more international attention.

GEBREKIRSTOS: I really believe there is an element of color as well here. You know, we saw this when the war in Ukraine began - like, many media outlets saying, you know, these are not Africans, or these are not Syrians. These are people like us. They are Europeans. They are civilized people.

VAUGHAN: I think that the West and the U.S. have found it very difficult to know how to apply pressure.

ABDELFATAH: Why? Why have they found it so difficult?

VAUGHAN: Because they haven't wanted to lose the relationship with Ethiopia. They haven't wanted to drive Ethiopia into the hands of Putin's Russia and the Chinese and the Gulf States. You know, this is no longer a Cold War world where there are only two sides to choose from. There are multiple alternative sponsors and proxies.

GEBREKIRSTOS: In some sense, this is almost a world war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: People in Ethiopia, like people throughout the world, find moments from the past to understand their present. Some may go all the way back to the ancient times of Solomon and Sheba. Some may invoke the glory of the Battle of Adwa. Some may remember the triumphs and tragedies of the student revolution. Where you locate yourself in the past depends largely on where you see yourself in the present.

Have you been able to go back to Tigray and to to see your family there?

GEBREKIRSTOS: No, I haven't. I can't. For my own security, I don't think I would until things change. I've lost one nephew. We do not know where he is - maybe killed. My grandmother has died during the blockade. Many, many people that I know in the village have died. My mother has aged just, like, in speed of light. You know, I tell many people, journalists and medias that, you know, they should continue to cover this because the danger is only waiting. It's not over. It's never over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: And me, and...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Anya Steinberg.

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

CASEY MINER, BYLINE: Casey Miner.

CRISTINA KIM, BYLINE: Cristina Kim.

KATAYAMA: Devin Katayama.

SASHA CRAWFORD-HOLLAND, BYLINE: Sasha Crawford-Holland.

AMIR MARSHI, BYLINE: Amir Marshi.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl. Thanks to Devin Katayama, Jonathan Bastian, Devin Williams, Allison Katayama, Cameron Frasier, Sasha Solovyeva and Joel Kushner for their voiceover work.

ABDELFATAH: Special thanks to Eyder Peralta, Tara Neill, Yordanos Tesfazion, Ahmad Suleiman, Feven Tekelehaimanot, Sucdi Ahmed, Martin Plaut, Rachel Seller, Micah Ratner and Anya Grundmann.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to France 24, SABC News, EthioInfo Media, ThamesTV, Al Jazeera, CBC News, Addis Media Network, Peace Gospel Believers Church, World Economic Forum, and ENN.

ABDELFATAH: You can find Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie's work at tghat.com That's tghat.com. This episode was mixed by Maggie Luther. Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: And, as always, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.