ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now to Ethiopia, where the alleged mastermind of a coup attempt died during a firefight with security forces. The government accused the man, a brigadier general, of masterminding gun attacks on Saturday aimed at seizing power in a key northern region. The violence comes as the prime minister is transforming Ethiopia with political reforms that are meant to open the previously isolated nation. NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta joins us now.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So tell us a little bit more about what happened over the weekend.
PERALTA: So there were two separate events. One of them happened in Amhara, as you said. And according to the government, a renegade brigadier general and his forces attacked the local government, and they killed the president of that region. A few hours after that attack, the top military official in Ethiopia, the chief of staff of the Ethiopian armed forces, was killed by his bodyguard just as he was coordinating a response to that situation in Amhara. And today we got news that the brigadier general died in a firefight with security forces.
But I think of the top line here is that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed continues to be tested in Ethiopia. Almost exactly a year ago, the government said intelligence agents had plotted to kill him when they threw a grenade. And this time two of Abiy's very close allies have been killed.
SHAPIRO: So why is this northern region of Amhara important to Ethiopia?
PERALTA: I mean, historically, it's been the power center of Ethiopia. And more than a year ago, the people of Amhara joined the people of Oromia in a protest movement that toppled one of the most authoritarian governments in the world. So this region really is the alliance that brought Abiy to power. It's an important part of that alliance.
SHAPIRO: Now, I mentioned that the prime minister has put a bunch of political reforms into place, and he's generally been seen as a positive figure - at least internationally. So why is there so much opposition to what he's doing?
PERALTA: Yeah, I mean, he's a superstar on the continent. And one of the things that he has been lauded for is that when he came to power, he said this is a new Ethiopia that welcomes everyone. So literally, everyone came back - all the politicians, the militants, the radical thinkers who had been shunned or jailed by the previous administration. And this brigadier general was one of those guys. He was in jail for planning a coup. But as Abiy came to power, he was pardoned. He was freed. And Abiy even returned his military rank.
But this brigadier general, when he came onto the scene, he started talking about taking back land that he said historically belonged to the Amharas. He told people to pick up arms. But Prime Minister Abiy's theory has always been that these voices would be drowned out by the moderate ones.
I spoke to Ethiopian journalist and political analyst Zecharias Zelalem, and he says what the prime minister forgot is how dangerous some of these voices are coming from powerful men like this brigadier general. Let's listen to a bit of what he told me.
ZECHARIAS ZELALEM: This is going to be the - you know, the litmus test for Ethiopia because right now, there are demands from sections of the population that the government take a sort of Machiavellian hold and crack down on people promoting the sorts of narratives, the sorts of voices, the sorts of opinions that the brigadier general was known for.
PERALTA: So to Zecharias, this is a pivotal moment in Ethiopia because it really gives the government a chance to say, look, Ethiopia can't handle a more open society, and we have to return to a more authoritarian rule.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta speaking with us about the latest upheaval in Ethiopia. Thank you very much.
PERALTA: Thank you, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "KNUDDELMAUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.