AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Ethiopian government is facing its biggest political crisis since it came into power in 1991. In the face of nonstop protests, the government has released thousands of political prisoners. The prime minister has resigned. And for the second time in less than two years, the government has declared a state of emergency. What happens next could be a defining moment for one of Africa's most powerful nations. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Back in January, thousands of Ethiopians hit the streets in celebration. Shaky cellphone video posted online shows throngs of young men running through the streets to welcome back Merera Gudina.
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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).
PERALTA: The dissident leader had spent a little more than a year in jail, accused of trying to overthrow the government. But while he was in detention, protests never stopped. And his release was a first sign that maybe an authoritarian regime had begun to crack. I meet Merera at his home a few days after that celebration.
MERERA GUDINA: Without real change, you cannot stop these millions of young people on the move demanding change, real change.
PERALTA: The protests in Ethiopia started about three years ago when the federal government announced plans to expand the capital, Addis Ababa. It was a protest about land, yet the government reacted as it has historically with repression and violence. Since then, the protests have spread and become about equality for all ethnic groups, about jobs and about the freedom to elect one's own government and to speak one's mind. The government said it was releasing Merera to facilitate a national dialogue and to end the protests. At that moment, Merera, who spent part of his time in detention at one of Ethiopia's most notorious torture chambers, was conciliatory.
GUDINA: If they start to walk their talk, then I think the opposition also should positively respond to that. I'm cautiously - very cautiously optimistic - very cautiously.
PERALTA: After our interview, the government continued releasing prisoners. They freed thousands and also announced they would turn the notorious Maekelawi prison into a museum. Kassahun Berhanu, a professor of political science at Addis Ababa University, says it's clear this is a pivotal moment for Ethiopia.
KASSAHUN BERHANU: I'm sure those that have influence on policy might have grasped that the hour of reckoning is around.
PERALTA: Berhanu says this government corrected a lot of the wrongs that happened under the Derg, the brutal communist military regime that came before it. But for the past 25 years, this government has also made the same mistake that led to the downfall of the Derg. It is continuing its rule forcefully without asking Ethiopians for legitimacy. Berhanu thinks there is still hope, however, but the government has to act fast and make good on the kinds of promises it has reneged on in the past. Young people especially, says Berhanu, are quickly losing hope.
BERHANU: The worst thing is when people lose hope. They can defy death, imprisonment, and that will be very dangerous.
PERALTA: Earlier this month, Ethiopians across two states went on strike, paralyzing a good chunk of the nation. Amid all of that, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced he was stepping down. But a day later, the government declared a state of emergency, the second in less than two years. It was during that previous state of emergency that tens of thousands of Ethiopians were jailed. I called Merera Gudina to see if he still felt cautiously optimistic. The parliament has yet to approve the state of emergency, he says. So, yeah, he is still optimistic. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Addis Ababa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.