AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Ethiopia, the government is cracking down on dissidents with deadly force. This past weekend was one of the most violent. Witnesses say security forces killed nearly 100 people. But skirmishes continued today in parts of the country. NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner is based in Nairobi. He's been watching what's going on. And, Gregory, to start, what happened this weekend to provoke this level of response from the Ethiopian government?
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, these protests had been going on for almost a year. The response by the government has always been a military one. There are often reports of shootings, killings, mass arrests. I think the high death toll this weekend - there are reports of more than 90 people killed. Again, those are numbers from activists. We don't have official tallies from the government. But I think it shows just how widespread these demonstrations have become.
CORNISH: Tell us more about these dissidents and what they're calling for.
WARNER: Well, I think the key thing one needs to know about Ethiopian politics is that last year in the election the ruling party, called the EPRDF, won 100 percent of seats in parliament - so clean sweep. Opposition politicians are harassed, jailed, tortured. Journalists can find themselves in jail just for the crime of criticizing the government. I spent a lot of today calling up people in the capital, Addis Ababa, just to find out what was going on. And I should say that I could not even call my sources in the other regions where the protests were actually happening. The phones were cut off. People really have no news, and so they're just getting all these rumors, these reports from those regions about bodies found or door-to-door police searches, arrests, disappearances.
Meanwhile, on state television, you have these choreographed denunciations of the protest, denunciations of Facebook and Twitter are seen as instigators. That is the backdrop, I think, for all these various protests and why all these local grievances have no space to be discussed and can spill out into the street.
CORNISH: You talked about the difficulty in reaching out to these areas. Where are we talking about? Where is this happening?
WARNER: Well, up until recently, this has mostly been happening in one region of the country, which is actually all around the capital, Addis Ababa. And that's a region called Oromia, it's mostly ethnic Oromo. Now it's spread north to a region called the Amhara region, and that is actually mostly ethnic Amhara. These are the two largest ethnicities in Ethiopia.
CORNISH: So help us understand how ethnicity comes into play here.
WARNER: Well, so in Ethiopia, geography is ethnicity. And the country's actually divided. The regions are literally organized by ethnic regions. So ethnicity is politics. Political parties are organized along ethnic lines. There's definitely an ethnic element, then, to these protests. But ethnicity in Ethiopia is really complicated. And there's been a lot of efforts by activists at least to call for ethnic tolerance to say these are political protests. These are not expressions of ethnic hatred.
But the government definitely wants to characterize these protests as the work of ethnic separatists and ethnic terrorists that would justify the military response. And there have been very disturbing reports of some ethnic-based violence, so we'll see what these protests turn into.
CORNISH: Before I let you go, Ethiopia is a key U.S. ally in East Africa. Is that relationship being complicated by the government's response here?
WARNER: Well, I last visited in Ethiopia in May, and the protests were still going on then. I had a not - a lot of conversations with people about the U.S. support for Ethiopia, which has continued robustly despite the lack of democratic freedoms there. Ethiopia's a large recipient of foreign aid. The military gets a lot of training and resources to fight terrorism. Again, this is the same military cracking down on the people. In those conversations, though, people were fairly realistic about the United States. People said of course America supports the ruling government. It's up to us to figure out how to change that regime.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Gregory Warner. He spoke to us from Nairobi, Kenya. Thank you, Gregory.
WARNER: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.