CAN ABIY HOLD ETHIOPIA TOGETHER?

Author:Jeffries, James
Position:Cover story
 
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The political shootout in Amhara province and a military assassination in Addis Ababa on the same day in late June came as a shock to observers who have praised Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's slew of reforms, including freeing political prisoners and lifting bans on exiled groups. What is behind the violence? Did Abiy move too fast to reform what is probably the world's only federal state based on ethnicity?

Daggers drawn and used in Ethiopia but was it a "coup"?

It could have formed the plot of a racy, far-fetched political thriller. Unfortunately, it actually happened in Ethiopia.

At a 22 June meeting meant to have been top-secret, the most powerful men in Ethiopia's northern Amhara region discussed the removal of General Asamnew Tsige, the regional security chief whose outspoken stance on hard-line ethnic nationalism had become an increasing concern to the Ethiopian establishment.

Little aid they know, but at that very moment, a convoy of Asamnew loyalists were advancing toward them through the attractively sun-kissed and palm tree-lined streets of Bahir Dar, Amhara's capital, after Asamnew had somehow got wind of the plan.

Moments after Asamnew's men entered Amhara's regional headquarters, firing erupted leaving Amhara president Ambachew Mekonnen, and his senior adviser, Ezez Wasie, dead.

Survivors reportedly emerged from underneath tables and ripped down curtains in a vain attempt to staunch the wounds of Amhara's attorney general, Migbaru Kebede, who later died. Elsewhere in the city, Asamnew loyalists reportedly attempted to seize the city's police headquarters and the state media building.

Later the same day down in Addis Ababa, 300 miles to the south, the Ethiopian Army chief of staff, General Seare Mekonnen, and a retired general with him, were killed by a bodyguard. Thirty-six hours later Asamnew was killed in a shoot-out with security forces as he attempted to escape from his Bahir Dar hideout.

Confusion and obfuscation reigned in the immediate aftermath. Was it an attempted national coup or just at the regional level? Were the killings connected?

Ethiopia's government, which had shut down the internet a few days before the killings, released few details as it sought to control the narrative by claiming to have thwarted a regional coup.

It initially said the chief of staff had been killed while trying to thwart the coup. But he had been killed at his residence while eating dinner. The government also initially claimed the bodyguard had been arrested, but then reported he had committed suicide rather than be caught. At the same time, federal troops flooded into Amhara.

"There is a lot of anger and frustration for Amharas at this moment at the response from the federal government and army, because they feel under siege," says Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group.

"It is disappointing the word 'coup' is being used by the Ethiopian government press because this term does not reflect the events that transpired--you can't have a coup of a state or region. If there's to be a coup it would be against the federal government."

In all fairness, when it comes to what terminology to use, as well as to other factors related to the bloody events of that day, the government may have been--and may well still be--as shocked and confused as everyone else. Though Tewodrose's comments are echoed by others who argue that the violence was entirely unplanned and reactionary.

Whatever the truth, the assassinations of such important figures in the Ethiopian establishment and in such a key region--Amhara is home to the second-largest ethnic group among the country's 102m population and to the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), one of the four political parties constituting the ruling coalition government--illustrate the dangers seething beneath the surface that the country faces.

Amhara anxiety and animus

"Our organisation had a face-to-face meeting with Ambachew Mekonnen [and] Migbaru Kebede when they came to the US in December to meet with the Amharas in the diaspora," Tewodros says.

"We know there was a fissure within the Amhara Democratic Party [ADP] because it was still in transition, which had caused division between the ADP and the Amhara security forces. However, it's hard to believe any difference would lead to violence."

Tewodros says he is concerned this incident is being used to divide people, and that "the longer the federal army...

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