America’s top Africa diplomat suspects the failed coup attempt in Ethiopia’s Amhara region and the killing of the country’s army chief in Addis Ababa on Saturday were likely further attempts by vestiges of the old regime to sabotage the ambitious liberal reforms of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
US assistant secretary of state for Africa, Tibor Nagy, noted in Pretoria on Sunday that these were not the first attempts by the old guard to torpedo Abiy’s radical changes, and would probably not be the last.
He characterised the violent reactions also as the results of rising ethnic pressures suppressed by the previous autocratic regime and now released by Abiy’s efforts to liberalise Ethiopia’s politics.
Amhara state president, Ambachew Mekonnen — an Abiy appointee — and his adviser were shot dead and the state’s attorney-general was wounded in Amhara’s capital Bahir Dar on the evening of Saturday, June 22, 2019, according to a statement from Abiy’s office.
It blamed the killings on Amhara state security head General Asamnew Tsige and said he had killed Mekonnen to try to seize control of the state of Amhara.
“There was an organised coup attempt in Bahir Dar, but it failed,” Negussu Tilahun, spokesman for Abiy, told state TV on Saturday.
In a separate attack on the same night, Ethiopian national army chief of staff General Seare Mekonnen and another retired general were shot dead in Seare’s home in Addis Ababa by his bodyguard. The two attacks were linked, Abiy’s office said, without elaborating.
Nagy, a veteran Africanist and former US ambassador to Ethiopia, was reluctant to describe the killing of Amhara governor Mekonnen as an attempted coup as he said he did not yet know all the facts. Nevertheless, he said he believed that the killings in Ethiopia were likely part of the considerable resistance by members of the old establishment to Abiy’s “dramatic, incredible” domestic reforms.
Abiy took over in April 2018 after three years of often deadly protests forced his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn to resign.
Abiy has released political prisoners, unbanned political parties and prosecuted officials accused of gross human rights abuses. Nagy noted the irony of the fact that Abiy himself had released the alleged coup plotter General Tsige from jail where he had been put by the previous administration — for a previous coup attempt, local media reported.
Nagy said that vestiges of the old autocratic regime which Abiy was trying to dismantle still held positions of power.
“Some of the elites are very unhappy with some of the reforms that Prime Minister Abiy is taking, for a variety of reasons including, I’m sure, some ill-gotten gains. The prime minister is challenging this. He’s bringing in his own people.”
He noted that the assassinated Amhara governor Mekonnen had been appointed by Abiy not long ago and was his person.
Nagy said the Tigray region was even more difficult for Abiy “because there the vestiges of the old regime are very much still in control”. Ethnic Tigrayans had dominated the Ethiopian government since the ruling EPRDF movement toppled the brutal dictator Hailemariam Mengistu in 1991 and until Abiy, an ethnic Omoro, unexpectedly took the leadership of the EPRDF in 2018. But substantial elements of the Tigrayan elite are believed to be unhappy with Abiy continuing to diminish their power.
Nagy said he had no independent information that the assassination of the military chief by his bodyguard in Addis Ababa was linked to the killing of the Amhara governor. But, he also added:
“I don’t believe in coincidences…”
Nagy said Abiy had taken on a major challenge in trying to transform what had been an autocracy — “and also what I would call a Potemkin democracy for they had some of the structures of democracy without actually carrying them through”.
The Ethiopian model of ethnic federalism — which worked well in Switzerland because there the Swiss regions were dividing riches — had not worked nearly so well in Ethiopia, a land of poverty, he said.
“So during the time of ethnic federalism there were incredible internal pressures built up where the regions came into contact with each other. Where you had different ethnic groups living just across the formal borders in other regions.
“And that boiling pot with a lid on it also included disenfranchisement, tremendous unhappiness on the part of the young people because of lost opportunities, who also lost any kind of political expression.
“So when Abiy came in he had to start taking the top off the boiling kettle. And however he takes it off there’s going to be some steam coming out.”
Nagy recalled that shortly after Abiy took power he had survived a grenade attack which had injured many others.
“Later on troops showed up at his office; there was uncertainty as to what their real intention was, but some people suspect it could have been extremely grave.
“And he defused that with a brilliant piece of challenging them to do what the Brits called press-ups, we call push-ups. And he left everybody laughing.
“Interestingly enough, the general who was accused of masterminding this latest plot — I don’t want to call it a coup attempt, I don’t have the facts, but this violent plot incident — had been in prison under the old regime and he had been one of the people amnestied by Prime Minister Abiy who has let out an awful lot of people from jail.”
Nagy said he believed there were many more people in Ethiopia who supported Abiy’s reforms than those who opposed them.
“But there is this vestige of the old regime left, so its certainly not clear sailing for him from now on. He has an incredible amount of issues he has to deal with.
“And at the bottom of it all is this question of youth unemployment, which just presents an element of natural instability in the whole system.
“He’s moving as quick as he can, but unfortunately I wish I could say this was the last of these attempts, but no one can be certain because you just don’t know when, who and where…
“One thing’s for certain, he’s going to go full force ahead. This is not going to stymie him. But it is quite a shock. Because it could have turned out so much worse.” DM