First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Experts disagree whether the Ethiopian assassinations r...

Africa

ETHIOPIA IN TURMOIL

Experts disagree whether the Ethiopian assassinations reflect only regional and ethnic nationalist tensions

There are indications that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's reforms may be unravelling in the provinces, accompanied by growing chaos and instability. (Image sources: Pawel Czerwinski / Unsplash / DXL / Unsplash)

The assassination of the president of Ethiopia’s Amhara regional state in an alleged local coup attempt on Saturday was likely the result more of the fraught ethnic politics of Amhara than national tensions, an expert believes.

Amhara state president Ambachew Mekonnen, one of his advisers and the area’s attorney-general were shot in Bahir Dar, the main city of Amhara state, north of the national capital Addis Ababa.

On Monday, Amhara state security chief Brigadier-General Asaminew Tsige, who the government suspected of killing Ambachew, was himself shot dead by soldiers, apparently while resisting arrest.

The government has also blamed Asaminew for ordering the assassination of Ethiopian national military chief General Seare Mekonnen in Addis Ababa on Saturday, shortly after the killing of Ambachew in Bahir Dar.

On Sunday, America’s top African diplomat speculated that the assassinations in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar could be part of wider efforts by Ethiopia’s “old regime” to resist the far-reaching reforms of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took charge in April 2018.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Tibor Nagy told journalists in Pretoria that “there are vestiges of the old regime in power (still)”.

Some of the elites are very unhappy with the reforms that Prime Minister Abiy is taking for a variety of reasons, including, I’m sure, some ill-gotten gains.”

He noted also that Abiy had recently appointed Ambachew as the president of Amhara state and that Ambachew had been “his person”. And so Nagy suggested the killing of Ambachew was part of the wider resistance of the old regime to Abiy’s far-reaching changes, which including making peace with Eritrea, freeing many political prisoners and unbanning political parties.

Nagy added that although he did not know what was behind the assassination of army chief Seare Mekonnen on the same day, he believed the two murders were likely to be related.

Will Davison, Ethiopia expert at the Brussels-based Crisis Group, disagreed with the interpretation that the assassinations were directly aimed at Abiy.

It doesn’t appear to have been a concerted national coup attempt,” Davison told Daily Maverick.

Davison said he believed Ambachew’s assassination and the related murders in Amhara were rather the result of internal political tensions in that state.

He believes that Asaminew probably attacked the regional president because he suspected Ambachew was about to dismiss him as security chief or even arrest him because of his divisive ethno-nationalist stance.

An Addis Ababa-based official reportedly told Reuters that the shooting in Bahir Dar occurred when Ambachew was holding a meeting to decide how to stop Asaminew’s open recruitment of ethnic Amhara militias.

Asaminew had told the Amhara people to arm themselves and prepare for fighting against other groups, in a video spread on Facebook a week earlier. He had been released from prison in 2018 after receiving amnesty for a similar coup attempt.

Davison said the political and ethnic context of the killing was that the ruling party of Amhara had become increasingly unpopular in the state because for decades it was seen as subservient to the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), which had been the dominant force in the ruling EPRDF coalition nationally.

Last year (2018) as the political space opened it faced a strong challenge by the opposition National Movement of Amhara which was ethno-nationalist. Partly as a populist gesture, but also because of the increased space, Amhara’s ruling party also adopted ethno-nationalist language to match the opposition challenge.

So it began talking more about marginalisation of the Amhara and land having been taken from them by the TPLF. As part of that shift in Amhara politics, they decided to appoint Asaminew as regional security chief last November (2018). Recently they seem to have begun to realise he was taking them too far down a path to confrontation against other ethnic groups,” Davison said.

That’s when the Amhara state government decided to remove him and he tried to pre-empt them by killing the regional president.

Davison said it was not clear if the assassination of army chief Seare by one of his bodyguards in Addis Ababa on Saturday was directly related to the killings in Amhara. Only Abiy’s office has so far linked the two events and no evidence has been provided.

Davison said it was true that Seare was ethnic Tigrayan and a former member of the TPLF. But he added that he was widely regarded as an exemplary professional soldier who stood above the ethnic fray.

He said there were reports that the bodyguard who had shot Seare was an ethnic Amhara who might have been sympathetic to Asaminew, but there was also mixed messaging from the government over the fate of the alleged assassin. There were also suggestions that Asaminew might have arranged Seare’s assassination to disrupt the national army and so prevent it trying to reverse his proposed coup in Amhara. “But this is all speculative,” Davison said.

Responding to Nagy’s interpretation of the killings, Davison said his own understanding of the events did not suggest that the killings were a backlash by the old guard to Abiy’s reforms.

When you say ‘old guard’ in this context it means TPLF. And to suggest that the TPLF was in league with Asaminew against Abiy is off the mark,” Davison said, noting that Asaminew was probably about to be removed from office precisely because, in part, he was considered too hostile to the TPLF and Tigrayans more generally.

However, Nagy’s more general observation that the assassinations of the past few days were probably the indirect outcome of Abiy liberating Ethiopia’s politics, and therefore releasing long-suppressed ethnic tensions, does seem to hold true.

An African diplomat based in Addis Ababa remains convinced that the many deaths of high-ranking political figures over the past few days augur ill for Ethiopia.

We are moving faster towards the implosion of the political system here than we thought,” he said, noting that Abiy’s reforms — which he considers unstructured and unplanned — are unravelling in the provinces, with growing chaos and instability. DM

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted