Ethiopia’s army chief of staff and the head of northern state Amhara were killed in separate but related attacks when a general tried to seize control of Amhara in an attempted coup, the prime minister’s office said.
Amhara state president Ambachew Mekonnen and his adviser were shot dead and the state’s attorney general was wounded in the regional capital Bahir Dar, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office said in a statement.
In a separate attack on Saturday, Ethiopian army Chief of Staff Seare Mekonnen and a retired general were shot and killed in Seare’s house in Addis Ababa by a bodyguard. The attacks were linked, the statement said, without giving details.
Abiy’s office named Amhara state security head General Asamnew Tsige as responsible for the foiled coup. Asamnew was released from prison last year after receiving an amnesty for a similar coup attempt, according to media reports.
The premier’s shake-up of the military and intelligence services earned him powerful enemies, while his government struggles to rein in powerful figures in Ethiopia’s myriad ethnic groups fighting federal government and each other for greater influence and resources.
US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, said the attacks were probably prompted by disaffection over Abiy’s rise to power and his reforms.
“There are vestiges of the old regime in power. Some elites are unhappy with some of the reforms Abiy is making for a variety of reasons including, I’m sure, some ill-gotten gains,” Nagy told reporters in South Africa.
“It’s not clear sailing for him from now on. He has an incredible number of issues to deal with,” said Nagy, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia.
The shooting in Bahir Dar occurred when the state president – an Abiy ally – was meeting to decide how to stop open recruitment of ethnic Amhara militias by Asamnew, an Addis-based official told Reuters.
Asamnew advised the Amhara to arm themselves in preparation for fighting other groups, in a video on Facebook a week earlier and seen by a Reuters reporter showed.
Abiy donned military fatigues to announce the attempted coup on state television. Residents of Bahir Dar, north-west of Addis, said there was at least four hours of gunfire on Saturday evening and some roads were closed off.
“The situation in Amhara region is currently under control by Federal Government in collaboration with the regional government,” Abiy said.
The US Embassy tweeted it heard reports of gunfire in Addis Ababa on Saturday and some residents told Reuters they heard six shots in a suburb near the country’s Bole International Airport.
The capital was quieter than usual on Sunday, with less cars and pedestrians.
Brigadier General Tefera Mamo, head of Special Forces in Amhara, told state television “most people who attempted the coup were arrested, although there are a few still at large.”
He did not give details about Asamnew.
STRUGGLE FOR REFORMS
Since taking power, Abiy released political prisoners, lifted bans on political parties and prosecuted officials accused of gross human rights abuses. His government is battling ethnic bloodshed once held in check by the state’s iron grip.
Now some Ethiopian ethnic groups are disputing the boundaries of the nine federal states, or arguing they should also have regional governments, claims threatening the dominance of other groups.
Amhara is home to Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group of the same name and their native tongue, Amharic, is the country’s official language.
Anti-government protests that lasted three years and eventually forced former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign in 2018 began in neighbouring state of Oromia and spread to Amhara.
Demonstrators were angered by grievances over land rights, political and economic marginalisation – issues Abiy is now addressing.
“Abiy seems to be dismantling the EPRDF (ruling coalition) and entertaining thoughts of altering the architecture of federalism, bu hasn’t given any direction he’s heading in,” said Matt Bryden, the head of regional think-tank Sahan Research.
“That uncertainty is creating competition and driving friction and violence.”
Abiy also changed senior security officials when he came to power, Bryden said, creating more uncertainty and allowing armed groups to flourish.
Abiy’s changes have not gone unchallenged. A year ago, he survived a grenade attack that killed two people at a rally. In October, soldiers marched on his palace demanding more pay. He defused the situation by doing push-ups with them but later accused them of trying to derail reforms.
The internet was down across Ethiopia on Sunday, although government made no statement about it. Authorities cut off the internet several times previously for security and other reasons.