Threats to reform in Ethiopia

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The Baklaba and Cake cafe was heaving with customers when truck-loads of heavily armed men in fatigues rolled up outside local government headquarters in Ethiopia’s Amhara region.

The men, some carrying two Kalashnikov assault rifles, stormed the building sending customers enjoying a Saturday afternoon coffee diving for cover, witnesses said.

Within moments, the assailants shot dead Amhara’s president, an aide and fatally wounded the state’s attorney general.

Hours later, 325 km south in Addis Ababa, gunshots rang out behind  high grey walls of a red-roofed villa as the military’s chief of staff and a retired general were slain by a bodyguard.

The attacks, described by government as part of a coup attempt in Amhara, highlight the dangers Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed faces as he rolls out ambitious reforms in Africa’s second most populous nation – a regional powerhouse whose economic boom is threatened by deepening ethnic and regional fissures.

Since Abiy came to power in April 2018, attention abroad focused on rapid political, economic and diplomatic changes he introduced in one of the continent’s most closed and repressive countries.

“The world out there wanted to believe the fairy tale. They became obsessed with their own narrative,” said Tamrat Giorgis, managing editor of Addis Fortune, a privately-owned English-language newspaper. “That doesn’t chime with what is happening on the ground. It is more complex and scary.”

FRAGILE REFORMS

Abiy loosened the iron grip central authorities held over a fractured nation, freeing imprisoned opposition leaders, rebels and journalists, lifting bans on political parties and sealing a peace deal with arch-enemy Eritrea.

His plans to partially privatise some state enterprises piqued the interest of foreign multinationals hoping to profit from a market of 100 million people and should breathe life into a debt-laden economy.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), itself a coalition of ethnically-based parties, faces strident challenges from newly emboldened regional powerbrokers demanding more influence and territory.

Ethnic violence has killed hundreds. That and a severe drought means some 2.4 million people are currently displaced in Ethiopia, the United Nations says.

“Abiy’s reforms removed the lid on accumulated grievances,” said Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst. “Making the transition to a more open society is always dangerous.”

Abiy’s response to his biggest challenge yet will not only define his leadership but could determine whether Ethiopia will sustain its decade-long boom or spiral into the violence plaguing neighbouring Somalia and South Sudan.

Former intelligence officer Abiy, son of a Muslim father and Christian mother, is from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who spearheaded years of anti-government protests that drove his predecessor to resign last year.

Abiy has the right profile to reassure disgruntled sections of Ethiopian society, analysts say.

DEEP DIVISIONS

The divisions Abiy must bridge in Amhara and elsewhere are old and deep. Asamnew Tsige, the rogue general accused of orchestrating Saturday’s violence, often invoked them.

“Five hundred years ago, we faced a similar test,” Asamnew told graduating Amhara Special Forces this month, referring to the historical expansion of Oromo people into Amhara.

The history of Amhara, which provided Ethiopia with its national language, is a source of pride for many who belong to the country’s second largest ethnic group.

Some resent that the previous federal government was dominated by Tigrayans who make up about six percent of the population – and now the prime minister is Oromo. Border disputes simmer with neighbouring Oromia and Tigray.

Asamnew fanned those flames when he was released last year after nearly a decade in prison for a previous coup attempt. The regional government named him head of security to placate his hard-line base. He began recruiting for a new state-sanctioned militia and called on the Amhara people to arm themselves.

Seven Amhara leaders, including acting regional president Lake Ayalew, gathered for a meeting in Bahir Dar, Amhara’s regional capital, when gunmen tried to burst in.

“They struggled to open the door,” Lake told Amhara Mass Media Agency. Three officials ran but were gunned down, he said. The rest hid. Guards and attackers exchanged fire.

The attorney general was badly wounded. “We tried to tie up his wounds with a curtain. The other two were already dead,” said Lake.

After the hit squad killed the state officials, fighting broke out at the police station and local EPRDF headquarters, witnesses and Asemahagh Aseres, a regional government spokesman, said.

Asemahagh said Asamnew’s new militia appealed for others to join their putsch but were rebuffed.

Gunfire ended after five hours when federal reinforcements arrived by helicopter, witnesses said.

Dozens died in the fighting and security forces killed Asamnew in a shootout near Bahir Dar, Asemahagh said.

For days, regional state-run television ran rolling coverage commemorating the murdered officials.

On the streets, some suspected an official conspiracy, accusing federal authorities of orchestrating events to remove a popular and powerful regional leader.

“The federal government doesn’t want a strong leader here. The general was mobilising the youth and they didn’t like it,” said a young man at a street cafe, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons.

KILLINGS CONDEMNED

The National Movement of Amhara – an increasingly popular ethnocentric party founded last year and rival to the Amhara party in the EPRDF coalition – condemned the killings but queried government’s narrative.

“At this moment we can’t say whether there was a coup,” Christian Tadele, spokesman for the new party, told Reuters. “First we need an independent enquiry. The federal government is using this incident to control the security apparatus of the region.”

In Ethiopia’s capital, there was little sympathy for the coup plotters. A country-wide internet blackout remained in force but the city returned to normal with battered taxis clogging the streets.

“This is a fascist, heinous assassination crime no one can expect to happen in the 21st century,” said Addis Ababa resident Berhanu Bekele.

On Tuesday, a weeping Abiy led soldiers, officials and relatives, many dressed in black and sobbing, in a commemoration for Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen and the retired general in the capital.

Seare was killed by a recently appointed bodyguard, but reinforcements coming to his rescue sustained heavy fire from at least two gunmen, a security officer involved said.

A gunman escaped in a waiting car but the bodyguard was arrested. Wounded in the foot, he  shot himself in the neck in an apparent suicide attempt, the officer said.

WEAPONS POUR IN

After the ceremony in Addis Ababa, the bodies of the slain generals were flown north to their native Tigray for burial.

Bitter crowds mourned them at a memorial. Already angry over the loss of influence Tigrayans enjoyed under the previous administration, many chanted “Abiy is a traitor” and “Abiy resign”.

“I am angry against Abiy because he is too soft and full of rhetoric,” said 19-year-old college student Selam Asmelash.

A reckoning may be coming.

Elections are due next year, although no date has been set and weapons have poured in from countries including Sudan and South Sudan, said Justine Fleischner, an arms expert with UK-based Conflict Armament Research.

The weapons fuel armed gangs, menacing travellers and disrupt transport networks. Police said in June they seized nearly 11,000 weapons and almost 120,000 rounds of ammunition in the capital over the last nine months.

“People are sick of insecurity. If Abiy doesn’t do something, people might think he is too weak to govern,” said a foreign businessman in Addis Ababa.

One of the biggest risks is the splits in society breaking the ruling coalition – or the military, said Gerard Prunier, an academic who has written extensively about Ethiopia.

The EPRDF’s ethnically based parties must respond to demands of their constituents or lose support to hardliners, so government is increasingly losing its ability to place friendly faces in top regional positions, Prunier said.

“The EPRDF is the only tool the prime minister has to govern – and it is not a reliable one.”