The failed coup in Ethiopia speaks to deeply entrenched ethnic divides

Members of the army carrying the dead at the funeral service of chief of staff of the Ethiopian military Seare Mekonnen. Michael Tewelde / AFP 
Members of the army carrying the dead at the funeral service of chief of staff of the Ethiopian military Seare Mekonnen. Michael Tewelde / AFP 

Since his appointment as prime minister just over a year ago, Abiy Ahmed has transformed Ethiopia. He has released thousands of political prisoners, prosecuted officials who flouted human rights and liberalised the economy. In a radical move, he signed a peace accord with neighbouring Eritrea in July last year, ending a 20-year conflict.

As a result, most Ethiopians feel liberated and energised. International investors, for their part, have spied an opportunity. But a number of Ethiopians have been growing increasingly embittered and resentful. In shaking up the military and those in his own ruling party who have prospered from the status quo, Africa’s most dynamic leader has also been making enemies.

Unlike many of his counterparts on the continent, who fossilise in power while their people suffer, Mr Abiy has been overhauling his nation. And last weekend, he paid the price.

On Saturday, brigadier general Asaminew Tsige, the security chief of the northern region of Amhara, led an apparent bid to overthrow the local government. His militia, an arm of Amhara’s security service, killed the region’s president, Ambachew Mekonnen. Many more died as gunmen attacked the headquarters of the police, the ruling party and the president’s office.

In a separate incident, which the government has connected, general Seare Mekonnen, the chief of staff of Ethiopia’s army, was executed by his bodyguard in the capital Addis Ababa.

Both victims were close allies of Mr Abiy, who wept at the funeral of Seare, an affair that drew hundreds of mourners.

Asaminew, the ringleader, was killed on Monday as he attempted to escape from his hideout in Amhara’s capital, Bahir Dar, the government reported. In a further bitter twist, the former general had been sentenced to life in prison for plotting to overthrow the government nearly a decade ago but was freed in an amnesty last year that began under former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and was continued by Mr Abiy.

Addressing the nation in military fatigues, a sombre Mr Abiy urged Ethiopians to unite against “evil” forces set on pulling the nation apart. There has been an internet blackout for the past few days, while Ethiopian police arrested 56 members of the National Movement of Amhara – a political party that has challenged the central government but condemned the coup – on Thursday.

Perhaps Mr Abiy has been naive in pardoning those intent on harming him. Or maybe is simply changing too much, too quickly

Asaminew was seemingly attempting to seize control of Amhara, not Ethiopia at large. But the episode speaks to the challenges facing Mr Abiy to transform Ethiopia from a brutal autocracy run by a tiny elite to a true liberal democracy. It is a task made all the harder by Ethiopia’s complex patchwork of competing ethnic groups.

Almost a year to the day before Saturday’s failed coup, Mr Abiy survived a grenade attack that killed two people and injured more than 150 at a political rally. Five people – reportedly members of the extremist Oromo Liberation Front, which Mr Abiy invited back from exile – were charged with terrorism for trying to kill the prime minister.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressing the public after the failed coup. AFP
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressing the public after the failed coup. AFP

Perhaps Mr Abiy has been naive in pardoning those intent on harming him. Perhaps he is simply changing too much, too quickly. Either way, ahead of elections next year that he has promised will be competitive, Ethiopia’s leader has his work cut out to piece the nation back together. He might find that the task is simply too mammoth.

A landmark peace with Eritrea, brokered in part by Gulf states, drew praise from across the globe. Images of teary-eyed family members trapped on either side of the border, embracing after decades apart, became symbols of the positive change embodied by Mr Abiy.

Others were less enamoured. Military hawks resented what they viewed as capitulation, since Mr Abiy agreed to implement the ruling of the 2002 Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission – effectively surrendering a sliver of disputed land. On the dusty streets of Badme and other border towns, residents protested against the prospect of being swallowed up by poorer, more authoritarian Eritrea.

But Mr Abiy’s biggest challenge is to unite Ethiopia’s rich ethnic patchwork, in a federal system constructed on the basis of ethnicity. Today, the country’s nine disparate regions are vying for greater influence, autonomy and resources.

Mr Abiy is the first Oromo ethnic leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has ruled the nation since its revolution in 1991. While the EPRDF has overseen impressive economic growth, it has, until recently, come at the expense of rights and freedom. Despite being the largest ethnic group, the Oromo felt marginalised by the Tigray minority that dominated the EPRDF, and therefore the country.

When the Oromo joined the Amhara, the second largest group, and spilled onto the streets in 2016, security forces killed at least 500 people, according to Human Rights Watch. Unable to recover from the crisis, then prime miniser Mr Hailemariam stepped down abruptly last February and Mr Abiy was appointed by the ruling coalition as a salve.

It worked initially. But in spite of Mr Abiy’s impressive reforms, Ethiopia has seen an uptick in ethnic nationalism.

Asaminew, the ringleader of Saturday’s coup, was a hardline Amhara nationalist. This month, he released a video on social media urging the Amhara to arm themselves.

Meanwhile, fighting has been breaking out in pockets in the past few months across the country, particularly in the south, where different ethnic groups live cheek-by-jowl. According to the United Nations, at least 2.4 million people are currently internally displaced in Ethiopia. In the first half of 2018, more people were uprooted in Ethiopia than in war-torn Syria, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

The state has regained control of the nation’s security following last week’s coup attempt and is rounding up those responsible. More information will undoubtedly emerge in the coming days and weeks, when the internet is restored nationwide and when Seare’s assassin – who is recovering from bullet wounds in hospital – is questioned by police.

But Mr Abiy’s travails are a cautionary tale for avant-garde leaders seeking to effect rapid change. His economic and social reforms have liberated a nation in the grip of an imperious minority. But if this week’s events have taught us anything, it is that those who profited from the past, or fear the future, will not take it lying down.

Updated: June 30, 2019 11:19 AM


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