The biggest obstacle to Ethiopia’s transition to democracy came knocking this weekend.
In what officials described as a coup attempt, the governor of the northern Amhara region Ambachew Mekonnen along with advisor Ezez Wassie were killed. The regional attorney general Migbaru Kebede also sustained heavy injuries and was undergoing medical treatment. The country’s chief of staff Seare Mekonnen was also killed by his bodyguard in his residence in Addis Ababa along with major general Gezai Abera.
By Sunday morning, the government said arrests had been made and the situation was under control. The internet was also blocked across the Horn of Africa nation.
The attacks come exactly a year after a grenade was tossed at a rally in the capital for Ethiopia’s then-new prime minister Abiy Ahmed. Since coming to power, the 42-year-old leader has turned the trajectory of Africa’s second most-populous state: he made peace with long-time regional rivals like Eritrea, released journalists, invited back opposition groups, increased the place of women in power, and promised to open up the economy for private investment.
Yet those salvific moves haven’t eased the ethnic tension, economic challenges, and institutional corruption that has bedeviled the nation. As of April this year, an estimated 3.2 million people were displaced by conflict and drought in what humanitarian agencies called “a forgotten crisis.”
Observers also say the pernicious political atmosphere is emblematic of Ethiopia’s tough changeover from a one-party state to democracy and raises questions over if and how Abiy could bring lasting stability. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had for decades promoted governance effectiveness by being essentially interwoven with state institutions. But the political parties that make up the coalition now face stiff competition in their own backyards, including in the restive Amhara region. Historic and personal grievances to land and resources and the aspiration for self-determination and greater autonomy are also fueling growing nationalist sentiment, especially among Abiy’s own Oromo community.
Given all this, the current attacks are “not really entirely surprising,” says Murithi Mutiga, the Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group.
Mutiga argues while the attack might not have been widespread enough to topple the entire administration, the bigger motive might have been to “cause further divisions in the military.” The killing of army chief Seare and governor Ambachew is a direct blow to Abiy, who appointed the former and helped install the later into office, the analyst says. The prime minister’s office has accused Amhara’s regional security chief, Asaminew Tsige, of plotting the coup attempt.
Mutiga says it would be prudent for Abiy to be candid about the way forward less the situation spirals out of control. These include declaring how they are preparing for—and if they are delaying—the crucial 2020 polls, declaring if EPRDF will remain a coalition or become one party, besides pronouncing himself on the future of federalism.
So far, “He has turned ambiguity into a strategy and I don’t think that’s an effective way of governing a complex country like Ethiopia.”
With a fast-growing economy and over-100 million people, Ethiopia has long been viewed as an anchor state whose conflagration could be devastating for the region. Its turn towards democracy is being closely watched too, especially in Sudan where protestors are demanding a transition to a civilian-led government following the deposition of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir.
If Ethiopia’s experiment fails, Mutiga says, “unfortunately, it will embolden the forces that really believe in increasing authoritarianism which have been ascendant in the Horn of Africa.”
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