A YEAR AGO, on June 23rd 2018, Ethiopia’s newly-inaugurated prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, took to the podium wearing a bright green T-shirt. Smiling and waving he offered hope to the tens of thousands of people who had flocked to a rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, in support of his promise to bring democracy to a country that has seen precious little of it.
Almost to the day a year later he again addressed the nation, this time on national television wearing army uniform to declare, stony faced, that his government had just thwarted a coup. It was a sharp reminder of the fragility of his democratic revolution.
Abiy said that the putsch had originated in the northern region of Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-biggest by population, and was the work of General Asamnew Tsige, Amhara’s head of security. The prime minister’s office claimed that General Asamnew was responsible for an attack on government offices in the regional capital, Bahir Dar, on June 22nd in which the Amhara region’s president, Ambachew Mekonnen, and other senior officials were shot dead.
In a separate attack in Addis Ababa, the army’s chief of staff, Seare Mekonnen, was allegedly shot and killed in his home by a bodyguard. Also killed in this attack was a retired general who had been visiting. The government said both attacks were linked, and claimed the coup was an attempt “to scupper the hard won peace of the region”.
Since then the government has shut off the internet and released few details of the plot. But, from what little information has emerged the incidents look more like an unplanned outbreak of violence than a calculated attempt to seize power.
General Asamnew was a former political prisoner sentenced in 2009 for his alleged role in another failed coup. He was released and appointed by Abiy last year in an attempt to reach out to the opposition and include it in positions of power. But General Asamnew provoked alarm with his strident ethnic nationalism and talk of defending Amhara territory against incursions by members of Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups. Underpinning such concerns has been a worrying spread of ethnic violence and nationalism across the country as Abiy has lifted the repressive hand of one-party rule.
Abiy’s ascent to power was fuelled by rising nationalism among his own ethnic group, the Oromo. They make up about one-third of the population and had felt dominated by the Tigrayans, a group that accounts for less than one-tenth of the population but that had largely called the shots in government since the toppling of a Marxist dictatorship, the Derg, in 1991. Rising Oromo nationalism has been mirrored in other groups, including the Tigrayans and the Amhara, who make up about one-quarter of Ethiopia’s population and had once ruled the roost under its last emperor, Haile Selassie, deposed in 1974.
General Asamnew raised further eyebrows when he began strengthening the region’s paramilitary forces, including a special police unit that answered directly to him. It was not just the federal government that seemingly wanted to clip his wings but also Ambachew, the region’s more moderate president. People familiar with the events on June 22nd say that Ambachew had called a meeting to discuss ways of stopping General Asamnew from recruiting more people for his paramilitary forces. The meeting was also intended to discuss firing him.
It seems that General Asamnew sent in men from his special police force to the meeting; there are also some suggestions that he may have been present outside the building at the time. It is not clear whether he intended for his men to open fire and kill the region’s president or the confrontation spiralled bloodily out of control. General Asamnew fled immediately afterwards—a further indication that this may not have been an organised putsch—but was tracked down and killed by the army in Amhara two days later, according to the government.
There are still many unanswered questions, including how events in Bahir Dar may have been connected to the killing of the head of the national army in his home in Addis Ababa. If the incidents were indeed linked, as the government claims, that would imply some degree of forethought by the plotters and point to the possibility of a wider conspiracy. If that is the case then it would suggest that Abiy faces a threat from elements of the national army.
The political ramifications may be far reaching in a country that hitherto stood out for offering hope of political and economic reform in Africa. Some now expect a campaign to suppress “nationalist” forces in Amhara, including youth groups and opposition movements. This in turn may stoke further resentment in the region, in which many young people are beginning to feel discriminated against by Abiy and his Oromo faction of the ruling coalition. Whatever the exact details of the events on June 22nd, the euphoria that greeted Abiy’s rise to power a year ago is beginning to seem a distant memory.