Amhara coup attempt: Is the honeymoon over for Ethiopia’s PM Abiy?

Saturday June 29 2019

Ethiopia's Prime minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a press conference at his office in Addis Ababa, on August 25, 2018. Barely two months in office, there were warning signs of a simmering rebellion. A grenade exploded at a rally he was addressing in the capital. PHOTO | MICHAEL TEWELDE | AFP


As far as names precede personalities, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s turned out to be quite inspired.

Born in 1976 in the vast Muslim region of Oromia, his father named him Abiy, short for Abiyot which means revolution in the local language.

The name was a seed for the revolution that was building up, since two years earlier when Russia supported mid-level cadres in the military—the Derg—to depose the monarchy headed by Emperor Haile Selassie.

Rebel and opposition groups of diverse ethnic persuasions backed by the United States mushroomed across the country and in Eritrea, succeeding in 1991 to oust the Derg.

A coalition of rebel groups—the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF)—would sweep into power and come to dominate Ethiopian politics to date, with Abiy at the helm.

As Abiy grew into a young man, Qeerroo in Oromia, his brothers recall him being very mature, preferring adult company when his peers were playing and making peace over mundane things that cause friction among children.


Following the attempted coup last week in the Amhara region that left its President Ambachew Mekonnen, the country’s military chief-of-staff Seare Mekonnen, and three others dead, Abiy is now confronted for the first time since he took office in April last year, with problems that are no child’s play.
Some of them could actually be of his own making.

“He has implemented vast reforms, too fast, at times without building consensus with the nine autonomous regions or the military which has steered the country’s politics since the revolution,” said Murithi Mutiga, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a security and governance think tank.


The reforms that Dr Abiy has pushed through in his 14 months in power include releasing political prisoners, lifting a ban on political parties and acting on human-rights abuses.

He also signed a truce with Eritrea last September and handed over a disputed town, Badme, to Asmara, leaving war veterans of the Tigray community grumbling of betrayal. Boundaries of the disputed lands are to be drawn.

The PM has not shied away from economic reforms too, promising to gradually liberalise the critical finance and telecom sectors (the internet shut downs are of concern to investors), building modern rail and regularising relations with neighbours, to give the landlocked country multiple port access.

Simmering rebellion

Barely two months in office, there were warning signs of a simmering rebellion. A grenade exploded at a rally he was addressing in the capital Addis Ababa to mobilise mass support for his reforms.

Three months later, during the return of exiled Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) leaders, clashes erupted between youth over the overt use of the Oromo flag, which reminded other communities in the ruling ethnic coalition that the country’s biggest group still harbours ambitions of Independence.

In October, a battalion of soldiers marched to the PM’s palace demanding a pay rise but he managed to defuse the situation by doing military drills with them.

He later publicly accused them of being anti-reform, undermining their trust, especially after arrests and changes in the military and the intelligence appeared to favour the Oromo while alienating the Tigray, who had, for almost two decades, held sway in government matters.

But it is in managing the federal entities where some regions, mostly ethnic enclaves, have autonomy, that Dr Abiy faces his hardest test.

Foiled putsch

A week before the coup attempt in Amhara, news agencies reported that General Asamnew Tsige had, in a video on Facebook, advised the Amhara people to take up arms in readiness to fight other groups for influence in government and resources.

The attack on the regional president, his attorney-general and an aide occurred at a meeting in Bahir Dar, the Amhara capital, where they were strategising on how to stop Asamnew from recruiting for an ethnic Amhara militia. At least 56 Amhara nationalists have been arrested in the ensuing crackdown.

Asamnew, who was killed a day later for his role in the foiled putsch, had been released from jail last year where he had served since 2009 for plotting to overthrow the government of Meles Zenawi.

Soon after he benefited from EPDRF’s amnesty in February 2018, he was appointed Amhara’s head of security, despite having what local journalists called ‘‘hard-line ethnic views.’’

His death now threatens to strain relations between the Oromo and Amhara, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, with the former having suspected Asamnew of ordering attacks against their own in an enclave within Amhara in May.

Anti-Abiy sentiment

At the burials of the two Mekonnens in Tigray on Tuesday, the anti-Abiy sentiment was palpable from local leaders who feared the attempted coup could lead to a purge against perceived plotters in the national and regional governments.

On Thursday, speakers at Asamnew’s funeral in Amhara presented a martyr theme, warning against installation of regime apologists in Bahir Dar.

Some analysts think that Dr Abiy is in fact keen on dismantling the ruling coalition (EPDRF) and changing the structures of federalism, but he is yet to firm up his course of action.

“That uncertainty is creating a lot of competition, friction and violence,” Matt Bryden, the head of Horn of Africa think tank Sahan Research told The Guardian newspaper.

Despite his best efforts in addressing these grievances, analysts believe Abiy overlooked the entrenched military and authoritarian structures in his quest to reform the way the country is run.

“When you take power and replace a dictatorial order, you must clean the political elite and purge the entire army, police, judiciary of the old and replace them with loyalists,” Nairobi-based lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi tweeted this past week.

Abdullahi said former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who died after collapsing in court on June 17, had also made the same “fatal mistake.”

Another lawyer, Donald Kipkorir, suggested that Dr Abiy should adopt a centralised presidential system like Turkey’s.