24 June 2019

Ethiopia: What We Know So Far About the 'Foiled Coup'

Photo: Geocurrents
A regional map of Ethiopia.

Top officials were assassinated, one by his bodyguard. Meanwhile, Ethiopia's government was quick to point fingers at General Asaminew Tsige. He was killed in a gunfire exchange on Monday.

Amhara's state president, his adviser, and the state attorney general -- all three were killed on Saturday, as people in military uniform stormed the local government offices in the Amhara state capital Bahir Dar. A little later Ethiopia's armychief of staff, Seare Mekonnen, and a retired general were killed by Seare's own body-guard -- an attack that Ethiopia's government believes to be related.

All of this was reported by the office of the prime minister, including announcements by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself, or state media. Since Saturday internet lines have been cut and state-run media have been the primary source of information.

While neither the opposition nor independent local media houses have commented on the events, government spokesperson, Billene Seyoum Woldeyes confirmed the government stance to DW. "General Asaminew Tsige was behind the coup attempt within the regional government of Amhara," she said. "Since yesterday, there has been an ongoing operation to arrest those who are responsible."

State sources have reported that General Asaminew was shot dead outside Bahir Dar on Monday.

What lead to the attacks?

What isn't clear until now is why this weekend's events took place. Ethiopia has been rocked by regional and political tension. Since he has come into power just over a year ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has cracked down on high-ranking military personnel allegedly involved in corruption, torture, and other crimes, but disputes within in the army seem not to be the main reason for the so-called coup attempt.

"This coup attempt showed that there are different tendencies within the army," explained Annette Weber, a researcher with the Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs. "It's of course true hat Abiy didn't make many friends by sacking the officials, but these people are apparently not the people who orchestrated this attack," she told DW.

Abiy Ahmed's popularity soars despite critical voices

The now deceased General Asaminew Tsige, on the other hand, who the government believes was behind the attack had more reasons to be thankful to Abiy than to attack his government. In a wave of prisoner releases by Abiy, Asaminew was set free after nine years in prison and had now served as the head of the Amhara region's security forces. Former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had arrested the former Brigadier General in the Ethiopian airforce for allegedly planning a coup in 2009.

In the past weeks, Asaminew had called on the Amhara people to take up arms. "What we're seeing is that these more radical voices, which were formerly suppressed, are now coming to the forefront," Weber told DW.

Ethiopia analyst Awol Allo from the University of Keele in the UK, agreed that the ethnic tension was to blame. "It is known that there is a tension in the Amhara region between those who want to go for a different direction," he told DW. Some, such as Asaminew, wanted to advance Amhara nationalist views. "There are some who would like to work with the central government to make it more harmonious. It is known that this controversy between them becomes worse from time to time. I think this is the cause of the current problem."

Quoting an official, Reuters news agency reported that the official attacked during the meeting in Bahir Dar had been discussing how to stop Asaminew's apparent recruitment of Amhara militias.

Will Abiy be strengthened or weakened?

While Abiy and his government still have overall control over the country, the weekend's events have created a certain degree of uncertainty. Elections set for May 2020, would consolidate Abiy's power, as the prime minister was never formally elected but took over the government after his predecessor stepped down.

Ludger Schadomsky, the head of DW's Amharic Service, said that he doubted that elections would take place next year. "Even the test-run, a countrywide census, had to be called off. With that, Abiy will have failed to realize his pet project of receiving public approval of his reform course."

On the other hand, Schadomsky says, the crisis could also strengthen Abiy's position. He might, for instance, decide to surround himself with officials and military personnel who are loyal to him and therefore build up his hold on power.

Weber believes that holding on to the election course is one of the only things that could stabilize the country. "To postpone them would be sending out the wrong signal," she says. "Everything would be open again, and there would be no effort put into acting as a unified political party, and the different nationalist and populist tendencies would quickly take hold."

Abiy should have done more to condemn the ethnic tensions within the countries, she adds. For that, however, Abiy would have had to condemn his supporters in the Oromo constituency, which he has so far failed to do.

According to the United Nations, at least 2.4 million people have been displaced by the ethnic tension in Oromo, Amhara, and Tigray regions.

Antonio Cascais contributed to this article.

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