Country FilesEast & HornAdem Mohammed focusing on reforming the intelligence service

Wed,26Sep2018

Posted on Monday, 10 September 2018 13:44

Adem Mohammed focusing on reforming the intelligence service

By Honoré Banda

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Ethiopia’s spy boss is focusing on reforming the intelligence services, investigating threats and keeping an eye on a troubled neighbourhood

The to-do list for Ethiopia’s new spy chief, General Adem Mohammed, is formidable. Less than two weeks into the job, Adem had to deal with an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as Abiy was addressing more than 700,000 people in Meskel Square, Addis Ababa, on 23 June. At least 26 officials, five of them police commanders, were arrested after the grenade attack.

That attack shows the high stakes as Abiy pushes through Ethiopia’s most radical changes in more than two decades. They include restructuring the federal system, opening up the economy, releasing tens of thousands of prisoners – political and otherwise – and pursuing a peace deal with Eritrea. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is a key force in the Horn of Africa, where Somalia has been hit hard by Islamist insurgents and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Iran are jockeying for influence (see page 74).

Abiy appointed Adem, an Amhara and a former commander of the air force, on 7 June, the same day that he selected a Tigrayan, General Seare Mekonnen, as the new chief of defence staff. On state television that night, Abiy declared: “Defence doesn’t have ethnicity or race […] we die together for one country.” That said, the replacement of long-time spy chief Getachew Assefa was a bold move: he represented the power of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which led the war to oust Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. His removal signalled the shrinking power of the Tigrayan securocrats within the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

A rebellion in Oromia over the past three years helped bring an Oromo – Abiy – into the prime minister’s office. Getachew had orchestrated the crackdown on the Oromo Liberation Front, which human rights groups say included extrajudicial killings and imprisonment without due process.

Under the new order – in which the hugely popular prime minister has lambasted the security services for past brutalities – what chances are there of smiling reconciliation between Abiy and the securocrats from the old order?

“People have to make their choices,” says an analyst formerly based in Ethiopia. “They see the pace and extent of change and realise that their options are limited. […] For the moment, with that wave of popular support, Abiy is a really powerful figure.”

Insiders report that Adem has moved quickly to replace several divisional commanders within the National Intelligence and Security Services and is working hard to ensure the loyalty of the extensive middle ranks.

Abiy’s reforms are hurting some of the powerful and rich in the security and business establishment. He also appointed Adem to the board of the Metals and Engineering Corporation (Metec), the troubled conglomerate billed as the vanguard of Ethiopia’s industrial renaissance. Metec failed to deliver the 10 sugar factories that the government had commissioned, despite being paid nearly in full for some of them. Adem and new Metec board chairman Ambachew Mekonnen, the industry minister, want to put the company on a sounder footing – and that is not a simple task.

It will also not be an easy time for Adem to oversee the security aspects of a potential peace settlement with Eritrea. Eritrea, under mercurial leader Issayas Afewerki, fought a bloody border war with Ethiopia that ended in 2000 but still causes repercussions today. Abiy says he wants lasting peace, and a delegation from Asmara was due in Addis Ababa in late June to open discussions. Adem’s diary will certainly be very full for the next few months. 

 

From the July / August 2018 print edition 

 

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