Ethiopia at a crossroads as it buries its dead

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 27 June 2019 12:53

Mourners at the funeral on Wednesday of Amhara president Ambachew Mekonnen, who was killed in Saturday's attacks. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Ethiopia has had a difficult week, as the East African country reels from the assassinations of high-ranking officials and continuing conflicts.

A national day of mourning was declared on Monday. On Tuesday, Premier Abiy Ahmed and the government held an emotional state memorial in front of the coffins of fallen army chief of staff General Seare Mekonnen and retired general Gezai Abera. Wednesday brought the funerals of the two generals and of Amhara president Ambachew Mekkonen in their home regions of Tigray and Amhara.

Details have since emerged to suggest the events of last Saturday were far worse than previously reported.

  • The government says it has arrested hundreds of people connected with the murders.
  • Security forces shot and killed Brigadier General Asaminew Tsige, the man said to have behind the assassinations, on Monday in Zenzelma.
  • The attorney general for Amhara region, Migbaru Kebede, who was injured during the Saturday attacks, succumbed to his injuries while receiving treatment.

A regional government spokesperson in Amhara told Reuters that dozens of people died in last weekend’s fighting. It was the first mention of deaths beyond that of state officials and Brig. Gen. Asaminew.

  • The spokesperson’s revelation also included more details about Asaminew’s militia, which he said “…are part of our police. They are not independent.” Despite the militia’s efforts to get others on board with their plan, “most of our forces were not with them,” the spokesman said. He also added that the militia had tried to take over the region’s state media and several government buildings.

On Wednesday, the governor of Benishangul-Gumuz, which borders Amhara region, told the Associated Press that followers of Gen. Asaminew had crossed the border into his region on Sunday and killed 37 people in Metakal zone before disappearing back into Amhara.

  • Hundreds of people have been killed in multiple clashes in Benishangul-Gumuz. The clashes were triggered by multiple issues but almost always ended up with battle lines drawn along ethnic lines.
  • In April, 18 people were killed in three days of clashes after a negotiation between a truck driver and a customer went wrong. A federal police officer then assaulted the customer, triggering revenge attacks against members of the Amhara community. Just days later, revenge attacks on the Amhara side of the border led to the deaths of dozens of civilians from the Gumuz ethnic group.

Such violence, especially around regional borders, has been worsening for a while. A UNHCR report released last week showed that 1.56 million Ethiopians were internally displaced last year because of “large scale intercommunal violence” over pasture and water rights along regional boundaries. Even Syria, in the midst of a civil war, has fewer newly displaced people.

  • Ethiopia now has a population of 2.8 million internally displaced people, as well as more than 900,000 refugees from its neighbours’ conflicts.

The escalation of violence in 2018 was in large part because of the evolving power dynamics that brought Premier Abiy Ahmed to power, ending the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)’s three-decade dominance in the ruling party.

“Ethiopia’s political crisis is, in a sense, an extension of the crisis within the EPRDF,” International Crisis Group observed in a recent analysis. That internal crisis has been worsening, especially as the uneasy alliance between the Oromo and Amhara that helped topple Premier Hailemariam Desalegn has ended.

  • Nearly all the regional parties are experiencing some level of ethno-nationalism in their back yards, where radical parties are garnering support, especially over their stands on regional border disputes.
  • Brig. Gen. Asaminew was said to have been co-opted into Amhara leadership as part of efforts by the region’s ruling party, ADP, to rebuild its support base among nationalists.

Felix Horne, an Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy that Asaminew has “very much been a divisive figure. So he’s very much at odds with the ADP and with Abiy’s broader reform agenda, and I think the events of this weekend need to be seen in that context.”

Asiminew also seems to have had pockets of support, which could suggest that his death is not the end of the story. The revelation that his militia were in fact state police brings the assassinations into a new light, as the security organs had stayed largely neutral on Premier Abiy’s reforms.

Although the federal government seemed to be providing timely updates of the Saturday attacks, the new information that dozens more died in both Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz suggest it either downplayed the magnitude, or did not itself fully understand it at first. Such information gaps have fuelled speculation on everything, including the terminology used.

  • Some, for example, think that the murders of Amhara’s officials and the army chief were simply assassinations, not an attempted coup. “We cannot be sure if it was not deliberately characterised as such with the intention of cracking down [on] the nationalist opponents that are gaining ground in the region,” Semahagn Gashu Abebe, an Ethiopian political analyst, contends.
  • Another source of speculation is the fact that the government cannot seem to get its story straight. While the government has said that the assassinations in Amhara and Addis Ababa are connected, it has not provided any evidence to show how.
  • Initial reports said the generals’ assassin had been arrested in Addis Ababa. The federal police later changed the story, saying he had died by suicide, then apologised and said he was in fact in hospital with injuries.

For Premier Abiy, solving Ethiopia’s multitude of challenges is the first step towards any democratic future for the country. But even that is complicated by the ethnic power dynamics that define the country.

For example, while Gen. Seare was Tigrayan, his deputy chief of staff and presumptive heir, Gen. Berhanu Jula, is an Oromo. Appointing Gen. Berhanu would undoubtedly lead to speculation that Gen. Seare’s death was an Oromo takeover of the military leadership. But not doing so would complicate things for Abiy in his Oromo backyard.

Another problem in solving the border disputes is that the ongoing violence and the census are mutually exclusive and yet intricately connected. Since the violence is partially about regional borders, redrawing them requires a national census, which cannot be held while there are such deep security challenges.

Yet another is that, while Abiy has won global acclaim for his reforms, he has not been as effective in maintaining the initial support he had inside Ethiopia. Even his plan to merge the EPRDF’s constituent parties is at risk, as they are dealing with possible loss of power to ethno-nationalists in their home regions.

Watch out for: Asaminew was a brigadier before his arrest in 2009, and has a strong military network. How they react will be critical for peace.

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