The death toll from two attacks believed linked to an attempted coup in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara state rose to five on Monday, as flags flew at half-mast on what was declared a national day of mourning. Police were hunting for Amhara’s security chief Asaminew Tsige, accused of masterminding an attack on the leaders of the state and suspected of playing a part in the killing of the country’s army chief in Addis Ababa.
The attorney general of Amhara state, Migbaru Kebede, died of gunshot injuries from the attack on Monday, state broadcaster EBC reported, making him the fifth victim of the violence. The unrest has delivered another major challenge for Ethiopia’s young Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has embarked on a series of reforms in a bid to open up the authoritarian state which have unleashed ethnic tensions and bitter political rivalries.
The attacks, whose exact motives remain unclear, began on Saturday afternoon when gunmen attacked a meeting of top officials in Amhara, the second-largest of Ethiopia’s nine autonomous states. Amhara president Ambachew Mekonnen, who was an ally of Abiy’s, as well as his adviser were killed, while Migbaru succumbed to his wounds on Monday after what Abiy described as an “attempted coup” in the region.
A few hours later in an upmarket suburb of the capital Addis Ababa army chief Seare Mekonnen, who was co-ordinating the response to the unrest in Amhara, was shot dead by his bodyguard. A visiting general was also killed. Abiy’s office said the killing of Seare “seems like a co-ordinated attack”, however there have been no further official details and observers point out that there were no telltale signs of a concerted national coup.
A statement from his office announced that the bodyguard and other perpetrators had been arrested, while a police source on Sunday told AFP that Asaminew was still on the run.
Asaminew was only last year released from almost a decade in prison over a 2009 coup plot under an amnesty. Analysts describe him as a hardline Amhara nationalist who was likely facing removal from his job over efforts to form a militia and rhetoric pushing for territory in neighbouring Tigray to be reclaimed. He recently appeared in a Facebook video calling for civilians to arm themselves in preparation for attack.
– ‘Stay united’ –
A statement read on state television on Sunday night from parliament speaker Tagesse Chafo called for the country to “stay together and united” as he announced a national day of mourning. “All of us will remember the people who lost their lives for our togetherness and unity,” a television announcer said, reading a statement from speaker Tagesse Chafo. “It is a sad day for the whole nation. We have lost people who were patriotic. They are martyrs of peace.”
The European Union in a statement urged “restraint from all sides of the Ethiopian political spectrum, both at national and regional levels.” “The EU firmly reiterates the need for continued peaceful and democratic reforms in Ethiopia and its support to the efforts of the Prime Minister and his government in this context,” said the statement.
Minister of Defence Lemma Megresa described Seare as “humble, a very good colleague, a brother”, on national television on Sunday night. “The attack left the country in a difficult position. It is important for the army to remain united in this difficult time,” he said. The internet remained completely cut across the nation for the third consecutive day, after being severed for much of the prior week without explanation.
– Security beefed up –
In the capital Addis Ababa it was a busy morning as people went about their business as usual, however security at the airport had been beefed up with the presence of special forces. In the Amhara capital Bahir Dar there was a significant presence of federal police officers around government offices, residents told AFP.
Observers have said that the killings underscore the tensions across Ethiopia sparked by Abiy’s efforts since he came to power in April 2018 to loosen the iron grip of a state long run by emperors and strongmen. His efforts to transition from one-party state to democracy have seen him embarking on economic reforms, he has allowed dissident groups back into the country, sought to crack down on rights abuses and arrested dozens of top military and intelligence officials.
His moves have been lauded abroad, but have made him enemies at home, and exactly a year ago he survived a grenade attack at a rally which left two dead. Long-simmering ethnic tensions along the borders of the autonomous regions — divided along ethnic lines — have burst into violence, leaving scores dead and more than a million displaced.
Meanwhile the prospect of elections in 2020 has shaken up local politics as longstanding regional parties find themselves facing challengers to their power, while observers say there has been a surge of ethno-nationalism. The Amhara are the second-largest ethnic grouping after the Oromo, and both spearheaded two years of anti-government protests which led to the resignation of former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.