Let’s begin with what seems certain
Two separate but apparently linked events took place on Saturday 22nd of June.
The first took place in the Amhara state capital, Bahir Dar some 500 km from Addis Ababa.
Amhara’s state president Ambachew Mekonnen and his advisor were killed, according to state media, which named the region’s security head, General Asamnew Tsige, as the orchestrator of what was described as an ‘attempted coup.’
This was announced by Prime Minister Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who donned military fatigues to announce on state television late on Saturday that there had been an attempted coup in Amhara.
The second event took place in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen was shot “by people who are close to him,” Prime Minister Abiy announced. It later became clear that he was killed by his bodyguard.
The U.S. Embassy said that it was aware of reports of gunfire in Addis Ababa, and some residents told Reuters about hearing six shots ring out in a suburb near the country’s Bole International Airport around 9:30 p.m. local time on Saturday.
So what took place on Saturday?
The government gave its version of the events in an official statement (see announcement at the end) and the events were apparently linked, but how?
An indication came in an interview with the BBC World Service on Sunday when a government spokeswoman, Bilene Seyoum, said that General Seare Mekonnen was killed while giving orders to put down the Amhara coup. “It’s his bodyguard…this is related to the coup attempt done in Amhara as the general was undergoing…or giving military operations tasks to look over what was happening in the region so we have reason to believe it was related to that.”
It also appears that the events in Amhara were more widespread and serious than at first indicated. This from Mary Harper, BBC Africa Editor.
The Amhara coup – General Asamnew Tsige
If the information quoted by Mary Harper is accurate then it does seem that a regional coup was indeed under way. But what do we know about General Asamnew Tsige, the man named as having staged the coup? He was the Amhara region’s head of security.
Reuters news agency reported that: “The shooting occurred when federal officials were meeting the state president – an ally of Abiy – to discuss how to rein in the open recruitment of ethnic militias by Asamnew, one Addis-based official told Reuters. A week earlier, Asamnew had openly advised the Amhara people, one of Ethiopia’s larger ethnic groups, to arm themselves, in a video spread on Facebook and seen by a Reuters reporter.”
This appears to be the clue to Saturday’s events.
General Asamnew Tsige, a former Brigadier General in the Ethiopian Airforce, was arrested as part of a wide-ranging security roundup by former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi in May 2009. They were accused of attempting to overthrow the government – a story that was later changed to an assassination plot.
The role of Ginbot 7
General Asamnew was released in February 2018 by Prime Minister Abiy as part of a political amnesty.
He had been linked to Ginbot 7 – a movement which was founded out of the 2005 election campaign which saw Berhanu Nega elected as mayor of Addis Ababa.
Prime Minister Meles refused to accept the outcome and brutally suppressed the demonstrations that followed. Ginbot 7 was banned and some of its members went into exile in Eritrea, where they attempted to launch armed resistance against the Ethiopian government.
Andargachew Tsege played a key role in this, and was arrested in Yemen and abducted to Ethiopia, where he was imprisoned until being freed in 2018. There is no indication that either Berhanu Nega or Andargachew Tsege were involved in Saturday’s events.
Prime Minister Meles was Tigrayan. He had led the Tigray People’s Liberation Front before overthrowing the previous government in 1991. Meles’s formulation of ‘Ethnic Federalism’ was the blueprint that redrew the political map of Ethiopia.
It’s critics saw it as a means of maintaining the control of the Tigrayans (6-7% of the Ethiopian population) over the rest of the country through front organisations based on the country’s ethnic groups.
But – over time – these fronts gained real support and began to challenge the TPLF’s hold over the centre. It is this challenge that Prime Minister Abiy has been attempting to resolve.
General Asamnew Tsige and ethnic conflict
Having been arrested for many years, General Asamnew had little love for the Tigrayans.
As Reuters reported he is accused of having killed Amhara’s state president Ambachew Mekonnen just at the moment when Ambachew was discussing how to rein in his attempts to engage in “the open recruitment of ethnic militias.” Reuters also reports that: “A week earlier, Asamnew had openly advised the Amhara people, one of Ethiopia’s larger ethnic groups, to arm themselves, in a video spread on Facebook and seen by a Reuters reporter.”
It is worth noting that when the assassinated Ambachew Mekonnen took over the presidency of the Amhara region in March this year, his predecessor (Gedu Andargachew) gave a speech in which he warned against promoting ethnic hostility between Amhara and Tigrayans.
“The proliferation of declarations and unhinged propaganda from some pledging allegiance to the Amhara people menacing people in Tigray has accentuated the problem. I would like to seize this opportunity to call upon, the Amhara people, whatever the amount of hate-filled discourses coming from both sides, the peasants and labourers in Tigray and Amhara are everlasting friends. Whatever the current political tendencies are, both people have intimate and long-standing ties. We must guard against any divisive rhetoric from whatever sides it comes.”
This appears to be behind the attempted coup that took place on Saturday.
Prime Minister Abiy’s Statement
Statement from the Prime Minister Abiy