Please be advised
In a press release from the Office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on June 23, the Ethiopian government confirmed that several high-ranking officials in the Amhara Region government and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) were killed in a series of attacks during the evening of June 22.
The press release described a “coup attempt” in which the President of Amhara Region, Ambachew Mekonnen, along with his advisor, were shot and killed in Bahir Dar. Amhara’s Attorney General was wounded and remains in treatment. The government attributed this attack to General Asaminew Tsige, the head of Amhara’s Peace and Security Bureau.
Several hours after the events in Bahir Dar, the press release notes that the Chief of Staff of the ENDF, General Seare Mekonnen, was shot and killed at his residence in Addis Ababa alongside retired General Gezai Abera. The government claims the perpetrator of this attack was Seare’s bodyguard.
On June 24, General Asaminew was reportedly killed in a shootout with federal forces in Bahir Dar who had been conducting search operations to locate him.
Following the intial events on June 22, the government instituted a nationwide internet blackout. As of the time of writing on June 25, internet services remain shut down.
Assessments & Forecast
The assailants identified by the government appear to fall within a hardline faction of Amhara nationalists. In particular, General Asaminew Tsige was formerly jailed for his involvement in the Ginbot 7 rebel group, though was released and given amnesty under PM Abiy’s reform program in 2018. The assailants’ integration into the military and Amhara Region government would have allowed them to gain sensitive information regarding the targeted officials’ whereabouts and vulnerabilities. That both the Amhara president and ENDF chief of staff were killed in the same night suggests this was a pre-planned and coordinated effort. However, given the total internet blackout and lack of further information emerging from the country, the sole source of the culprits’ identities is the Ethiopian government and this remains uncorroborated. Despite Asaminew’s background, that an Amhara security official in his position is being accused of such attacks speaks to the deep fractures within the federal and regional governments that have emerged under the Abiy administration, particularly as the PM has removed much of the former military leadership and appointed a new generation of security officials.
Although the PM’s office has termed Ambachew Mekonnen’s assassination to be a “coup attempt”, it appears that the attacks against both Ambachew and Seare to be part of a destabilization campaign. This is likely a reaction to continued efforts by the Abiy government to pursue reforms and organize elections in 2020, as well as an expression of the deep ethnonationalist tensions that have only increased in recent months. This has included various outbursts of ethnic violence in and around Amhara Region, often over matters of territory and influence. Abiy, the first Oromo leader of Ethiopia, is viewed by some as favoring his own Oromo ethnic group in political and security matters. Amhara hardliners likely view Abiy and his reformist allies of being unwilling to protect Amhara from encroachment by Oromos to the south as well as by Tigrayans to the north, leaving them to take matters into their own hands. Moreover, undermining the stability of Amhara Region as well as the ENDF serves to increase pressure within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition as it navigates the political transition in the country and its constituent ethnic-based parties compete for greater influence and power.
Regardless of whether Amhara nationalists were in fact the conspirators, these events as a whole are indicative of the fragility of the political transition that Ethiopia has been in the process of undergoing since Abiy took power in April 2018. Despite the positive aspects of the reforms implemented, significant challenges of intercommunal violence, distribution of power between federal and regional governments, and a mounting economic crisis have continually increased the tensions and stakes of the political environment. FORECAST: In this context, the reaction of both federal and regional government authorities, as well as other leading political and military figures, to these events will determine whether the instability grows. It is possible that political leaders as well as armed groups, such as Oromo nationalists or Tigrayan separatists, will seek to exploit the moment for their own political gains. This could escalate tensions and create further violence.
FORECAST: Following the shootout with Asaminew, it is likely that the federal military will conduct operations in Amhara Region over the coming weeks in an attempt to locate and arrest any remaining assailants and their accomplices. This could include larger troop deployments to Bahir Dar and its environs, which could be abruptly disruptive in that area. With that said, whether the security operations will be conducted smoothly will likely depend on the cooperation of federal forces and Amhara regional forces, which operate distinctly from one another. Further security operations are likely in Addis Ababa and are likely to result in heightened security measures in the capital, as well as abrupt movements of security forces throughout the city. At the same time, internet disruptions are likely to continue across the country, even intermittently, as the government seeks to disrupt communications between their possible adversaries as well as control the narrative to the public.
FORECAST: Within the government, there will likely be efforts to expose any elements within regional authorities as well as the federal security services who are opposed to PM Abiy and sympathetic to the June 22 perpetrators. This will likely be accompanied by Abiy appointing further allies to key positions, though his ability to do so will be limited within the regional governments and he will thus seek more diplomatic efforts in hopes of stabilizing the federal system. That said, these moves run the risk of continuing to alienate more nationalists elements within the regional states, who could continue to carry out violence or protests as an expression of that. In this context, it is possible that there will be further attacks against high-profile government or military officials in the coming months. As a whole, due to the difficulty of striking the balance needed to bring about calm, the situation is likely to remain tense and precarious over the coming weeks.
Those operating or residing in Addis Ababa or Amhara Region on June 25 and over the coming days are advised to maintain heightened vigilance and be prepared to comply with additional or sudden security measures and checkpoints.
Allot for continued disruptions to communications given the ongoing internet blackout and the likelihood that this will continue.
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