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Ethiopia: Attempted coup unlikely to reverse reform direction

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash
Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Ethiopia’s army chief of staff Seare Mekonen and the regional governor of Amhara state Ambachew Mekonnen were both assassinated on 22 June in two separate but reportedly related incidents which are being described as an attempted coup. According to a government spokesperson, the incidents were reportedly orchestrated by General Asaminew Tsige who is in charge of state security in Amhara state. The Amhara regional governor was killed alongside his advisor in the Amhara state capital where significant gunfire was heard last night, with the state’s attorney general also wounded in the same attack. Meanwhile, Seare Mekonen who was leading the response to the Amhara incidents was killed by his own bodyguard in the capital Addis Ababa, alongside a retired general.

  • The incidents mark a major setback for the political and economic reforms underway in Ethiopia and will prompt a raft of initiatives to shore up the military chain of command and restore order. In recent weeks, Asaminew Tsige had been openly recruiting ethnic militias in Amhara and pushing an agenda opposed to the federal government and its current reform agenda amid surging ethnic nationalism in Amhara. As noted in our previous analysis, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reforms are liberalising the political and economic landscape, but they have also opened a pandora’s box of ethnic rivalries not just in Amhara, posing very real threats to stability as armed ethnic groups become more assertive. Moreover, vested interests in the military high command opposed to Abiy’s efforts to clamp down on corruption and abuse in the politico-military establishment further heighten these threats.
  • Abiy is likely to respond by conducting a series of arrests, reshuffling the Amhara military high-command and political leadership while opening further dialogue with key actors around managing tensions within the ethno-federal system. Since coming to office, the Prime Minister has already conducted notable military reshuffles and sought to engage different interest groups in dialogue as part of the reform agenda. But he will be keen to act decisively on this major incident that will raise questions over the stability of his government and dent investor confidence. His past decisions to release political prisoners and allow banned opposition activists back into the country are likely to give way to a hardening stance on political activists or armed interest groups directly challenging the state’s central authority. This is unlikely to signal a full reversal and resumption of a highly interventionist state apparatus, but Abiy will be keen to take necessary measures to counter the threats posed to his administration. These dynamics will also impact on the opening of the political space in the lead-up to national elections next year.
  • Beyond the military and intelligence operations to respond to the incidents, we do not believe that the assassinations will prompt a reversal in Abiy’s reform agenda. The Prime Minister still enjoys the backing of a large proportion of the state apparatus, the wider population and the international community. He is a committed reformist and has put in place a leadership team that is aligned behind this agenda, particularly as it relates to economic liberalisation. However, we may see a more cautious and controlling approach going forward where matters relate to managing regional tensions and ethnic conflict. Abiy has now had three major military-related security incidents affecting his administration in just over a year, and will be very conscious how great a risk military unrest or opportunism continues to pose against the government.

Roddy Barclay is the Director of Intelligence and Analysis at Africa Practice, overseeing the company’s team of political analysts. He is a regular visitor to Ethiopia.

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