Ethiopia’s National Defence Force Chief of Staff, Gen Seare Mekonnen has been shot dead, hours after a failed coup attempt in the regional government of Amhara.
Located in the northern part of the country, Amhara is one of Ethiopia’s federal states.
Ethiopian media is now reporting that Amhara president, Ambachew Mekonen, who was elected on 8 March 2019, was wounded.
Mekonnen became Ethiopia Defence Force Chief of Staff a year ago on June 7th 2018.
The developments underscore the challenges the Ethiopian Prime Minister Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is facing as he struggles to implement key political reforms to heal divisions in the country.
Abiy, who was clad in full military uniform, said in a televised address that the federal government’s security is taking measures to restore order in Amhara.
“Recognizing that this attack is not only against the structure of the government but also for the people of Amhara, the people are urged to remain on alert,” said Abiy.
He further said the armed movement which attempted a coup was “illegal” and reassured the federal government’s commitment to the “deterrence, detention and arrest of illegal armed groups.”
Some of the suspected coup plotters have been arrested while the rest are on the run, according to the armed forces.
Since Abiy took power last year, Ethiopia has been turning towards openness and increasingly democratic processes under Abiy, it is becoming clear that there are limits to what can be achieved.
For many, Abiy’s performance has marked a significant departure from past abusive practices.
His government has released tens of thousands of political prisoners, rewritten repressive laws, and made peace with previously banned opposition groups. He has increased the representation of women in his cabinet, acknowledged previous administrations’ widespread use of torture, and took steps to improve the independence of key institutions.
His charismatic style appealed to individuals from across Ethiopia’s many ethnic and political divides, no mean feat in Ethiopia. It was a remarkable turnaround that followed several years of protests and excessive force by security forces that left over 1000 people dead.
But for many others, Said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a recent report, Ethiopia has become a more dangerous place.
As political space opened, Ethiopians were finally able to voice historic grievances that they bottled up for decades under an authoritarian government.
Many of these grievances are related to access to land and complex questions of identity and governance.
Many Ethiopians have settled these scores, often along ethnic lines, including by forcibly displacing people from land or engaging in violent conflict with rival groups.
This has occurred across many parts of the country amidst a serious security breakdown and a vacuum in local governance.
Social media became awash with hate speech and insecurity has forced over two million people to flee their homes, and it looks like the number of internally displaced people is only likely to rise as tensions escalate.
At least ten ethnic groups in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) have petitioned to form their own states, leading to the possible breakup of SNNPR and increasing tensions in some areas there.
Other parts of the country have initiated similar processes. In areas along the Amhara and Tigray regional borders, a proliferation of firearms and entrenched positions from regional government officials over contested borders have exacerbated rising tensions.
Long-standing debates over who gets to govern and manage the rapid growth of the capital, Addis Ababa, have not been resolved, fueling growing frustrations in the capital region.
The euphoria over Abiy’s initial reforms are fading amidst this backdrop, and frustration is growing with his government’s lack of tangible action to deal with these worrying trends. Any transition from authoritarianism to democracy is fraught with many challenges, and the actions, or lack thereof, that Abiy’s government takes to deal with these complex issues will go a long way in deciding Ethiopia’s long-term commitment to human rights and democracy.
With elections scheduled for May 2020, the next year will be a critical test of Abiy’s commitment to democracy and his ability to unite an increasingly fractured country, restore law and order, calm tensions, and build on his early reforms that showed so much promise.