In Addis Ababa, the memorial for Ethiopian chief of staff Gen. Seare Mekonnen and retired Major Gen. Gezai Abera on Tuesday was a somber affair with crowds gathering around the venue amid tight security. They came in solidarity as Ethiopia reels from a regional coup attempt in Amhara that left three more leaders dead, and the concurrent fatal shooting of the two military leaders honored during the ceremony.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wept. President Sahle-Work Zewde wept. Those who hold the highest hopes for Ethiopia and the transition Abiy inititated upon taking office last year were equally saddened by the setback. Yet there’s little surprise, because the ethnic tensions and communal violence that Ethiopia has known for decades remain barely beneath the surface of Ethiopian progress and erupt with alarming regularity.
Brigadier General Asamnew Tsige was among thousands of Ethiopians released last year from its notorious prisons when Abiy took office – many of them sharing the prime minister’s own Oromo ethnic identity. Highly visible protests among the Oromo and Amhara in recent years, along with human rights tragedies like the Irreecha massacre in October 2016, contributed to the departure of the old regime dominated by the Tigray minority and ushered in the Abiy era.
Yet just a year later, the brigadier general imprisoned for advocating a coup in the past was the mastermind behind Saturday’s violent attacks. In recent days he had called on the Amhara to arm themselves and prepare for fighting with other groups, according to a Reuters journalist who saw the Asamnew video. The potential security implications were evolving into a priority concern for Ethiopian officials as an Amhara National Movement was on the rise.
Ethiopia, a generational project
It was just last week that Michelle Gavin, an Africa expert serving as a Council on Foreign Relations fellow in the United States, warned that Ethiopia’s successes under Abiy must be seen in the context of the populous East African nation’s many challenges. Those well-wishers inspired by the broadening of democratic space under Abiy, by his regional leadership and passion for peace, need to balance the optimism with the day-to-day reality of conflicts that have been generations in the making.
Changing the course of the nation will be a generational project too, Gavin said.
“Abiy has lifted the lid off of a pressure cooker—one his predecessors held in place with sometimes brutal force—and in some cases the result has not been euphoria, but rather messy, complex eruptions of communal violence,” Gavin wrote. “Ethiopia’s story is not a simple one, and the millions internally displaced over the past year, the worrying reports of forced returns, and the potential for 2020 elections to be a flashpoint should focus the minds of policymakers around concrete ways to provide support to what is sure to be a long and complex transition.”
That was all too apparent as Abiy and Sahle-Work clutched each other in sorrow, and Ethiopians shaken by the assassinations rightly wondered about the future. Like many of them, Dr. Solomon Dersso, a commissioner for the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), grappled with what that future looks like in the wake of the weekend assassinations.
“The changes swept away the elite bargain and compromise on which the past balance of power was organized, said Dersso, who is also a faculty member at Addis Ababa University. “They have also brought to an end the political settlement or consensus on which the politics of the country has been premised for about a couple of decades. Also thrown out of the window have been some of the fundamental rules that governed the conduct of business of the ruling coalition. Democratic centralism was no more.”
Too much, too soon?
As yet, there is no Ethiopian political consensus to replace the former Tigray-led EPRDF, Dersso notes, and that’s the core problem. Whether tensions arise in Amhara, Oromia or among the ethnic Somali, there are more than 2 million people who have fled the violence of militia groups or armed forces.
“Many of (their) grievances are related to access to land and complex questions of identity and governance,” said Human Rights Watch in an April report that praised Abiy’s reforms but warned – as have many – that Ethiopia also has become a more dangerous place.
“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,” the HRW researchers added. “This has occurred across many parts of the country amidst a serious security breakdown and a vacuum in local governance.”
Dersso’s assessment of an Ethiopia that remains in a state of flux, without a new and settled political consensus to replace the old one, is one that Ethiopians and the international community must take seriously. That’s especially true with 2020 elections looming and fears they may be delayed, as well as economic challenges that have left key ethnic groups, including the Amhara, disaffected by Abiy’s best efforts.
“For some, (Ethiopia’s) change hasn’t come quickly enough,” said Stratfor analysts on Wednesday. “But others worry that this push is perhaps too much, too soon. And as the dust settles on a June 22 coup attempt in the country’s Amhara region, the possibility that Abiy has opened a Pandora’s box looms ever larger.”