Twin attacks threaten new Ethiopian government’s reforms

12 mins read

The men, some carrying two Kalashnikov assault rifles, stormed the building, sending customers enjoying a Saturday afternoon coffee in the cafe diving for cover, witnesses said.

Within moments, the assailants had shot dead Amhara’s president, an aide and fatally wounded the state’s attorney general.

Hours later, 325 km (200 miles) to the south in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, gunshots rang out behind the high grey walls of a red-roofed villa as the military’s chief of staff and a retired general were slain by a bodyguard.

The attacks, described by the government as part of a coup attempt in Amhara, highlight the dangers Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed faces as he rolls out ambitious reforms in Africa’s second most populous nation – a regional powerhouse whose economic boom is now threatened by deepening ethnic and regional fissures.

Since Abiy came to power in April 2018, attention abroad has focused on the rapid political, economic and diplomatic changes he has been introducing in one of the continent’s most closed and repressive countries.

“The world out there wanted to believe the fairy tale. They became obsessed with their own narrative,” said Tamrat Giorgis, the managing editor of the Addis Fortune, a privately-owned English-language newspaper. “But that doesn’t chime with what is happening on the ground. It is much more complex and scary.”


Abiy has loosened the iron grip the central authorities held over a deeply fractured nation, freeing imprisoned opposition leaders, rebels and journalists, lifting bans on some political parties and sealing a peace deal with arch-enemy Eritrea.

His plans to partially privatize some state enterprises have piqued the interest of foreign multinationals hoping to profit from market of 100 million people, and should breathe life into the debt-laden economy.

But the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), itself a coalition of four ethnically-based parties, faces strident challenges from newly emboldened regional powerbrokers demanding more influence and territory.

Ethnic violence has killed hundreds of people. That, and a severe drought, means some 2.4 million people are currently displaced in Ethiopia, the United Nations says.

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For a graphic of displacements in Ethiopia, click here

“Abiy’s reforms removed the lid on many accumulated grievances,” said Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst. “Making the transition to a more open society is always dangerous.”

Abiy’s response to his biggest challenge yet will not only define his leadership but could determine whether Ethiopia will sustain its decade-long boom, or spiral into the violence that has plagued neighboring Somalia and South Sudan.

Former intelligence officer Abiy, son of a Muslim father and Christian mother, is from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who spearheaded years of anti-government protests that eventually drove his predecessor to resign last year.

Abiy has the right profile to reassure several disgruntled sections of Ethiopian society, analysts say.


But the divisions Abiy must bridge in Amhara and elsewhere are old and deep. Asamnew Tsige, the rogue general accused of orchestrating Saturday’s violence, often invoked them.

“Five hundred years ago, we faced a similar test,” Asamnew told graduating Amhara Special Forces this month, referring to the historical expansion of Oromo people into Amhara.

The history of Amhara, which has provided Ethiopia with its national language, is a source of pride for many who belong to the country’s second largest ethnic group.

Some there resent the fact the previous federal government was dominated by Tigrayans who make up about 6% of the population – and now the prime minister is an Oromo. Border disputes simmer with neighboring Oromia and Tigray.

Asamnew fanned those flames when he was released last year after nearly a decade in prison for a previous coup attempt. The regional government named him head of security to placate his hard-line base. He began recruiting for a new state-sanctioned militia and called on the Amhara people to arm themselves.

Seven Amhara leaders, including acting regional president Lake Ayalew, had gathered for a meeting in Bahir Dar, Amhara’s regional capital, when gunmen tried to burst in at 4 p.m.

“They struggled to open the door,” Lake told Amhara Mass Media Agency. Three officials ran for an exit but were gunned down, he said. The rest hid. Guards and attackers exchanged fire.

The attorney general was badly wounded. “We tried to tie up his wounds with a curtain. The other two were already dead,” said Lake.


After the hit squad killed the state officials, fighting broke out at the police station – now peppered with bullet holes – and the local EPRDF headquarters, witnesses and Asemahagh Aseres, a regional government spokesman, said.

Asemahagh said Asamnew’s new militia had appealed for others to join their putsch but had been rebuffed.

The gunfire ended about five hours later, after federal reinforcements arrived by helicopter, the witnesses said.

Dozens of people died in the fighting, and the security forces killed Asamnew in a shootout on Monday, near Bahir Dar, Asemahagh said.

For days, regional state-run television ran rolling coverage commemorating the three murdered officials.

But on the streets, some suspected an official conspiracy, accusing federal authorities of orchestrating events to remove a popular and powerful regional leader.

“The federal government doesn’t want a strong leader here. The general was mobilizing the youth at the regional level, and they didn’t like it,” said a young man at a street cafe, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons.


The National Movement of Amhara – an increasingly popular ethnocentric party founded last year and a rival to the Amhara party in the EPRDF coalition – condemned the killings but queried the government’s narrative.

“At this moment we can’t say whether there was a coup,” Christian Tadele, spokesman for the new party, told Reuters. “First, we need an independent enquiry … The federal government is trying to use this incident to control the security apparatus of the region.”

In Ethiopia’s bustling capital, there was little sympathy for the coup plotters. A country-wide internet blackout remained in force but the city had returned to normal with battered blue and white taxis clogging the streets.

“This is a fascist, heinous assassination crime that no one can expect to happen in the 21st century,” said Addis Ababa resident Berhanu Bekele.

On Tuesday, a weeping Abiy led hundreds of soldiers, officials and relatives, many dressed in black and sobbing, in a commemoration for Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen and the retired general in the capital.

Near Seare’s house in Addis Ababa, federal police crammed into a tiny hair salon to watch the ceremony live on television. Tears welled up in their eyes and several shook their heads as the cameras panned to Seare’s flag-draped coffin.

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Seare was killed by a recently appointed bodyguard, but reinforcements coming to his rescue sustained heavy fire from at least two gunmen, one security officer involved said.

One gunman escaped in a waiting car but the bodyguard was arrested. Wounded in the foot, he then shot himself in the neck in an apparent suicide attempt, the officer said.


Ethiopian officials said the killings in the capital were designed to distract and divide the military as it tackled the coup attempt in Amhara.

After the ceremony in Addis Ababa, the bodies of the two slain generals were flown north to their native Tigray for burial.

Bitter crowds mourned them at a memorial on Wednesday. Already angry over the loss of influence Tigrayans enjoyed under the previous administration, many chanted “Abiy is a traitor” and “Abiy resign”.

“I am angry against Abiy because he is too soft and full of rhetoric,” said 19-year-old college student Selam Asmelash.

A reckoning may be coming.

Elections are due next year, although no date has been set – and weapons have been pouring in from countries including Sudan and South Sudan, said Justine Fleischner, an arms expert with UK-based Conflict Armament Research.

The weapons fuel armed gangs, menacing travelers and disrupting transport networks. Police said in June they had seized nearly 11,000 weapons and almost 120,000 rounds of ammunition in the capital over the last nine months.

“People are sick of the insecurity. If (Abiy) doesn’t do something now, people might think he is too weak to govern,” said a foreign businessman based in Addis Ababa.

One of the biggest risks is that the splits in society could break the ruling coalition – or the military, said Gerard Prunier, an academic who has written extensively about Ethiopia.

The EPRDF’s ethnically based parties must respond to the demands of their constituents or lose support to hardliners, so the government is increasingly losing its ability to place friendly faces in top regional positions, Prunier said.

“The EPRDF is the only tool that the prime minister has to govern – and it is not a reliable tool.”

Additional reporting by Kumerra Gemechu in Mekelle, Ethiopia,


  1. Ethiopian you are reaping what you saw flirting with and that to vilify Eritrea god is paying you in kind!! Now go and do your homework for the next hundred years, I am enjoying myself after you have bled us for many years now it is your turn, what comes round goes round!!!

  2. wedinakfa you must be idiot ye tilyan lole

    stay away from ethiopian life *

    had better beg in the western world and feed isyas . I know you are economic migrants and isyas wanto collect money from what you send him being modern barya systematically exploited be teleyaye sim

    denkoro stay away

  3. Ethiopia is killing the indeginous Omo valley people to create unrest in the area which will give EPRDF a reason when they report to EU , Worldbank and IMF an explanatiom why sugar projects failed.

    Omo valley people are suffering from human rights abuse right now. Ethiopia spent over hundreds of billion dollars on construction of sugar projects elsewhere in the last decades with no income generated from these sugar projects yet.Inorder to compensate the loss currently EPRDF are killing Omo kids and mothers in millions hoping it will creatw somekind of humanitarian attention which EPRDF can blame their failure to pay back IMF , EU and Worldbank on.

    EPRDF had been instigating unrests and ethnic violence for decades in the horn of Africa just so the EPRDF gets some reason to blame on for their failure to pay back the EU IMF worldbank investments.

    We have not seen anything yet. Next Ethiopia will end up sanctioned cutting of their lifeline for all these nonstop instigating it does. Ethiopia wouldn’t last a week with a sanction. Every breathe depends on donation. Donation rules the nation. Ethiopia’s yearly deficit spending is more than Ethiopia’s yearly revenue.

    When sanction happens they will sell everything for Eritrea starting from the airforce and all the military weapons put right by Eritrea border, Eritrea will get it for bargain price.Eritrea will become the arms trade capital of Africa .

  4. For lack of life in a society where the rights of the common man/woman has been respected continuously, say for at least a generation, we have been left but to make up and live with ‘uplifting’ myths. We create heroes just as a psychological remuneration for the injustice we have been subjected to. I will give you an example. I was in the former British Protectorate of Aden when the late Emperor’s own bodyguards tried to overthrow him. I remember how I was awakened by my adoptee Hadrami uncle to tell me my ‘cousin(Ibna Ammuk)’ was suddenly gone like King Farouq of Egypt. I did not know what to make of it. But it was over as quickly as it started. I found out(BBC Arabic and Al-Qahirah) that the rebels had murdered many high officials of the late Emperor when they opposed the idea of the coup. All of the rebels of the coup were rounded up or killed including the leader. Please do not call me Emperor Selassie hugger now but he did not just send the leader to the gallows. The record shows that Mengistu was put on trial and sentenced to death even though it was portrayed as a show trial. Am I wrong? The demonic Mengistu didn’t show an iota of such process in court for all of his victims. The leaders of the regime that followed him did not show anything that they were men of law. Again, I will give you an example. I heard that it was able to capture those who conducted the massacre of innocent peasant farmers in Bedeno and its surroundings in 1992. It must have taken them to some joint and shoot them without due process. They disappeared in thin air. Please hold on to this story for me. I will come back to it later.

    Now we read a story that the killer of those state officials in Amhara region was apprehended while trying to elude the police in a three wheel taxi and killed. The questions I immediately raised were: Was he killed in the exchange of fire with police? The vehicle he was hitching a ride was not the 1965 Ford GT40 and it is one of the slowest vehicles on the road. Did the police try to surround him and wait or at least using their sharpshooter render him unconscious to capture him alive? It seemed he had a second thought about taking his own life after he realized that his killing did not cut the mustard for him. His demise in such ways the details of which is only known to the officials has opened the door for many to spin it into creating a dangerous environment. Now some of you may say ‘Ittu, why do you care about a criminal?’ To me a human life is the most sacred creation of The Almighty Our Creator. We have no right to just sniff it away. No sir!!! Was there even a warrant to arrest him? I am asking all these questions because I am led to believe, after all the reforms put in place since April 2018, that things will not be done the ‘usual’ ways as in the ‘good ole days’.

    Mengistu’s killings were rendered a thorough opacity and we were left only to laud the action that took a crack at overthrowing the ‘archaic’ ruler. His summary execution of 13 high level officials was completely glossed over even by those who were highly read men of law. I remember how a book written by a certain foreigner with ulterior motives was the most sought after by leaders and members of the student unions here in the USA and Europe, I myself was given a mission by friends who hail from the Western Hararghe region to find the book and send them. The author was the one Richard Greenfield. I had read the book and it tells the story of the coup in detail. It kept me wondering who could it be that moron who spilled the beans to that foreigner in such a detailed manner. That catapulted Mengistu into a cult and a hero figure. Those he summarily executed were not even mentioned at all.

    When the other Mengistu summarily executed 60 officials in 1974 I remember reading the story on major US newspapers and watching it all on major TV evening news. Many of those among us had applauded the massacre with the very few condemning it. Others told me it was a quarrel among the ‘neftegnas’ and I’ve no business in it. Then I found out thru my relatives that there several Oromos among them. Those victims were rarely mentioned in magazines and pamphlets of the opposition in the decades to come. What I found out about many of those victims thru my wara Chercher friend that they had fought fascist Italian forces tooth and nail when they occupied the country by force in the 1930’s. They were the ones who tied up more than 200,000 ruthless fascist soldiers and kept them busy until the Allied forces arrived in 1941. Mind you and just imagine if those 200,000 well trained and armed soldiers were free to join Rommel in the North African theater. Just think about that!!! But that demonic Mengistu took them out and mowed them down like they were predatory animals that just mauled people. His predecessor Mengistu had also killed similar patriots including the one and only Abebe bin Aregay who was the leader of the patriots and Mussolini’s nightmare. In both cases the crime committed was glossed over and thrown by the way side.

    We like myths and get high by them. Those savage murderers of innocent peasants in Bedeno had disappaeared without a trace after being captured by the late PM security forces. Now ‘liberation’ front leaders have brought them up by asking questions. They were labeled martyrs and the story of those they murdered has been glossed over. When the leader of a ‘liberation’ front was asking the whereabouts of his disappeared members it includes those savages too. In a sense he has a case. As a government, the primary objective should be to capture such criminals alive so they can face justice in a court of law. The same extrajudicial killings were carried out on the captured members of EPRP. We will never know how it took place. At least the demonic Mengistu had left a trail of paperwork that tells how the massacre was decided and carried out.

    That is why I ask the question in what circumstances was this general killed. For the sake of stability of the old country and peace/security for the common man/woman it should be investigated by an independent body. Otherwise, as we see it here it is going to be another fodder for spreading hatred by one brother over the other. One cardinal truth we should never remember that we are extremely fortunate that we live in safe places thousands of miles away from the old country. It is a blessing that we should never turn into it a curse for that poor farmer and urban dweller who toil day and night just to make ends meet. We should stop hurling derogatory utterances from our comfy homes at others just because they have said something we don’t like. In the meantime, we can tell that some of you who engaged in such vile behavior are not even the stakeholders of the old country. Your main objective since the late 1960’s has been to send that gem of the colored asunder so you can come in and loot at will when nobody is watching. I know you how you work since the 1960’s. Stay within your boundary and stay busy tending your own affairs. You have too much on your plate already and the old country will never go asunder. Mark my word, NEVER!!!!!!

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