Addis Ababa, Ethiopia | AFP | Ethiopia’s army chief and a top local leader have been shot dead during an attempt to overthrow a regional government in the north of the country, underscoring political instability as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tries to reform the nation.
Violence flared on Saturday afternoon in Amhara, one of nine autonomous regions, when a “hit squad” attacked a meeting of top officials, Abiy’s office said Sunday.
Spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told journalists the Amhara “coup attempt” was led by local security chief Asaminew Tsige, who was only last year released from almost a decade in prison over a 2009 coup plot.
State president Ambachew Mekonnen and his advisor were “gravely injured in the attack and later died of their wounds,” she said, adding that the regional attorney general had been seriously wounded.
“Several hours later in what seems like a co-ordinated attack, the chief of the staff of the national security forces Seare Mekonnen was killed in his home by his bodyguard”, she said.
Seare and a visiting retired general were shot dead in his home in the upmarket Bole district of Addis Ababa, home to diplomats, aid workers and expats.
The bodyguard has been apprehended while Asaminew was still on the loose, sources said.
There was a heavy police presence outside Seare’s house on Sunday, as mourners, some dressed in black, streamed to his house to pay their respects.
A parking attendant, who asked not to be named, said he heard about 10 minutes of gunfire at the residence at 9:00pm local time on Saturday before security officers arrived.
Gedrekiristos Tessaye, 30, said he had come to pay respects to honour Seare’s service to the country.
“I am so worried, I want Ethiopia to be an ambassador of peace and democracy but this kind of event shows that we are heading to anarchy,” he said.
Elsewhere in the capital it appeared a normal, quiet Sunday, with shops and restaurants open, however there was heavy security outside Abiy’s offices.
According to the statement from Abiy’s office, the situation in Amhara region was “currently under full control”.
Since coming to power in 2018, Abiy has won praise for his reforms to open up the country from the iron-grip of his predecessors, but his moves have also brought to the surface long-running ethnic tensions and territorial disputes.
The prime minister took to national television in military fatigues in the early hours of Sunday morning.
“The people of Ethiopia do not believe in silencing, killing and claiming power by spilling the blood of their brothers and sisters,” he said.
“They don’t accept totalitarian regimes. They’ve shown that through a common struggle.”
– ‘No sign of broader coup’ –
The link between the two attacks and their motives were not immediately clear.
“We don’t know what the broader intentions of the attackers were,” International Crisis Group analyst William Davison told AFP.
“There are no clear signs of a broader coup attempt in Addis. The government has linked the assassination of the chief of staff to the Bahir Dar (Amhara) attack, but otherwise it appears to be an isolated incident, which suggests there wasn’t a concerted attempt at a national coup.”
The internet has been cut nationwide since Saturday evening, after being severed for much of the previous week.
A journalist in the regional capital Bahir Dar told AFP shooting had begun shortly after sunset and continued for several hours before ceasing. On Sunday he described the city as a “ghost town”.
– Deep political crisis –
Amhara, in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, is the homeland of the ethnic group by the same name, and the birthplace of many of its emperors as well as the national language Amharic.
The Amhara are the second-largest ethnic grouping after the Oromo, and both spearheaded two years of anti-government protests which led to the resignation of former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Abiy, an Oromo, took power in April 2018 and has been lauded for a string of efforts to reform a nation which has known only the authoritarian rule of emperors and strongmen.
He has embarked on economic reforms, allowed dissident groups to return, cracked down on rights abuses and arrested dozens of top military and intelligence officials.
He also sealed a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, a longtime foe.
Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane Meskel expressed his condolences over the killings on Twitter.
But the loosening of the reins has also unleashed a wave of unrest.
Longstanding tensions among more than 80 ethnic groups have burst into the open, often over land and resources in Africa’s second most-populous nation, leaving over a million displaced in clashes.
Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution, written by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) after it unseated the Derg military junta in 1991, partitioned the country into nine autonomous regions with borders following ethnic lines.
The EPRDF itself is a coalition of four parties from Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region.
Observers say that Abiy’s plans to hold an election in 2020 has stirred up bitter rivalries among politicians in the regions and seen a rise in ethno-nationalism.
Davison said the alleged coup-plotter Asaminew was a hardliner who pushed for territory in neighbouring Tigray to be reclaimed, trained militia, and was likely facing removal from his post.