Mourners carry the coffin of Amhara president Mekonnen and two other officials during their funeral in the town of Bahir Dar. Picture: Reuters/Baz Ratner
Mourners carry the coffin of Amhara president Mekonnen and two other officials during their funeral in the town of Bahir Dar. Picture: Reuters/Baz Ratner

Is Ethiopia's new democracy under threat after coup attempt?

By Mel Frykberg Time of article published Jun 27, 2019

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Johannesburg – Relative calm has returned to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar, seat of the Amhara regional government, following a series of assassinations last Saturday in Amhara State which the Ethiopian government described as an attempted coup in the state - the country’s second-largest federal region.

Regional leader Ambachew Mekonnen and two of his advisors were shot dead on June 22. Several hours later, Ethiopia’s military chief of staff, General Seare Mekonnen, and a retired officer were shot dead by a bodyguard.

Amhara’s hardline security chief Asaminew Tsige, suspected of being the mastermind behind the killings, was killed in a subsequent firefight following a military raid on Monday.

The outbreak of violence has meant there is a high probability that next year’s May elections will not go ahead - an election that would have confirmed support for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reformist agenda, according to some analysts.

When Ahmed first took power last year, it appeared to be the dawning of a new democratic era for the Horn of Africa country as he released political prisoners, instituted political reforms and held out an olive branch to neighbouring countries in an attempt to thaw icy relations, specifically with Eritrea.

Now it appears Ethopia’s new path of democratic reform may also be under threat.

Ludger Schadomsky, Deutsche Welle Radio's new Amharic Service head, in an opinion piece in Deutsche Welle, said the orchestrated operation in the killing of the five high-ranking military officers raises serious questions about Ethiopia’s ability to evolve into a stable democracy.

According to William Davison, senior analyst on Ethiopia for the International Crisis Group (ICG), the killings in Addis Ababa and Amhara are "a blow to Ahmed’s democratisation agenda and may well worsen Ethiopia's political and security crisis if key issues are not urgently tackled". 

Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo, is also facing continuing ethnic tensions which are fuelling the current, and previous, political upheaval, including the displacement of over two million people in the country, as the more powerful and populous groups jockey for power and over resources.

“Heightened ethno-nationalist rhetoric has contributed to inter-communal violence, which over the past eighteen months has reached levels unprecedented in many decades in Ethiopia,” said the ICG.

This dynamic is particularly evident in the two most populous regional states, Amhara and Oromia, which together comprise more than 65 percent of the population.

In the former, the one-year-old National Movement of Amhara has challenged the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) by presenting itself as the standard bearer of Amhara interests.

Ethiopia’s government is a federation of nine regions. For almost three decades Ethiopia’s federal structure – enshrined in the country’s 1994 constitution – has been defended by the ruling EPRDF coalition as well as some of the country’s opposition elites, political science lecturer Yohannes Gedamu wrote in a Quartz Africa piece.

“But the federal structure has caused lots of problems for the country. This is primarily because it is constituted along ethnic lines. This is problematic because Ethiopia has a population of more than 108 million and more than 90 ethnic groups,” Gedamu explained.

Consequently minority regions have been relegated into second-class regions comprising second-class citizens and showing that there isn’t a level playing field when it comes to the constitutional rights of all Ethiopians.

“To calm the wrangling within the governing EPRDF on issues including power sharing, territorial disputes and demands in certain regions for greater autonomy, Ahmed should consult broadly on General Mekonnen's replacement to minimise suspicions of ethnic favouritism,” the ICG recommended.

African News Agency (ANA)

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