The coffin of assassinated army chief Gen. Seare Mekonnen rests in state during a state ceremony at the Millennium Hall in the capital Addis Ababa. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sobbed openly at the service for the military chief who was assassinated by his own bodyguard. Picture: Mulugeta Ayene/AP
Ethiopia, Africa’s oldest independent country, has been at its highest ebb in decades with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the helm. He has used his first 18 months in power to end ­decades of repression.

We have been mesmerised by the transformation with political prisoners released, the removal of bans on opposition political parties, the prosecution of officials accused of human rights abuses and a new good neighbourliness with Eritrea.

Not to mention the strong leadership and mediation skills he deployed in his discussions with Sudan’s Transitional Military Council in order to get them to compromise with the opposition. If there was a Nobel prize for good governance and visionary leadership, it should have gone to Abiy Ahmed.

But the new period of promise ushered in by Ahmed has been shaken to the core by a wave of assassinations six days ago that saw the Army Chief of Staff, General Seare Mekonnen, and General Gezai Abera killed.

Those killings followed shortly on the heels of the assassination of the governor of Amhara, Ambachew Mekonnen, and two of his senior officials. Such high-level assassinations in quick succession are unprecedented in Ethiopia’s recent history. The tragedy shook the nation and reduced Ahmed and his close officials to tears at the funerals. The threat to the stability of the country is so great that the internet has been shut down nationwide.

Ethiopia is staring into the abyss of ethno-nationalism that threatens to tear the country apart and potentially ignite a civil war if military generals or militia leaders mobilise militias in regions under their control. It will be Ahmed’s greatest challenge to slay the demons of ethnic division and bring his country together. This has been his dream and his mantra.

Instead of deploying the military against protagonists who have sought to barricade their areas off from other ethnic groups, he has preached dialogue and a political solution to Ethiopia’s problems.

When some of the inhabitants of Oromia had attempted to physically prevent citizens from other ethnic groups from entering their area which lies at the edge of the capital Addis Ababa, Ahmed refused to deploy the military against them, which would have been business as usual. Instead he attempted to reduce the temperature and solve the tensions peacefully.

His strategy has been largely successful, but the seeds of dissension lie under the surface in the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria, with a population of 102.5million.

With 80 different ethnic groups and a number of major ones harbouring bitterness from a historic sense of economic and political marginalisation, Ahmed will have to convince all Ethiopians that they are more than the sum of their parts. In essence, Ethiopians will need to recognise that their strength lies in their diversity.

The root of the problem that led to the recent spate of assassinations was the ugly face of ethno-nationalism. The ringleader of the coup attempt was Brigadier-General Asaminew Tsige, who was shot dead on Monday.

He was from the second-largest ethnic group, the Amhara, and the government believes he led a co-ordinated attempt to seize power in the northern region. By orchestrating the Amhara chief administrator’s killing, Asaminew sought to oust the regional government. Asaminew was a hardline ethnic nationalist who wanted greater autonomy for the Amhara. In a video on social media he had advocated for the Amhara to arm themselves.

Asaminew had served nine years in prison for plotting a coup against Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and had been released along with other political prisoners in February last year.

After his release the regional government had appointed him as security chief and wanted him to reclaim land that Amhara state leaders say they lost to Tigray in the early 1990s.

Ethno-nationalist parties have been on the rise in regional states more generally, and their divisive rhetoric has led to unprecedented levels of intercommunal violence.

A plethora of ethno-nationalist parties have emerged that now compete with the mainstream EPRDF parties in the governing coalition. Tensions have been increasing between the Amhara and Oromo, with Oromo leaders suspecting that Asaminew had ordered violence against the Oromo in Amhara, and had begun the training of Amhara militias. This is a dangerous toxic mix of ethnic groups that compete for land, resources and political power. If Ahmed is not able to bring about national unity as a top priority, fatal consequences are likely.

President Nelson Mandela said in April 1999: “It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.”

* Ebrahim is the group foreign editor at Independent Media.