News came out of Ethiopia on Saturday night this week that an attempted “coup” had taken place in the country’s second-largest province, in which the governor of the Amhara province and his senior adviser had been killed and others wounded.
The failed coup then extended to the capital Addis Ababa with the assassination of the Ethiopian army commander by one of his bodyguards.
The incident began on Saturday when a group of unidentified armed men raided government headquarters in the Amhara province in the region’s capital Bahir Dar.
They killed Amhara regional governor Ambachew Mekonnen and his adviser Ezez Wasie, according to a statement by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office.
On the same day, in Addis Ababa the government announced the chief-of-staff of the Ethiopian army Seare Mekonnen had been shot dead at his residence by his bodyguard, along with retired general Gezai Abera as they were planning a response to the coup in Amhara.
Although the young prime minister appeared on television in military uniform for the first time since he came to power and announced that the situation was under control, other signs painted a different picture.
In his statement, Ahmed accused “hired parties” of carrying out the failed coup attempt in the northern province, adding that such hired mercenaries had attempted several other failed coup attempts over the past 30 years.
The Ethiopian newspaper Addis Fortune quoted sources as saying that the situation remained “dangerous and could escalate” as fighting continued in regional government and ruling party offices. Commander of Special Forces in Amhara Tefera Mamo said that “most of the perpetrators were arrested, and a few are still on the run,” according to Ethiopian television.
Still at large is the man believed to have been the mastermind of the coup, General Asaminew Tsige, former security chief of the Amhara province.
According to the Voice of America radio station, Tsige was arrested and released in a reform campaign spearheaded by Ahmed last year. After his release, Tsige’s retirement benefits were restored along with his rank.
A week ago, Tsige addressed his fellow Amharas — the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (with the Oromo at 34 per cent, Amharas at 27 per cent, Somalis at 6.2 per cent, and Tigrays at 6.1 per cent) — in a video clip on social media urging them to arm themselves.
The Reuters news agency reported that local residents said they had heard six gunshots in a neighbourhood near Bole International Airport at 9.30pm on Saturday night. They also said they had heard gunfire in other neighbourhoods and some roads were blocked.
One resident asserted that the gunfire continued for four hours. “At the beginning, I thought it was a normal incident. Then we heard the sound of heavy weapons,” he said.
Meanwhile, residents in other parts of the country have complained that they have not been able to access the Internet since Saturday night, although the government did not officially announce it had suspended Internet services.
The Ethiopian authorities have suspended services several times in the past for “security and technical reasons”.
NetBlocks, a non-governmental organisation that monitors cybersecurity and the governance of the Internet, said Internet access was mostly interrupted for seven hours in Ethiopia starting at 8.15pm on Saturday, concurrently with the announcement of the failed coup.
NetBlocks statistics showed that Internet usage in the country had dropped by two per cent after the prime minister appeared on television.
Ethiopia, a country with the continent’s fastest economic growth and second-largest population after Nigeria, has been witnessing serious tensions among its various ethnic components.
The army commander and provincial governor concerned in the failed coup had only been in office for a one year, and their deaths deal a serious blow to the reformist prime minister who had had a hand in appointing them.
The attempted coup in Amhara could still have an impact despite its failure, since the province was in turmoil even before Ahmed came to power.
The coup attempt has also revealed that opposition to Ahmed and his policies is greater than expected. General elections in Ethiopia are slated to be held in early 2020, but it is unclear how they will be organised.
As well as the unrest in Amhara province, there is also anger in the Tigray province since the group that has controlled it since 1990 accuse Ahmed of excluding them from power.
Ahmed comes from the country’s largest Oromo region, but the turmoil also continues in his native region although less so than before he came to power.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Attempted coup in Ethiopia