Ethiopia’s army chief and a top local leader have been shot dead, amid an attempt to overthrow a regional government in northern Ethiopia, underscoring political instability in the country as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tries to push through reforms.
The latest unrest in the Horn of Africa nation 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, and resulted in state president Ambachew Mekonnen and his adviser being shot.
The men 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 coordinated attack, the chief of the staff of the national security forces Seare Mekonnen was killed in his home by his bodyguard” in the capital, she added.
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 is still on the loose, sources said.
According to the statement from Abiy’s office, the situation in Amhara region is “currently under full control by the federal government in collaboration with the regional government.”
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. It is not apparent that there was any organized plan to take over the regional government, but it is possible,” 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 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.”
The United States Embassy issued alerts about reported gunfire in the capital, Addis Ababa, and violence around Bahir Dar.
Deep political crisis
Amhara, in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, is the homeland of an ethnic group of 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 that has known only the authoritarian rule of emperors and strongmen.
He has embarked on economic reforms, allowed dissident groups back into the country, sought to crack down on rights abuses and arrested dozens of top military and intelligence officials.
He also sealed a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, a longtime foe.
However, the loosening of the reins has also unleashed a wave of unrest.
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 along 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 resentment in local politics and seen a rise in ethno-nationalism.
Longstanding tensions in a country of more than 80 ethnic groups have burst into the open, often over land and resources in Africa’s second most-populous nation.
Over a million people have been displaced by ethnic clashes, which analysts attribute to multiple causes, such as the weakening of the once all-powerful ruling EPRDF and different groups trying to take advantage of opportunities presented by the political transition.
The security chief Asaminew, accused of being behind the attack in Amhara, was in 2018 released from prison after being held over a 2009 coup plot by the armed opposition group Ginbot 7.
He is seen as an Amhara hardliner, particularly in regards to tensions with neighboring Tigray region over disputed territory.
The coup attempt comes a year after a grenade explosion at a rally that Abiy was addressing left two people dead.