Coup attempt in Ethiopia: Augmenting antagonism and waning military cohesion
By New Delhi Times Bureau on July 1, 2019
(New Delhi Times) — Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed has described the assassinations of Amhara region President, Ambachew Mekonnen, in Bahir Dar and subsequently of the federal military Chief of Staff, General Seare Mekonen, in Addis Ababa on 22 June 2019 as a “coup attempt”.
Federal authorities have attributed the orchestration of these events to General Asaminew Tsige, Head of Amhara region security forces, who was likely facing imminent removal from his post over allegations of having recently made implicitly critical statements about Ahmed administration, and his involvement in the recruitment of ethnic Amhara militias.
These events indicate an increased risk of elements of the regional and federal security forces being drawn into armed confrontations with each other in the two-year outlook.
The assassinations were likely carried out using covert influence structures parallel to the regional and federal security forces’ formal chains of command, indicating a further deterioration in military cohesion. While the chances of outright civil war remain unlikely, the recent incidents hold the potential to fuel the fire of rivalry of the regional and federal forces escalating competition between different political factions and territorial disputes between, and within, regional states, ahead of national elections scheduled for 2020, likely to be delayed. Localized exchange of fire between regional state forces and federal forces deployed to maintain security is to escalate.
Key flashpoints for such violence include the Amhara region Oromia zone, the Welkait and Raya areas of Tigray region (claimed by some Amhara activists and politicians), the borders between Somali region and Oromia and Afar regions, during violence between security forces and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in Oromia, and around the Sidama statehood efforts. Ethiopian authorities confirmed on 24 June 2019, that Tsige remains at large, but subsequently also claimed he had been shot dead in Bahir Dar. Were Tsige to still be alive and remain at large, he would likely resort to armed opposition to both the regional and federal governments, using his alleged connections to Amhara militias to stage attacks against security forces, government offices, and ethnic non-Amharas (particularly Oromos, Tigrayans, Qemants, and persons originating from Benishangul-Gumuz) in the Amhara region and bordering areas.
Chief of Staff Seare Mekonnen was an ethnic Tigrayan. His replacement by an ethnic Oromo would risk further stoking fears in the other regions of what is perceived as an “Oromo-dominated” government, whereas an ethnic Amhara chief of staff would likely be distrusted by other political and military elements over suspected ties to Tsige, and an ethnic Tigrayan appointment would likely be resented and distrusted by non-Tigrayan military elements. Were Ahmed to appoint a ‘minority’ Chief of Staff not drawn from any of these three ethnic groups (particularly were he to use new legislation to directly appoint a civilian to this or other senior military positions), it would indicate his increased personal control of the security services, but would risk alienating elements of political opinion within his home region of Oromia.
Anti-government protest in Amara region is likely to escalate with the detention of General Tsige or with the Ethiopian officials claim of him being shot dead on 24 June 2019. Autonomist rhetoric and recruitment of youth militias in neighbouring Tigray region will likely escalate. In response to the coup attempt, leading political figures within the once-nationally dominant Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF) and its administration in Tigray region will likely increasingly deploy Tigray autonomist rhetoric – including with secessionist sentiments – in opposition to both the national government and the Amhara regional administration, as well as accelerate the recruitment of youth elf-defence’ militias.
The resolutely anti-TPLF government of neighbouring Eritrea will likely see these moves as provocative, increasing the probability of the current Ethiopian-Eritrean border closure in Tigray region lasting for several more months, and of fighting between these militias and Eritrean forces near the border.