The chief of staff of Ethiopia’s army and two senior regional political figures have been shot dead in what the prime minister’s office called a co-ordinated attack, underlining the fragile nature of the country’s government.
A “hit squad” led by regional security chief General Asaminew Tsige burst into a government meeting in Bahir Dar, capital of the Amhara region, on Saturday evening, killing both the region’s president and his adviser, according to a statement from the office of Abiy Ahmed, the country’s reform-minded prime minister.
In a separate incident in the capital Addis Ababa, Seare Mekonnen, chief of staff of the national security forces, was killed in his home by his bodyguard. A retired general was also killed.
The statement from Mr Abiy’s office described the incident as “an orchestrated coup attempt” on the executive leadership of Amhara, a province of 31m people north of Addis, and said that many, but not all, of the plotters had been arrested. Gen Asaminew is still at large, according to reports.
“There is an ongoing operation to arrest the remaining [perpetrators],” the statement said. “The situation in the Amhara region is currently under full control.”
Ethiopia, a nation of 105m people in the Horn of Africa, has been one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent, racking up more than a decade of near-double digit growth. Investors, particularly from China, Turkey and the Gulf states, have continued to back the country in spite of political instability born of its fractured ethnic make-up.
Since he was selected as prime minister in April last year Mr Abiy has loosened the grip of state security, freeing thousands of political prisoners, unbanning political parties and allowing much greater freedom of the press. While his sweeping changes have made him popular, they have also unleashed a wave of unrest and regional ultranationalism that had been suppressed by the security forces under the previous government.
Ethiopia is divided into nine ethnically based provinces, each with strong identities that had been encouraged by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the four-party coalition that has run the country since 1991.
Amhara, home to the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, has traditionally been a political and cultural centre but has been relatively sidelined in recent decades while neighbouring Tigray has become more powerful.
Resentment against Tigray’s perceived dominance was a main reason for the selection of Mr Abiy, at 42 Africa’s youngest leader. He comes from Oromia, a region of 35m people that has also felt shut out of political power.
Mr Abiy’s attempt as prime minister to foster a strong Ethiopian national identity has stoked regional nationalism.
William Davison, senior Ethiopian analyst at Crisis Group, said: “These are clearly tragic and very serious incidents [that] unfortunately demonstrate the depth of Ethiopia’s political crisis.”
Mr Abiy has promised to run free and fair elections next year, but analysts wonder if that will be possible given the country’s volatile political situation.
Additional reporting by Tom Wilson
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