By Dawit Endeshaw and David Lewis
BAHIRDAR, Ethiopia (Reuters) – The Baklaba and Cake cafe was heaving with customers when truck-loads of heavily armed men in fatigues rolled up across the road outside the local government headquarters in Ethiopia’s Amhara region.
The men, some carrying two Kalashnikov assault rifles, stormed the building, sending customers enjoying a Saturday afternoon coffee in the cafe diving for cover, witnesses said.
Within moments, the assailants had shot dead Amhara’s president, an aide and fatally wounded the state’s attorney general.
Hours later, 325 km (200 miles) to the south in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, gunshots rang out behind the high grey walls of a red-roofed villa as the military’s chief of staff and a retired general were slain by a bodyguard.
The attacks, described by the government as part of a coup attempt in Amhara, highlight the dangers Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed faces as he rolls out ambitious reforms in Africa’s second most populous nation – a regional powerhouse whose economic boom is now threatened by deepening ethnic and regional fissures.
Since Abiy came to power in April 2018, attention abroad has focussed on the rapid political, economic and diplomatic changes he has been introducing in one of the continent’s most closed and repressive countries.
“The world out there wanted to believe the fairy tale. They became obsessed with their own narrative,” said Tamrat Giorgis, the managing editor of the Addis Fortune, a privately-owned English-language newspaper. “But that doesn’t chime with what is happening on the ground. It is much more complex and scary.”
Abiy has loosened the iron grip the central authorities held over a deeply fractured nation, freeing imprisoned opposition leaders, rebels and journalists, lifting bans on some political parties and sealing a peace deal with arch-enemy Eritrea.
His plans to partially privatise some state enterprises have piqued the interest of foreign multinationals hoping to profit from market of 100 million people, and should breathe life into the debt-laden economy.
But the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), itself a coalition of four ethnically-based parties, faces strident challenges from newly emboldened regional powerbrokers demanding more influence and territory.
Ethnic violence has killed hundreds of people. That, and a severe drought, means some 2.4 million people are currently displaced in Ethiopia, the United Nations says.
“Abiy’s reforms removed the lid on many accumulated grievances,” said Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst. “Making the transition to a more open society is always dangerous.”
Abiy’s response to his biggest challenge yet will not only define his leadership but could determine whether Ethiopia will sustain its decade-long boom, or spiral into the violence that has plagued neighbouring Somalia and South Sudan.
Former intelligence officer Abiy, son of a Muslim father and Christian mother, is from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who spearheaded years of anti-government protests that eventually drove his predecessor to resign last year.
Abiy has the right profile to reassure several disgruntled sections of Ethiopian society, analysts say.
But the divisions Abiy must bridge in Amhara and elsewhere are old and deep. Asamnew Tsige, the rogue general accused of orchestrating Saturday’s violence, often invoked them.
“Five hundred years ago, we faced a similar test,” Asamnew told graduating Amhara Special Forces this month, referring to the historical expansion of Oromo people into Amhara.
The history of Amhara, which has provided Ethiopia with its national language, is a source of pride for many who belong to the country’s second largest ethnic group.
Some there resent the fact the previous federal government was dominated by Tigrayans who make up about 6% of the population – and now the prime minister is an Oromo. Border disputes simmer with neighbouring Oromia and Tigray.
Asamnew fanned those flames when he was released last year after nearly a decade in prison for a previous coup attempt. The regional government named him head of security to placate his hard-line base. He began recruiting for a new state-sanctioned militia and called on the Amhara people to arm themselves.
Seven Amhara leaders, including acting regional president Lake Ayalew, had gathered for a meeting in Bahir Dar, Amhara’s regional capital, when gunmen tried to burst in at 4 p.m.
“They struggled to open the door,” Lake told Amhara Mass Media Agency. Three officials ran for an exit but were gunned down, he said. The rest hid. Guards and attackers exchanged fire.
The attorney general was badly wounded. “We tried to tie up his wounds with a curtain. The other two were already dead,” said Lake.
After the hit squad killed the state officials, fighting broke out at the police station – now peppered with bullet holes – and the local EPRDF headquarters, witnesses and Asemahagh Aseres, a regional government spokesman, said.
Asemahagh said Asamnew’s new militia had appealed for others to join their putsch but had been rebuffed.
The gunfire ended about five hours later, after federal reinforcements arrived by helicopter, the witnesses said.
Dozens of people died in the fighting, and the security forces killed Asamnew in a shootout on Monday, near Bahir Dar, Asemahagh said.
For days, regional state-run television ran rolling coverage commemorating the three murdered officials.
But on the streets, some suspected an official conspiracy, accusing federal authorities of orchestrating events to remove a popular and powerful regional leader.
“The federal government doesn’t want a strong leader here. The general was mobilising the youth at the regional level, and they didn’t like it,” said a young man at a street cafe, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons.
The National Movement of Amhara – an increasingly popular ethnocentric party founded last year and a rival to the Amhara party in the EPRDF coalition – condemned the killings but queried the government’s narrative.
“At this moment we can’t say whether there was a coup,” Christian Tadele, spokesman for the new party, told Reuters. “First, we need an independent enquiry … The federal government is trying to use this incident to control the security apparatus of the region.”
In Ethiopia’s bustling capital, there was little sympathy for the coup plotters. A country-wide internet blackout remained in force but the city had returned to normal with battered blue and white taxis clogging the streets.
“This is a fascist, heinous assassination crime that no one can expect to happen in the 21st century,” said Addis Ababa resident Berhanu Bekele.
On Tuesday, a weeping Abiy led hundreds of soldiers, officials and relatives, many dressed in black and sobbing, in a commemoration for Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen and the retired general in the capital.
Near Seare’s house in Addis Ababa, federal police crammed into a tiny hair salon to watch the ceremony live on television. Tears welled up in their eyes and several shook their heads as the cameras panned to Seare’s flag-draped coffin.
Seare was killed by a recently appointed bodyguard, but reinforcements coming to his rescue sustained heavy fire from at least two gunmen, one security officer involved said.
One gunman escaped in a waiting car but the bodyguard was arrested. Wounded in the foot, he then shot himself in the neck in an apparent suicide attempt, the officer said.
Ethiopian officials said the killings in the capital were designed to distract and divide the military as it tackled the coup attempt in Amhara.
After the ceremony in Addis Ababa, the bodies of the two slain generals were flown north to their native Tigray for burial.
Bitter crowds mourned them at a memorial on Wednesday. Already angry over the loss of influence Tigrayans enjoyed under the previous administration, many chanted “Abiy is a traitor” and “Abiy resign”.
“I am angry against Abiy because he is too soft and full of rhetoric,” said 19-year-old college student Selam Asmelash.
A reckoning may be coming.
Elections are due next year, although no date has been set – and weapons have been pouring in from countries including Sudan and South Sudan, said Justine Fleischner, an arms expert with UK-based Conflict Armament Research.
The weapons fuel armed gangs, menacing travellers and disrupting transport networks. Police said in June they had seized nearly 11,000 weapons and almost 120,000 rounds of ammunition in the capital over the last nine months.
“People are sick of the insecurity. If (Abiy) doesn’t do something now, people might think he is too weak to govern,” said a foreign businessman based in Addis Ababa.
One of the biggest risks is that the splits in society could break the ruling coalition – or the military, said Gerard Prunier, an academic who has written extensively about Ethiopia.
The EPRDF’s ethnically based parties must respond to the demands of their constituents or lose support to hardliners, so the government is increasingly losing its ability to place friendly faces in top regional positions, Prunier said.
“The EPRDF is the only tool that the prime minister has to govern – and it is not a reliable tool.”
(Additional reporting by Kumerra Gemechu in Mekelle, Ethiopia, Katharine Houreld in Nairobi and Ayenat Mersie in New York; editing by Katharine Houreld, Alexandra Zavis and David Clarke)