Ethiopia—According to his wife, the late Gen. Seare Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s former army chief of staff, was assassinated by a bodyguard shortly after 9 p.m. on June 22, 2019. the overall was rushed to a hospital, where he later died. His companion, a retired general who was also hit, died immediately. His wife was inside their home at the precise moment of the killing, but she was there at the scene when, a couple of minutes later, the bodyguard sprang from the bottom and ran to a shed at the top of the garden, firing a volley of bullets at a guard in pursuit.
If anybody knows what happened to the widely respected general that night, it’s his widow, Tsige Alemayehu. But, for quite a year after the assassination, she wasn’t asked to testify within the accused bodyguard’s trial. Nor were she and her family allowed to attend the hearing. Indeed, before June, she had never met the prosecutor hired by the govt within the case. Her efforts to talk with the attorney general, the federal commissioner, and even Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, were all rebuffed. “We don’t know what’s happening, and no-one is telling us,” she said in an interview in July. “There must be something they need to cover .”
Tsige isn’t alone in her confusion and her suspicions. Within the past two years, political killings and the conspiracy theories they spawn became recurrent themes in Ethiopian politics, with powerful and dangerous consequences for an already fragile nation. The proliferation of both reflects the violent nature of regime change and power struggles in an ethnically and ideologically divided country, which has never experienced a peaceful political transition. They also reveal certain deep-rooted facts about the Ethiopian state itself.
In June 2018, shortly after Abiy took office and a year before the chief of staff’s killing, there was a clear attempt on the prime minister’s life in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square. A grenade was thrown toward the stage because the prime minister finished addressing a public rally, killing two and injuring more. Two months later, Simegnew Bekele—the chief engineer of the country’s wildly popular infrastructure megaproject, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam—was found dead in his car within the same square. (The police determined it had been a suicide, but few are convinced.)
In June of this year, Hachalu Hundessa, a well-liked singer and activist from the Oromo ethnos, was shot in his car, triggering days of mayhem. A minimum of 166 people was killed (some by police, others by mobs), and quite 9,000 people were arrested.
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Beyond the headlines, many low-level officials—including mayors, security chiefs, and opposition politicians—have been killed within the past two years. Four months before Hachalu’s murder, the commissioner of the town of Burayu was murdered. The govt blamed rebels linked to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an opposition party; the Oromo opposition blamed the govt. A couple of months later, the top of the OLF office within the Bole district of Addis Ababa was killed in his car. A few weeks after Hachalu’s killing, a well-connected businessman allegedly linked to the govt was killed within Adama’s town.
As for Seare’s assassination in Addis Ababa last year, it happened on an equivalent night as what the govt alleged was an attempted coup within the northern region of Amhara. The plot, which the govt said was led by Amhara state’s then security chief, Asaminew Tsige, resulted in the murder of several top officials in Amhara, including the regional president.
That night, Abiy alleged the 2 events were linked. Within the following days, Asaminew was killed by the military while many of his alleged accomplices and co-conspirators, including some opposition leaders, were arrested. Abiy later claimed that “the suspected people were trained by people that came from abroad.” But, within the subsequent months, most were released. Within the former chief of staff’s case, only his bodyguard remains on trial—and the putative links between that incident and, therefore, the assassinations in Amhara are not any longer into account.
Searle’s widow believes the arrests and subsequent releases—with barely a word of explanation from the government—point to a cover-up. “Justice has not been served,” she said. Many Ethiopians at the time questioned the government’s version of events, and to the present day, many doubt its reasons (or lack thereof) for releasing suspects. When discussing their release Abiy didn’t specify whether or not they had been exonerated or pardoned. When asked for further details about the releases, Fikadu Tsega, the deputy attorney general, reiterated that the govt had chosen to try to so.
In 2018, the historic transfer of power inside the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—from the ethnic Tigrayan faction to Abiy’s supposedly reformist Oromo faction—was hailed as a democratic breakthrough, and Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later. Thousands of political prisoners were released; exiled opposition parties, including the OLF, were welcomed home; revisions to draconian laws were promised. The independence of state institutions, including the electoral board and judiciary, was also made a priority.
But today’s political opening increasingly resembles earlier periods of tumult in Ethiopian history. Abiy has himself noted parallels with the pattern of violence which followed the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and which involved both a rebel campaign of political assassinations referred to as the White Terror and therefore the state-orchestrated mass murders, referred to as the Red Terror, by the junta referred to as the Derg. “We all know the history of the Red and White Terror,” he warned in an interview last year. “It started with the killing of state officials, and therefore the government responded with unmatched force during that point. Some people want to repeat that. we’ve to be responsible not to repeat that history.”
It also resembles the mid-1990s, after the EPRDF overthrew the Derg in 1991 then fell out with its allies within the transitional government, introducing a period of bloody instability. In 1996, an Oromo singer and political activist called Ebbisaa Addunyaa was slain in his range in Addis Ababa in circumstances that echo those surrounding the death of Hachalu this year. Much of the Oromo opposition blamed the govt for the murder. But some observers believe that intra-Oromo rivalries and even personal betrayal may need to play a neighborhood, consistent with Endalk Chala, a professor at Hamline University who is researching a history of the OLF. Nobody was ever held accountable.
The conflicting interpretations of Hachalu’s murder today reflect similar divisions. Soon after his death, members of the Oromo opposition accused the govt. The govt pointed to indications that Hachalu may are killed by militant Oromo nationalists who had previously denounced the musician’s political moderation. But the prospect that he was murdered for more mundane reasons—such as a romantic feud—can not be entirely discounted.
The more fundamental problem for Ethiopia’s stability is that Abiy spoke out before any real investigation could happen. As he did within the hours after the so-called Amhara coup attempt the previous year, Abiy appeared on television (dressed again in army fatigues) and blamed the incident on “anti-reformists.” Four days later, he seemed to blame Egypt, with whom Ethiopia is embroiled during a major dispute over the development of the Nile dam: “Those external and internal forces who weren’t successful with the good Ethiopia Renaissance Dam issue have tried their utmost efforts to make chaos at this point .” Meanwhile, Shimelis Abdisa, head of Oromia region, hinted heavily during a televised statement on June 30 at Tigrayan politicians’ involvement, alleging they organized the assassination to “regain the facility which that they had lost.”
Since then, the police have arrested four suspects for the killing—who, consistent with the attorney general’s office, had taken orders from the Oromo Liberation Army (an armed breakaway faction of the OLF).
This pattern of inconsistent public statements and reckless politicization by both government and opposition leaders are now a well-known one. After the grenade attack in Meskel Square in 2018, the govt swiftly blamed former Tigrayan security officials, including the previous national intelligence head. Police arrested 30 people suspected of involvement within the blast and nine cops for failing to stop the attack, including the capital’s deputy commissioner. Quite two years later, on Aug. 28 this year, five non-Tigrayan individuals were convicted for the incident. All others have since been released or had their charges dropped.
Following the dam’s chief engineer’s death, some against Abiy’s government accused it of murdering him. While on a visit to us, Abiy himself called it an assassination before the police said it had been a suicide. Others suggested the assassins could be linked to the Tigrayan-dominated military-industrial conglomerate Metals and Engineering Corporation, which was liable for much of the dam’s construction (and was widely believed to possess embezzled funds). Nothing has ever been definitively proved.