Security forces stand guard in Meskel Square in central Addis Ababa,  June 23, 2019.
Security forces stand guard in Meskel Square in central Addis Ababa, June 23, 2019.

As Ethiopia observed a national day of mourning following what the Prime Minister’s office called an attempted regional coup in one of its regions, questions remain about the alleged mastermind of the attack and his motives.

On Monday, state media announced that Brigadier General Asaminew Tsige was captured and killed in Zenzelima, in the country’s Amhara region. Security forces shot the general dead as he tried to escape, state media reported.

Brig. Gen. Asaminew was well known in the country. He had a strong following among the Amhara ethnic group and had been serving as head of the Peace and Security Bureau of the Amhara region, in the country’s north.

Map of Bahir Dar Ethiopia

The Ethiopian federal government has accused him of plotting attacks that killed the president of Amhara state, an adviser and the state attorney general in the regional capital, Bahir Dar, on Saturday.

In what the Prime Minister’s office called a separate but related attack, Ethiopia’s army chief of staff, Seare Mekonnen, was killed by his bodyguard in Addis Ababa, 500 kilometers away.

In an interview with VOA, Zecharias Zelalem, an Ethiopian journalist who writes about and studies the country, said Asaminew had a long and complicated history. In 2009, he was arrested by security forces under then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and accused of plotting a coup. He was one of about 20 military officers arrested and was sentenced to life in prison.

His sentence was later commuted and, earlier this year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed restored his military pension and allowed him to work in the government.

Although Zecharias said there was a rift between Asaminew and the government in recent months, nothing foretold the dramatic and violent actions that unfolded Saturday. In fact, Zecharias said, he’s not sure what the true objective of the attacks was.

“I don’t see how the narrative of a coup in a regional government could be legitimate,” he said. “Taking over the regional capital would not guarantee you any sort of control of the region whatsoever. You still have to deal with the fact there are federal army bases in the region.”

Felix Horne, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, sees the attacks in the context of broader ethnic tensions. In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, he pointed to the rising disaffection of the Amhara ethnic group with the government of Abiy, who is Oromo.

Horne saw Asaminew’s appointment as a bid to bolster support of the government in the eyes of the Amhara ethnic group.

The Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) holds power in the region and belongs to Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, but is not seen as strong enough in the eyes of the most strident Amhara nationalists.

Relatives mourn in front of the coffin of the country's Army Chief of Staff Seare Mekonnen, who was shot by his bodyguard, during a memorial ceremony in Addis Ababa, June 25, 2019.
Relatives mourn in front of the coffin of the country’s Army Chief of Staff Seare Mekonnen, who was shot by his bodyguard, during a memorial ceremony in Addis Ababa, June 25, 2019.

“A lot of people ascertain that the appointment of Asaminew to his position as head of the peace and security bureau in the Amhara region was to appease the rising Amhara nationalists,” Horne told Foreign Policy. “And as part of an effort to make the ADP more appealing to a broader swath of the population.”

This plan may have backfired and, Horne said, in recent months Asaminew has been fanning the flames of anger against the federal government.

“He has been engaging in a lot of really strong rhetoric, saying that Amharas need to arm themselves — that they are facing a lot of threats,” Horne said. “There’s been a lot of negativity toward the federal government. He’s also been actively recruiting people to join local militias.”

As of Tuesday, details about Asaminew and his motives were still hazy. The military arrested 182 people Monday for participating in violence in the Amhara region, including four high-ranking officials with ties to the alleged coup attempt, the Associated Press reported.

Amid the uncertainty, internet access was disconnected after service had returned following a week-long shutdown earlier this month.

Zecharias said the events of the past few days go beyond the work of one renegade general. “It points to something far, far larger — far greater than just a plot to take over the Amhara region,” he said, adding, “it would be speculation to guess what that could be.”