Days after gunmen, led by a top general, killed five government officials, including a regional president and the army’s chief of staff, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed planted olive seedlings at the National Palace in the capital, Addis Ababa, in their memory.
Images of the symbolic tribute, distributed by the prime minister’s office and aired on state television, showed a gentle and plaintive Abiy tending to the fragile young trees, a metaphor for the role he has cast for himself in Ethiopia’s tumultuous transition to democracy.
Speaking to lawmakers Monday, the 42-year-old leader, now in his sixteenth month on the job, took a tougher stance. “If there is anyone coming for the sovereignty of Ethiopia,” Abiy said, “we are ready to fight, not with a pen, but with a Kalashnikov.”
Abiy’s willingness to take up arms for the unity of Ethiopia underscored the gravity of the threat that the June 22 assassinations — characterized by the government as a failed coup — represent in the eyes of a reformist leader unwilling to let resistance to drastic change compromise national unity.
But not all Ethiopians share his desire for integration — or believe he has gone far enough to overturn his government’s authoritarian legacy.
The attacks, Abiy said, are only the latest attempt to disrupt his agenda through violence, the most recent in a chain of incidents that, together, constitute an existential threat to Africa’s second-most populous nation.
In his address to parliament, Abiy recounted violence and displacement in the Somali region at the hands of armed militias and opposition groups, and a similar upheaval in the country’s west.
He characterized instigators of violence as illogical and heartless. But William Davison, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, told VOA Brigadier General Asaminew Tsige, who government officials say masterminded the attacks, and who soon after died in a firefight with federal security forces, was a popular figure in the Amhara region.
“Asaminew was put into this position because he was representative of popular viewpoints and popular positions, and so he was seen as a defender of Amhara rights. A defender of Amhara interests. A campaigner for justice for the Amhara people,” Davison said.
Asaminew was arrested and imprisoned in 2009 under allegations of attempting a coup. His sentence was later commuted, and Abiy appointed him to the high-profile post he held up until the June 22 events.
In his remarks Monday, Abiy hinted at other, unreported attempts to grab power through violence since he took office.
“In the last one year, there have been so many attempts. I am not going to tell you of those you don’t know, but some you already know," he said.
Abiy enjoys widespread support, both at home, toward the middle of the Ethiopian political spectrum, and within the international community, Henok G. Gabisa, a professor of practice at Washington and Lee University’s School of Law, in Virginia, told VOA. Religious leaders and civic society groups share Abiy’s vision, Gabisa added.
But some say Abiy’s reforms don’t go far enough and fear that mass arrests and internet shutdowns signal a backslide on promises to open space for opposition groups and competing political parties.
The government arrested hundreds following last month’s attacks. And the internet shutoff is just the latest attempt to control the flow of information.
“It’s deeply unsatisfactory for the government to be summarily shutting off the internet and closing people off from so much information,” Davison said.
When access returned after 10 days of a total shutdown, rumors at odds with the government’s carefully communicated narrative of the attacks were already swirling.
“By trying to stop the flow of information and stop conspiracy theories, the government is also breeding them,” Davison said.
‘Last and remaining chance’
Some Ethiopians, especially those who feel left out of reforms and on the margins of the country’s political sphere, share Abiy’s commitment to the country’s unique brand of ethnic federalism, a tenuous agglomeration of some of the country’s more than 80 ethnic groups.
That ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, dominates the political space, but may be on its last legs.
“The political elites within the EPRDF are divided, and they have yet to learn to work together during such an experimental time,” Gabisa said. “I think Abiy is the last and remaining chance for the EPRDF to repair itself,” he added.
Ethiopia’s economy represents another looming threat. The country boasts one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, and Abiy has prioritized creating a welcome environment for outside investment. But unemployment remains high, poverty is widespread and wealth is concentrated in relatively few hands. In the case of an economic collapse, “Ethiopia’s existence would be questionable,” Gabisa said.
But short-term instability and violent setbacks don’t mean Ethiopia’s transition is fundamentally flawed, Gabisa added.
“People are convoluting or mistaking democratic experiment for governmental weakness. In fact, what is lacking is collective political consciousness and mutual trust between elites at multiple levels,” he said.
“As a transitional leader, Abiy has cut out for himself the task of culminating the political transition into carrying out a democratic national election in 2020. That should be the target goal for everyone to work toward,” Gabisa said. “Security and democratic freedom are not necessarily mutually exclusive.”
For his part, Abiy sees peace as conditional.
“Our kindness and forgiveness,” he said, “is only for the unity of Ethiopia.”