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Sinkhole Politics Ethiopian Style: The Breakdown of Law and Order and the Assassination of General Seare Mekonnen, Major General Gezae Aberra and Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                                                          June 27, 2019

The assassination of Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen, Major General Gezae Aberra, and Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen has shaken the very foundation of the larger Ethiopian society and has thrown Ethiopians into disbelief and incredulous puzzlement. The people are asking, who are the criminals behind the assassination plots? How can two dramatic murder stories occur at Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa at the same time?

At a time when the Government and its attendant media were not able (or unwilling) to provide the truth about the assassinations, Ethiopians were forced to resort to innuendo and gossip-like stories, some persuasive and others unconvincing; and in due course of the chaos, one relatively credible letter appeared on the social media; it emphasized the conspiracy of the plot vis-à-vis internal and external actors, although it also acknowledged the instrumentality of Brigadier General Asaminew Tsige in the murder of the Amhara Regional State leaders, and to further complicate matters, the perpetrator was also killed by government forces. Other commentators argued that the killing of Dr. Ambachew and his colleagues was a smokescreen to gloss over the assassination of Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen and Major General Gezae Aberra, which, according to some observers, was planned ahead of time. Yet, some sources say, major General Gezae was not the target but because he went to Seare’s house for a chat over tea, he too was murdered along with the Chief of Staff, the main target.

Initially, the media announced that the murderer of Seare and Gezae was the body guard of the Chief of Staff, who right away killed himself, but soon after the story changed and the media announced that the culprit was wounded, captured, and was in a hospital (the murder’s identity and the hospital where he was getting medical attention were not disclosed); not disclosing name and place is understandable in light of the seriousness of intelligence-related matters, but the incredible enigma is the identity of the people who shot and wounded the murderer! Who are they?

In the midst of all these confusions and innuendos, I personally would not venture to make a preliminary judgment. The aim of this paper, in fact, is to provide explanatory notes as its tile suggests; and I am of the opinion that we must wait longer to figure out the real nature of the murder story. For instance, when the writing of this piece was in progress, the Government announced that the person behind the assassinations is Brigadier General Asaminew, and it also provided the photo of the murderer (Sgt. Mesafint Tigabu) who killed Seare and Gezae. More news may come, and we must refrain from indulging in transmitting and promoting false information. However, any sensible person could inquire in regards to what exactly happened at General Seare house on June 22, 2019; when the Generals were shot and killed? Was the so-called Mesafint by himself or there were other people behind him who coordinated and participated in the killing? On that accursed day, the US Embassy in Addis Ababa announced that there were sporadic shots around the city. Were the gun shots mere coincidences or part of the general performance to hoodwink and distract the attention of Addis Ababa residents in general and Seare’s neighborhood in particular?    

Immediately after the plot was staged at Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa, the Government media described the incident as a coup d’etat, an explanation that does not make sense in political science terminology. The term coup d’etat, etymologically French but adopted in English, actually means ‘stroke of the national government’ and does not as such apply to a plot against a regional state. The best explanation for the plot would have been ‘conspiracy and political assassination in order to further undermine Ethiopian unity’ or ‘to eliminate top government officials who are perceived as threat to the central government’. The purpose and real intent of the conspiracy has yet to be determined! Or, as in many similar cases, including those of Hayelom Araya, Meles Zenawi, and Engineer Simegnew Bekele, we may never know the cause of the respective deaths.

I personally analogize the murder of Chief of Staff Seare Mekonnen, Major General Gezae Aberra, and Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen and his colleagues to the culmination of the breakdown of law and order in Ethiopia. In the last year and half, i.e. with the ascendance of a new regime led by PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has encountered violation of the Constitution and absence of rule of law, followed by instability and internal displacement of 2.4 million Ethiopians. This disruptive phenomenon is unheard of in Ethiopian history, and it is simply unfathomable why the government was unable to maintain peace and order, when, ironically, it has a strong federal police and formidable defense forces at its disposal.

Contrary to my analysis and observation of current Ethiopian politics, some non-Ethiopian observers were of the opinion that in order for Abiy to lead and administer the country, he needs to get rid of “TPLF Generals in the army”. One such observer is Bronwyn Bruton who contributed an article to Foreign Policy on July 2018. Her piece is entitled “Ethiopia and Eritrea have a common enemy”, and the common enemy apparently is the TPLF. What I found intriguing in her analysis (or advice-like opinion) is the fact that it is relevant to my present article. She stated, “Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki are racing toward peace because they both face the same threat: hard-liners in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front…Abiy has started to thin their ranks forcing the resignation of notorious generals and officials… Abiy has already completed the easy part of this task. He has fired many old standard-bearers of the TPLF…The entire ethos of the Ethiopian army is based on the mythology of the Tigrayan liberation who defeated the Derg in 1991 – the same people who still personally hold most key security intelligence posts…To consolidate his power, he [Abiy] needs to fire the worst but co-opt the rest, and that process could take years.” For further reading on this incredibly instructive and policy-related analysis, see https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/12/ethiopia-and-eritrea-have-a-common-enemy-abiy


When I made a cursory reading of Bronwyn Bruton’s article a year ago, I interpreted it as a strategy to encircle Tigray and emasculate the TPLF, “the common enemy of both Isaias and Abiy” but I also thought that it would not be easy to simply encircle the Tigrayans and eliminate the TPLF given their steadfastness and courage. On the contrary, I reasoned, that the TPLF actually would enjoy some unforeseen bonus from the “encirclement” because it would be in a position to mobilize the people of Tigray, and that is what exactly happened a year after, and I now could argue that the encirclement was a miscalculated move. However, with respect to “getting rid of TPLF Generals”, Bronwyn was right, and it looks her prediction came to haunt the Tigrayans in particular and other Ethiopians in general on June 22, 2019.    

The haunting of Ethiopians was not a mere reflection of “TPLF Generals” that were either fired or were forced to resign; it was rather a deep sorrow associated with the killing of the Generals, and when the remains of the victims came to the Millennium Hall for a farewell, it was clear that the many hundreds of attendants, including the family of the victims, were overwhelmed by severe sadness, melancholy, and gloom. The victims were well respected by their comrades-in-arms, the Generals and other speakers who celebrated the life of General Seare and Major General Gezae; prayers led by the Patriarch Abuna Mathias was conducted to calm the shouting and crying audience and also to give solace to the bereaving family; top government officials, including the Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed and Deputy PM Demeke Mekonnen were also present; like many in the audience Dr. Abiy was sobbing and weeping; that could be a sign of compunction or a paradox of mental vision that one day the PM might share with curious Ethiopians.     

When PM Abiy assumed power, the Ethiopian people welcomed him and embraced his bright and promising administrative and political policies, including open political debates and reforms aimed at restructuring the government; some of the significant steps taken by Abiy Ahmed are his newly constituted cabinet of ministers composed of ten women and ten men; above all, he appointed a woman president, first female president in recent Ethiopian history, although Ethiopia had many women head of state from Queen Saba to Queen Zewditu.

However, the above promising reforms were virtually circumvented by what I call ‘sinkhole politics’, a sudden destabilizing movement that actually undermines the reform initiative; it is very much like a paradox or by what we call ‘contradiction-in-terms’. I will explain this incredibly bizarre behavior of the current Ethiopian state after I define what sinkhole politics means. Literally, a sinkhole is a minor geological formation of a crack on the ground; the ground is eroded from beneath the surface. Some symptoms of a sinkhole are tilting trees, walls and/or fences, as well as foundations of buildings that slant. With respect to politics, however, the symptoms are quite different as discussed below.

The current sinkhole politics in Ethiopia is a result of the breakdown of law and order as I have already discussed above; it is a manifestation of a cultural and political fragmentation that has been going on for at least three decades, but the rapid appearance of a sinkhole Ethiopian style is associated with the Abiy regime and his style of governance which is tantamount to resignation and indifference, and as a result the ‘rule of law’ has become meaningless both in concept and practice in the last year or so. This subversion of law and order has, in turn, been conducive to the local and narrow-minded politicians and also to armed brigands reminiscent of 19th century Ethiopia. The latter groups were engaged on a killing spree of innocent Ethiopians while simultaneously looting and burning private businesses and public property. The brigands are also actively engaged in blocking main roads that serve as highways between the regional states, and by doing so they effectively rendered the federal government non-existent; and they themselves began controlling certain territories by mobilizing Ya Gobez Aleqa (chief of militias). Sometimes, it is difficult to make distinction between the self-appointed militias, the regional police, and the officials of the local governments because the latter two have, in many instances, chose to be bystanders instead of acting against the brigands, and consequently thousands of Ethiopian citizens were exposed to the violent attacks by militias.

The militia-type brigands (aka ‘special armed forces’ in some areas) could not have been above the law had it been for a determined and strong government, but because the Government exhibited ineptitude and ineffectiveness, the lawless ‘outlaw gangs’ have greatly contributed to the sinkhole politics. Moreover, the present government shadowy existence in Ethiopian affairs gave rise to a major sinkhole politics and emboldened vicious scoundrels to take the law into their own hands, and it is not surprising that Asaminew Tsige and his militia took a decisive and bloody attack against the Amhara State leaders

Based on the above analysis, it should be known that sinkhole politics and the killing of top officials is, in fact, a result of wrong policy of inviting Diaspora Ethiopians who constitute ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’; the good are some genuine Ethiopian nationalists who were forbidden to enter their country (these are few in number); the bad are sizable in terms of number and they constitute ex-Derg members; the ugly are the plentitude of chauvinistic elements-turned narrow nationalists. The other wrong policy of the Government is the indiscriminate release of criminals along the prisoners of conscience. The releasing of political prisoners and journalists marks a new era in Ethiopian history toward establishing a new democratic society, but inviting ex-Derg fascist elements who are responsible for the destruction of Ethiopian intellectuals and youth during the Red Terror was a huge mistake.

On top of the political dimension of the breakdown of law and order, the present sinkhole politics could also derail worthwhile development projects; some infrastructural nerves in the foundational economy, such as the Djibouti-Awash-Hara Gebeya rail construction are now stalled; the country’s economic growth has been undercut from 10-11% per annum to 7-7.7 %  per annum; unemployment has risen significantly and the cost of living (skyrocketing prices of goods and services) has virtually bankrupted the wallet of ordinary Ethiopians; criminality in major Ethiopian cities has quadrupled and citizens are terrified.

Despite the many complicated socio-political problems that Ethiopia has encountered, however, the sacrifices of Seare, Gezae, and Ambachew may have brought some unforeseen blessings or positive results:

1.    The overwhelming Ethiopian citizens have expressed their sorrow and anger

2.    Ethiopians have now begun to realize that power transfer should be conducted via peaceful and democratic means, and not by violence and illegal usurpation of power

3.    Ethiopians have now felt that they need to iron out their differences via dialogue, abandon their ethnic sentiments and unite rather on the overarching Ethiopian nationhood

4.    Various sectors of the Ethiopian society, including religious and civic leaders, as well as traditional community leaders, have emphasized the significance of peace and order as precondition to the very survival of Ethiopia and the continuation of the development agenda. Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church especially have begun organizing mass prayers in order to deflect the bad omen that is hovering over Ethiopia.

5.    As the deputy chief of staff, General Berhanu Jula aptly put it, “the murder of the Generals [his comrades-in-arms] and the Amahra State leaders is meant to break Ethiopian unity and disrupt the army…but we will shame these criminals and we will win.” That should be the call for all Ethiopians if indeed Ethiopia is going to uplift itself from the current mess.

6.    Despite the relative erosion of moral and ethical values in the Ethiopian society, Ethiopians have exhibited magnanimity by respecting the dead and celebrating their lives. Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen and his colleagues were honored in the Amhara region; General Seare Mekonnen and Mjaor General Gezae Aberra were not only honored but they have also enjoyed (as if they were alive!) the highest respect ever; the people of Tigray and the many delegations who came from the rest of Ethiopia have extended admiration, veneration, reverence, and approbation to these great Generals. There has never been in Ethiopian history where a funeral service of such magnitude was organized for the Generals in Tigray.

In concluding this essay, I like to underscore that the Abiy Government must now shoulder a huge responsibility to calm the Ethiopian nation-state and bring solace to the family of the victims. Additionally, the Ethiopian Government must now seize the moment in rendering justice and bringing the criminals before the court of law; arresting people en mass is not going to be a solution to the current complicated problem, and the Government must not act alone in the decision making process; as a matter of course, it should operate hand-in-glove with the Ethiopian parliament. I am of the opinion that a joint session of the House of Peoples’ representatives and House of Federation should be held to investigate the Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa tragic incidents; the relatively emasculated EPRDF should also call an emergency meeting to investigate the same incident; and the Ethiopian Defense Forces should remain alert at all times in order to thwart any move that undermines the unity of the Ethiopian people and violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. The Semien Ez (the Northern Division of the Ethiopian Defense Force) especially must jealously guard against possible conspiracy directed against Ethiopians and their country.     

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