Putschism and the Deepening Crisis of Amhara Nationalists
Makonnen Tesfaye; 5 July 2019
A Coup, or Not a Coup - Implications of the Political Act of Irredentist Amhara Nationalists
The illegal attempt by Brigadier General Asamenew Tsige to take over power in the Amhara Region by eliminating the political leadership (including the Regional President, Ambachew Mekonnen, PhD) of the ruling Party, ANDM/ADP, and by defying and challenging the Federal Government is yet another major milestone in the ever extreme right-wing drift and radicalisation of Amhara elite nationalism. The link between the Coup attempt in the Amhara Region and the assassinations of General Seare and Major General Gezae is as yet undetermined (although speculative and unsubstantiated hypotheses abound), but it should not distract us from paying serious attention to the implication of the ominous state of politics in the Region and its adverse impact on the Federation. Furthermore, the characterisation of General Asamenew’s action, that is whether it constituted a Coup d’ Etat (defined by, amongst others, by the sudden violent overthrow of a government and seizure of political power, especially by the military) further diverts attention from the essence of the politics of the Region. The weight of preponderant evidence suggests that the General’s ultimate political aim was to take control of the Region’s Government by force, and once he consolidated his power in the Region to defy and challenge the Federal Government with a view to securing/bargaining for what he called the Amhara political agenda, including the redrawing of the Regional boundaries and the revision, or nullification of the Constitution. The weakening and destabilisation of the Federal order was a complementary and supporting but a secondary strand of his overall strategy of securing power in the Amhara Region. The federal state is where sovereignty, power and governance are distributed amongst autonomous states or regions, and a Coup d’etat directed against a central government (in the classical African Military Coups of the past) does not guarantee the seizure of state power. Conversely, in highly autonomous federal state structure, it is feasible to assume power in the regions and to defy and challenge a central government, in particular in large regions, such as the Amhara or Oromia, and when large sections of the population are politically, ideologically and militarily mobilised as well as when the central authority is relatively weak. The “insurrection” in Oromia - orchestrated by OPDP/ODP and supported by ANDM/ADP - that brought “Team Lemma” to power, is such an example.
Notwithstanding the characterisation, or mechanics of the seizure of power, the General’s attempt to assume power in the Region could have been predicted by a number of key developments in the Region, in particular the evolution of his politico-ideological stance and behaviour as demonstrated by his remarks on public forums recently (verbatim translation from Amharic):
“I sometimes hear religious fathers (priests) speaking. From now on do not talk of reconciliation and negotiation. Speak your mind, if you can, be like the martyred Abune Petros.”
“In three directions organised federal investigation teams have entered our Region. This force is likely sent by the Federal Authority, but we have no prior knowledge, or have been informed of this. This you must record and underline. I have given instruction not to cooperate with them. They will not be able to hold any one in the region to be accountable to them. No one will leave the region.”
“The Amhara people are besieged and surrounded by mortal enemies (i.e. by the Oromos in the South and South East and Tigrayans in the North). The threats to the Amharas are far more dangerous than of that of 500 year ago.” (i.e. since the so-called ‘Oromo Expansion’ and ‘Ahmed Grangn’ Invasion)
(Brigadier General Asamenew Tsige, Graduation Ceremony of the Amhara Luyu Hayl, Source: Amhara Mass Media, 18 June 2019; and Bahir Dar Public Conference, Source: Addis News, 29 June 2019)
The tell-tale signs of the General’s hardening and extreme positions were becoming increasingly clear in recent months. For instances:
(i) Rejection of the Federal Constitution, in particular the Country’s Regional boundaries. The General was on record for rejecting the current Regional boundaries, which he characterised as “TPLF Map”. His irredentist and expansionist claims of other nationalities’ peoples and lands are legendary, and include the Metekel Zone in the Benishangul-Gumuz; Welqait and Raya in Tigray; and Oromo territories in Northern Shoa, to mention but a few. Furthermore, he was on record for stating that all Amhara people residing in other Regions ought to be given Zonal and self-administration rights irrespective of their geographical distributions, which is irrespective of whether they are coterminous populations. Given millions of Amhara people reside in many of the Regions of the country, in particular in Oromia, the implication of his political position can only be nothing but extremely disintegrative. He also supported Eskinder Nega’s claim that Addis Ababa (the so-called “Berera”) primarily belongs to the Amharas. Coversly, Eskinder was in league with the General in respect of the overarching political agenda of elite Amhara nationalists.
(ii) The rejection of the presence, or rights of other minority nationalities in the Amhara Region. For example, over the last year he was busy persecuting the Kimant people, whom he had characterised as the “puppets and creatures” of the TPLF. Moreover, his remark is on record for stating that the “Kimant hands need to be cut”. To date tens of thousands of Kimant people have become victims of the General’s targeted persecution with scant attention paid by the Federal Government. It is also clear by now that the recent clashes in the Kemisie Zone, Dessie and Northern Shoa (e.g. Ataye, Debre-Birhan) were a logical extension of his irredentism and the manifestation of his expansionist view. The heinous massacre of hundreds of Gumuz people by Amhara supremacists in May this year was primarily directed by the General’s paramilitary forces, condoned by the Regional Government and shamefully ignored by the Abiy Government.
(iii) General Asamenew had prepared his ideological and political work in the Amhara Region for a number of years to the point that his narrative of Amhara elite politics and nationalism became dominant. His contention was that the Federal Constitution is anti-Amhara, and that Amhara people are “surrounded and besieged” by enemies in all directions, by OLF in the South and the TPLF in the North. His ultra-nationalism was atavistic and apocalyptic as exemplified by his recent claim that “the Amharas are facing existential threats far more dangerous than that of 500 years ago” (i.e. since the so-called “Oromo Expansion)
(iv) The General’s political agenda was reinforced by his command of the Amhara “Luyu Hayl” (Special Forces), the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of armed militia and parallel paramilitary forces personally loyal to him. Furthermore, he unleashed armed mobs, his so called “Fanos” and loyal paramilitary forces, which were used as tools to exert his irredentist political line on the Regional Government and challenge the Federal Government. In hindsight (many would argue obviously) it is clear by now that the attempts to cut-off the Tigray Region from the rest of Ethiopia (i.e. economic warfare and threat of military invasion) by blocking major artery roads that connect Tigray, via the Amhara Region, with the rest of Ethiopia, had been primarily directed by the General, but with tacit support from the ANDM/ADP Regional Government and spurred by the appeasement of the Federal Government.
(v) The General was on a collision course when he publically refused to acknowledge, or co-operate with Federal Investigation Teams that recently went into the Amhara Region to investigate the recent clashes and massacres of minority nationalities in the Kimant, Kemisie and Jawi zones. Moreover, he publically issued directives that the relevant authorities in the Region should ignore the Federal authorities, and those culprits in the massacre or otherwise would not be held accountable by the Federal authorities. This was nothing but a clear example of defying and challenging the authority of the Federal Government.
(vi) Similarly, the General was on a collision course with his Regional Government given his most recent public remark that the “Fanos” ought to challenge the Amhara Regional Judiciary authorities by employing pressure and mob force when it came to apprehending persons engaged in his civil war and public disorder, such as the theft and plundering of goods passing through the Amhara Region as acts of “liberation”.
(vii) Perhaps, the most expressive and telling of his war-mongering and propensity to violence was his most recent utterance in a public forum discussion in Bahir-Dar, where he castigated civic and religious leaders for preaching peace, reconciliation and negotiation, and his “advice” that they should instead shut up and be ready to be martyrs in the image of “Abune Petros”. He was drawing a parallel or symbolic equivalence between resisting Fascist Italian rule and resisting the Ethiopian Federal authority.
In summary, the General’s aim to take over power in the Amhara Region, his disdain of the Region’s political leaders whom he had considered not sufficiently promoting Amhara nationalism and political agenda and his defiance of the Federal Government were manifestly clear. His failure to translate his dominant politico-ideological narrative of Amhara nationalism and grievances, his huge followings and his control of the Luyu Hayl, militia and paramilitary forces close to half a million in number into a successful take-over of the Region’s Government and challenge the Federal Government was nothing but the failure of execution, implementation tactics and impulsiveness not that of lack of strategic and political objectives or social base. As a serial putschist, given his previous attempt of a Coup against the Federal Government led by Meles Zenawi, and his failed Coup against the Amhara Regional Government demonstrated lack of detailed organisation, co-ordination and tactics and strategy. Perhaps he had underestimated the Federal forces that supported the Regional Government, given the Oro-Mara alliance. Perhaps, it dawned on the Abiy Government the futility of appeasing irredentist and supremacist Amhara nationalism that also began to become too antagonistic to his overarching political agenda, which is in part driven by big nation Oromo chauvinism. Time will tell by unravelling both the objective and subjective contradictions that are presently brewing in the country.
Whither Amhara Nationalists?
Most ominously, although the General’s attempt at seizing Regional state power failed, in other major respects he pushed Amhara nationalism to the extreme right bordering on supremacist and fascistic political and ideological undertone; re-defined Amhara nationalism in his image by becoming the standard bearer of elite and populist Amhara nationalism. The strand of Amhara nationalism propagated by the General is widespread and prevalent in the political and ideological domain, and commands the supports of many elite Amhara nationalists and a significant section of youth at home and abroad. It is distressing to see the common response amongst Amhara elites and those on the social media has been seeking to divert attention from the essence and danger of General Asamenew’s irredentist and supremacist nationalism by focusing on the mechanics, or minor informational inconsistencies on the events leading up to his murderous action.
The General’s position (as CC Member, Head of Security and Commander of the Luyu Hayl) in the ANDM/ADP pushed the party to the extreme right that the only difference between the irredentist views of the ANDM leadership, the General and ANM are paper-thin and at most tactical. For example, whether to employ brute military force of invasion, or use federally sponsored unconstitutional manoeuvres (e.g. Boundary Commission) and economic and budgetary pressures to regain lands and peoples deemed to belong to the Amharas. The General manged to expel the democratic federalists from the party (some put in prison); pushed over the Oro-Mara architect Gedu Andargachew and also, of course, eliminated Ambachew Mekonnen, who was a hard-line Amhara nationalist, but who had sought to use the Oro-Mara alliance to secure his irredentist claims of other peoples and lands by unconstitutional, indirect and nominally and relatively “peaceful” means. The political limbo and sorry state of ANDM/ADP is perhaps better expressed when the most chauvinist and rightist Yonnnes Boayalew (yet the least able professionally) became the new President of the Region, whose irredentism and anti-federalism is not significantly different from that of General Asamenew’s. He is on record that when asked about the prevalence of gun culture and civil disorder that comes with armed mobs, his response was to deny it and attribute the frequent sound of gun fire in the Amhara Region as being primarily “Fire Work”, and this thoughtless characterisation of the Ethiopian Federal Constitution as “rubbish”, failing to connect his comment with the fact that ANDM/ADP being a major player in the Federal Government. This is but a politics of having your cake and eating it. The art of duplicity is an inherent characteristic of the statecraft and political culture of the feudal aristocracy, Dergist military and now the political leadership of the Amhara Region.
The General also manged to link up with and secure the support of “Ethiopian “ branded elite Amhara nationalists - the likes of Eskinder Nega, Lidetu Ayalew, Dawit Woldegiorgis and Yilikal Getnet - to his brand of political narrative of Amhara politics and the quest for hegemony in a unitarian state. All went to the Region to pay their homage and align their anti-federalist political messages with the General’s dominant Amhara elite nationalism. What has been a constant amongst the different strands of elite Amhara nationalists is their common espousal of a unitarian Ethiopia with Amhara supremacy in the political, socio-cultural and economic spheres.
The Big Picture
Looking at the big picture, the rise of the irredentist and supremacist nationalism of General Asamenew has been enabled and facilitated by the anti-democratic, anti-federalist “Oro-Mara” political agenda of the big nation chauvinists in ANDM/ADP and the OPDO/ODP. Whilst the former has abandoned federalism in all but name, and has become indistinct from ANM or the core politics of the General, the latter has continued to be strategically ambivalent, as expressed, for example, by the PM’s recent report to Parliament. What is depressing about the current state of politics in the country is that there appears to be no significant countervailing Amhara nationalism that is democratic and pro-federalism, unlike in the past where democratic and progressive Amharas played a vital role in propagating the benefits of the self-determination of nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia and the establishment of a federal political order. In the final analysis, the defence of self-determination and federalism needs to be based on the strategic alliances of forces that have common material interests and those, including the broad masses of the Amhara people, that benefit from the gains of democracy and sovereignty that that are derived from them. The consequence of the failed attempt to control by force the Amhara Region provides opportunities for Amhara nationalists to reflect on the options of democratic and progressive solutions, or may lead them to further extreme radicalisation and conflict with 80+ Ethiopian nationalities that aspire for self-determination and autonomy. Similarly, for the Abiy Government the options are stark, either continuing with the alliances of unitarian chauvinists, or unambiguously standing for self-determination and federalism. Sooner or later strategic ambivalence is an unsustainable position.
May the martyred heroes, General Seare Mekonnen and Major Gezae Aberra, and the victims of the failed putsch, including Ambachew Mekonnen and his colleagues, rest in eternal peace!