AfricaAmhara Regional StateEPRDFEthiopiaEthiopia in transitionOpinionTopic of the Month

Opinion: The unbelievable has happened, let us make it count 

Merhatsidk Mekonnen Abayneh, For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, July 09/2019 – Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen, the recently slain President of the Amhara national Regional State, was more an intimate friend for me personally than a super political boss unreachable for his immediate subordinates.

Sad to memorize, the unbelievable has happened in the late afternoon of that black and bloody Saturday of June 22 2019 at the Office of the Amhara Regional State where the newly installed head of the regional government and his two senior party and government colleagues were gunned down in a gruesome manner by a cold-blooded squad of assassins, purportedly for no reason other than an internal political squabble.

In fact, the so-called ‘Coordinating Committee’ consisting of seven members customarily mandated to integrate major party and government functions throughout the region was holding a special session in that occasion when the cabinet room was suddenly and forcefully stormed and burst open by a group of armed assailants from outside with a fierce gun fire against little resistance from the security guards. In a moment, the three officials, including Dr. Ambachew, were hit as they were trying to exit while the remaining four managed to spare their lives in hiding by miracle. According to the eye witness account of the four survivors, Dr. Ambachew and Ezeze Wasie, his Organizational Affairs’ Aide, were instantly killed whereas Migbaru Kebede, the newly groomed State Government’s Attorney General was fatally wounded only to pass away two days later as the result of the injury he has sustained.

Regardless of all sorts of possible conspiracies being rumored out in the air, the key orchestrator and perpetrator of the heinous assassination was reportedly Bir. Gen. Asamminew Tsighie, Head of the Regional Peace and Security Bureau, escorted by a slew of his special force troops. Bir. Gen. Asaminew, who himself has been pursued and killed in the Zenzelimma area, a place not far from Bahir Dar, on Monday, June 24 2019 in a shoot-out with the police, is said to have entered the State House along with his killing squad using his privileged access into the building wherein the Coordinating Committee met, as a dignified cabinet member and the Head of the Regional Peace and Security Bureau, ironically having been saluted by the compound guard on duty. Nevertheless, what has triggered this infamous murder of his immediate boss and the rest of his political associates is yet to be established following the completion of the ongoing high-level criminal investigations which the Joint Security and Justice Task Force has been carrying out in close cooperation with the Regional Police counterparts.

Ambachew and Me during our Brief Stay on Duty

It is true that Dr. Ambachew and I have not worked together for more than 3 and half months of his State Presidency in total. But our lengthy acquaintance goes twenty years back when we had lived in one and the same block of government residential buildings located in Kebele 13, (now Shimbith Sub-City) of the City of Bahir Dar enjoying a rather warm and tasty neighborliness. My children and his were brought up playing and chatting together.

To make the story of our longstanding relationship more meaningful, Maaza, Dr. Ambachew’s daughter, whom we had watched sensationally speaking to the mourners gathered to pay their last tribute at the Bahir Dar International Stadium prior to his funeral on June 26 2019 , is the contemporary of Melkam, my youngest daughter. Both have still maintained their intimacy and are now working in Addis Abeba after having graduated from the Addis Abeba University (AAU) in their respective fields of study.

More due to this close and strong family ties, I have to add here that my wife, Azalech and I have been invited and happily attended the colorful ceremony of his eldest daughter Netsannet Ambachew’s wedding, which was joyously celebrated at his residence in Addis Abeba no longer than a month before he died.

Unfortunately, our formal working relationship is short-lived. Yet, my memory of him is fresh and remarkable. Dr. Ambachew is a humble and down-to-earth person easily approachable to his subordinates both physically and emotionally.

As his senior and extra ordinary advisor on crucial policy and legal matters, I think I was given a special access to him in the currency of his brief stay in the highest executive and administrative office of the national regional state. Admittedly, the lion-share of his short duration as of day one was largely consumed by the endless-looking travels on duty from one corner to another in order to stabilize the region constantly marred by the sporadic lawlessness, anarchy and inter-group violence.

Regardless, our limited conversations and frank exchange of views whenever he returns to his office were, in due course, beginning to get deeper into the perplexing realities currently affecting the region and somehow figuring out the outstanding pitfalls with greater emphasis on the maintenance of peace and security, rule of law and order as well as the gradual restoration of public confidence in the government’s capacity to accelerate the pace of the reform measures introduced by the country’s lead change agents.

If my observation doesn’t fail me, Dr. Ambachew was a fairly good inquirer and an astute learner. Yet, I have, at times, detected a bit of restlessness and mental breakup in him amid our bilateral discussions and in-house consultations, at times internally restrained to abnormally quit a heated exchange of views prior to its conclusion, with little or no adequate explanation for his rather odd action. By and large, we had to cut short our scheduled discussions only to finish them through late night telephone conversations back home.

My understanding is that he might have been a bit disorganized and frustrated by a mounting pressure from other sources of engagement having taken over a rather tense region, which continues to be challenged by a series of issues like internal hostility and the Amhara people’s displacement only to name but a few.

With the exception of the very first day when we had to meet to provide him with a preliminary orientation on how to start up his constitutional duties and responsibilities the moment he assumed office, Ambachew and I never sat in front of each other while talking on a range of topics of his desire for professional input. Instead, he always preferred to sit down by my left side, sometimes making me feel like his boss to the reverse. “Thank you my brother” is the sweet phrase which he extends to me and I do miss the most out of him as we finish our discussions and stand up to personally lead me by hand back to my own office not far from his.

Who Might be behind the Assassination?d

Let it be reiterated here that it is not secret that Dr. Ambachew was militating for a comprehensive cabinet reform and subsequent review of downward Zonal and Woreda structures including the security setup in an effort to get rid of the predicaments that would potentially arrest the ongoing change in one way or another. Although his plan was awaited to materialize very eagerly on the part of the public, it is very likely that he has also developed formidable foes from within the political and security establishment which happens to be still full of suspicious elements feeling less insecure about their present positions of comfort.

As a rule, no reform of any kind is ever welcome and taken for granted in the eyes of those who always feel threatened not only to be deprived of their appreciable jobs, but also to be held accountable for their misdeeds and wrongdoings.

Hence, the governing belief behind the assassination of the popular head of the regional government and his senior colleagues seems, whoever has initiated and committed it, to be his unwavering determination to advance the slow-moving pace of the leadership reform in order to overhaul and update the ruling Amhara Democratic Party, (ADP), so that the latter would reorganize itself and effectively respond to the overarching interests and legitimate grievances of the broader Amhara populace inside and outside the Amhara Region.

A Coup or Not a Coup?

I do hear some analysts say, (the Office of the Prime Minister included topping in the list), that what has happened in Bahir Dar on June 22 2019 constitutes an attempted coup d’état as the infamous assassination was planned and perpetrated against the top government officials of the Amhara National Regional State while on duty, allegedly by a senior regional security chief using his especially trained killing squad and the available public machinery at his disposal. Be it mere co-incidence or not, this extra ordinary development was proceeded hours later by another cold-blooded murder in Addis Abeba of Gen. Saare Mekonnen, Chief of Staff of the country’s Armed Forces, and Maj. Gen. Ghezai Abera, a retired army officer, in the former’s private villa, reportedly by no suspect other than the personal bodyguard of the Chief of Staff himself.

Despite their proximity in timing, the possible connection between these two heart breaking events has not yet been established to the reasonable satisfaction of the requirements of the criminal justice system. Interestingly though, both federal and regional authorities tend to strive hard for the combination of these separate attacks in Bahir Dar and Addis Abeba to be designated as an attempted coup d’état claimed to have been foiled by the counter-operation of the regional security apparatus in tandem with the federal police and the national defense forces.

Irrespective of how serious and grievous they might be, not all crimes against the state in general and its senior officials in particular do qualify as a coup proper in the strict sense of the term. In connection with this, the well-reputed Black’s Law Dictionary, (7th Ed. 1999), defines the term, (Coup detat) as a “stroke of state”. It further elaborates the hyperbolic French term as “a sudden, usually violent, illegal and unconstitutional action aimed at overthrowing or changing the government on duty through a seizure of power” by force.

Should you consult Wikipedia, too, Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell also posit that failed coups as “illegal and overt attempts by the military or any other elites within the existing state apparatus in a bid to unseat the sitting executive authority” in charge.

Under normal conditions, staging a coup or attempting one has the ultimate objective of toppling a sovereign political authority and thus taking over the government by force of arms with or without resort to a regime change as of necessity. In view of this critical examination of the Bahir Dar phenomenon, only time will tell if the dramatic assassination of the president of the Amhara Region and his colleagues by Bir. Gen. Asamminew Tsige, the alleged mastermind behind the noted conspiracy, was really meant to overthrow the State Government and officially declare the imposition of a substitute authority following the brutal action.

For a coup d’état to happen or at least to claim it has been attempted, it may not be sufficient to prove the storming of a state building and assassinate top government officials on duty. This kind of deadly and covert action must clearly and unequivocally be aimed at overthrowing the government in power and thereby replace it by a new one. Furthermore, any assumed coup orchestrator in the position of a high-ranking and experienced military commander and serving regional security chief planning to attack an internal political entity such as the Amhara National Regional State constituting a federated nation like the present-day Ethiopia is less likely to dream of having succeeded in the accomplishment of his intended objective from the very outset as the Federal Government would, in no time, intervene and abort his/her ill-advised move no later than he or she has seized power at all.

In my measured opinion, therefore, we have to wait for the full inquiry into the still unfolding situation to come up with a conclusive outcome before we rush to brand it as such. If it is not to qualify to become a coup attempt as has been prematurely suggested on the part of the Federal Government less than an hour from its occurrence, no doubt that anyone of the twin high-profile assassinations would eventually amount to another devastating crime punishable by life imprisonment, if not death, where the dangerous gravity of the offense in question so warrants as provided for under our national Criminal Code in effect.

It is to be emphasized here that Art. 2. Sub-Art. (3) of the 2005 Ethiopian Criminal Code expressly prohibits the court of law not to “resort to the creation of any criminal offense by analogy”.

On this account, one is better advised for the time being to subscribe to and concur with the International Crisis Group, (I.C.G), which has recommended that “our politicians at all levels should refrain from doing or saying anything provocative” and detrimental to the lasting unity of the country and its cherished citizens prior to the completion of the ongoing criminal investigation”.

In its precautionary statement released on June 25 2019, under the title, ‘Restoring Calm in Ethiopia after High-profile Assassinations’, the celebrated group further underscored that “the shocking multiple murder of the high-ranking officials exposes the gravity of the nation’s deepening crisis”. In order to mitigate the associated risks, though, ICG did not hesitate to call on both the federal government and ruling elites to “take urgent steps with a view to healing the deeper and dangerous internal rifts” in the mainstream political community. AS

Editors Note: Merhatsidk Mekonnen Abayneh is a senior expert in law as well as peace and security studies. He is serving in the capacity of a Chief Legal Advisor to the President of the Amhara National Regional State, Ethiopia. He can be reached at:

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