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Why Ethiopian Leader’s Reform Agenda Is Under Attack

Since taking power last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been on a drive to open up Africa’s second-most-populous nation. He has scrapped bans on opposition and rebel groups, purged allegedly corrupt officials, ended two decades of acrimony with neighboring Eritrea and put out the welcome mat for foreign capital in an effort to maintain growth in one-

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

Photographer: Ashraf Shazly/AFP

of the world’s fastest-expanding economies. But he still confronts stumbling blocks, including ethnic unrest and opposition from factions within the ruling party. Recent attacks that claimed the lives of five senior government officials have highlighted the extent of the challenges confronting Ethiopia.

1. What sparked the attacks?

The government described the June killings of the five officials, including the army chief of staff and the president of the northern Amhara region, as an attempted coup. Abiy’s office accused Brigadier-General Asaminew Tsige, the head of Amhara’s administration and security bureau, of orchestrating the attacks and said he’d been shot dead while on the run near the regional capital. Amhara TV aired an earlier recorded conversation with its editor-in-chief in which Asaminew was heard to confess to the plot, complaining that the national government ignored the Amhara people’s concerns and grievances.

2. How has the government responded?

In the aftermath of the attacks, the government switched off internet accessthroughout the country for ten days. Security forces have detained more than 250 people, most of them in the Amhara region and in the national capital, Addis Ababa, and more arrests are expected. Abiy named intelligence agency chief Adem Mohammed as the new army chief of staff and appointed new chiefs of the ground forces and National Intelligence and Security Service.

3. What’s behind the ethnic tensions?

Africa’s oldest nation state and one of a handful of countries on the continent to avoid European colonization, Ethiopia was an absolute monarchy until the 1974 socialist revolution that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie. The country has been a multi-ethnic federation since 1991, when an alliance of rebels led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front overthrew the Marxist military regime that followed Selassie. Recently, the country endured four years of protests, mainly by members of the Oromo and Amhara communities, which together account for almost two-thirds of Ethiopia’s 100 million people. They complained of economic and political marginalization by the Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of the population but have dominated Ethiopian politics since the 1990s.

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