Explosion at rally proves that Ethiopia isn’t out of the woods yet

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed minutes before an explosion. EPA-EFE/STR

At least two people died and 156 were wounded in a grenade attack at a political rally in Addis Ababa addressed by reformist Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Abiy was a surprise guest on the day and, moments after sitting down once he’d made his speech, there was an explosion metres away. He was not hurt, but the rally’s organisers have claimed he was the main target.

The Conversation Africa spoke to Ethiopian scholar Mohammed Girma to analyse the impact of the attack.

Was this an unprecedented moment in Ethiopia’s history?

The attempted assassination on a national leader isn’t entirely new to Ethiopia. There was, at least, one such attempt in 1976 targeting Mengistu Hailemariam, a former leader who now lives in Zimbabwe as a fugitive. He survived with slight injuries.

That attack was interpreted by many as the incident that triggered horrendous political violence known as “Red Terror”, which left thousands of young people dead.

But the scale and the audacity of this attack is unprecedented. It appears that those who planned it couldn’t deliver on the scale they might have wanted. Had they succeeded, the human cost and its political implications would have been immense.

What is the current political context?

The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front which has been in power for nearly 30 years, is decaying. It lacks the political will to introduce fundamental reforms which would address issues like endemic corruption, the incarceration of journalists and political opponents and widespread economic marginalisation.

These concerns precipitated protests from various segments of society and forced former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign.

Abiy emerged from within the ruling party amid this disarray. His message was markedly different. He spoke the language of the people and tapped into society’s aspirations and fears. While it was expected that he’d be a safe pair of hands for ordinary people as well as the ruling elites, nobody expected him to be as direct and decisive as he has turned out to be in his reform efforts.

These have met with resistance, particularly from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which is the dominant wing of the ruling coalition. It’s started to act as an opposition from within to Abiy’s work.

The rally at which the attack occurred was called to disentangle Abiy from the establishment and give him a unambiguous mandate to run the country.

People are enchanted with his message of “medemer”, or togetherness, as opposed to ethnic compartmentalisation. They support his systematic and nonviolent removal of corrupt leaders who thrived on spreading fear and using violence to cling to power.

The Prime Minister immediately laid blame on anti-peace forces. Who is he referring to and what is their agenda?

It’s not entirely clear who he had in mind. There are all sorts of theories swirling around. It’s not only unfruitful, but also dangerous, to point fingers at this or that entity. It would be wise to wait until justice runs its course.

However, one can say with some level of justification that whoever made this attempt must have felt threatened by Abiy’s popularity, message and reform efforts. Ethiopians are accustomed to fearing their leaders. But Abiy is loved.

Instead of deploying the usual tactics of violence, he has used a message of love and togetherness. As a result, he has garnered support across ethnic, religious and ideological boundaries. Even in the aftermath of the explosions, the message coming out of his office was one of love, healing and solidarity, not revenge.

Regardless of who the “anti-peace forces” might be, their agenda seems to be to subvert the new rhetoric and render Ethiopia ungovernable.

What does this attack say about Abiy’s authority and the country’s stability?

The implications can be looked at in two different ways. On the one hand, overwhelming support for what he’s doing lessens the chances of the “anti-peace” forces using the people to instigate a major conflict. On the other, the attack shows that such anti-peace elements still carry enough venom to disrupt Abiy’s narrative and hamper the progress of his reform.

What happens next?

Under Abiy’s leadership Ethiopia has taken a few steps forward. He has started the right conversation, injected hope and managed to change the national mood. He has made some clever diplomatic moves, and he is not afraid to make bold and even edgy decisions.

But the country isn’t out of woods yet. Social cohesion and economy are his biggest challenges.

The ramifications of the latest violence are still unknown. The investigation might open a can of worms and, if poorly handled, might deepen suspicion between dissenting groups. The support and the understanding of the masses are of critical importance for Abiy to steer the country out of turbulence.

There is also good reason to question whether or not he is producing supporters who would see him as a cult hero rather than someone who can be criticised, questioned and held to account when he crosses the line.