What is the truth behind Ethiopia’s “coup” plot?

May 6, 2009

A plot is defined as “a plan made in secret”, but even by the usual shadowy nature of such matters around Africa, the recent conspiracy to overthrow the Ethiopian government has been hard to see clearly.

The story broke two weeks ago when the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said 40 men had been arrested for planning a coup after police found guns, bombs and “written strategies” at their homes. But a few days later the government communication office was asking journalists not to use the word coup anymore. The “desperados”, they said, had planned to “overthrow” the government by using assassinations and bombings to create enough chaos to get supporters on the streets to topple the government.

The sensitivity surrounding the language and the details of what was actually going on highlight the caution that still exists in sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country after a disputed 2005 election ended with police and soldiers killing about 200 opposition street protesters who were marching on government buildings.

Understandably, many Ethiopians are sceptical that people would take to the streets again. And others question whether the will is still there to march against a government that most analysts consider the most effective the desperately poor nation Horn of Africa has ever had.

The suspected involvement of an Ethiopian-American university professor was a detail that caught the interest of the international media. Berhanu Nega, who called the accusation “baseless”, was elected mayor of Addis Ababa after the 2005 poll but was imprisoned along with about 100 other opposition members when the government accused them of orchestrating the street protests.

He was released in 2007 after a pardon deal and soon fled to America, where he teaches economics at Bucknell University in Philadelphia. Another leader released as part of that pardon, 36-year-old former judge Birtukan Mideksa, was rearrested last year after the government said she violated the terms of the pardon. She remains in prison.

Ethiopians love to talk politics in the bars and cafes of capital Addis Ababa — often in very hushed tones, which is perhaps a hangover from 17 years of brutally repressive communist rule that ended when the rebel group led by Meles came to power in 1991.

And the “coup” is now the subject of those whispered chats. Some say there was a real threat to the government that came from Berhanu and his allies in the sizeable and vocal diaspora. Some say there was dissent in the military and Berhanu simply provided a convenient excuse for the government to move against that in its early stages.

And one opposition leader even told me that the government may have invented the coup plot so it could arrest potential politicians ahead of national elections due in 2010.

“Without third party verification I can’t believe there was a plot,” said Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement.

Amnesty International now says the government is arresting more people in secret.

This intriguing story will surely develop over the weeks to come as the Ethiopian government has said it is preparing evidence that will be presented before “an independent judiciary” and has promised the 40 accused will appear in an Addis Ababa court next week.

What sort of truth will emerge from the shadows?

(Photos: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks to the media in his office in Addis Ababa, April 13, 2009; (bottom) The shadow of a supporter of Ethiopia’s Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) is seen through an Ethiopian flag during a demonstration in the capital Addis Ababa, April 16, 2009, both by Irada Humbatova).


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Yes, the coup issue is confusing. Whatever it is, the statements by Berhanu Nega that he would use any means ,including military, to change government is very shocking. I did not expect him to say that because i followed his story and his peaceful ideology since 2004. His statements show that the post-election riots in 2005 were, in fact, well-organized riots by the CUD opposition party which Berhanu was a leading official. Four years ago, i did not believe the government when it said there was “orange revolution” and “violent riots” to overthrow the government. But Berhanu Nega proved the Addis Ababa government correct by showing that his peaceful movement ideology was not deeply entrenched and it was not so peaceful after all.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

Bulcha is going to be arrested in ethiopia http://www.jimmatimes.com/article/Local_ News/Local_News/Ethiopia_Govt_calls_Oppo sition_MP_Bulcha_a_quotCriminalquot/3221 9

Posted by news | Report as abusive

I think the trend shows that the government is in deep trouble. It is trying to contain potential opponents in order to extend power as long as possible, a tradition for almost all African leaders. From that on, we could ask ourselves whether the government of Ethiopia is really engaged in democratic reform. The government has been pampered by foreign donors for long time. Is it not time to open their eyes and seek for alternative leaders before the country slide into unwanted crisis or, to the worst, into civil war as a result of the ethnic based federalism established by the current government? Having said that, I do not think Brihanu would be as violent leader as Meles Zenawi. In my view, which is shared by many, the accusation is a mere defamation in order to thwart the momentum of this charismatic opposition leader. To conclude, foreign donors have to give opportunity for the emerging democratic opposition leaders.

Posted by R. Mash | Report as abusive

Prime Minister Meles is clearly accomplished and proof of that was a recent HARDTALK interview with Zeinab Baadawy where he more than held his own and some.

Whilst coups and counter coups by their very nature are murky affairs and it is never easy to unpick the real narrative, it is clear that Ethiopia [with only one mobile network and probably the only place where bulk sms cannot be sent] is coming closer to the point when the Information revolution will wash up on its shores. The spread of Ideas will display an exponential growth curve from a very low base.

The mettle of the Prime Minister is set to be tested from here on in. He is clearly aware of the challenges and I for one would prefer to be in his corner.

But a new terrain that is for sure. And a very tricky economic situation as well.

Aly-Khan Satchu

Posted by Aly-Khan Satchu | Report as abusive

Oppression, arrest and executions are part of the daily life in Ethiopia. Coup is the right word for any attempt to topple a government which ever level it is, but I suspect that there is courage to bring Meles’s administration down in Addis, a capital where everyone is so unconvinced on involving politics in normal street discussions. There are as many dictators as democratically elected leaders, but I can say democracy only works when you have the right man for the western powers in a country. I said this because Meles and Mubarak of Egypt are in office as much as they wanted, and they are allies of the greatest democracies in the world like the U.S and Britain.

Posted by Dhoore | Report as abusive

[…] Reuters: Barry Malone (May 6th, 2009) A plot is defined as “a plan made in secret”, but even by the usual shadowy nature of such matters around Africa, the recent conspiracy to overthrow the Ethiopian government has been hard to see clearly. […]

Posted by What is the truth behind Ethiopia’s ‘coup’ plot? | EMF | Report as abusive

I thought the following comment which I read on the Ethiopian Review best expresses how many Ethiopians feel about the article.

1. Tesfa says:
I cannot believe this reporter calls Woyanne “the most effective the desperately poor nation has ever had”. What does that mean? Effective in what? Come on; he should correct that with “the most repressive”. Furthermore, he said people in Addis are talking politics “in very hushed tones, which is perhaps a hangover from 17 years of brutally repressive communist rule”…Come on Mr. reporter; is this is an attempt to make Woyanne look like good and that the peoples’ fear is unjustified? This is not hangover; people are under the most repressive regime in history!
May 6th, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Posted by Samir | Report as abusive

If there was the rule of law in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi should have been out of office after the May 15, 2005 elections. Instead of accepting defeat with grace, he picked up the gun, and murdered nearly 2000 civilians. The rest is history. If he can murder and keep himself in power, then that’s it. Hatch plots to eliminate potential power contenders, and move on. Where is ICC?

Posted by Solomon | Report as abusive

The figure is “200”, not “2000”. I don’t want to give the hirelings of Mr. Prime Minister a fooder to munch on.

Posted by Solomon | Report as abusive

The TPLF ( Meles Zenawi’s ethnic Organiztion) is ruling the country on a colonial model. 22 of the 23 divisions of the army are members of his ethnic group. Of the five regional commands all five of them are run by memberers of the Tigrean ethnic group to which Meles Zenawi belongs. These is obscene. The same is the case with the civil bureacucracy. This obsenity is leading the population to disgust. Meles Zenawi is sitting on a volcano in the second most populous nation in Africa. By the way, Meles Zenawi’s ethnic group constitutes only 6% of the total population of Ethiopia and they come from the northern periphery. Ethiopians are boiling inside and are only held at the barrel of Meles Zenawi’s guns. The West should wake up and end its codling of this tyrants in Ethiopia. Once the volcano errupts in that country, nobody exactly knows what would follow.

Meles Zenawi and his Tigrean clique are enemies of the Ethiopian people including people in their own ethnicity, the Tigreans, most of whom dont like what is being done in their name.

Posted by Mersehazen | Report as abusive

It doesn’t take much to know which side to believe. As somebody who has followed Ethiopian politics for the last so many years, I take this story with a pinch of salt. Zenawi’s regime is known to make up false accusations and false evidences and throw potential and real opponents into his dundgeon. Zenawi is effective in using his court and securtiy apparatus to attack opponents. Birhanu and his co are the most astute politicians who really have a good grasp of the nature of Zenawi and have devised the meanse to deal with him. That is no to confront him in a meanse where Zenawi is the opponent and the umpire at the same time.

Posted by Sus | Report as abusive

I wanted o comment on the mention of presence of people that most analysts consider this government the most effective in reducing poverty and therefore there would not be march against it as the year 2005. What has changed since year 2005? The reason why people died opposing this government then was nt only economic. Everything that this government did since they set their foot in the capital has convinced the people of Ethiopia that this government is bad story. And any ways, who wants to be ruled by a single party for life? I find it very offensive when western media and so called analysts try to imply that poor and hungry people should keep their mouth shut and submit to their masters as long as some loaves of bread are thrown towards them. Well guess what, even poor and hungry people want to have a say in their countries affairs and would not submit to a tribalist, divisive and oppressive government. It is even shameful we have to call this our government. And foreigners should stop telling us how we should feel about our ‘most effective…government’.

Posted by Mebratu | Report as abusive

Mr. Malone, It is not difficult to see that you obviously admire Meles Zenawi. So, I will limit myself to one or two well known observations. One is that any Ethiopian Goverment could become “the most effective” if it had the billions of dollars of development aid the US and the UK pour into Meles’ coffers annually! In fact, previous Ethiopian governments could even do better than Meles’ government, as there would be much less corruption. Also are you implying that people in Ethiopia speak in hushed tones because of a “hangover of 17 years of brutally repressive communist rule” and not because of the “brutally repressive communist rule of Meles’ Revolutionary Democracy. Did you at least hear that some 200 young and old people were mowed down during the 2005 elections? Personal admirations of personalities aside, one expects integrity from a journalist, especially since you seem to have been residing in Ethiopia for quite a while. Fortunately, other foreign journalists when reporting on Ethiopia have been true to their profession even under difficult circumstances, not to mention reputable humanitarian organizations, aid agencies, etc. Fortunately, you are in the minority.

Posted by Tezibt | Report as abusive

Why did Reuters censor my comment, that is backed by facts

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive