Thousands lined the streets in Ethiopia’s two main northern cities on Wednesday to mourn officials killed in a failed regional coup, as soldiers looked on and priests called for unity after months of ethnically-charged strife.
Snipers took up positions on rooftops in Amhara’s regional capital Bahir Dar and security services mixed with the crowds in a show of strength four days after the killings that posed the biggest threat yet to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reforms.
Thousands also gathered around a monument in Mekele, capital of Tigray region, which was the home of the national army’s chief of staff, Seare Mekonnen, who was shot dead by his bodyguard late on Saturday.
The government has accused Amhara’s former security chief of masterminding gun attacks that killed the region’s president Ambachew Mekonnen and two other officials in Bahir Dar, and the chief of staff and another general 500 miles away in the national capital Addis Ababa.
Asamnew Tsige, who the government said was shot dead by security forces on Monday, was accused of trying to seize control of Amhara, not the whole country.
But that was still a strike at the heart of Ethiopia’s political system – a federation made up of a patchwork of ethnic groups and traditions.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power 15 months ago and has won widespread international praise for kickstarting political and economic reforms. But his shake-up of the military and intelligence services has earned him powerful enemies at home.
His government is also struggling to contain discontent from Ethiopia’s myriad ethnic groups fighting the federal government and each other for greater influence and resources.
Outbreaks of ethnic violence have displaced around 2.4 million people, according to the United Nations.
Priests from Ethiopia’s Orthodox church gave sermons calling for forgiveness as the bodies were laid out at the presidential house in the lakeside city of Bahir Dar.
Three flower-covered black hearses carrying the bodies of the state president, his adviser and the state’s attorney general then wound their way through the streets accompanied traditional flute music.
The bodies of chief of staff Seare and the general killed with him were laid out at the Tigray Martyr’s Monument in Mekelle, flanked by banks of white roses and candles.
“We will not be divided by ethnicities. We will be united and we will fight them,” said General Asrat Denero, the chief of the Ethiopian military’s western command centre.
Signs of the country’s divisions were more apparent further away from the main ceremonies.
Some in the crowd in Mekelle accused the government of being too lax on security. Some others chanted “Abiy is a traitor” and “Abiy resign”.
The night before the funerals in Bahir Dar, several young men told Reuters they supported Asamnew, whom they described as a defender of the Amhara people. They asked not to be named to avoid attention from the security forces.
“He (Asamnew) was creating a militia because the region was under attack. It was to protect us. People from Amhara are being killed everywhere,” one said.