Jun 29, 2018 | 07:59 GMT

6 mins read

Old Threats to New Leaders in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses a rally behind protective glass in Addis Ababa on June 23.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
  • Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa survived separate grenade attacks on June 23, but the failed assassination attempts are unlikely to slow down either leader.
  • Abiy will continue to shake up Ethiopia’s status quo through moves such as overtures to archrival Eritrea.
  • Mnangagwa will likely move against supporters of former first lady Grace Mugabe’s G40 movement faction as he closes in on victory in July 30 polls.

Hand grenades were thrown during the final moments of two rallies in Africa on June 23 – one at a huge gathering for Ethiopia's new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the other at an election rally for Zimbabwe's president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. On the surface, there are clear parallels between the two attacks: Two new and ambitious African leaders and their supporters were targeted by reactionary forces. But the attacks, their likely perpetrators and the motivations behind them fit into more specific contexts. And perhaps most crucial is the outcome: The failed assassination attempts will not slow the men they were intended to kill. Abiy will press forward with Ethiopia's economic and political openings, while Mnangagwa will proceed with Zimbabwe's July 30 elections.

The Big Picture

Since taking office in April, Ethiopia's new prime minister has been shaking up the status quo on multiple fronts, including relations with archrival Eritrea, opening the economy and seeking greater internal political reconciliation among the country's clashing ethnic groups. In Zimbabwe, the country's interim president is looking for a strong mandate in July 30 elections so as to push reforms that will open the economy to Western investment.

The Everything Man

The grenade attack against Ethiopia's Abiy and his supporters was amateurish in nature. Reports indicate that at least one assailant threw a grenade from some distance as the prime minister was exiting the stage in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. At least 30 civilians have been arrested, as well as nine police officers for security lapses. Abiy has made a significant splash – and created enemies – since taking office in April. He has shaken up the status quo by pushing for a rapprochement with archrival Eritrea, partially privatized Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Airlines and other state-owned monopolies as part of a broader push to decentralize the economy, and sought to weaken the Tigray ethnic minority's stranglehold over the country's political and security systems. His efforts have won praise from many corners of the country, but they also have engendered the contempt of hard-liners in and out of the government. Yet, while some Ethiopians may be willing to blame certain elements within the government for the June 23 attack, the nature of the assault did not display the sophistication that Ethiopia's security elites have demonstrated in the past.

Instead, the culprits are more likely to be from one of Ethiopia's restive regions. Since at least 2016, the country has experienced consistent and low-level violence for and against the political system. What began as land acquisition protests two years ago have morphed into a challenge by the country's largest ethnic minorities – the Oromo and Amhara – against the system dominated by the Tigray minority. Previous government efforts to find a balance among the inner factions of the ruling coalition have largely gone nowhere. The rise of Abiy, a young and dynamic ethnic Oromo (the first prime minister from the group in Ethiopia's history), has been met with hope from the country's various regions, especially Oromia. However, it has also taken the wind out of the sails of the more hard-line anti-government factions that want to destroy the political system from without, not reform it from within.

It's also unlikely that the June 23 grenade attack was a plot hatched by neighboring Eritrea. The raison d'etre of Eritrea's strongman system is largely predicated on the existential threat posed by its much larger neighbor, Ethiopia. Abiy's outreach to Eritrea, and his offer to cede territory that the two sides fought over in the late 1990s, undoubtedly caught the Eritrean government off guard. Since then, Eritrea's reclusive president, Isaias Afwerki, has made positive statements about talks. On June 26, a high-level Eritrean delegation arrived in Addis Ababa to discuss the next steps of a possible rapprochement in the first public meeting of its kind in more than two decades. One day later, Abiy announced that Ethiopian Airlines would resume flights to Asmara, the Eritrean capital, in September after a 20-year hiatus. Nevertheless, there exists, at least in theory, a potential motive for some in Eritrea to disrupt the opening between the two bitter enemies.

The grenade attack and its likely perpetrators highlight Abiy's difficult position. His significant efforts to reform and open the existing political system has created enemies on both sides of the boiling conflict. Consequently, the announcement that the United States has sent an FBI team to help assess the crime scene is notable. If Addis Ababa requested Washington's assistance, the call for help may signify that Abiy and his allies do not fully trust the country's security services to undertake an independent investigation. Perhaps more likely, however, is that the United States possesses world-class forensic experts and is willing to help an ally. Abiy's ongoing reform efforts underscore that the landlocked East African giant of more than 100 million people is a key country to watch on the continent.

You Can't Kill the Crocodile

In Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa has been a busy man since replacing longtime leader Robert Mugabe following a military coup in November 2017. In addition to pushing reforms to attract Western capital and investors to Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa and his supporters have been striving to win the country's July 30 elections. Victory will give Mnangagwa, whose nickname is the Crocodile, what he seeks most – a mandate to oversee reforms to help fix Zimbabwe's broken political and economic system.

But ghosts from the ousting of Robert Mugabe linger. Mnangagwa's return last fall from the political dead after he had been fired as vice president accompanied the termination of Grace Mugabe's quest for power. Since then, the former first lady's Generation 40 (G40) coalition has been purged from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party, losing its once lucrative spoils of power. Many of Grace Mugabe's supporters have since attempted to disrupt the ruling party's expected victory in the July 30 elections. It makes sense then that Zimbabweans searching for those responsible for the June 23 attack would see potential conspirators in the angry remnants of the G40 coalition. Indeed, Mnangagwa, who survived numerous assassination attempts as vice president, even told the BBC on June 27 that he could assure people that "these [were] normal enemies" before pointing the finger at elements of the G40 coalition.

Nevertheless, as Zimbabwean authorities have emphasized, the attack will not postpone the crucial election. Thus, it is likely there will be further arrests of G40 members, but the crackdown will remain largely a matter of infighting within Zimbabwe's political elite. The optics and outcome of Zimbabwe's election will be far more important as to how Western governments and businesses view them – relatively free and fair or tainted – as well as influence the government's next moves on the reform agenda.

At opposite ends of the continent, two of Africa's newer leaders have survived attempts on their fledgling rule. Ultimately, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe's leaders have signaled their intent to press ahead with their goals – regardless of the threats that each face. 

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