Ethiopia: PM Abiy Ahmed dismisses Army Chief of Staff and Intelligence Director in a major military shakeup. Protests in Tigray.

(OPride)—Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Thursday made a major facelift to the country’s national security apparatus by dismissing two of the longest-serving stalwarts, army chief of staff, Gen. Samora Yunis, and the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) Director General, Getachew Assefa.

The duo, both veterans of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), were part of the guerrilla fighters in the 1970s. Both have been active in the upper echelons of Ethiopia’s military and intelligence institutions since TPLF and its coalition partners deposed the communist regime in 1990.

Over the past two decades and a half, the Ethiopian army under Samora killed thousands of civilians and are implicated in serious human rights violations, including rape, extrajudicial killings of government opponents, as well as massacres of civilians and demonstrators.

Similarly, NISS under Getachew’s stewardship served as the critical engine behind the ruling party’s efforts to stifle dissent. The agency oversaw mass surveillance of the population, which it then weaponized to clamp down on outspoken activists, journalists and opposition leaders. Human rights groups say NISS routinely engages in brutal interrogations tactics, torture and killing of dissidents.

Whether or not Thursday’s moves were an attempt at starting afresh and cleaning up the security sector’s image isn’t clear. But Abiy had promised to usher in an age of reform when he took over the reins of power in April. The shakeup in the military and intelligence comes weeks after a host of veteran government officials were forced to retire.

Despite this, the security sector was thought to be immune and out of reach of the new administration’s axe. Many predicted that the stalwarts of the military might prove to be the biggest challenge for the new leader, a stumbling block if he were to go after them. But Gen. Samora was given a ceremonial send off at the national palace. The PM thanked him for his service before decorating the outgoing chief with the country’s national medal of honor.

Gen. Samora has been replaced by Gen. Seare Mekonnen, who became a full General and Samora’s deputy only last February. The aging Samora appears at least publicly to have accepted his removal with grace.

Elusive character

Despite his involvement in the country’s national intelligence services for well over two decades, Getachew Assefa is a little known character, who has gone to great lengths to protect his privacy. He has never made a public appearance or spoken to media, and there are no confirmed contemporary photographs of him. In a 2009 diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks, then U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto described the NISS chief as a party hardliner and  an eccentric and elusive character, who typically avoided speaking to foreigners.

In a press release announcing Gen. Adem Mohammed’s appointment as the new NISS Director General, state-funded Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC) made no mention of the outgoing NISS chief.

Although there is little to no public information on him, Getachew was renowned for being an authoritarian who was hot-tempered and disliked by colleagues. He has been accused of targeting powerful individuals and businessmen if he felt they ran astray of his own interests, including the country’s former Communications Minister Bereket Simon. Frequently named among the most powerful members of TPLF hardliners, he was a key lynchpin to the party’s old guard that could still mount a bitter resistance to Prime Minister Abiy’s reform.

Abiy, himself a former member of both the Ethiopian army and the intelligence service, last week gave high-ranking military officials a virtual scolding in a meeting that was also attended by Samora. He called on military officials to serve their country free of political bias and criticized members for amassing wealth and wasting resources.

Protests over Badme

Thursday’s removals are the latest in a series of groundbreaking decisions, and came on the heels of government declarations to open key sectors of the country’s economy to domestic and foreign private investors, as well as a pledge to relinquish control of the disputed territory of Badme in a bid to normalize relations with Eritrea.

In Afar and Tigray states, which straddle the disputed territories, locals are reportedly protesting the decision by leaders of Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to fully accept and implement the Algiers treaty that ended the war in 2000.

“Ethiopia doesn’t intend to automatically withdraw its troops rather a dialogue on a range of issues included in the Algiers agreement would be necessary,” the TPLF Secretariat said in a statement, according to the Horn Affairs blog.

“Such discussion and negotiation with Eritrea will have to address all issues as a package and shall not be limited to border matters only, according to the statement.”

Nine of the powerful EPRDF Executive Committee members are from TPLF. And the decision to normalize relations with Eritrea was reportedly unanimous.

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