Things felt tense in Ethiopia. The capital was eerily quiet. The hope spurred by a new prime minister seemed to be waning. With instability increasing throughout the country, the government’s ability to control conflict seemed to be slipping. But life moved on.
News of the coup attempt spread around 10 pm on Saturday. I learned about the situation through a WhatsApp message from a friend. Returning home from a few drinks with new friends in Addis, I saw the headline sent to our group thread: “Ethiopia says coup attempt against leader of Amhara state failed.”
Now I’d heard about challenges in the south with planned protests to declare Sidama independent from the rest of the SNNPRstate. I knew that armed rebel groups in the Oromia region was disrupting work on one of my company’s project. I was familiar with recent conflicts between the military and opposition groups in Wolega. I understood borderlands in the north and east were also less safe. But the challenges in the northern state of Amhara were new to me. That’s what made the news so shocking, and so troubling.
Quickly, I turned to Google and Twitter to learn more of the situation in Amhara. In the following minutes, I learned more details about gunshots heard in Bahir Dar, the potentially critical injuries suffered by state-level leaders, and some of the perpetrators who had been apprehended.
Then, the internet stopped.
Right as the breaking news appeared to be trickling in, the entire country was left in the dark. Knowing I had an early morning on Sunday for a day trip to a national park outside of Addis, I shut off the phone and called it a night.
Come 5am, I was unable to call a taxi with Ethiopia’s only ride hailing app due to on-going internet outages. Instead, I resorted to hailing a cab on the street in order to meet friends and our driver for the national park trip.
From the car it seemed like a typical Sunday morning in Addis as we drove to the outskirts of the town. Street-side butcher shops already doling out fresh meat to patrons. Women carrying produce and men herding goats to the market. Ambitious locals out for their morning jog along the street. Pious practitioners, clad in white headdress, strolling to worship centers.
But when our car had to come to a halt just short of the Addis city limits, I was reminded that it was not any given Sunday. Our hopes of escaping the city to the north were quickly lost. As we looked ahead to the roundabout, all we could see was stopped traffic with people standing outside their vehicles waiting for any sign of movement. The increased police and military presence was also an obvious sign. After our driver asked around to a couple bystanders, we learned that the government had shut down the road exiting Addis in light of the previous night’s coup attempt.
A few minutes of discussion later, we opted to change our plans and head west outside of Addis to another nearby park. Our gamble that western exits from the city remained passable were rewarded as we drove past armed security at the city’s border. Escaping cell service, we checked out of the city to enjoy a morning of hiking and wildlife viewing (including deer and colobus monkeys).
The tensions facing the country, however, came screaming back during our return trip to Addis. The phone-tree texts sent from my managers streamed through which informed of my company’s lock-down on any travel outside the city until further notice. When we stopped for lunch at 1:30, people were huddled around a TV in the restaurant intently watching updates on the situation coming through in Amharic.
Pulling back into Addis around 3:00, I received another message from a coworker warning to take caution after 6:00pm as those with government connections heard the situation was bad.
Walking back to my hotel at 3:30, the city felt quiet. The streets were relatively empty. Armed security was noticeably heightened. Anyone out and about provided suspicious looks at passersby, especially the foreigner.
Upon returning to my hotel at 4:00, I received a phone call from yet another colleague checking in on my safety since he knew I’d been planning to leave the city for the day. Grateful to hear I was back in Addis, he warned to be cautious.
Tuning in to the only English news channel in my room, I learned more about the situation. Al-Jezeera led off their news hour with news of two separate incidents in Ethiopia – the military general murdered by his body guard in Addis Ababa and the failed attempted coup in the north. Ironically during this segment, news that Sudanese protesters had accepted the transitional government plan proposed by Ethiopia’s prime minister – as his own country seemed to be descending – scrolled across the bottom line.
Grabbing an early dinner at a nearby restaurant at 5:00, the service staff intently listened to a radio broadcast from military leaders providing additional updates – none of which I could understand. Patrons of the nearby coffee shop seemed to be in reflective conversations regarding the events of the prior day.
Returning to my hotel ahead of the looming 6:00 pm safety warning, building security guards remained huddled around a radio for further updates. International news continued to report the official story: the situation was settled and the government was in full control of the military as well as the Amhara province.
Waking up suddenly around midnight, I could hear distant chanting in Amharic. But the crowd seemed small. Would things continue to escalate or return to normalcy?
Life moves on, sort of. Addis was bustling and preparing for another week. The city was on edge, but peaceful and things had mostly returned to normal. The main noticeable difference in the city are the sounds. The music emanating from store fronts and small restaurants along my usual walking route to work has been replaced by the sound of state TV news and FM radio announcements. With internet still out, people were relying on state news reports for updates.
At work, my Ethiopian coworkers seemed relatively unphased by the events of the weekend. Saddened and disappointed, but not concerned.
By mid-day, I got a text that our planned trip to Gondar and the Semien Mountains (both in the same region as the coup) for the weekend had been canceled. But by the time I tried to respond, text messaging had also been disabled.
A call to the US Embassy in Addis provided the diplomatic advice to “stay close to your shelter, avoid crowds, and do not join in on protests.”
In the evening, international television news – the only connection remaining to the outside world – continued to report the official story that the situation is under control. But the on-going (and increased) restrictions on communications indicated otherwise.
While the restrictions help maintain some degree of control over the narrative (and prevent the spread of false or misleading information), rumors continued to circulate by word of mouth. Shots still being heard around the city of Bahir Dar? The assassin of the military general killed near Gondar? Hundreds arrested in relation to the event?
At a time when the military general is killed by his own bodyguard, it’s tough to know who to trust or what stories to believe.
Information deprivation continued. Increased security presence throughout the capital was noticeable ahead of the state funerals for government leaders killed in the coup attempt.
Otherwise, life moves on.
The Internet blackout reaches its 5thday, text messages are blocked for a third consecutive day.
Lack of communication or access to the outside world seems to be the new norm, and honestly I’d gotten used to it. It was actually refreshing to some degree to go about life without constant bombardment of phone notifications. Getting work done is certainly much more frustrating, but you learn to be flexible and resourceful with your time.
No mobile data or WIFI upon waking. While complaining about the challenges of limited communication with a coworker, I feel an unusual sensation: my phone buzzed. Relieved to finally have a means to communicate, I’m simultaneously overwhelmed and stressed by the sheer volume of notifications that stream in.
Not knowing how long telecom access would continue, I quickly respond to urgent messages and emails to notify others that all is peaceful in Addis.
As of Sunday, mobile data is still turned off, while WIFI access is noticeably slow and social media sites remain blocked (I had to find a VPN to post). Luckily text messaging returned on Saturday.
As the country returns to normal operations (which seemingly went uninterrupted despite the uncertainty facing the country) I’m shocked how casually many people treated the events surrounding the failed coup attempt. Living in an environment with persistent political unrest makes you immune to concern and allows you to take such events in stride.
The full story behind the uprising is slowly trickling out along with many conflicting messages around both the events and the government’s response. However, one thing from the events is clear: Evan as the fragility of Ethiopian democracy continues to challenge the country’s development, but the resilience and optimism of its people remain.
The coup attempt was disruptive and inconvenient, but life moves on.