Mr Asamnew was killed in a shootout last week, restoring calm but potentially creating an Amhara martyr. The prime minister now faces a dilemma: a return to repression risks enflaming ethnic grievances, but continuing reform is equally dangerous.
The small Tigrayan minority, which dominated Ethiopia until Mr Abiy’s inauguration, is seething, resentful over its displacement and the detention of some of its leaders after they were accused of human-rights abuses.
“The talk is of either confrontation or secession,” a local politician in the Tigray region said. Ethiopia can still avert disaster, observers say, but it will require defter handling by Mr Abiy and a more wholehearted attempt to build consensus across ethnic lines.
“There are a lot of smallish fires burning,” the Western official said. “He needs to reach out better, otherwise we are looking at a pretty frightening array of potential outcomes