For months there have been signs of trouble brewing in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. At the start of the year, during the ruling Prosperity Party’s (PP) first congress, heavy-hitters from the party’s Amhara wing were expelled from the politburo.
Some of them then gave public statements in which they openly – at times fiercely – criticised the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for its handling of the Amhara region, and spoke out against its rumoured plans to forcibly dismantle the Fano, a volunteer armed militia which played a key role in the federal government’s military campaign against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) last year.
In February, the former foreign minister Gedu Andargachew declared that the Fano should not be disarmed and that the war with TPLF is not over yet
Yohannes Buayelew, in an April interview, described the PP as “a system which encourages thieves” and led by “those who don’t care about the Amhara cause”
Not long after this, the first reports of clashes in Amhara between Fano groups and government security forces began to emerge.
In the past two weeks those clashes have grown more widespread and more deadly, as Abiy’s government steps up its campaign against the Fano, and launches a broader crackdown on dissent in Amhara, the second most populous region.
Members of the Fano have been told either to join the formal security forces – the national army or the regional police – or hand over their weapons. The militia camps which sprung up across the region in the past year are now being dismantled.
Many Fano leaders have also been arrested. Several thousand individuals have so far been detained, including opposition party members as well as a large number of predominantly Amhara journalists. “This is the largest crackdown on dissidents since 2016,” says Hone Mandefro of the Amhara Association of America, an advocacy group. “And it’s not just Fano being targeted.”
The government has called it a “law-enforcement operation”, dusting off language used to describe its war against the TPLF, and says it is targeting only criminals and “extremist groups” bent on destabilising the region. They have also denied that the campaign is aimed at the Fano. Activists and opposition groups from the region by contrast have described it as “war on Amhara”.
“The government is oppressing the Amhara people,” said Solomon Abebaw, a Fano leader from the North Shewa district of Amhara. “Members of the Fano are being detained and targeted for defending their country while the real enemy is out there taking our land.”
The government’s turn against the Fano – once an essential ally – was in some respects predictable.
Last year, when Abiy called on young Ethiopians across the country to join the struggle against the TPLF, large numbers of enthusiastic Amharas signed up, keen to stem the Tigrayan forces’ southwards march towards Addis Ababa. But many joined the Fano rather than the national army or formal regional forces.
This [crackdown] is not primarily about law and order…It’s about ensuring the government’s own survival.
By the start of this year the Fano were believed to have tens of thousands of members. Some of its leaders, notably Zemene Kassa in Amhara’s Gojam district, who is now believed to be in hiding, had in effect a large private army directly under his control. In an April interview with local media, Zemene openly challenged the authority of the central government and said that the Fano were planning to unite under a single, centralised command structure.
“This [crackdown] is not primarily about law and order,” said an Ethiopian political analyst who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject. “It’s about ensuring the government’s own survival.”
It may also hint at broader political realignments in Ethiopia’s civil war.
Since March, Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF have observed an uneasy truce, with informal negotiations underway between military commanders from the two sides. The flow of humanitarian aid into Tigray has subsequently increased substantially.
This puts Abiy’s government increasingly at odds with neighbouring Eritrea, whose forces fought alongside Ethiopia’s throughout last year. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, is opposed to talks with the TPLF. Prominent Amharas advocating for stronger ties with Eritrea, such as Tefera Mamo, an influential former army general who led Amhara forces against the TPLF last year, are among those arrested in recent weeks.
For Abiy to pursue a negotiated settlement with the TPLF he may need to offer concessions on the core issue of territory disputed between Amhara and Tigray.
I believe Abiy is doing this to scare Amharas into accepting whatever deal he may try to reach with TPLF
Last month the federal army took over positions in Western Tigray, and Fano and Amhara Special Police were ordered to withdraw. Some Amharas saw this as a sign that Abiy may seek to give Tigrayan authorities back control of Western Tigray (known by Amharas as Wolkait), as well as the southern part of Tigray, known as Raya.
That could spell trouble. Fano groups – which led the military campaign to annex Western Tigray at the start of the war and have since been accused of committing ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans there – would likely mount armed resistance.
“I believe Abiy is doing this to scare Amharas into accepting whatever deal he may try to reach with TPLF,” said Hone of the Amhara Association of America. “He is probably doing this to weaken the capacity of Amharas to resist him should he decide to switch sides and fight Amharas with the TPLF over Wolkait and Raya.”
One short-term consequence of these developments will be protests in Amhara against the government. These have already occurred in several towns, leading to injuries and some deaths as protesters have clashed with security forces.
Amhara, and the politics of division
But it is not clear whether they will coalesce into an organised and sustained anti-government movement. Amhara politics is bedevilled by division, and some parts of the region are more aligned with the federal government than others. There are also rivalries between competing Fano groups.
We Amhara don’t have any trust in Abiy’s government…He is working only for his Oromo ethnic group, while Amharas are suffering all over Ethiopia.
In the longer-term some politicians and analysts in Ethiopia worry about escalating conflict between Amhara and Oromos, the country’s two largest ethnic groups. Abiy is an Oromo and much of the security apparatus is now led by Oromo officials. Many Oromos living inside Amhara and near its borders have been attacked by Amhara militias and Fano groups in recent months. But at the same time many hundreds of Amharas residing in Oromia (and the neighboring Benishangul-Gumuz region) have been killed by militants.
Many in Amhara accuse Abiy’s government of failing to protect them. A new report published by the Amhara Association of America counted at least 3,308 Amhara civilians killed in “targeted massacres” across Ethiopia last year. According to the report’s authors, most were carried out by TPLF forces, during its incursions into Amhara last year, or by militants in Oromia. This helps explain the broader sense of insecurity prevalent across the region.
“We Amhara don’t have any trust in Abiy’s government,” said Menber Alemu, a Fano leader in the town of Lalibella. “He is working only for his Oromo ethnic group, while Amharas are suffering all over Ethiopia.”
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