The Tigray war spilled into Amhara, Ethiopia’s second biggest regional state, in July 2021, with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) going on to occupy several key towns in the region and causing widespread damage to key infrastructure.
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Tens of thousands of young Amhara men were recruited to fight the TPLF, as the region mobilised for total war. Many joined militia units known as Fano, galvanised by reports of TPLF abuses against the Amhara, including looting, killings and rape.
Hone Mandefro from the Amhara Association of America, a US-based pressure group, says many Amhara feel “betrayed” by the inability of the federal military to prevent the TPLF’s advance through Amhara, which followed the withdrawal of federal forces from Tigray in June 2021.
We were happy to see the reforms and there was a lot of change when Abiy came in, but our hopes have eroded. The security system is not protecting people and we no longer feel safe.
“Many people are angry the federal military decided to withdraw from Tigray,” says Hone. “It basically made Amhara the new war front. There should have been more discussion and consultation around that decision and the region found itself under prepared.”
Amhara is to the south of Tigray and home to an estimated 20 million of Ethiopia’s 110 million people. The war resulted in widespread damage to schools, health facilities and other civilian infrastructure in Amhara.
In some areas, civil servants are communicating via handwritten letters after their computers were looted by the TPLF, while Lalibela, a popular tourist town that was occupied by the TPLF for four months, has been without electricity and running water for more than a year.
Like the rest of Ethiopia, the region is also facing a rising cost of living crisis owing to high levels of inflation.
“People spend days queuing for aid delivered as cash to the banks,” says Habtamu Mesganaw, a Lalibela resident. He says that he has lost faith in the government of Abiy Ahmed, who came to power as a reformer in 2018.
“During that time, we all felt optimistic,” says Habtamu. “We were happy to see the reforms and there was a lot of change when Abiy came in, but our hopes have eroded. The security system is not protecting people and we no longer feel safe.”
Earlier this year, regional and federal authorities launched a crackdown against Fano militia members, seeing the proliferation of armed young men operating under the movement’s banner as a threat to the constitution, despite having previously relied on them to fight the TPLF.
The move was preceded by series of clashes between Fano fighters and security forces, as well as reports of extortion against civilians by members of the Fano in several parts of Amhara.
Reaction to the crackdown has been mixed. Many ethnic Amhara see the Fano as their historic defenders, but are also fed up with large numbers of young men openly walking around with weapons in Amhara towns now the fighting has subsided, says sociologist Mehdi Labzaé, who studies the region.
“There is a sense, symbolically and politically, that many people are in favour of the Fano as a defence force but then, in their day to day lives, in towns like Lalibela, they are confronted with young people going around with weapons, causing problems. So I understand that many people are happy with the government taking control,” says Labzaé
The government’s move against the Fano appears to have been effective in quashing any coherent opposition to the government in the region: more than 5,000 militia members are behind bars, many of the movement’s commanders are in hiding, and calls for protests against the authorities in the region have been met with low turnouts.
“Some months back I was really afraid that an open war might start between the government and the Amhara militias, but it seems the government has been successful [in containing them],” says Labzaé.
Habtamu says that before the crackdown “some people who claimed to be Fano” were engaging in “inappropriate activities” in Lalibela. “Now their number has declined and the situation is better, but I think the government action against them was too hard: they just came in and tried to arrest everybody,” he says.
Uptick of violence
Many people in the region are also concerned about the uptick of violence of ethnic Amharas in other parts of Ethiopia, especially in Oromia. In June, armed men killed more than 300 ethnic Amhara at the village of Tole in Oromia’s West Wellega zone, fuelling a sense of siege that has led some Amhara ethno-nationalist activists to claim that a “genocide” is being perpetrated against their group. (The same claim has been made by activists from Tigray, citing atrocities in their home region).
When Abiy came to power, I hoped it would bring an end to ethnic-based politics, but Amhara people are dying everywhere in Ethiopia based on their ethnicity.
Aderaw Besfat, a resident of Woldiya, an Amhara town that was occupied by the TPLF last year, says the massacre is further evidence that Abiy is failing to protect ethnic Amharas.
“When Abiy came to power, I hoped it would bring an end to ethnic-based politics, but Amhara people are dying everywhere in Ethiopia based on their ethnicity,” says Aderaw.
Aderaw alleges that Oromo security forces are behind the massacres of ethnic Amharas in Oromia, Ethiopia’s biggest region. He also claims that Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, is privileging his ethnic group at the expense of others within the federal government in Addis Ababa.
‘Massive legitimacy crisis’
A regional official in Amhara says he believes Abiy’s administration is facing a “massive legitimacy crisis” in the region as a result of the killings of ethnic Amhara. “There is a desire for stability, and the arrests of Fano have brought back a level of normality back”, he says. “But at the same time, ordinary Amharas living outside the region are dying, and that is fuelling resentment towards the Prosperity Party.”
The official adds that many ethnic Amhara are concerned by the possibility of “another war” with the TPLF, particularly over the issue of western Tigray, a contested area that Amhara forces seized from the TPLF when the war first broke out in November 2020. The TPLF have insisted on its return as they prepare to enter peace talks with the federal government, but many Amharas see the region as rightfully theirs.
Berhanu Takele, a teacher from the Amhara town of Gondar, says the negotiations “are a very positive thing because war just means more death and destruction”, but he believes the war could flare up again over the issue of western Tigray, which is referred to in Amhara as Welkiat.
“Reclaiming Welkiat was the main reason for the fight,” he says. “It has to be kept Amhara: our sisters, our brothers, out fathers, died for that land. If it is given to Tigray, we will stop negotiating and we will fight again.”
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