Federal fallout

Ethiopia: After Tigray and Oromia, Amhara nationalists take on Abiy

By Patrick Wight

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Posted on August 8, 2023 15:06

File photo of Amhara Fano militia fighters at Saint George Church in Lalibela.(AFP/Solan Kolli)
File photo of Amhara Fano militia fighters at Saint George Church in Lalibela.(AFP/Solan Kolli)

Federal authorities have declared a state of emergency after their troops clashed with local Fano militias in the Amhara region.

The instability roiling Ethiopia is intensifying in Amhara, the second-largest region, which is following Tigray and Oromia by hosting rebels that threaten to oust the federal government in Addis Ababa.

In response to a request from the loyalist regional authority in Amhara, the federal government declared a state of emergency on 4 August after local militias clashed with the Ethiopian army.

“The unlawful movement in the Amhara region, supported by armed struggle, has reached a point where it cannot be effectively controlled through regular law-enforcement measures,” the federal government’s Council of Ministers said on 4 August.

The Council said the movement of Amhara militias was threatening the constitutional order of the country: “The danger it poses to the country’s security and the peace of its people is intensifying day by day.”

During a state of emergency, the authorities are permitted to conduct searches and detain suspects without a court order, to impose curfews and ban gatherings.

Flights have been suspended to Gondar and Lalibela, two major cities in Amhara, and the internet has been cut off.

The Amhara resistance is being spearheaded by Fano, a movement of loosely affiliated militias that allied with the federal authorities during the Tigray War in 2020-2022. But Fano broke with the federal government after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a peace deal with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) last November.

Fano militants say Abiy has betrayed the Amhara and is working with their enemies, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo nationalist insurgents.

This schism further threatens the stability of the federation, which is already dealing with the consolidation of peace in Tigray, the fraught relations between the Amhara and Oromo communities, and relations between the federal government and neighbouring Eritrea, which supported Abiy’s war against the TPLF.

The resistance now threatens towns within a few hours’ drive of Addis Ababa. Should the violence escalate it could drag Ethiopia back into the type of extreme turmoil the country faced at the height of the Tigray war, or even worse.

Conflict erupts

With Fano and allied forces rampant, and popular support for them increasing, Yilkal Kefale, the Amhara president, said on 3 August that the situation was out of control and that the region needed federal help.

Clashes have occurred across the Amhara region, including in Wollo, Raya Kobo and Weldiya, as well as parts of central and south Gondar. While Amhara forces claim to have captured a number of cities, the military’s Colonel Getnet Adane dismissed these reports as “vain wishes”.

According to Hone Mandefro, advocacy director of the Amhara Association of America, “the decentralised nature of the Fano militant movement has helped it resist the government’s attempts to suppress it. Many residents are fleeing their homes to seek safety from the escalating violence. Some in Shewa Robit town in eastern Amhara reported witnessing soldiers executing unarmed individuals in retaliation for insurgent actions.

The witnesses also recount instances where the national army conducted home raids, searching for weapons and detaining males for questioning due to suspicion of affiliation with the Fano insurgency, resulting in severe treatment and fatalities.

In the aftermath of these events, many highways are blocked or insecure. Unidentified gunmen kidnapped 63 passengers travelling from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa on 31 July at Tulu Milki town.

Resistance emerges

Clashes between federal forces and Fano militants have intensified in recent months. The resistance movement gained momentum as more members of the public began to support it, driven by the dire economic conditions in Ethiopia, where farmers in Amhara are among those suffering an acute shortage of fertiliser.

This latest wave of unrest was triggered after the federal government cracked down on the Fano militia fighters as well as journalists and opposition activists criticising Abiy’s peace deal with the TPLF. Perceiving that federal authorities were compromising Amhara interests, such as their claim to territories that were forcibly annexed from Tigray at the war’s outset, disaffection has grown among Amharas.

The situation reached a tipping point in April 2023, when the federal government decided to disband the Amhara Special Forces (ASF) as part of its efforts to integrate all regional paramilitaries into the federal structure.

This move sparked widespread protests in several major cities in the Amhara region. Birhanu Jula, the army’s chief of general staff, admitted that many ASF members had refused to be integrated and had instead defected, making them likely to link up with Fano groups.

The situation further deteriorated with the assassination of Girma Yeshitila, head of the ruling Prosperity Party in the region, on 27 April. In response, the Ethiopian Joint Security and Intelligence Task Force announced it would take decisive action against “extremist forces” believed to be plotting to seize regional power.

In addition, three Amhara region officials, including the head of security in Shewa Robit city, were reportedly assassinated by Fano at the beginning of July.

Shifting priorities

The Amhara Association’s Hone says oppression by the federal government has forced Amhara politics to transition from pan-Ethiopianist nationalism to ethnonationalism, with debates raging among Amhara politicians on Amhara’s future.

As part of this shift, Eskinder Nega, former head of the Balderas for Genuine Democracy party, dropped the pretence of pan-Ethiopianism to form the Amhara People’s Front (APF), whose relationship with the various Fano groups remains unclear. The APF has received significant funds from the diaspora but may not yet have the ground forces to match its budget.

There doesn’t seem to be a formal hierarchical structure established between any overarching Amhara organisation and the Fano resistance, which now encompasses most if not all of the local Amhara militia forces. The resistance movement has recently stated its goal of forcefully toppling Abiy’s government. Dawit Wolde Giorgis, head of the APF’s fundraising committee, stated: “We’ll enter Arat Kilo and a new regime will be established on our terms and conditions.”

However, Faisal Roble, a Horn of Africa political analyst, questions the ability of the militant movement to overthrow Abiy, asserting that it “lacks national appeal” and will struggle to form a coalition with other movements, such as arch-enemy the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which is separately battling Abiy’s authority in the Oromia region.

Broader implications

Beyond destabilising the Tigray peace deal, broader implications of the fighting include the likelihood of it heightening tension between the Amhara and Oromo ruling political factions and broader communities, and exacerbating the apparent fallout between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

As the TPLF ceased to be a common enemy of federal and Amhara forces, long-standing rivalries with Oromo nationalism, which Amhara nationalists increasingly believe dominates Abiy’s administration, intensified. Alignments in the federation changed after Abiy agreed to the peace deal with TPLF. Many Amhara nationalists opposed the peace deal and accused Abiy’s government of betraying their interests – also accusing Abiy, whose father came from Oromia, of allowing Oromo nationalists to dominate the federal government.

Many Amharas believe the federal army is effectively an Oromo army, with some even speculating that OLA fighters have infiltrated the military and carried out killings. These perceptions have aggravated Amharas’ popular resentment towards the national army.

Meanwhile, Eritrea has been supporting Amhara forces in their efforts against the TPLF and to maintain the territories annexed from Tigray. Asmara’s relation with Addis Ababa since the Tigray peace deal has been fraught.

In a meeting with investors in mid-July, Abiy reportedly said that landlocked Ethiopia will seek access to a port through peaceful means but that, if those efforts fail, force may be considered. These statements, combined with Eritrea’s alleged support for and training of Amhara dissidents, raise the alarm of an impending second Eritrean–Ethiopian War.

The analyst Roble says Asmara’s backing for the Fano militias will complicate Abiy’s efforts to suppress the insurgents. “They are immune to siege” because the militias are organised locally and often with strong community backing, he says.

Negotiations halted

Amhara’s government has repeatedly called for resolving the conflict through peaceful dialogue, but the proliferation of actors and decentralised nature of the Fano and the resistance makes it difficult to mediate between the combatants. Above all, no one is offering a political solution to the crisis.

In a leaked audio recording, Yohannes Buayalew, the former deputy chairman of the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), who allegedly sympathises with Fano, indicated the suspicion among Fano concerning the government’s insistence on negotiating with local militants separately at the zonal level, rather than the regional level. He said this shows a hidden plan to cause division.

Consequently, he shared a plan to drag out the negotiation process in order to delay action from the Ethiopian military and give time for the resistance movement to be consolidated. That Yohannes is an Amhara lawmaker and was once an influential member of the Amhara Prosperity Party before being removed for holding “extremist” views suggests there are other dissidents in the Amhara regional authority.

Despite the calls of some officials for dialogue, the recent strengthening of the Amhara resistance has led the government to resort to more drastic military action. Roble believes this will only escalate the conflict, causing more civilian deaths and destruction. “Again, a big war? What a sad story. How is it that waging war is easier than talking?” he said.

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