The federal government of Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in Amhara region on 4 August 2023. A special session of parliament endorsed this decision, placing the administration of the country’s second largest region under the military. This followed clashes between federal troops and Amhara forces resisting a government order to disarm and demobilise regional special forces.
Amhara region is the second most populous region in Ethiopia. Its northern neighbour is the Tigray region, which was the epicentre less than a year ago of the most destructive civil war in the history of modern Ethiopia. Combined with a political climate that is dominated by ethnic narratives, ethnic parties and regional militias, the current crisis has sparked fears of another civil war.
Political tensions with ethnic undertones have been high in Ethiopia. However, forced displacements and massacres targeting ethnic Amharas have continued under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s watch since 2018.
With ethnic polarisation higher than ever, pan-Ethiopian unity forces and political parties lost their appeal long ago. Ethnic grievances are now the main organising principles in Ethiopia, which shows why Amharas who were mostly known for supporting national political movements are now organising just as Amharas.
In the last two years alone, ethnic Amharas were displaced from suburbs surrounding Addis Ababa, the capital. Amharas also continue to face harassment by Oromia’s security forces when travelling to Addis Ababa, which is a self administrating city but geographically an enclave of Oromia region.
Then there’s the government’s reliance on ethnic-based militias, such as Amhara Fano fighters whenever it deemed necessary to ensure its survival. During the federal government’s war on Tigray, for example, the overstretched Ethiopia National Defence Force mobilised Amhara youth to fight. Following the war, the Fano emerged well-armed and much stronger with somewhat obscure but seemingly centralised command. This unsettled Abiy and led directly to the present crisis.
For the Fano fighters, however, main causes for their struggle are the continued massacres targeting their group, displacements, and discriminatory treatments that Amharas face across Ethiopia. For example, they mention that the recent mass arrest of Amharas in Addis Ababa by the federal police are examples of Abiy’s continued mistreatment of their group. To make matters worse, families who are demanding to know about the whereabouts of their imprisoned children are facing harassment.
I am a political science scholar with a focus on the Horn of Africa countries. I have also authored a book on ethnic federalism and authoritarian survival in Ethiopia. Nine months into Abiy’s rise to power in Ethiopia, I warned that the persecution of ethnic Amharas could derail his then highly touted political reforms. At the time, he vowed to deal with political violence that targeted any ethnic group and impeded freedom of movement of citizens. Sadly, he failed to deliver.
Today, many in Ethiopia and especially citizens in the Amhara region believe that the incumbent Prosperity Party has lost both the credibility and the administrative capacity to lead the region. It’s my view that Abiy’s use of the military to address such a critical challenge will prove a failure. A military approach could result in more bloodshed.
Ethiopia’s increasing challenges
Once considered the lone hope to resolve Ethiopia’s problems, Abiy eluded scrutiny because of his unifying political rhetoric. But the political challenges continued to intensify. It was not long before political dissent was met with violence by his security forces.
By 2021, the media reported that 5.1 million people had been displaced internally. People from all of Ethiopia’s regional states had experienced forced displacement, mainly due to their ethnic identity. A disproportionate number of these were Amharas targeted in five regions.
The Tigray war was to follow. Two years of fighting, mainly between federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, intensified the destruction in the country. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have died and the country needs at least US$20 billion for post conflict reconstruction.
A peace agreement was eventually signed in Pretoria, South Africa, in November 2022. The political settlement brought relief in the country’s north. But Abiy’s regime did not attempt to find political solutions for all the country’s other challenges. For example, once peace in Tigray is achieved, the government did not also attempt to address the grievances of Amharas related to massacres, displacements and harassment they persistently had to endure. Even during the Tigray war, regions such as Afar and Amhara equally suffered from the destruction the war had caused. But the government seems to have ignored their suffering.
As a result, the Amhara region is the centre of conflict with federal forces that has parallels with the Tigray war. The deployment of military drones – an important tool against Tigray – is responsible for the deaths of least 26 civilians in the Amhara city of Finote Selam.
Interestingly, now that the government’s peace deal with Tigray forces is holding, Abiy’s Oromo prosperity party officials are now openly inviting Tigrayans to also arm against the Amhara, which shows that the government is only steadfast to respond to violence by way of more violence.
Amhara region’s case
Amhara’s popular president and top leadership were assassinated months after they came to power in 2019. Since then, the region has not witnessed any semblance of normalcy. Successive Amhara leaders from incumbent Prosperity Party have also become failures.
Into this void stepped Amhara youth groups organised as impromptu militia units tasked with protecting and securing their localities. Over time these morphed into an Amhara popular resistance. A considerable number of disgruntled former Amhara special force members are now part of this fano led resistance after rejecting an offer to integrate with the federal defence force.
This rise in the strength of the Fano forces was cited by Ethiopia’s spy chief to be behind the federal government’s decision to dissolve regional special forces.
The order applies to all regions, but the Amhara view it as a ploy that only targets Amhara’s strong special forces while leaving others intact. They also believe that such a move could expose their region to possible attacks from Oromia and Tigray regions. These regions have claims over Amhara territory that have stoked longstanding tensions.
Amhara also see the move to disarm them as a betrayal, after they made sacrifices during the Tigray war to secure the prime minister’s survival.
What happens next?
Fears of another war that could match or even eclipse what happened in Tigray are not misplaced if a solution is not found. The international community must press all groups, especially Ethiopia’s federal government, to start political dialogue immediately and agree a ceasefire. Federal Authorities in Ethiopia must also learn that only dialogue and direct engagement with the public could help with conflict resolution.
It’s also time for Abiy to prove that Ethiopia can be at peace under his leadership. The impact of another civil war in the Horn of Africa, at the same time as Sudan’s, would be catastrophic.