As the date of the Ethiopian general elections slated for June approaches, armed conflicts in the country are mounting amid local, regional and international fears of the disintegration of a state that has been subject to consecutive crises.
According to an Ethiopian ombudsman report released on Sunday, 200 people were killed in the country in clashes between its two largest ethnic groups of the Oromos and the Amhara. According to Ethiopia’s 2007 census, the Oromos make up 34 per cent of the population and the Amhara 27 per cent.
The Ethiopian military announced last week that it was sending reinforcements to zones that have been seeing intermittent clashes between the two groups.
Some 10 days later, the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that Sedal county west of Benishangul-Gumuz on the border with Sudan was “under the near full control of an armed group.” It said that 25,000 people lived in Sedal.
The region is home to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the subject of a decade of negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt and Sudan.
Benishangul-Gumuz saw a surge of ethnic violence in December that led to the deaths of more than 200 civilians. The region is home to various ethnic groups, and in recent years it has endured conflicts between government troops and armed movements that have resulted in the displacement of 250,000 people.
International aid agencies estimate that the violence in Ethiopia has resulted in two million people fleeing the conflict zones. The majority of these are desperate for humanitarian aid, especially after the current war in Tigray resulted in the displacement of a million Ethiopians.
Reuters has reported a number of local officials as saying that armed groups raided and set fire to private and public property in the region, while police and administrative personnel fled from their posts. The EHRC said the police and security forces were too weak to confront local armed groups.
When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018, he had the support of the Oromos and Amhara. Ahmed is the son of an Oromo father and an Amhara mother.
But Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, quickly lost the backing of the Oromos due to his “lax” response to their political and economic demands.
The Amhara were more patient, maintaining their support for Ahmed throughout his attempts to improve Ethiopia’s relations with Eritrea because this would be against the interests of rival Tigrayans, in power in Ethiopia after 1991 before Ahmed took the helm.
The Amhara support for Ahmed has brought the animosity of other Ethiopian ethnic groups, however. The Amhara have demanded the abolition of federalism in the country, saying this is restricting their authority, limiting their ability to own land and buildings and constraining their holding positions in different parts of the country.
They have clashed with the Oromos for several reasons, including to pressure Ahmed to choose between them and the majority group. The Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is located in the Oromo region, but the majority of its inhabitants hail from the Amhara ethnicity. On a national level, clashes between the two sides weaken the Oromos.
The Oromos have fought with the Somalis in the south, leaving hundreds of people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. They have also clashed with the Afar in the east, their historical rivals the former Tigrayan rulers, the Amhara and the Benishangul-Gumuz.
As a result, Ethiopian society has become increasingly fragmented, and the regime has lost the broad-backed alliance that was once supporting it, except for the Amhara.
Meanwhile, some neighbouring countries have been claiming the right to parts of Ethiopia. Somalia is demanding the southern Ogaden region, with the two countries going to war over it in the 1970s. South Sudan believes that Ethiopia’s Gambela residents are related to the Dinka tribes of the Anuak and Nuer.
Last year, the Ethiopian government decided to put off the general elections, claiming the move was meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a separatist movement, rejected the claim, deciding to hold elections in the region.
The real reason for the postponement of the elections was the fear of Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party, led by Ahmed, that it would lose and that they would exacerbate the disintegration of the country.
At the same time, Ethiopia is witnessing a border conflict that could flare up into a fully-fledged war with neighbouring Sudan. Khartoum recently exited a short-term conflict with Addis Ababa in which it regained land seized in 2008.
Morale is low in the Ethiopian armed forces after Ahmed discharged the majority of Tigrayan officers previously in control of them and the security apparatuses. Ahmed resorted instead to Amhara militias fighting the Tigrayans and on the borders with Sudan.
The prime minister’s statement that his government is “fighting on eight fronts” is thus not far from the truth. It is battling in Tigray, Sudan and Benishangul and watching the conflict between the Amhara and Oromo. It could take some time before the world figures out which are the four remaining war fronts.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly