Ethiopia’s new war

Haitham Nouri , Sunday 27 Aug 2023

Following its war against the Tigray, the Ethiopian government is engaged in conflict with Amhara militias.

Ethiopia s new war
Ethiopia s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, left, and House speaker Tagesse Chafo, right, in a parliamentarey session (photo: AP)


Numerous international media outlets have described the state of emergency announced in Ethiopia by Abiy Ahmed’s government as a new war. It was proclaimed following clashes between government forces and the Fano, the Amhara militias.

This is a new war, taking place less than a year after the signing of a peace agreement between the Addis Ababa government, led by Ahmed, and his Tigray opponents. The previous conflict, which lasted almost two years, claimed the lives of 500,000 individuals. It had erupted due to the suffocating siege imposed on the mountainous Tigray region in the far north of Ethiopia.

Tigray bore the brunt of a ruthless campaign that saw the participation of Eritrean and Ethiopian armed forces, along with the Amharic Fano militias. The campaign prompted strong condemnation from a multitude of global humanitarian organisations and research centres. Civilians in Tigray endured harrowing ordeals of sexual assault, murder, and famine, leading to the division of the well-established Ethiopian church and the middle class in the country.

Ethiopia had seen one of Africa’s highest growth rates between 2003 and 2015. The Tigray had controlled political life, the military, and the economy since the overthrow of Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorial regime in 1991 until Ahmed rose to power in 2018.

Until a year ago, the Amhara were key supporters of Ahmed’s; during (and before) the 2020-22 war with Tigray, the Fano received weaponry and training from Ahmed’s government. Unlike today, the government back then did not request the integration of “regional forces” into the national army. In an address to parliament, Ahmed attributed the turmoil in Sudan to the presence of forces operating outside the established army framework. With the war coming to an end and Ahmed declaring himself victorious in Tigray, he called for the integration of the militias of the Amhara, constituting 27 per cent of the population, and Afar, making up two per cent of Ethiopia, into the Ethiopian national army.

However, the Amhara, the second-largest ethnic group after the Oromo, comprising 34 per cent of the population, declined to relinquish their arms. Their justification rested on the belief that these weapons served as a safeguard for their privileged position within the nation.

“The Amhara fear that the Oromo could control the country, given that Ahmed’s father is an Oromo Muslim and his mother is an Amhara Orthodox Christian,” according to Ahmed Omar Abdel-Fattah, a professor of Amharic at Cairo University. “The two factions are vying for control over Ethiopia, with mutual apprehension fuelling their concerns, and Ahmed is manoeuvring both sides.”

This political strategy, however, remains fragile. Ahmed’s government finds itself embroiled in a conflict with the Amhara while cautiously avoiding arming the Oromo. Some Oromo circles initially supported Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018 but soon distanced themselves due to “the lack of tangible gains from his leadership,” noted Abdel-Fattah. “This particular dynamic marked a crisis that unfolded from late 2018 until the first half of 2019.” Abdel-Fattah pointed out that, “at present, none of Ethiopia’s major ethnic groups — the Oromo, the Amhara, the Tigrayans (making up seven per cent of the population), and the Somalis (seven per cent) — are aligned with the government.”

Soon after the signing of the peace agreement between the Addis Ababa government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Pretoria, South Africa, in late 2022, the government demanded the enactment of the agreement’s provision for the integration of all regional forces into the national army. The Amhara’s response was that they had not been party to the agreement, saying the clause only binds the signatories. Furthermore, the Ethiopian constitution permits the establishment of “special forces” aligned with regional administrations to safeguard security and peace.

Abebe Fanta, a prominent figure in the Fano, regarded the government’s demands as a dismissal of the role the Amhara played in achieving victory over the past two years’ war in Tigray. Fanta explained the Fano’s stance of refusal to disarm, despite these decisions being made at the national level, stating that “the Amharic Fano forces are different from the Tigray’s army who are paying the price of their offensive against the national army and the nation’s sovereignty.” He continued, “Drawing an equivalence between those who aggress against national sovereignty and those who supported the national army throughout years of war, incurring significant human costs, is not reasonable.”

It appears that the Ethiopian government, in its pursuit of peace in Tigray, had left the disarmament provision broad and inclusive, avoiding specific reference to the Tigray Liberation Front’s forces. This strategy enables Tigray to anticipate that the disarmament measures will apply to all factions. Simultaneously, the government can employ this open-ended clause as a tool to wield against any perceived threats.

“The devil lies in the details,” said Khaled Mahmoud, a journalist who specialises in African affairs. “Ahmed is focusing on the Amhara, whose influence he is wary of, not the Afar, who could potentially serve in a future round of hostilities.” Mahmoud stated that “the government has not fully disarmed the Tigray, almost as if it is slowing the pace until it gains clarity on the evolving situation involving the Amhara.”

The Amhara fear that Ahmed, the recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize, might orchestrate a brutal campaign against them, akin to the one he launched with their help against the Tigray. The Amhara are even apprehensive that this campaign could involve the participation of the Tigray and Afar, and possibly the entire Ethiopian society, Mahmoud noted. He added that the Tigray don’t mind engaging in war against the Amhara, seeking retribution against them and also securing a foothold for themselves within the state. “The Amhara, being the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, are present across the country. This makes it plausible for dissent against them,” he said.

Ethiopia, out of a war and into another one, is seeing less and less light at the end of the tunnel.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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