The current conflict serves as a stark indication that Mr. Abiy’s ability to uphold the ideals of his Nobel laureateship, bestowed upon him in 2019 for his pivotal role in ending protracted hostilities with Eritrea and guiding Ethiopia towards a democratic trajectory following nearly three decades of authoritarian rule, is facing significant challenges.
Despite his initial recognition as a peacemaker and advocate for democracy, Mr. Abiy’s standing has suffered a blow due to the ongoing turmoil in Amhara, the second-largest region within Ethiopia. The escalation of violence has prompted international concern, highlighted by Israel’s recent evacuation of its citizens and Jewish individuals from the affected area.
The focus shifts to understanding the key actors involved in the conflict within Amhara. Mr. Abiy confronts a formidable opposition from militias collectively known as Fano, a term derived from Amharic that loosely translates to “volunteer fighters.” The term gained prominence in the 1930s when volunteer fighters rallied under Emperor Haile Selassie to resist Italian invaders.
In present times, this label is adopted by local farmers and young men who have organized themselves into militias. Their aim is to safeguard the interests of the Amhara people, whom they perceive to be under threat from both the government and other ethnic factions. Although operating without a centralized command structure, these Fano militias have recently showcased their potency by:
- Carrying out what Ethiopia’s Minister of Peace, Binalf Andualem, described as “horrific attacks” on army installations.
- Briefly gaining control of the airport in Lalibela, a historic city renowned for its rock-hewn churches.
- Advancing into major regional cities such as Bahir Dar and Gondar, along with the industrial hub of Debrebirhan, before facing resistance from government forces.
- Raiding a prison in Bahir Dar, resulting in the liberation of numerous inmates, including fellow militiamen.
The severity of the crisis has led many to suggest that the Amhara state government, which is under the purview of Mr. Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party (PP), teeters on the brink of collapse. Key officials have reportedly fled to the federal capital, Addis Ababa, out of fear of potential attacks. The situation underscores the intricate challenges faced by Mr. Abiy as he grapples to maintain stability and unity within Ethiopia.
What Triggered the Conflict?
The origins of the conflict can be traced back to the peace agreement that was brokered between the federal government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), aimed at concluding a two-year civil war. This prior conflict witnessed Tigrayan forces making advances towards Addis Ababa in 2021, only to be subsequently compelled to retreat northwards.
The peace deal, facilitated by the African Union (AU) with the support of the United States, was widely seen as a measure to restore stability in Ethiopia – a nation of considerable significance for security in the Horn of Africa and as a symbol of pan-African unity.
However, the accord aroused skepticism and mistrust among the Amhara community, primarily because they were excluded from the negotiations. Notably, the Fano militias and Amhara special forces, associated with the regional government, had actively aligned with the federal army during the conflict. This exclusion fueled concerns that the Amhara perspective and interests were neglected.
The influential Amhara Association of America, based in the United States, even characterized the agreement as a “war pact,” a claim that was refuted by Mr. Abiy’s government. Despite this denial, the sentiment took hold within the Amhara population. Tensions escalated further when Mr. Abiy announced his intentions to disband the special forces present in Ethiopia’s ethnically based regions, including Amhara.
His proposal sought to integrate these special forces, which numbered in the tens of thousands, into the federal army and police units. This move was envisioned to promote ethnic unity and preempt regional forces from becoming entangled in conflicts, similar to the Tigray situation where special forces joined the rebellion against Mr. Abiy’s administration more than two years into his premiership.
For many Amharas, this proposal sparked alarm, as they interpreted it as leaving their region vulnerable to potential attacks from neighboring Tigray – historical rivals for land and influence within Ethiopia. Although some Amhara special forces did opt to integrate into the army and police, a significant portion chose to defect to the Fano militias, taking refuge in remote areas and leveraging their weaponry to stage assaults on government and military installations.
In certain locales, these militias endeavored to establish their own governing structures, directly challenging the authority of the central government. Consequently, the Amhara region became a focal point of turmoil and resistance, a complex situation intertwined with historical, ethnic, and power dynamics.
What Has Been Mr Abiy’s Response?
Up to this point, the prime minister’s approach has predominantly hinged on military intervention, receiving the endorsement of the lower chamber of parliament on Monday for his declaration of a six-month state of emergency in the Amhara region.
As a result of this move, the Amhara region has effectively fallen under the control of the security services. The region has been subdivided into four command posts, all overseen by an overarching committee led by intelligence chief Temesgen Tiruneh.
The increased troop presence has been accompanied by the utilization of airpower. Notably, an airstrike targeted the town of Finote Selam on Sunday, reportedly resulting in the loss of at least 26 lives during an anti-government protest. This development has prompted speculation that the military may increasingly employ aerial tactics to counter the territorial advances of the Fano militias, although such an approach carries the inherent risk of causing unintended harm to civilians.
While the government has refrained from either confirming or refuting the occurrence of the airstrike, its effects are undeniable. Night-time curfews have been imposed in six cities, including the regional capital Bahir Dar, compelling residents to remain indoors. The security forces have furthermore established checkpoints throughout the region, leading to reports that numerous Amharas have been denied travel to Addis Ababa in recent months – a situation that has raised concerns of ethnic profiling.
Authorities assert that these measures are taken to prevent potential agitators from infiltrating the city. However, such actions have only intensified the resentment of Amharas and deepened their sense of disconnection from the central government.
What’s the Way Out of the Crisis?
In the course of Monday’s parliamentary deliberations, Ethiopia’s former Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew, who once held the leadership position in the Amhara regional government as well, underscored the evident loss of support for the ruling party within the region. He stressed the necessity for engaging in dialogue and establishing a new interim administration for the area, yet there is currently no indication of progress towards these goals.
Observers note that conflict has also erupted in other parts of Ethiopia, including Oromia, which is considered Mr. Abiy’s political stronghold. Here, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebel group is engaged in a struggle for what it terms “self-determination.” While peace talks were held between the federal government and the rebels in April, they failed to yield a breakthrough, leaving the region still engulfed in turmoil.
The OLA has faced accusations of perpetrating widespread atrocities against Amharas in Oromia, raising concerns about potential attempts to expel them from the region. The OLA, however, denies targeting the Amharas.
Upon assuming office, Mr. Abiy championed the concept of Mademer, or “coming together,” signaling an end to state repression through the unbanning of opposition groups, the release of political prisoners, and the return of exiles. He also launched the Prosperity Party (PP), a merger of various ethnically based factions, with the aim of fostering national unity in a country where ethnic affiliations hold significant influence.
Critics argue that Ethiopia has regressed into a state of repressive governance, with Mr. Abiy facing challenges in garnering popular support for his vision. The recent conflict in Amhara serves as the latest indicator of these struggles. The prime minister’s future course of action remains unclear; however, some analysts contend that convening a national forum where political and ethnic factions can engage in constructive dialogue to resolve their differences is imperative. Such a step could pave the way for the restoration of peace in a nation fractured by internal strife.