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Ethiopia’s Amhara problem

  Anu Maria Joseph

On 22 August, Reuters reported on the Ethiopian government’s referendum plan to decide the status of the disputed territory between the Tigray and Amhara regions. The government announced its decision to dissolve the “illegal administration” in the region run by Amharas. Ethiopian Minister of Defence Abraham Belay stated: "In those areas where an illegal administration was created, it will be dissolved." Abraham added: "The ENDF [Ethiopian National Defence Forces] will ensure there are not any other armed forces except the federal security forces."

The latest development came after clashes broke out on 2 August between Ethiopian federal forces and Fano, a regional militia in Amhara. The tensions soured over the claim by Amhara nationalists that the government’s decision to dismantle all regional forces would weaken the Amhara’s defences. 

On 15 August, Al Jazeera reported that at least 23 people were killed in a suspected air strike carried out by Ethiopian federal forces in the Amhara region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration resorted to the heavy deployment of troops and airpower to contain the violence. A state of emergency has been declared in Amhara since 4 August. On 18 August, BBC Africa reported that many Amharas have been restricted from travelling to the capital Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) called on the conflicting parties to “immediately end" all alleged human rights violations. 

Meanwhile, on 16 August, residents of the Oromia region accused the government forces of killing at least 10 civilians, where it is fighting against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a rebel group. 

On 11 August, the US, the UK along with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand released a joint statement, expressing concerns that the violence in the Amhara and Oromia regions “have resulted in civilian deaths and instability.”

Background on Ethiopia’s ethnic militias and ethnonationalism
Ethiopian ethnic groups including Tigrayans, Oromos, Amharas, Somalis and Afars lead in terms of demography and landscape; however, there are other minority ethnic groups as well. Tigrayans constitute six per cent of the population and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is an ethno-nationalist militia led by Tigrayans. Oromos are the majority constituting 34 per cent of the population. Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is an armed opposition group led by the Oromo ethnic group. Amharas constitute 27 per cent of the population. Fano is an ethnic militia led by Amharas. Afars constitute one per cent of the population and the Afar Liberation Front (ALF) is an ethnic militia led by the group. Somalis constitute five per cent of the population. Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) is an ethnic militia led by Somalis. Each ethnic group and their militias fight either against the marginalisation by various Ethiopian governments or for self-determination.

Ethiopia is divided into ten federal states along ethnic lines. Ethnicity has been a central feature of Ethiopian politics. Deep ethno-nationalist sentiments within each federal unit are often drivers of inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic clashes. Ethnic federalism additionally ignited a power struggle among the Tigray, the Amhara, and the Oromo. From 1991 until 2018, the minority TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics, fuelling ethnic animosity from the Oromia and Amhara communities, who felt marginalised. When Abiy Ahmed came to power, ending the decades-long Tigray dominance, other ethnic groups considered the new government as an opportunity to address ethnic marginalisation. However, it unfolded further hostilities. Since then, ethnic mobilisation has increased and ethnic militias have been carrying out violence against each other. Years-long territorial disputes between Tigrayans and Amharas became the motive for Amhara ethnic militias to side with the Ethiopian federal forces during the Tigray conflict between 2021 and 2022. However, Amhara nationalists blame the government for excluding them from the November 2022 peace agreement in Tigray and letting the status of the disputed lands be resolved by the 1995 constitution. The new wave of conflict in Amhara points to ethnic grievances over the probable return of the disputed land to Tigray. On the other side, the rebel group OLA has been conducting violent campaigns for the self-determination of Oromos for decades.

Ethiopia’s conflict in Tigray, Oromia and now in Amhara
The conflict in Amhara comes nine months after the end of the two-year conflict in Tigray. The peace agreement in November 2022 froze the conflict in Tigray with a negative peace, and tensions continue to exist. In June, another wave of ethnic conflict erupted between OLA and ethnic Amhara, where BBC Africa reported that OLA was accused of the targeted killing of more than 250 ethnic Amhara people in the Oromia region. Peace talks between the OLA and the Ethiopian government in May ended without a conclusion. 

The conflicts in the neighbouring states of Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia, represent the quest for political and territorial supremacy against each other rather than issues of ethnic marginalisation. This would imply that the conflict and increasing humanitarian conflict in Amhara is unlikely to cease, putting it on a trajectory similar to that of Tigray. The conflict in Tigray is frozen with a narrow peace, highlighting the Ethiopian government’s failure to address deep ethno-structural issues that point to Ethiopia’s other conflict crossroads.

Ethnic indifferences against Prime Minister Abiy’s vision
Ethnic conflicts have surged in Ethiopia ever since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, owing to his vision of a centralised administration. Abiy’s pan-Ethiopia vision was unwelcome by many ethno-nationalists. By removing Tigrayans from senior leadership positions, including those in the military and security services, TPLF lost decades-long dominance in Ethiopian politics, acting as one of the triggers for the Tigray conflict. The recent rise in tensions across Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia comes after the Ethiopian government announced its decision to integrate all ethnic special forces into the national army in April. The objective of the decision was to foster ethnic unity and to prevent regional forces from being drawn into conflicts; however, it backfired.

Abiy's attempt to restore the country's social fabric by fostering an inclusive political atmosphere is backfiring. His tendency to resort to the wrong methodology of suppression triggers tensions. Across the country, ethnic and inter-ethnic conflicts are erupting over land, political power, and recognition. The struggle will continue until Abiy's government builds a better federation that accepts the existing social structure and meets the needs and interests of all ethnic groups, which is unlikely.

(Part of the commentary has been previously published as part of the NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly.)

About the author

Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at NIAS.

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