Restructuring Regional Special Forces in Ethiopia

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Conflict and government’s public relations failure complicates what otherwise would be good reform policy

On April 6, 2023, the government of Ethiopia (GoE) announced its decision to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate (DDR) the country’s regional special forces, locally known as Liyu Hail, in favor of a more traditional police force and law enforcement organization. The plan was to integrate all regional forces either into the army, federal police or regional police, a move which diminishes the autonomy of regional governments .

Official statement said, “the government has set direction to build one strong and centralized army…. it has started practical steps that will allow special forces of every region to be integrated into different security structures.”

According to Reuters News, “hours before the announcement was made public, local media from the Amhara region, Ethiopia’s second largest, reported clashes between national and regional forces brought about by a refusal among Amhara Special Forces’ units to surrender weapons as part of the integration process.” It would later be revealed the DDR plan was leaked, seemingly with the aim of sabotaging the process. Regional vice chairman, Girma Yeshitila further corroborates this point of view in his most recent interview.

Ethiopia’s sprawling regional special forces had their genesis in the year 2007 in the eastern Somali region, where they were initially intended to be an agile counter terrorism force to combat insurgents of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Then Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi had the political impetuous to organize the special force in the Somali region to help mask accusations of ethnic cleansing by international human rights organizations. The idea was if Somalis are seen to be policing Somalis, then accusations of ethnic cleansing and atrocities against the federal government would be a mute point.

Until Prime Minister Abiy came to power in 2018, the Liyu Hail of Somali region continued to operate with impunity during their counter insurgency operations. The new government in Addis Ababa naturally wanted to reign-in the region’s autonomous security apparatus. Having sensed the coming changes however, it did not take long for the Liyu Hail of the Somali region to turn into an ethnic based premilitary force of the region’s corrupt leader, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known by his nickname ‘Abdi Iley’.

In April of that year, with tacit support of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Liyu Hail in the Somali region staged an armed insurrection, and attempted to cede the region from Ethiopia, a move that was quickly reversed by the the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). Over one million civilians were displaced as a result of this conflict.

With this history behind, the new central government in Addis Ababa viewed the Liyu Hail as a dangerous and balkanizing force that would need to be reformed in time. However, Ethiopia’s continued political and security crisis did not allow for such an undertaking at the time. For one, the Liyu Hail were by now spreading to other regions, including in the rebellious Tigray, which by 2020 boasted a force numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

The TPLF, which long dominated politics in Ethiopia (1991-2018) had deep roots inside the national army. It also built an extensive parallel force disguised as Liyu Hail to secure its home base of Tigray. It felt confident it would win any military contest with the federal government. On November 4, 2020, mutinous commanders of ENDF who had allegiances to the TPLF, along with the Liyu Hail of Tigray, attacked army bases of Ethiopia’s Northern command. Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis, which followed this initial attack was accompanied by many atrocities as well as a media campaign of disinformation. As war raged, the Tigray Liyu Hail became widely referred to as “Tigray Defense Force” (TDF) by their supporters. This further complicated reforms planned not only for the Liyu Hail, but the whole of Ethiopia.

Having failed to usurp power militarily, the TPLF were forced to sign a peace agreement brokered by the African Union in Pretoria. By this point, the group was a shadow of its former self. It not only lost men and equipment, but also suffered the setback of losing the contested “Western Tigray”, a region which the Amhara consider part of “Northern Gonder”. This geographical flashpoint, along with other thorny issues continue to be a matter of serious contention between the two regions.

The Amhara region was a relative late comer to the Liyu Hail security structure. It boasted a limited special forces up until 2020, when it rapidly increased recruitment and training. Having sensed itself outgunned and outflanked by the TPLF, it sought to balance the threat posed. When Ethiopia’s northern command came under attack, the Amhara region’s Liyu Hail was underprepared, but performed surprisingly well under the circumstances. Its forces quickly came to the aid of ENDF, particularly in the region of Welkait and Humera, where they enjoy significant public support.

Since the signing of the Pretoria Peace Agreement, there has been growing anxiety by the Amhara that the long contested Welkait would be surreptitiously returned back to Tigray. In a recent interview, Getachew Reda, new interim head of the Tigray region stated, “It is not possible for us to make preparations for the next election while leaving our people of Western Tigray [out of it],”. Getachew, in his inaugural speech, he also insisted that Amhara-occupied lands are integral parts of Tigray and pledged to prioritize their return. “In the Pretoria Agreement, it was clearly stated that the territorial integrity of Tigray should be resolved in accordance with the constitution,” he stated.

For Amhara regional leaders these statements raise concern. They insist these lands were annexed by TPLF and incorporated into Tigray before the ratification of the constitution, a document in which they were largely excluded from formulating. To them the question of “Welkait” is one of Amhara identity that had previously been denied. Accordingly, they view TPLF’s reign from 1991 to 2018 as an era of great suffering and displacement of the Amhara population of Welkait, Tsegede and Humera. In their view, TPLF went the distance to uproot the demography of the region in favor of Tigray. Thus maintaining the presence of the Amhara Liyu Hail in the region is needed to protect their own. Nonetheless, Tigray regional leaders accuse the Amhara of territorial irredentism, and using their newly established control of the region, to expel people that identify with Tigray. All of this complicates peace efforts, which the federal government needs to maintain.

Not far from controversy has been special forces of the Oromia region, which have been accused of atrocities committed while combating Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission(EHRC) documented these occurrences in a report written in the Amharic language. The group has also been accused of harassing minority groups within the vast territory, particularly Amhara civilians, who have also been consistently targeted by the OLA, as shown by yet another EHRC report. In February of 2023, when a rift within the Ethiopian Orthodox Synod became public, the Liyu Hail of Oromia, alongside members of the regional administration were providing support for the breakaway synod, by granting them access to church facilities they were legally not entitled to.

Given this complicated history, GoE’s decision to reform the Liyu Hail was always going to be fraught with difficulty. There would never be a good time to regularize paramilitary forces in times of deteriorating public trust and polarization. The pattern of political crises in Ethiopia has been one that festers into a negative feedback loop cycle, which impedes reform. In addition, one cannot fully discount the hand of agitators, supported by foreign agents, who seek more public unrest for color revolution styled regime change.

Nonetheless, GoE’s shortcomings in getting significant consensus on the matter from the main actors on the ground threatened to jeopardize what otherwise would be good policy, particularly in the Amhara region, where the public feels it is the only region being targeted for DDR reform of the Liyu Hail. However, the government would have done well to communicate via inside channels, that Ethiopia’s security system reorganization is aimed at preemptively averting another worst-case scenario and is equally being carried out at all regions.

General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo of Sudan is leader of the Rapid Support Force.

Paramilitary regional forces that are semi autonomous are not unique to Ethiopia. They have become widespread in the Horn of Africa. Besides Eritrea, which boasts a significant centrally controlled army relative to its population size, all other countries of the Horn are plagued by irregular forces that are not fully beholden to central governments. For instance, Sudan’s Janjaweed militia have long been used to control the restive region of Darfur, committing countless atrocities in the process. Yet the Janjaweed have by now morphed into what is known as the Rapid support Force(RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, commonly referred to as Hemeti. The RSF is currently in confrontation with Sudan’s national army, led by General Burhan. Fears of this continued strife are impeding transition towards planned elections.

Behind the scenes of armed conflict in Sudan are foreign actors, tacitly backing one side against the other. With the UAE reportedly behind the RSF forces, while Egypt is said to be behind the national army. The potential for a false flag operation in the contested Al Fashga by any of the warring parties in Sudan to get Ethiopia involved on their behalf cannot be discounted. Also, on April 16, 2023 RSF fighters arrested Egyptian airmen and soldiers stationed at Marowi Airport. This raises the possibility for Egypt to intervene directly in support of General Burhan, a development that would certainly raise concern in Addis Ababa.

The trajectory of semi-autonomous irregular forces which were initially setup for counter insurgencies has been towards more balkanization and eventually insurrection. This has been demonstrated in the case of Ethiopia, and now Sudan. These forces clearly add more volatility and instability in the long run, despite their short term advantages. Some countries in the Horn of Africa are better placed than others at reforming paramilitaries by integrating them into their regular security systems. The case of Ethiopia, if carried out successfully, would provide important lessons for the region at large. 

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