The immediate context of turmoil in Ethiopia’s Amhara region

amhara militia ethiopia

Background

On November 3, 2022, after two years of fighting, the government of Ethiopia (GoE) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement, officially known as the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA). Despite its initial promise to herald a new era of peace however, given the confluence of zero-sum alliances in Ethiopia, the CoHA remained at risk. Nonetheless, an uneasy peace was preferred over war.

From 2020 to 2022, TPLF combatants made several forays into the Amhara and Afar regions during their insurrectionist war against the GoE, which commenced with a coordinated surprise attack against army bases of the country’s northern command on November 4, 2020. In the early days of the war, freshly trained Amhara Special Forces (ASF) were ordered to take up arms against Tigray rebels. Despite their small size compared to TPLF’s large contingent, the ASF performed surprisingly well, quickly closing off the strategic western corridor to Sudan, a move that was supported by Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) to the north.

These maneuvers by ASF and EDF were critical in the first two weeks of battle between November 4 to November 14 of 2020. It allowed Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), who suffered substantial losses in the northern command attacks to reorganize, and for other units from the eastern and southern commands to join up. Meanwhile, the air force, with its newly acquired drone program played a crucial role in degrading TPLF’s mechanized units, which at the time outnumbered those of the ENDF.

The first phase of armed conflict, using conventional tactics ended with the swift defeat of the TPLF army in less than 26 days, minus two 48-hour ceasefire pauses, calling for surrender of rebel leaders. On November 28, 2020, ENDF entered regional capital city of Mekelle, as rebel leaders escaped to the rugged Tembien mountains. In the process several senior leaders of the group were either apprehended or killed in the fighting.

From their hideout, the rebels resuscitated a guerilla style fightback, as GoE faced Western pressure to withdraw from Tigray on humanitarian grounds. The UN security council was convened an unprecedented twelve times to coax federal forces to leave the Tigray region. A hastily put together interim administration installed by the GoE also proved leaky and unreliable. Largely ignored by the media were palpable allegations of humanitarian relief organizations, such as the UN’s World Food Program and the USAID, who were sympathetic to the rebels, and even providing implicit support to them. At the time, a  report by Abren attempted to highlight the issue in more detail.

Eventually the ENDF was forced to withdraw from the Tigray region. The rebels vowed to drive out “enemies” after retaking regional capital of Mekelle in late June 2021. The ENDF’s sudden exit from Tigray came as surprise. It underscored the GoE’s weakness, in establishing order after initial military victory. Addis Ababa blamed the civilian political leadership led by installed interim leader of Tigray, Mulu Nega, removed in April 2021 after a six months performance review.  However, no official parliamentary hearing or inquiry was held to get to the root cause. Perhaps this is where the initial bout of public mistrust as to the conduct of the Tigray war begins.

In July 2021, Tigray rebels pushed in three directions, towards  Gonder, Dessie and Djibouti via the Afar region. In several fronts the human wave tactics of the TPLF overwhelmed ENDF positions, as the rebels made progress. These were areas less defended by the national Army, which dedicated the bulk of its assets to defending the strategic Welkait-corridor, connecting to neighboring Sudan. The offensive had the aim of forcing ENDF to redirect its significant assets from the Welkait front to the Wollo and Afar fronts. The rebels hoped this would then allow them to open the strategic corridor to Sudan, where they also had trained fighters ready to link up.

From July to October 2021, as more ENDF unites of the southern and eastern commands moved up north, a security vacuum was created in parts of Oromia, a situation the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) took advantage of. It was during this phase of the war the TPLF and OLA made their alliance public. A report by African Defense Forum magazine confirmed by stating, “OLA leader, Kumsa Diriba, revealed the pact and said the two groups shared military information and were coordinating their assaults on the government”.

Enter Fano and the Afar Militia

To combat TPLF’s asymmetric tactics, an irregular citizen’s army known as Fano in Amhara played a role by unleashing their very own uneven warfare, complicating TPLF’s further incursions into Amhara. The Fano have a long and complicated history, both as patriotic freedom fighters and as Shifta (bandit), a term that has positive and negative connotation depending on the context and time period. Based on circumstance, the world Shifta also denotes to revolutionary leader. For example, two nineteenth-century shiftas, Kassa Hailu of Gondar and Kassa Mercha of Tigray, became Emperor Tewodros and Emperor Yohannes respectively in the 19th century. More recently the Fano have increasingly becoming the unofficial core of Amhara nationalism.

A similar contingent of paramilitaries in Afar were active in thwarting the TPLF’s push, which sought to cut the Djibouti corridor, a critical lifeline for Ethiopia’s economy. This gave ENDF more time to reorganize a larger counter offensive. The Afar have largely remained unnoticed, but they remain one of Ethiopia’s fiercest, and staunchly independent tribes.

Nonetheless, advances in 2021 by the TPLF into Amhara revealed tactical splits between professional and regular forces of ENDF- ASF, and the more irregular Fano contingent. The unconventional ways of the Fano were valuable in mudding the battlefield before advancing TPLF fighters, but their lack of a clear hierarchy was liable to splinters, which increasingly became a target of war propaganda by the adversaries, seeking to split the ENDF, ASF and Fano alliance. These ruptures were largely shoved aside in the interest of waging the ongoing war, but remained a dormant bone of contention, even after the CoHA.

In hindsight, the period from August to December 2021 would prove to be the most chaotic, marked by a strident push by the TPLF from the north and OLA from the southwest. In November 2021, both came close to encircling Addis Ababa, while a vociferous “international community” pushed for the GoE to essentially abdicate, on grounds of avoiding more bloodshed. Several embassies and NGOs evacuated their staff. The mainstream media in the West enthused about “underdog rebels” winning the war. Rumors spread of an imminent rebel take over in the capital, and yet government officials in Addis Ababa did not budge. They clearly had other sources of information as to the conduct of the war. For more on this, Abren has provided readers a visual timeline of key events. In the end, the ENDF, allied Fano and the Afar militia managed to repulse the rebel advance. By late December 2021 calm was reestablished, but not for long.

On August 24 of 2022, fighting erupted, as the TPLF rebels launched a third-round offensive near the town of Kobo, ending a months-long ceasefire. Ethiopia’s army was by now better organized than before. It also had closer ties with the EDF. By late September it became clear the third-round rebel offensive would fail, as ENDF made advances to encircle Mekelle once more, but relented from moving further under intense Western pressure to end the fighting. Eventually, the TPLF was forced to signed CoHA agreement, a document described by many, including supporters of the insurgency as surrender.

Surprisingly, despite its military defeat, the TPLF, alongside hardliner Tigray nationalists remained powerbrokers in the newly established interim administration of Tigray, led by Getachew Reda. Allowing an organization previously designated a “terror entity” by parliament to remain a significant stakeholder, even after it lost the war was hard to slow for many. It was perceived as weakness by the GoE. Nonetheless, noteworthy divisions remained in both Addis Ababa as to the future direction. The same was true in Mekelle. A recent report by Abren, covered Tigray’s growing factionalism, and how the authorities have tried to manage it.

The CoHA had differing interpretation among significant sectors in Amhara. Supporters of the ASF and Fano harbored suspicions for federal authorities, whom they viewed as soft on TPLF, and too close to Oromo nationalists. Doubts were made worst not only by incessant disinformation of various actors, but primarily by the GoE’s opaque communication surrounding the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of TPLF combatants, a crucial component of the CoHA.

This was viewed as a betrayal by Fano, hinting at the possibility of another round of conflict. Some have suggested the obscurity surrounding the DDR was a deliberate move by the TPLF to sow discontent among Amhara supporters of the federal government, thus causing the rift in the tacit alliance that now seems to be a thing of the past.

The Fano Rebellion

In April 2023, six months after the CoHA, the GoE set out to restructure regional special forces known as Liyu Hail. This move was resisted in the Amhara region. A previous report by Abren highlighted why this process was botched, with many members of the ASF leaving their rank with their weapons after a government leak prompted confusion among some commanders. It was the first major sign of a serious rift between the federal government and the ASF.

Apprehensions and mistrust had been building. The regional administration tried, but failed to assuage increasingly militant Fano, which it blamed for targeted assassinations of officials, including the high profile killing of Girma Yeshitila, a senior leader in the ruling party of Ethiopia. The Fano seemed to stand in solidarity with ASF members who refused accession into the police force or the army. They rejected disarmament on the grounds the TPLF as well as the OLA were still armed and posed a threat to Amhara. The OLA has targeted Amhara civilians in the parts of Western Ethiopia. Peace talks with the Oromo rebel group continues to elude.

The Fano believe the regional Amhara administration as too acquiescent in the face of what they view to be transgressions. Now, five months later, those fears have become more widespread. In the first week of August 2023, violent clashes erupted involving local Fano militia and regional law enforcement. Several towns, and cities, including the regional capital Bahir Dar had been temporarily taken over by armed Fano fighters. Amidst ongoing clashes across the region, it appears that both the GoE and the Fano factions share a common understanding of the high stakes involved – a matter that goes beyond preservation of the Amhara regional administration, which said, the situation is beyond its control, declaring a state of emergency, and federal intervention on August 3, 2023.

Fano do not have a publicly disclosed chain of command, and rely on volunteers from the local populace. It is unclear who leads the Fano at the moment, or whether there is an official organizational structure to tie its sub-regional offshoots together. Recently, diaspora-based supporters of the group in the U.S described the Fano uprising to the New York Times as “backed by average citizens in Amhara, and that the Fano aim to challenge the federal security forces, with the ultimate objective of ousting Prime Minister Abiy from his position.” There is no doubt the Fano are romanticized and continue to garner significant public support.

Government Crackdown

Temesgen Tiruneh, Ethiopia’s intelligence chief, who previously governed the Amahra region (July 27, 2019 – November 8, 2020) is now responsible for enforcing the state of emergency and articulated that rebel’s ambition revolves around “forcibly toppling the regional administration and subsequently making headway into the federal system.” Tiruneh, who led the region through a previous turmoil is keenly familiar. The state of emergency entails prohibition on civil liberties and shutting down of internet in the region.

Supporters of Fano interpreted this most recent move to securitize the Amhara region as an attempt to undermine the region’s clout. Amhara nationalists suspect federal authorities are edging towards handover of Welkait, Humera and Raya back to Tigray, a charge the regional government refuted. The area in question is currently calm. The ENDF continues to enjoy good relations with regional security chief Demeke Zewdu, who is seen as a steady hand in a volatile region. But the current de facto Amarha control of the region will eventually require a political solution. This long simmering internal boundary feud is also one reason behind the Fano rebellion.

While Fano populists have struck a chord, in the long run their hyper identity-based approach risks alienating potential allies outside of the region, as well as in the military establishment. Amhara regional communications Bureau chief, Gizachew Muluneh says, “the extreme rhetoric makes for bad politics and adds toxicity to the region’s discourse, and this is exactly what our rivals wanted to see happen.” He adds, “quickly ending this dispute is essential, particularly considering the fact this is now peak planting season for many farmers”. So far it is unknown, who would be the interlocutor on the Fano side, should dialogue take place.

The Fano rebellion in Amhara is the latest in a string of upheavals, beginning in the Somali region in 2018, followed by the Tigray-crisis in 2020, and ongoing clashes with rebels in Oromo. While ENDF maintains the upper hand in terms of force projection, restoring governance and stability in Amhara may prove to be difficult after the dust settles, a situation that may embolden other armed insurgents in the country. Ethiopia’s body-politic, which remains militarized would benefit from the long awaited national dialogue.

Less talked about is the role of external powers, and the potential for hijacking of political movements. This is an omnipresent problem in the Horn of Africa. It is currently in full display in Sudan, where warring sides are directly beholden to interests is the Middle East. Ethiopia is no stranger to this. Throughout its history warring factions sought foreign patrons, a factor that has always complicated the possibility of peace.

Conclusion

Given strategic importance in the Horn of Africa, its substantial population, and it’s standing as one of Africa’s major economies, Ethiopia wields significant influence within the continent’s geopolitical landscape. The repercussions of its predicaments, whether stemming from conflicts or droughts, often extend beyond its borders. Moreover, Ethiopia has played a pivotal role as a key security ally for Western nations in the volatile Horn of Africa region.

Despite recent positive strides in Ethiopia, there are lingering concerns about the nation’s stability. The potential for Ethiopia’s prosperity and peace to positively impact the region and bolster African priorities globally is acknowledged. However, worrisome developments underline the fragility beneath the surface.

Recent events, as in the murder of Girma Yeshitila, a prominent figure in Prime Minister Abiy’s Prosperity Party, and the Fano rebellion highlight ongoing tensions. Highly politicized ethnic divisions within the Orthodox Church, resistance to integrating regional security forces, and an opaque DDR of armed insurgents as well as regional special forces contribute to Ethiopia’s challenges. The federal government walks on a delicate tightrope, attempting to consolidate power while managing rifts.

Ethiopia navigates complex dynamics, particularly as clashes in Sudan spiral and as calamity increases in the Sahel region. The international community of the Western world is currently engaged in a subtle balancing act to influence strategic regional outcomes in its favor. Keeping a keen eye on the political crises of the larger Horn of Africa and moderating this with Ethiopia’s reconstruction needs is also crucial. Of course, not drawing lessons from Sudan, ignoring uncomfortable realities, and relying on dubious commitments can lead to policy failures. Proceeding with caution and seeking tangible signs of Ethiopian political normalization is how most partner countries prefer to move, but given the general picture in this part of Africa, it may be necessary to calibrate one’s expectation based on the intricate set of circumstance on the ground.

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