Ethiopia: Fresh Clashes in Alamata Reignite Territorial Dispute Between Amhara and Tigray

Disputed territories between Tigray and Amhara in northern Ethiopia.
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Last week clashes were reported in the vicinity of Alamata, a town at the center of a territorial dispute between Amhara and Tigray in Ethiopia’s north. Officials in Amhara immediately put out a statement, accusing Tigray regional forces loyal to the TPLF of instigating the conflict. General Tadesse Worede, who is the man in charge of Tigray’s security services confirmed the operation, calling it “a mission to restore Tigrayan IDPs displaced by Amhara forces in collaboration with the federal government”. However, media outlets affiliated with the federal government echoed the statement by Amhara officials. 

The administrator of the southern zone of Tigray, Habtu Kiros, refuted the report, asserting that there were no major clashes, only a minor incident incited by forces in the Raya-Alamata. He clarified that Tigrayan protesters, advocating for the implementation of the return of IDPs, embarked on a long public demonstration march from Mahoni and Maichew towns to federal forces checkpoints over the weekend of April 13, 2024.

In contrast, Raya Alamata administrator Mola Derbew claimed that Tigray forces had employed heavy weaponry to capture the Addis Berhan and the Garjale zones near by. A few days earlier, in anticipation there were Amhara public demonstrations in and around Alamata, asking for “greater unity against the coming attack”.

Mola Derbew stated that the Tigray regional forces, commonly referred to as the TPLF, orchestrated the attack, which began at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday and continued until late Monday April 15, 2024. But given recent deep divisions between the Interim administration of Tigray and members of the TPLF, it remains doubtful if another round of war has popular support.

This flare up reignites tensions from the two-year long war that ended in late 2022 with the signing of the Pretoria Peace Agreement, which effectively needed the fighting between the Federal government and the TPLF. However, unresolved issues persist, including contested territories, disarmament of ex-combatants, and the repatriation of displaced persons, many from the Tigray region, but also from Afar and Amhara. 

Raya-Alamata, previously administered by Tigray, fell into Amhara hands during the 2020-2022 war. But the issue goes back further, with Amhara claiming the lands as having been unjustly annexed into Tigray by the TPLF in the early 1990s, after the group came to power following a protracted civil war lasting seventeen years.  

The resurgence of hostilities has seen Tigray forces reportedly advancing into some areas of the district. But sources close to the matter provide a more nuance outlook. Senior officials in Amhara say they cannot rule out involvement of some Amhara Fano rebels from North Wollo, who view a tactical cooperation with TPLF as beneficial in their fight against the federal government. 

Certain Fano factions have recently touted the merits of collaborating with the TPLF. This is especially true considering disappointments incurred by the rebels in their disjointed drive to oust the federal government. A renewed government offensive against the Fano in Amhara may have prompted some of them to reconsider their long-held misgivings for TPLF. Chatter on social media outlets closely associated with both Fano and TPLF forces seemed to predict a sort of tactical convergence between them.

Last week Ethiopian Telegram channels indicated Fano fighters operating in North Wollo were receiving arms, ammunition, and logistical support from Tigray, via the town of Sekota. Authorities in Amahara claimed their continued vigilance in confiscating the flow of arms from Tigray into the hands of insurgents in Amhara. 

It was recently revealed Fano commander Mehiret Wodajo received medical treatment at Ayder hospital in Mekelle. TPLF linked media outlets opposed to the Pretoria Peace Agreement have flaunted this as symbol of their renewed war pact to oust the federal government.

There is also plausible speculation to suggest the incursion of gunmen from Tigray into Ofla and Alamata zones is a false-flag operation, involving TPLF’s army 23 and 24, as a way of confounding federal government action. Ofla zone administrator Fisseha Mola said, “the situation is fluid and has the potential to expand into a wider war”.

Given the level of mistrust and recrimination between Fano and TPLF, it remains to be seen how this new alliance would be viewed by the public on both sides. In either case, this latest clash will have the effect of delaying a lasting and peaceful resolution to the question of disputed territories.

Immediately following the incursion on Alamata, Tigray regional interim leader, Getachew Reda, on twitter, denounced the move as instigation by “diehard enemies to the Pretoria Peace Agreement”. However, this was immediately followed by another criptic tweet meant to arouse Tigray nationalism. Observers viewed this as double-speak and contradictory to his earlier point made about “those opposed to peace”. Getachew has to perform a tight rope balancing act. On the one hand he must assuage TPLF hardliners while also maintaining his relationship with the federal government in lieu of the peace agreement.

Tigray regional interim leader, Getachew Reda, on twitter, denounced the move as instigation by “diehard enemies to the Pretoria Peace Agreement”.

Speaking to Abren, a senior Amhara official currently on a visit in the United States says, “there is an element of confused blabbering at play, and it seems to be deliberately designed to confuse the public about he true intention of TPLF leaders, who seek to break with the peace agreement, albeit without drawing much in the way of international attention, or condemnation”.

Efforts to resolve divides between Tigray, Amhara and the authorities in Addis Ababa have been accompanied by little reported shadow wars. Authorities in Amhara have sought to entrench their administration in disputed territories, much to the chagrin of Tigray. In response TPLF hardliners have sought inflame the current Fano rebellion in Amhara. Relatedly, little attention has been given to a recently attempted incursion of TPLF affiliated militia from Sudan near the border crossing of Metema. 

External entities have also been inserting themselves as a third-party instigator in ongoing clashes in Gambella between the Nuer and Anuak tribes. Simon Tut, chairman of the opposition Gambella People’s Democratic Movement says, “there is certainly a strategy to provoke tension in the region by outside forces.”  He adds, “these subversive activities must be seen in-light of proxy shadow wars by various actors including the TPLF and others outside of Ethiopia”.  

The latest clashes in Alamata come on the heal of efforts to mediate a lasting solution between Amhara and Tigray. Senior officials from the Amhara region, speaking on condition of antonymy accuse Tigrayan authorities of obfuscating their intentions on resolution of contested territories. “In public, as well as in our meetings with them, they say they want IDPs to return, which is wholly justified, but when we actually begin laying out the groundwork to implement this plan, they turn around and incite another round conflict”, said one official. 

For their part authorities in Tigray accuse the Amhara regional government of orchestrating an ethnic cleansing campaign in the disputed territories. They say there are hundreds of thousands of IDPs that need to go back to their homes in areas currently “occupied by the Amhara region”.

Clandestine activities are elevating mistrust on all sides, endangering the viability of the Pretoria Peace Agreement. So far, the federal government has chosen restraint, perhaps in hopes of avoiding an endless cycle of entanglements with shadow warriors in Ethiopia’s highly fractured and illusive political landscape, which is proving difficult to govern democratically. 

A bit further south, in Kobo, people remain anxious. Residents here are watching to see if in case the TPLF forces that recently entered Alamata decide to expel Amhara residents and perhaps even expand their incursion into other areas. At the time of this writing, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported the number of people displaced from Raya-Alamata spiked in just the last few days.

In the meantime, the diplomatic missions of seven Western nations, among them the US and the UK, have included their apprehension over the reported unrest in Alamata in their general collective statement issued last week. They emphasize the need for de-escalation, disarmament and demobilization efforts for all armed combatants.

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