How years of tension in Amhara boiled to the surface
Deepening suspicions that Abiy was plotting against the Amhara drove the Fano rebellion against Addis Ababa.
With the declaration of the state of emergency in the Amhara Region early on 4 August, 2023, the Abiy Ahmed administration appears to have finally come to grips with a security crisis that has been brewing since at least March this year.
As of 2 August, the federal government had experienced a series of setbacks, with approximately two dozen cities and districts falling under the control of Amhara Fano, the dominant militia in the region. The areas now under Fano’s sway include significant zonal cities like Debre Tabor and Debre Markos, as well as the renowned tourist destination of Lalibela. The Abiy administration turned off the internet on 3 August. The conflict is set to intensify.
Considering that the Amhara and the Abiy-led government had joined forces against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) just a few months ago, the hostilities between them must appear baffling. To understand the current strife, one must look back to the resentment of the Amhara since the early days of the Abiy Ahmed administration.
Contrary to some commentaries suggesting a sudden escalation, tensions have been brewing in Amhara for years. Since 2019, Abiy has grappled with opposition and dissent in the region, revealing deep-rooted complexities and grievances that have remained unresolved. In this in-depth analysis, I shed light on these long-standing grievances and recent developments that led to the current hostilities.
1. One hegemony after another – from TPLF to OPP
In the early days of his tenure, Abiy Ahmed Ali’s speeches, including his inaugural address, resonated deeply not only within the Amhara Region but across Ethiopia. His open acknowledgment of past wrongs, including torture by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and his commitment to addressing identity and border concerns were embraced with hope. These elements played a significant role in Amhara resistance to the TPLF and in facilitating Abiy’s ascent to power.
The aspirations and demands articulated during Amhara protests underscored the region’s desire for substantive change. They sought constitutional amendments; the resolution to long-standing identity and boundary issues with neighbouring regions; a genuine dialogue and action on security; and representation for millions of Amhara living outside the Amhara region.
Abiy’s initial steps in this direction were met with cautious optimism. While the Amhara people eagerly anticipated concrete action on their concerns, Abiy had nothing to deliver. The commissions and agencies he established, notably the Identity and Border Commission, became defunct without any outcome.
Instead, Abiy preoccupied himself with the issues raised by the Oromo protest movement, such as boundary disputes between Oromia and Addis Ababa and the appointment of Oromo officials to key positions. In the dynamics of Ethiopia’s political landscape, the Oromo Prosperity Party (OPP) emerged as a potent influence within the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), causing friction with the Amhara Prosperity Party (APP).
The Oromo-dominated regime scaled up the restriction of Amhara rights, including access to the capital. Instances like the mass displacement and destruction of non-Oromo-owned properties in the newly formed Sheggar City have deepened the sentiment of disregard for non-Oromos. These developments have led many Ethiopians, including the Amhara, to view the changes since 2018 as no more than cosmetic – a shift from a TPLF-dominated EPRDF, which Abiy fronted at the last, to an OPP-dominated PP, which Abiy controls.
Although Abiy continues to oscillate between pledges to allies and veiled threats to adversaries, a growing number of observers have come to view his words as part of a strategy to both persuade and perplex. In a telling remark, the President of the Oromia Region, a close confidant of Abiy, referred to the OPP’s relationship with Amharas as a “convince and/or confuse” approach. Amidst this contestation, Amhara grievances from the pre-Abiy period have worsened, and new, more profound concerns have emerged.
2. Assassinations and unstable leadership
The events that unfolded in June 2019 in Bahir Dar, the capital city of Amhara, marked a critical turning point in the relationship between Abiy Ahmed and the Amhara people. The tragic incident resulted in the assassination of Regional President Ambachaw Mekonnen and four other bureau heads, including General Asaminew Tsigie, who was in charge of security. The aftermath of these killings has been marred by conflicting narratives and deep-seated suspicions, further straining the ties between the central government and the Amhara Region.
Prior to the violence, tensions between President Ambachaw and General Asaminew had been reported, leading to speculation about the potential for unrest. Abiy’s assertion that the incident was a failed coup orchestrated by General Asaminew to seize power was met with skepticism by many Amhara political actors. Many within the region have expressed doubts, increasingly believing that Abiy himself may have played a role in the events to eliminate a regional leadership that had been vocal about the rising hegemony of the Oromo Prosperity Party (OPP) and the neglect of Amhara’s security concerns.
The aftermath of the Bahir Dar tragedy has been riddled with controversy, further complicating the Amhara’s perception of Abiy’s leadership. The detention of numerous opposition party leaders and media figures in the aftermath of the killings, followed by their eventual release due to lack of evidence, has fuelled suspicions of complicity on the part of the federal government.
In the wake of the incident, Abiy’s actions have added to the growing disillusionment within the Amhara community. The consistent removal of Amhara regional presidents has been perceived by many as a deliberate strategy to prevent the emergence of strong Amhara leadership capable of challenging OPP’s aspirations. This has led to a weakening of the Amhara Prosperity Party’s regional influence and a perception of its subservience to Abiy’s central authority, further eroding the legitimacy of his administration among the Amhara populace.
3. Amhara Persecution in Oromia
Throughout Abiy Ahmed Ali’s tenure, one of the defining and distressing features has been the escalation of targeted killings of Amhara in the Oromia Region. The roots of this hostility can be traced back to the Derg period when Amhara were scapegoated for past issues in Ethiopia. Under Abiy, there has been a resurgence of these targeted attacks.
The Amhara Association of America, which monitors targeted violence against Amhara, documented an alarming figure of over 3,3 00 killings in 2021 alone – most of them in Oromia. The situation has become so dire that Amhara regional officials estimate more than a million Amhara have fled to their region, seeking refuge from persecution in Oromia.
The responsibility for many of the targeted attacks against Amhara have often been attributed to the Oromo Liberation Army, but the crisis is compounded by Abiy’s refusal to acknowledge the atrocities, and at times, the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s (ENDF) reluctance to provide protection. Tragically, there have been instances where ENDF has been involved in the killing of Amhara. Additionally, security forces in Oromia have been frequently accused of targeting Amhara, deepening the sense of blame directed towards Abiy for what Amhara perceive as genocide against their community in Oromia.
The Tole massacre in June 2022, where over 550 Amhara lost their lives, further intensified the calls for holding Abiy accountable. The Amhara Region has witnessed several rounds of protests condemning Abiy for failing to protect their community from targeted killings in Oromia. The Amhara Association of America demanded the resignation of both Abiy and Oromia Regional president, Shimelis Abdisa, in the aftermath of Tole.
4. Abiy, the Orthodox Christians and the Muslims
Over the past few years, both Orthodox Christian and Muslim institutions in Ethiopia have experienced internal divisions. Abiy Ahmed, who is Pentecostal, has been actively involved in addressing these divisions, initially facilitating reconciliation efforts that unified divided synods of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, more recently, his involvement has raised concerns, with accusations directed at him of installing his loyalists in these institutions.
Although the resentment over this meddling is shared among members of the same faith in different ethnic groups, the resentment among the Amhara runs deep as they perceive that Abiy’s meddling has resulted in appointing leaders known to be hostile towards the Amhara. This is particularly evident among the Muslims; Amhara Muslims have protested against the new Muslim leadership, expressing their support for the former leader from Wollo in Amhara.
A recent division within the Orthodox Church saw Oromo bishops threatening to form their own synod. In this instance, Abiy aligned himself with the Oromo bishops and deployed government forces to escort them as they forcefully occupied churches in Oromia. The bishops later abandoned their plans and rejoined the Holy Synod after receiving promises of more Oromo bishop appointments, which in effect, reduced the number of Amhara bishops. This outcome came as a result of intense pressure from Abiy and Shimelis Abdisa, Oromia’s regional president.
5. Mistrust and Disagreement during the Tigray war
Fano, and Amhara Regional Special Forces (ARSF) fought against TPLF supporting ENDF. While many mistake this as support for Abiy, the Amhara fought against TPLF because they wanted to liberate Amhara in Wolkait and Raya, historical areas TPLF annexed in the early 1990s. Indeed, once these areas came under Amhara administration, Amhara forces did not cross into proper Tigray with ENDF. But when Abiy withdrew ENDF from Tigray suddenly and without discussion with the regional leadership, the Amhara found themselves vulnerable to attack by TPLF. The latter went deep into Amhara and committed war crimes, including sexual violence against more than a thousand women, killing hundreds of civilians, and destruction and embezzlement of property that Amhara region officials say have undone 30 years of development in the region.
Many blamed the decision to turn Amhara into a war zone as a stab in the back and even a conspiracy to weaken the Amhara. Complaints of some Oromo generals retreating without fighting and leaving heavy weapons to TPLF further created mistrust between Amhara forces and Abiy/ENDF.
6. Amhara Exclusion from the Pretoria Deal
The most significant grievance among the Amhara regarding the conflict in northern Ethiopia stemmed from their exclusion from the peace deal in Pretoria. The Amhara formed a negotiation team comprising politicians, leaders of Amhara forces, and Fano, citing the unique reasons for their fight against the TPLF and the lack of legitimacy of the PP among the Amhara. Abiy argued that several members of his negotiation team are Amhara, and hence, the Amhara did not need a separate delegation.
Western diplomats initially expressed a willingness to consider a separate delegation. Focused on getting a deal, they chose to ignore the Amhara after Abiy’s opposition. In the end, the Amhara were not invited to Pretoria, and the Amhara Prosperity Party members that Abiy nominated were not present during the Pretoria negotiations. They had a marginal role in the negotiation process that was dictated and ultimately signed by non-Amhara Abiy loyalists.
The exclusion from the peace process and the perceived risk to their hard-fought gains further exacerbated the already strained relationship between the Amhara and the central government. Abiy’s government announced plans to disarm Fano and responded with mass arrests targeted at activists and Amhara journalists.
7. Disbanding the Amhara Regional Special Force
The most immediate trigger of the current conflict in Amhara was the abrupt decision of the ruling Prosperity Party in April 2023 to disband the highly respected ARSF, renowned for their prowess demonstrated in the prior Northern Ethiopia war. The party’s claim of restructuring all regional forces into Federal forces rang hollow as it began with the Amhara Region. This move, considered unconstitutional as it dissolved a regional force established by the regional council, was widely interpreted as Abiy’s attempt to weaken the Amhara and pave the way for the re-annexation of Wolkait and Raya by TPLF.
Amhara vehemently protested in several areas in the region and clashed with the ENDF following the announcement. By the government’s own admission, more than 30% of ARSF units either joined Fano or left their posts, resulting in a period of turmoil. Subsequently, a series of targeted assassinations took place, aimed at Abiy loyalists within the APP and police commanders who had mobilized against Fano. The conflict escalated further as Fano gained control of cities in North Shewa by late July.
Fueled by growing resentment, Fano has garnered widespread popular support, leading to a surge in confrontations across the region. Roads have been blocked to hinder the movement of ENDF units, and ambushes against ENDF have occurred in multiple areas. Fano has also exerted efforts to hinder ENDF’s air transport capabilities by controlling airports, as exemplified in Lalibela.
Notably, some of the more than two dozen cities under Fano’s control are situated less than 100 kilometers from the regional council. With Abiy and the ENDF on the backfoot, the deployment of drones against Fano is anticipated. While drones may disrupt conventional fighting logistics, Fano’s hit-and-run tactics could inflict damage on ENDF.
Abiy has already turned off the internet in the region, something he does when his forces lose battles and want to conceal atrocities against civilians. Regardless of the outcome on the battlefield, the conflict’s toll on humanitarian well-being and the political landscape within the nation and the region is bound to be profound and enduring.