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Ethiopia grapples with clashes in Amhara region

Martina Schwikowski
August 9, 2023

Armed militias are fighting against Ethiopia's National Defense Forces in the Amhara region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has declared a state of emergency, and experts warn that the national peace process is in jeopardy.

Ethiopian protesters waving flags and branches, marching.
Civilians protest against the decision of the Ethiopian government to integrate special forces into the armyImage: Tsegaye Eshete/DW

In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, fighting between a militia group and Ethiopia's National Defense Force (ENDF) has intensified. The Fano militia, which draws volunteers from the local population, has reportedly taken control of several towns in the region.

The unrest has quickly become Ethiopia's most serious security crisis since a two-year war, from 2020 to 2022, in the Tigray region, which borders Amhara. On Wednesday, ENDF announced its first battlefield breakthrough in two significant towns since fighting erupted last week. The federal troops said they had pushed local militia out of most of Gondar and Lalibela.

According to the news agency Reuters, a resident in the holy town of Lalibela, which Fano fighters took control of last week, said he saw militiamen leaving the town on Wednesday morning amid reports that ENDF reinforcements were approaching.

"People are suffering," a resident in Gondar, the second-biggest city in Amhara, told DW. "Humanitarian supplies are difficult, medicines are not available," the resident complained, adding that fighting was also occurring nearby.

"Guns and other weapons are fired. We sit on the ground or mattresses, enduring the attacks outside. It is not possible to move freely."

Fano militia groups are also fighting in the captial of Amhara, Bashir DarImage: Waghemra district Communication office

Protests against the government

Several cities in the Amhara region, including the capital Bahir Dar, have witnessed violence following protests against the government's move to disband the regional special forces and integrate them into regular police and the national army.

"There is a lot of tension, but strong resistance from the local population," one resident in Bahir Dar told DW. He said hotels, shopping centers, hospitals, health centers, clinics and pharmacies remain closed.

Protesters fear the government's decision would expose them to attacks by neighboring regions. Ethiopia's regional states have special forces to protect their borders and fight rebels. But the government wants the special forces to be integrated into the federal army or police force to promote national unity.

Amhara has been experiencing repeated unrest for months, and finally, the government declared a state of emergencyon August 4. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government has warned that the security crisis could cause massive social and economic damage. 

"This was seen as an attack on regional autonomy and an attempt to curtail their ability to defend themselves," Ahmed Soliman, an associate at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told DW. 

"Many of the special forces in the Amhara region have either left their posts or joined militias, [like] the Amhara Fano militia. This has led to increasing instability."

The two-year-long civil war in Tigray destabilized the entire region Image: Ben Curtis/AP Photo/picture alliance

From allies to foes

Not long ago, the Amhara Fano militia and other regional security forces had fought alongside ENDF against Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters.

"What has developed is something like a crisis of legitimacy for the Amhara regional government," Soliman said.

"There is a feeling that the influence of the Amhara 'Prosperity Party' [branch] has weakened. Certainly also because it is subordinate to the central government."

The Prosperity Party was established on December 1, 2019, as a successor to the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) by incumbent Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The merger into a countrywide party is seen as part of Abiy's move to distance the country's politics from ethnic federalism.

The peace agreement between the government and the Tigray forces was signed in November 2022Image: PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images

 Abiy's dilemma and feelings of betrayal

According to Ahmed Soliman, feelings of betrayal and injustice continue to play a role in this conflict. "So the peace agreement was more of an agreement between the federal government and the TPLF on the Tigrayan side, with no regard for the interests of the Amhara region, even though it was closely involved in the war and of course is the neighboring region."

The two-year civil war was only settled in November 2022 after Ethiopia's government signed apeace treaty with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Nevertheless, Amhara militias continue to occupy the western Tigray region.

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Experts see the postwar national peace process in Ethiopia in danger.

"You can't really implement peace in Tigray unless the neighboring region is also stable," Soliman said, stressing that there is a big concern that this conflict will have a domino effect.

"We're finding that militias are significantly impacting the security situation, challenging the federal government first in the Oromia region and now in the Amhara region."

Soliman worries that the fighting could affect Ethiopia's future governance and stability: "The government will not want to get into a long-term conflict in the Amhara region."

Solomon Muchie contributed to this article.

This article was originally published in German.

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