While the ink on the peace deal with Tigray to end one of Ethiopia’s most brutal civil conflicts has hardly had time to dry, another conflict, this time with Amhara, has erupted into open warfare. It seems that the Prime Minister’s determination to centralise the country at the point of a gun has seriously backfired, writes Neil Ford.
Addis Ababa’s determination to centralise power has again come to the fore as a result of government efforts to disarm regional military forces in Amhara. Successive leaders have tried to forge the country’s diverse ethnic groups into a nation state but historic rivalries and disparate identities have made this an almost impossible task. Following on from the Tigray War, there are real fears that current fighting in Amhara will weaken rather than strengthen Africa’s second most populous country.
The Ethiopian Federation is divided into regional states roughly based on ethnicity and linguistics. Each currently has their own military, often known as special forces, to defend themselves against rebels and also other parts of the country – the latter an indication of the lack of national cohesion. However, the government announced in early April that it wanted all local forces integrated into the national army, or in some cases into the police force, or disarmed.
In early April, Ethiopian federal forces moved into Amhara in order to force its regional army and associated militia to disarm but many local forces responded by moving into more remote areas. Other local fighters joined with police and protesters in open fighting against the government forces.
There were also widespread popular protests against the decision in Gondar, Kobe, Sekota, Woldia and other cities, with roads blocked to prevent the army from moving around.
The government attempted to hit opposition communications by blocking mobile services. The fighting and the killing of some aid workers by unknown assailants prompted the World Food Programme and other NGOs to suspend operations in the region.
Some had claimed that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision of a united Ethiopia had seemed particularly strong in Amhara, perhaps because many in the state saw Amharic culture as being synonymous with Ethiopian culture, so greater centralisation could strengthen their position. Indeed, the federal army was actually backed in the recent war in Tigray by Amharic forces. Yet opinion seems to have firmly turned against the government in a short space of time.
Lack of trust
Abiy is blamed for not acting to prevent attacks on Amharas living in Oromia – a sensitive subject because Abiy is Oromo. Many also blame Addis Ababa for military incursions by Tigrayan forces into Amhara in 2021 and fear future fighting with Tigray as a result of historical conflict between the two regions – but specifically because of a long-running border dispute concerning land that Tigrayan forces seized in the recent war. There are concerns that the federal government could force Amhara to hand the territory in question back to
Moreover, all sides in the Tigray War were accused of human rights abuses and it is possible that Tigryan forces could launch retaliatory strikes against Amhara in the future. Government opponents argue that this is exactly why they need to retain their own military force. After fighting alongside the federal army in Tigray until very recently, the Amharic forces feel let down by Addis Ababa but Abiy has seemed in no mood to compromise.
“The decision will be implemented even if it comes at a cost. We will try to explain and convince those who are opposing it without understanding. But for those who are intentionally playing a destructive role, law enforcement measures will be taken,” Abiy said in a statement.
He argued that the regional forces had to be dismantled because they are a threat to Ethiopian national integrity. However, questions have also been raised as to why the government began the process of disarmament in Amhara.
It had been hoped that the authoritarian nature of the Ethiopian government would be relaxed when Abiy came to power in 2018. Indeed, one of his first moves was to release thousands of political prisoners, while his efforts to strike a peace deal with Eritrea saw him awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. He also positioned himself as a regional peacemaker, mediating in various cross-border disputes in the Horn of Africa, as well as promoting peace talks in South Sudan.
However, Abiy also quickly began trying to centralise power, despite opposition from most of the country’s regional states, with many fearing that the strategy would actually tear the country apart. The desire to protect regional identities and a high degree of self-determination is very strong across most of the country.
Ethiopia has a history of emperors and dictators seeking to suppress different ethnic identities but a multi-ethnic federation was finally guaranteed under the 1995 constitution, which also gave each regional state the right to secede from the Federation.
From 1995 until 2019, Ethiopia was ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an alliance comprising four parties: Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); the Amhara Democratic Party; and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement.
EPRDF rule under this structure was seen as flawed because of the overwhelming influence of the TPLF, despite the fact that it did not represent the country’s two biggest ethnic groups.
Ethiopia’s 126m population is continuing to grow rapidly across its diverse ethnic groups. A census has not been undertaken since 2007 because of the political sensitivities involved but that exercise found that just 6.1% of the population identified as Tigrayan, with 34.5% opting for Oromo and 26.9% Amharic. The fourth biggest group were the Somali, with 6.2%, with the country also hosting large numbers of refugees from the war in Somalia.
In order to support his centralisation plans, Abiy merged three of the four elements of the EPRDF into his new Prosperity Party. Addis Ababa then sought to smother criticism of its strategy and government forces were sent into Oromia and Sidama regions to suppress opposition but the focus of struggle quickly moved to Tigray.
The powerful Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the only member of the EPRDF not to join the new party, laying the seeds for open war between the TPLF and the government. The TPLF also opposed Abiy’s rapprochement with Eritrea, with which Ethiopia fought a devastating border war, and the postponement of the 2020 elections, which the government attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Eritrean army joined the Ethiopian federal army to invade Tigray, while the Oromo Liberation Army backed the TPLF. Estimates of the death toll vary from tens of thousands up to hundreds of thousands but a peace agreement was finally signed in November 2022, two years after the war began, although the underlying causes of the war remain.
There are therefore obvious fears that the conflict in Amhara could explode on the same scale, dragging in other regional forces. Given the current fighting in Sudan, and continued instability in Somalia, the entire Horn of Africa looks incredibly unstable.
Abiy said that the decision to disarm regional forces had been taken “for the sake of the multinational unity of Ethiopia and the peace of its people, paying a price if need be”. Given Ethiopia’s history of internal wars, it is understandable that the government might seek to promote national cohesion, while the presence of local armies is hardly conducive to the long- term development of a nation.
Yet Addis Ababa’s attempts to force integration at the point of a gun look to have backfired. At the same time, the periodic crackdowns on opponents, journalists and prominent members of specific ethnic communities strengthens the view that far from being a moderniser, Abiy is more reminiscent of Ethiopia’s authoritarian rulers of the past.