News analysis: Despite State of Emergency and leadership changes Amhara region grapples with persistent conflict, violence

Despite the Amhara region being under a state of emergency, there have been recent outbreaks of clashes between federal forces and the non-state militia group Fano (Photo: China Daily)

By Abdii Biyenssa @ABiyenssa & Zelalem Takele @ZelalemTakelee

Addis Abeba – Tensions remain high in Ethiopia’s Amhara region as conflict persists between federal forces and non-state Fano militias. What initially started as a disagreement over the federal government’s controversial decision to dissolve regional state special forces has now escalated into a prolonged military standoff, exacerbating a dire humanitarian crisis.

In an effort to address the escalating violence and instability, the federal government declared a six-month state of emergency in the region in early August. The Council of Ministers stated that the decree was necessary to “maintain public peace and security and enforce law and order.”

Major cities in the Amhara region seem to be returning to a state of normalcy following the implementation of a curfew mandated by the command post overseeing the state of emergency. However, there have been recent reports of new conflicts erupting in various cities and towns throughout the region. In addition to resulting in fatalities, injuries, and the destruction of public infrastructure, these recent conflicts have significantly exacerbated human rights conditions across the region.

“He was the eldest child of his family and had completed his entrance examination only two weeks before the unfortunate event…He was waiting for the results.”

In late August, the United Nations expressed concern over worsening human rights conditions, citing over 183 deaths since July 2023. In September 2023, The Guardian reported allegations of over 70 civilians killed by federal soldiers and widespread looting in the town of Majete after heavy fighting with local militias.

Last week, reports emerged indicating that the town of Lalibela was shaken by the sounds of heavy artillery, adding to the already concerning situation in the region. This unsettling incident comes in the wake of another clash over the weekend between federal troops and local militias in Gondar City, resulting in the loss of numerous lives.

The command post responsible for monitoring the state of emergency in Gonder disclosed that more than 50 militants were killed or injured. Residents of Gonder, who spoke to Addis Standard on the condition of anonymity, have stated that many individuals from both sides have lost their lives as a result of fierce fighting over the weekend. The deceased included recently appointed law enforcement officials and their security details.

There are contradictory stories surrounding the weekend fierce fighting in the historic Gonder city. The Command post claims “enemy forces infiltrated” the city at around 4:00 AM local time “and tried to attack a police station.” Security forces “put up a fierce fight” against the attack and “prevented innocent people from being harmed” the Command said, but stated that “more than 50 people, including the leaders of the enemy forces, were killed and injured” before the attack by “the extremist forces” was stopped by the defense force leading to their complete withdrawal from the area.

However, a PR representative of Tewodros Fano group that is active in the Gonder area told the BBC Amharic that the group “launched the attacks to show that we can enter the city of Gonder any time we want and to free hundreds of our imprisoned members.” The group claimed to have inflicted heavy damage on government forces, including the capturing of federal forces as prisoners of war, as well as freeing hundreds of Fano members from prisons.

Caught in crossfire

One victim caught in such crossfire was 19-year-old Amare Ando. As his uncle revealed to Addis Standard, Amare was tragically killed by heavy artillery fire in front of his home in Farta Woreda, near Debre Tabor, on 28 August, 2023. Amare, a 12th grade student at Gafat High School, had recently taken his university entrance exam and was eagerly awaiting his results.

“He was the eldest child of his family and had completed his entrance examination only two weeks before the unfortunate event,” his uncle told Addis Standard over the phone. “He was waiting for the results.”

The morning of 28 August began like any other for Amare. Around 7:30 am, he was working outside his family’s textile workshop when gunfire abruptly erupted. “Our home is located near the woreda’s prison, so sporadic gunshots had been audible in the days prior. However, this was different,” Amare’s uncle explained.

The family rushed outside upon hearing the loud volleys to investigate the disturbance, only to be confronted with a horrifying scene. “The area was destroyed, and we found poor Amare lifeless; his body was completely charred,” his distraught uncle recounted.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has recently expressed alarm over the deteriorating conflict in the Amhara region. In a report published on 18 September, 2023, the Commission expressed deep concern regarding the ongoing unrest and violence, which continue to pose a threat to the safety of civilians. Of particular concern are the numerous extrajudicial killings that have occurred across several towns between 31 July and 9 September, 2023. These victims were executed without due process, even for suspected minor offenses.

One eyewitness, who goes by the pseudonym Abebe, shared with Addis Standard the tragic murder of his friend Habtamu in Shewa Robit, a city town highlighted in the EHRC’s latest report as experiencing grave extrajudicial killings. According to Abebe, government forces had been absent from the city for a week until that fateful day. On 18 August, 2023, intense gunfire broke out throughout Shewa Robit as government forces swept through the city.

“One of the armed men aimed his firearm at Habtamu’s head. Despite Habtamu desperately pleading for his life, the gunman fired at point-blank range without hesitation, and Habtamu died instantly.”

“My companions and I were outside our homes when government forces arrived,” said Abebe. “A group of armed men approached us and interrogated us to determine whether we were members of the Fano militia.” Abebe emphasized that none of them were armed or affiliated with Fano. “We informed them that we had no connection to Fano and possessed no weapons,” he recounted. “However, they proceeded to gather us together and instructed three of my companions, including Habtamu, to kneel.”

Abebe continued solemnly, “One of the armed men aimed his firearm at Habtamu’s head. Despite Habtamu desperately pleading for his life, the gunman fired at point-blank range without hesitation, and Habtamu died instantly.”

Abebe believes that further unjustifiable killings were only avoided when the commander called off the executions.

After the region experienced unrest and escalating conflict, the Council of Amhara Regional State recently appointed Arega Kebede as the new president, replacing Yilkal Kefale (Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia)

Befkadu Dereba, a senior human rights protection officer at the Ethiopia Human Rights Defenders Center, asserts that the conflict in the Amhara region has escalated into full-scale warfare, with severe consequences for civilians. Befkadu explains that as the fighting intensifies, civilians increasingly bear the brunt, facing violations of human rights as well as loss of life and property.

While the government declared a state of emergency in August to address the ongoing crisis, Befkadu argues that this should not justify severe human rights violations. Recognizing the complexity of the situation, with armed groups blending with civilians in urban areas, Befkadu insists that the government still has an obligation under international law to safeguard civilian lives and uphold human rights standards.

Befkadu also draws attention to the concerning increase in arbitrary detentions associated with the conflict. Referring to a recent report by the EHRC, he condemns the undisclosed proliferation of detention facilities in the Amhara and Oromia regions as well as Addis Abeba.

In an attempt to restore stability and order in the war-stricken Amhara region, the regional and federal governments have implemented leadership changes and reshuffling. An emergency meeting was held in August 2023 in the regional capital of Bahir Dar, where Arega Kebede, the former Director of the Amhara Vital Events Registration Agency, was appointed as the new president by the Amhara Regional State Council.

Arega wasted no time in implementing significant changes to the region’s security apparatus after assuming office on 2 September, 2023. This included an overhaul of the Amhara Regional Peace and Security Bureau, the police, militia, and prisons commission.

More recently, Goshu Endalamahu was appointed as the new mayor of Bahir Dar, assuming the rank of first deputy mayor. Local media reports suggest that Goshu has pledged to prioritize “peace through dialogue” to guide the people through the ongoing crisis. However, many question whether such leadership changes and reshuffling can effectively restore stability and order in the region.

Christian Tadele, a member of the House of People’s Representatives and the opposition National Movement of Amhara (NMA), is currently detained in connection with the region’s conflict and unrest. Prior to his arrest, Christian voiced his view to Addis Standard that the rise of conflict and insurgent groups can be attributed to the ruling party’s preference for confrontation rather than peaceful resolutions.

Christian also criticized the ruling party’s inclination to escalate discussions that could be resolved through peaceful means, stating that “one cannot wage war against the people; violence only begets more violence.” Instead, he advocates for open dialogue and mediation as effective tools to address tensions in the Amhara region.

Befkadu from the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center suggest that the conflict could have been prevented through prior negotiations. He also believes that a prevailing culture of impunity, where violence is seen as the only option for both the ruling party and armed groups, is intensifying the conflict and endangering civilian lives.

Furthermore, Befkadu argues that the recent appointment of new regional officials and the security restructuring policy implemented by the ruling party will not tackle the underlying issues, providing only temporary solutions. Instead, Befkadu strongly urges the government to initiate comprehensive dialogue and implement substantial reforms to address the root causes that have led to the rise of armed groups. AS

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