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Persecuted Amharas have nowhere left to flee to

This article is part of the Analytical Reporting to Improve the Federation (ARIF) project.

Ethiopia’s failure to institute an effective system of protection and representation for intra-state minorities is a key driver of the conflict in Amhara region.

In early January 2024 when Christians in the historic Ethiopian city of Gondar were readying to observe Orthodox Christmas, thunderous gunshots shook the streets in two neighborhoods.

Some members of the local Fano—a decentralized militia network with a political agenda and loose command structure that has been battling government forces in Amhara region for eight months—were said to have entered the neighborhoods and the army was trying to repel them.

At one point, suspecting there were militia hiding in an area called Kebele 16, government soldiers rained bullets on a three-storey building.

Atalay, a mother of one who lives nearby, described the incident as “terrifying”. Families in the area closed their doors and prayed. “We didn’t know how long it would last. We didn’t know how bad things would get,” she said. The bout of violence lasted for two days.1

The government blamed what it called “malevolent forces” for the incident. It did not say if civilians died, or how much damage was sustained.

In subsequent days a façade of normalcy returned to the city, but tensions remained palpable. Weeks later, soldiers patrolling the streets in a string of pickup trucks were a common sight and in the evenings the clang of gunfire was a common sound. Residents of Gondar, one of the largest cities in the north-western region, continued to grapple with the volatility of a deepening crisis.

“There are stretches of weeks when nothing of note happens and we feel a relative sense of ease,” a health professional said. “Then, suddenly, soldiers are ambushed in the outskirts of the city, or intense clashes occur in nearby villages.”

The violence, and the tensions, in Gondar are a microcosm of the wider conflict rocking Amhara. Ethiopia’s second-most populous region is sliding deeper into a political and security crisis with implications for the entire country as the government struggles to quash an uprising by the bands of militia.

Before open rebellion broke out in August last year, tensions were fermenting with Amharas accusing the federal authorities of structural discrimination and failure to curb recurrent attacks against members of their community living as minorities in other regions.

The violence is now entrenching and the underlying issues that led to it remain unaddressed.

Burning Discontent

The fiercest combat in the city took place in August, when large-scale violence started to engulf the region.

At the time, the Fano, unexpectedly, seized most parts of the city and the government’s response included, according to residents who spoke to Ethiopia Insight, deploying a large number of soldiers and firing heavy weapons.

The city squares and streets “became battlefields,” a restaurant waiter said. Flights were suspended and the fighting froze most commerce and social activities. In the end, the army proved too strong for the militias and gained control of the city within days, after which it immediately introduced night-time curfews.

“There were so many bodies by the sides of the roads,” when calm returned, the waiter recounted.

Around the same time, other cities and towns in Amhara, including the regional capital Bahir Dar, and the tourist magnet Lalibela, were also the scene of intense clashes. In the former, one of the largest prisons in the region was broken into and an unknown number of inmates were released. In the latter, the airport was briefly under Fano control.

The violence spread like wildfire into numerous smaller towns and villages. Supporters of the Fano blocked roads in several areas, attempting to restrict the army’s movements as it scrambled to contain a rapidly escalating revolt.

Unsurprisingly, a six-month state of emergency was declared across the region. But it has not been sufficient to maintain control; something tacitly admitted by the government when in January, a few weeks after the Christmas clashes in Gondar, the draconian decree was extended by four months.

Entrenched Distrust 

For astute observers of Ethiopian politics, it was hardly a surprise that yet another conflict arose in Amhara less than a year after a peace accord was signed to silence the guns in neighbouring Tigray, effectively putting an end to one of the deadliest wars the world has seen in recent years.

The peace agreement between Addis Ababa and Mekelle was not embraced in Amhara. Instead, it reignited longstanding suspicions towards the federal government.

An array of armed Amhara groups fought alongside the federal army against Tigray’s forces between 2020 and 2022. Those include the Amhara Special Forces (ASF), a quasi-paramilitary unit of the regional government; the regular police force; and various informal assemblages mostly identifying as Fano, traditionally a term used to describe volunteer local defence forces.2 This followed a proliferation of weapons—and an upsurge in mobilization of informal groups—across the region, as well as the consolidation of the ASF.

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But when peace talks began with the African Union as the facilitator and the United States as the main engine behind them, many in Amhara felt sidelined because only representatives from the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had seats at the table.

Besides downplaying these concerns, federal authorities didn’t really try to build trust in the wake of the deal. In fact, measures introduced in the months that followed fuelled the sense of trepidation among many Amharas.

In April 2023, the authorities revealed a plan to dissolve the ASF and other similar units in all of the country’s regions.3 The government said the move was a necessary step towards engineering a strong and centralized security apparatus. Many in Amhara appeared unconvinced that a federal government-driven, centralized security structure would defend their interests, as they saw a multitude of threats.

The Tigray war drew a veil over deeply rooted grievances in Amhara. Many were willing to overlook their misgivings with a belief that aligning with federal troops would give them an opportunity to seize territories they claim; territories that had been within Tigray for decades.4

The conclusion of the war saw the resurfacing of these issues. Chief among them is a litany of targeted attacks against ethnic Amharas living as minorities in other regions, particularly Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz.

Gruesome Attacks

Thousands have been killed in these attacks and hundreds of thousands forced out of their homes. Farming villages were set ablaze and properties looted.

While accusations by the government and survivors are often levied against the insurgent  Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and armed ethnic Gumuz militias, regional and zonal officials have also been blamed for failing to stop the attacks. The OLA not only denies the accusations but says a government-backed militia is behind the atrocities.

In one particularly gruesome round of attacks in the summer of 2022, around 400 ethnic Amhara villagers were killed in rural western Oromia and hundreds of structures were destroyed. In recent months, clashes between government forces and the OLA have been compounded by more attacks against minorities.

The tragic persistence of the incidents left even some senior federal officials to seek solutions beyond the regional security apparatus.5 A month before war broke out in Tigray in late 2020, in response to the killing of dozens of ethnic Amharas in Benishangul-Gumuz’s Metekel Zone, then Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen recommended arming “minority civilians” so they could defend themselves.

Strong Amhara reactions against disbanding the ASF, seen as a protector of Amhara interests, seemed to be rooted in that profound distrust of the government’s ability to offer protection.6 Some push this distrust further by casting officials, especially in Oromia, as accomplices who, they argue, use violence against minority Amharas in order to force them out.

The dissolution of the ASF paved the way for various Fano groups to strengthen. Some former ASF members joined Fano groups that used attacks against ethnic Amharas in other regions to mobilize recruits.

At times, some Fano groups have been accused of crossing into neighboring Oromia and launching attacks that they said were retaliatory.7 In one brutal incident, dozens were killed in Agamsa town after militants from nearby Amhara districts targeted civilians. In another, Oromos living in adjacent Amhara villages were killed and thousands forced to flee.

Mass Displacement

Ethiopia has a displaced population of more than four million due to reasons varying from conflicts to climate shocks. Around a million of them are in Tigray while there are hundreds of thousands in Amhara who fled ethnic attacks.

Alemnesh, a 32-year-old mother of three who for four months has sheltered in a makeshift camp in Debre Berhan, an industrial city in Amhara, fears she could be forced by the authorities to return to Oromia’s East Shoa Zone.8 She decided to flee the zone’s Dugda District after attacks by armed groups grew common and she felt regional security forces were unable to provide protection.

“You don’t know when they [armed groups] will come and when they come, there’s nothing they spare. They kill. They take everything they can find. And they burn our huts,” she said in an interview with Ethiopia Insight in December. “So, either we stayed there and wait for our death or ran for our lives.”

Shepherd children clapping and singing in highlands of the Amhara Region of Ethiopia; 7 October 2009; Damien Halleux Radermecker.

Small villages where Amharas are concentrated face more frequent attacks according to her: “They knew who lived where.” Alemnesh said reporting incidents or voicing concerns over possible episodes to local authorities hadn’t been much help. “They said they were fighting with the Shene [OLA] and Shene fighters attack civilians when they lose battles.”

She was convinced local authorities did not want Amharas living deep in Oromia’s fertile villages where there was no one within the administrative structure that represented the interests of people like herself.

Dreaded Return

In Debre Berhan, Alemnesh and her children still didn’t receive sufficient support. Food and clothing were in short supply as authorities struggle to meet the needs of tens of thousands of displaced people in the city, located 130 kilometers northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa.

But the lack of support wasn’t the only thing Alemnesh’s family was facing. Fleeing violence in her village, she was met with clashes.

Debre Berhan, like many cities and towns in the region, had at times been a setting for urban combat leaving civilians dead. Drone strikes were reported, and heavy artillery fired. Among those killed were displaced people.

Many uprooted by the war in Tigray say they wish to return to their homes.9 For some who left Oromia after surviving identity-based attacks and found themselves in Amhara, the possibility of return elicits dread.

Alemnesh, for example, said she wouldn’t want to return to her village in Oromia. So, when she heard rumors that the authorities might launch campaigns to return displaced people to their places of origin, she was apprehensive. “I’d hide if I have to,” she said sternly.

The move was signaled when senior figures from Oromia and Amhara’s ruling elite held discussions in December on ways to address the country’s massive displacement problems.

According to the head of the ruling Prosperity Party’s Amhara chapter, Yirga Sisay, the process of returning displaced people will be gradual. The two regions have said they would work hand-in-hand to ensure the safety of returning minorities—but that has hardly filled those who fled attacks with confidence.

Still, officials went ahead with the plan, and the first batch of around 800 returnees arrived in Oromia in late February. Upon arrival, they were made to stay in an empty warehouse. “We are not told anything about future plans,” one of them said. The government promised to provide protection, another said. “We are putting our trust in the government and God, but there are still fears.”

Special Problem

Ethnic Oromos living in Amhara seemed to enjoy a relative degree of autonomy, at least those living in the Oromo Special Zone, where the political and bureaucratic structure is dominated by members of their community. There’s a high degree of representation in the zonal militia and police force—and with that comes a sense of protection.

However, Amhara’s recent violence has created a sense of unease. “The Fano want to dissolve the zone. They want to swallow it,” Osman, a resident of Kemise town told Ethiopia Insight. “They say the Amharas don’t have zones in Oromia, so why should you?”

The Oromo enclave has long been a hotbed of violence. In November 2021 the Tigray war expanded, reaching its doorsteps. Nearly a year ago, armed groups in the zone and its neighboring North Shoa burned houses and vandalized properties. There have also been accusations that OLA elements operate in the zone.

As the Amhara conflict drags on, increased incidents of clashes between the Fano and armed residents are reported. In November this year, a day-long fight was reported in the zone’s Artuma Fursi District, in what residents said was a Fano attack. Eighteen people were reported killed.

Osman said although his hometown has been relatively safe, he was not surprised that violence emerged. “The Fano are directing their hostility towards the government into a hostility towards the Oromo. I feel [concerned] for Oromos living in other parts of the region.”

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In March this year, the zone was visited by a fresh round of violence in which both Fano fighters and “uniformed regional police”—who are normally at odds with each other—were accused by locals of launching “coordinated attacks” in the zone’s Jille Dhumuga District against ethnic Oromos. More than two dozen were killed while multiple others sustained injuries.

The violence spilled to neighboring North Shewa Zone and continued for days, prompting the U.S. to sound the alarm bells. Perhaps as a testament to a lack of trust in Amhara regional institutions, Ethiopia Insight confirmed that some of the wounded crossed borders into Oromia to seek treatment in the Rift Valley city of Adama.

Achilles Heel

The lack of representation in regional and sub-regional administrative and security structures has been a lethal Achilles heel in Ethiopia’s management of its sizeable intra-state minority population.

Legal scholar Beza Desalegn argues that the re-arrangement in 1991 of Ethiopia’s political system along ethno-linguistic lines created “a new set of majority-minority relations.” The system, in a bid to empower ethnic groups, granted some of them territorial homelands where a status comparable to exclusive ownership was bestowed on them and allowed them to enjoy political, economic, and culture privileges.10 The reasoning for the arrangement was a perceived historical domination by the Amhara that needed to be corrected.11

In the resulting indigenous/non-indigenous dichotomy, many across Ethiopia who live outside of their carved ethno-national homelands (regions, special zones, or special districts) became ‘non-indigenous’ to the areas they resided in. That usurped them of the political and cultural self-determination they would have in the areas to which they were ‘indigenous’.

A dominant ethno-national group ruling as a majority with exclusive control of power within a certain heterogenous territory and in the context of increased cross-territorial mobility “has had grave consequences” for minorities in such territories, according to the federalism scholar Assefa Fiseha.  “What the design provides is autonomy for a particular titular ethno-national group, not autonomy for all inhabitants in the constituent unit.”

Thus, Alemnesh and many ethnic Amharas in Oromia, despite living in those areas for several years, are left wondering if they belong there.

For Belachew Girma, a legal scholar, that feeling of exclusion and alienation has structural roots.12 Ethiopia’s ethno-national federal system has fallen short of the “full and free exercise” of the right to self-determination promised in the Constitution’s Preamble as intra-state minorities are overlooked from exercising them, he said.

The constitution allocates minorities twenty parliamentary seats, Belachew recalls, but “it is not clear in practice by what criteria they are represented. Representation in the federal and state governments is also problematic as there is no pattern and institutional guarantee. Many of the [ethno-national] groups do not have self-governments that enable them to exercise their constitutional rights.”13

What Now?

There are no signs that violence and instability in Amhara will quell soon.

Despite public claims of success, government officials privately admit not-so-small portions of the region are out of their control. An official said travel by road for government officials even between cities like Bahir Dar and Gondar, with just 180 kilometers separating them, has become nearly impossible.

A growing number of government and party officials hailing from the region are fleeing the country, including a former federal state minister and at least two Prosperity Party MPs. This signals a loss of faith among some of the region’s ruling elite that the problem in Amhara will be resolved.

Regional and federal authorities alike vow to address Amhara resentments that led to the conflict in the region. But one of the primary sources of anger among the Amhara—the questions of Amhara minorities in other regions and their vulnerability—isn’t one that can be fixed easily as legal and policy reforms at the federal, regional, and local government levels are required.

The legal scholar Beza argues that Ethiopia’s electoral law denies national and regional minorities “equitable and adequate share of political power in the respective federal and regional councils” and thus ensuring “adequate representation proportional to the numerical presence of minorities in constituencies in lieu of stubborn adherence solely to the majoritarian plurality system” could address the intra-state minority problem.

The rebellion in Amhara is likely to continue challenging the government. Worse, it could lead to wider violence, pitting Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups against each other. This is all the more reason for authorities to try and achieve a peaceful resolution to the Amhara conflict in the short term.

But to find a lasting solution, they need to address the structural issues behind the repeated attacks on Amharas elsewhere in the country.

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Main photo: Amhara activists march across London’s Parliament Square protesting against anti-Amhara violence in Ethiopia; 29 July 2023; Alisdare Hickson.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

Footnotes
1    Ethiopia Insight was provided with varying death tolls by different sources. A health professional at University of Gondar Hospital said he treated four civilians with gunshot wounds, and he heard from patients that as many as a dozen people were killed, something he himself did not confirm.
2    Fano, as a nomenclature, has been in use for centuries in Amharic speaking Ethiopia and, as the social anthropology scholar Tsehai Bernane-Selassie defines it, represented a “band of leaderless soldiers” (or a member of such a group) who travel to battlefields of their own volition and “were accountable to no one.” The Fano both fought against oppressive feudal lords and were mobilized by them as foot soldiers when an external threat was perceived. Haile Selassie I, Ethiopia’s last emperor, was preoccupied with establishing a professional and standing army forming the Imperial Bodyguard in his Crown Prince years. But during the brief occupation of Ethiopia by Italian Fascists between 1935-1941, when Haile Selassie, an emperor by then, fled the country, citizen soldiers, including the Fano, organized themselves and fought the invaders. In the mid-2010s, the term Fano underwent a marked change when it began to delineate unarmed youth protesters in Amhara region that followed in the footsteps of the Qeerroo in Oromia demanding political change. After that change brought Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018, he was quick to praise the protesters in the two regions. In subsequent years, however, an increase in militancy was witnessed among the Amhara youth with their involvement in clashes reported in neighboring regions where ethnic Amharas were said to be under threat, and Fano once again began to describe self-organized armed groups throughout the region.
3    The Special Police forces, Liyu Hayil in Amharic, has been embroiled in controversy for years. First established in the Somali region in 2007 to conduct counter-insurgency operations focusing on Islamist militants, it had the backing of Ethiopia’s western allies that saw the country as a key geopolitical and security partner in the war on terror. But the force, which was more heavily armed than the regular police, was also involved in riot control and the region’s crackdown of dissent. Various reports implicated Somali’s Special Force in gross rights abuses. However, despite questions over its constitutionality, other regions followed suit in setting up similar units, largely, as a force that would respond to insurgencies and insurrections. In the early years of Abiy’s tenure, the Special Forces saw significant expansion in Oromia and to some degree in Amhara. Multiple classes of Special Forces graduated in Oromia in highly publicized ceremonies. This created nervousness in Amhara, and calls and efforts were made to enhance their respective force. But it was after war broke out in Tigray that the Amhara Special Force (ASF) grew in number and capacity as, having fought alongside the army, it gained access to vast resources.
4    Amhara region, and the political elite from the region, had been, rather simplistically, described as Abiy’s power and support base abundantly during northern Ethiopia’s civil war, and to some extent even before that. Abiy’s, and the federal government’s, relations with the Amhara has been a complex one. Short-lived hope and optimism quickly gave way to suspicion primarily due to recurring attacks against Amhara minorities in various parts of the country. The distrust was cast aside when war broke out, but it never went away.
5    There are no clear figures about how many attacks against minority Amhara occurred in the past five years or the extent of the damage they incurred. According to one UN estimate, half a million Amharas have fled Oromia for fear of violence. And often uncertainty surrounds attacks, from the number of casualties to how events transpired, partly because authorities often disrupt communications lines once a violent incident is reported and partly because most of the episodes took place in remote places.
6    There are no reliable figures about how big the ASF was before the decision to disband it. Some put it in the tens of thousands. But soon after the announcement was made, Girma Yeshitila, who was the head of the ruling Prosperity Party, admitted that at least 30 percent of the force had left the government structure and retreated to the mountains. Within weeks of making the remarks, Girma was shot dead and the authorities blamed “extremist forces” for his assassination.
7    Because they’re self-mobilizing, there are several Fano groups that operate in their respective localities. This lack of structure has opened doors for crimes against civilians. In Western Tigray, the Fano, together with a local Amhara government that endorsed them, were accused of committing severe abuses. Attempts to unify the forces have not been successful. But all Fano factions seem to stand together in their disdain of the federal government. And they all appear to have huge popular support.
8    East Shoa has been one of the zones in Oromia towards which clashes between government forces and the OLA have expanded in recent months. The clashes often are compounded by attacks against civilians. The upheaval has also evidently weakened the security structure, prompting an unprecedented upsurge in criminal violence. Kidnapping for ransom has reportedly grown in frequency, while armed robberies have grown more common.
9    Since late 2020, these areas are under the control of Amhara regional forces who later set up a zonal administrative structure.
10    The territorial homelands, for some groups, are regional states. Of the 76 officially recognized ethnic groups- or nations, nationalities and peoples (NNPs) as the constitution refers to them, Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromo, Sidama, and Somali have titular regional states where they enjoy numerical and political dominance. In Harari, a minority group assumes political dominance, while in the remaining five regions (Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Central Ethiopia, Southern Ethiopia, and South-Western Ethiopia) several NNPs are bundled together to create regional states. Groups like the Argoba in Afar and the Agew in Amhara are granted sub-regional special nationality administrative units.
11    The current borders of Ethiopia are largely shaped by expansions made by Emperor Menelik II in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus began the dominance of Amhara culture (mostly Amharic language and Orthodox Christianity), a practice that continued with more vigor during Emperor Haile Selassie I’s reign.
12    ARIF expert panel discussion. Held online on 11 November 2023 in Amharic.
13    The House of Federation, Ethiopia’s upper house of Parliament, is mandated with ensuring the protection of minorities, but it doesn’t have legislative powers.

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