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Ethiopia risks sliding into another civil war

The sight of tanks rolling through towns as armed drones circle in the sky was supposed to be history. Nine months after a peace deal brought a formal end to Ethiopia’s civil war, many had hoped the country was inching back toward stability. Anxious to turn the page on a conflict that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and shredded his reputation as a Nobel-prizewinning peacemaker, Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister, had his sights set on reaching deals with the IMF and the World Bank to rescue the war-wrecked economy.

But even as calm has been mostly restored to Tigray, the northern region at the centre of Ethiopia’s two-year war, heavy fighting has spread across Amhara, a neighbouring region that is home to the country’s second-largest ethnic group. In early August, Amhara volunteer militias known as Fano swept into the region’s towns and cities, briefly taking over several of them. In fierce battles reminiscent of the Tigray war, the Fano attacked police stations and military garrisons, freed prisoners and intermittently took control of the airport of Lalibela, Ethiopia’s most popular tourist town. Local officials fled. The government responded by sending in the army, shutting down the internet across the region and declaring a six-month state of emergency.

By August 9th the federal army appeared to have regained the upper hand against the rebels. Following several days of fighting in Bahir Dar, the regional capital, the Fano withdrew to the countryside. The government’s forces also seems to have beaten them out of Gondar, Ethiopia’s former imperial capital, as well as several smaller towns. A number of civilians have been injured or killed, some of them in a drone strike on August 13th. “We buried 22 people,” says a resident of Bahir Dar, adding that they were unarmed youths. Lawyers and activists estimate that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Amharas have been detained in Addis Ababa, the national capital, in recent days. On August 4th the police arrested an outspoken Amhara opposition MP.

Even if the Amhara rebellion is—for now—in retreat, the sudden escalation in violence is a reminder of how precarious the federal government’s hold is over a bitterly divided country. It also highlights the flaws of the narrow peace deal that ended the fighting in Tigray, but failed to address Ethiopia’s many other conflicts. Swathes of Oromia, the region with the largest population, have been wracked by insurgency since 2019. The government’s belated attempts at peace talks there have made little progress.

The crisis in Amhara, though, is particularly dangerous. When it went to war against the party that has run Tigray for three decades, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in 2020, the federal army relied heavily on support from Fano militiamen as well as the Amhara region’s own paramilitary forces. In exchange, Abiy allowed them to seize contested territories from Tigray, in particular, most of a fertile area officially known as Western Tigray, where Amhara forces carried out a ferocious campaign of ethnic cleansing. Over the course of the war, Amhara paramilitaries and Fano fighters evicted or killed hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tigrayans. Later, much of Amhara was invaded by Tigrayan forces, who looted hospitals and murdered civilians in revenge. Angry locals accused Abiy’s government of doing too little to protect them.

Since the peace deal, signed last November by the TPLF and Abiy’s government, Amharas have grown ever more worried about their hold on the disputed territories. Amhara activists say their region’s interests were not properly represented at the peace talks. According to the agreement the status of the contested areas is to be resolved “in accordance with the constitution”. Many Amharas believe this means that Abiy plans to hand them back to Tigray. Such fears were heightened in April when the federal government launched a campaign to disarm the regional forces. Protests and gun battles swiftly engulfed Amhara. On April 27th the head of the ruling party in the region was assassinated.

Having prevailed against the TPLF, Abiy may feel confident he can make short work of the Fano. On the eve of war in 2020 the Tigrayans, who dominated the federal government from 1991 until Abiy ousted them in 2018, boasted a highly organised regional militia as well as lots of heavy weaponry. The Fano, by contrast, have neither. “The Fano are highly decentralised,” notes a foreign researcher. “What you see are local loyalties to local leaders who organise their own forces.”

Nonetheless, unrest in Amhara would be difficult to staunch. Amharas ruled the roost under Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, who was deposed in 1974, and under the succeeding Marxist military regime, known as the Derg. They continue to be well represented in the federal bureaucracy, national army and media, though this influence is diminishing. Under Abiy the federal government and security apparatus have become increasingly dominated by Oromos, the country’s largest ethnic group.

Still, Tigrayans are probably no more than 6% of the population; Amharas are about a quarter. “Fighting the Amharas is not like fighting the TPLF,” notes an Ethiopian analyst. “Amharas are everywhere.” Western diplomats also reckon the Fano may have the backing of neighbouring Eritrea, whose forces fought alongside Abiy’s in Tigray. Since he made peace with the TPLF, Abiy is believed to have fallen out with Eritrea’s secretive dictator, Issaias Afwerki. “I don’t think the Fano would act this way without some encouragement from Eritrea,” says one diplomat.

Underlying the discontent in Amhara is widespread insecurity. Politicians there claim that Amharas have been the victims of a “genocidal” campaign ever since they were dethroned by the Tigrayans in 1991. In recent years Amharas living as minorities in other regions have often been the target of ethnic attacks. The Amhara Association of America, an advocacy group, documented more than 3,300 killings in 2021 alone, most of them in Oromia. Many blame the 1995 federal constitution, which enshrined ethnicity as the central feature of Ethiopian politics.

Like Oromia, much of Amhara is fast becoming ungovernable. Abductions and killings are rampant. Local police and officials are often more loyal to the Fano than to the federal government. A steady stream of young men are reported to be joining the rebels in the bush. “We will continue to fight,” says a young man in Bahir Dar. “We just need guns.”

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