Africa Watch – Flaring tensions

14th August 2023

Amidst days of conflict in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, a senior Ethiopian official accused local militiamen of attempting to overthrow both regional and federal governments, prompting a state of emergency declaration. Clashes between Fano militiamen and the Ethiopian National Defence Force persisted over the weekend, with reports of heavy weapons fire in Gondar, Amhara’s second-largest city. Director General of Ethiopia’s national intelligence service overseeing the state of emergency, Temesgen Tiruneh, confirmed militia control over certain towns and districts. The World Health Organisation has also said “ongoing violence” in Amhara is hampering humanitarian aid in this region of northern Ethiopia.

In several ways, Ethiopia’s political crises highlight the dysfunction of the modern African state. Since 2020 when the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed went to war against the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, getting the constituent parts of the heavily divided state has proved even more difficult than getting the TPLF to agree to a ceasefire. Ethiopia’s second most populous region has been gripped by instability since April when federal authorities disarmed the Amhara regional force as part of the recovery from a devastating two-year conflict in the neighbouring Tigray region.

Last year, authorities also tried to dismantle the Amhara militia known as Fano. Both forces had fought alongside federal ones in the Tigray conflict, but now the federal government wants to centralise its security powers. Many Amhara residents, however, are deeply attached to their regional fighters and accuse the federal government of trying to undermine their region, which federal officials reject. Attempts at disarmament are broadly seen as one of the primary means by which Abiy is consolidating his power.

Claims that Eritrea is providing support for Amhara militias blur President Isaias Afwerki’s exact ambition, but it makes clear a potential breakdown in relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara. Mr Abiy’s rapprochement with Mr Afwerki, which officially ended the Eritrean war of independence, earned the former a Nobel Prize in 2019 and laid the groundwork for the Ethiopian federal government’s coalition with Eritrea in the war against Tigray in 2020.

For Ethiopia, it is realising that although winning the war is relatively straightforward, securing lasting peace through governance is more complex.