(Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°194. 16 November 2023)
What’s new? Ethiopia’s federal government is battling yet another revolt. This time, militants are engaged in hostilities with federal forces in Amhara, the country’s second-most populous region. After tensions escalated all year, insurgents briefly seized control of major towns in August. They remain active in much of the countryside.
**Why did it happen?**Amhara militias fought alongside federal troops in the 2020-2022 Tigray war, but that alliance collapsed when the federal government and Tigrayan leaders reached a deal that ended the conflict. As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed moved to rein in the Amhara militias, relations worsened. Other grievances abound.
Why does it matter? Wars in Ethiopia can take shocking tolls and cause immense civilian suffering. Abiy, who is from the Oromia region, has faced uprisings in all three of Ethiopia’s most powerful regions – Tigray, Oromia and now Amhara. This tangle of crises is corroding inter-ethnic relations and posing threats to the country’s stability.
What should be done? Abiy should reach out to Amhara’s armed dissidents to negotiate an end to the violence. His government should follow up by pursuing talks among Ethiopia’s competing regional factions to address interlocking disputes. African leaders, the U.S. and the European Union should encourage the government to pursue this much-needed dialogue.
Less than a year after war ended in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, another conflict has erupted in Amhara, which lies to the immediate south and is much more populous. The fighting in Amhara, while not as bloody as that in Tigray, is deadly serious. The insurgents are contesting federal control in much of the region, posing a challenge to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and Ethiopia’s stability. In August, they briefly captured major towns and, after federal troops beat them back, entrenched themselves in rural areas from which they can still raid urban centres. While the loosely networked militants do not currently threaten Addis Ababa, the federal capital, they command significant popular support. Abiy should heed calls from Amhara allies to pursue dialogue. He should also work to ease tensions among ethnic groups as a stepping stone toward national reconciliation. Though their influence is limited, African and Western capitals should encourage Abiy to pivot toward a more conciliatory approach, lest Ethiopia keep veering from crisis to crisis.
Tensions between Abiy and Amhara elites, who were instrumental in bringing him to power in 2018, have bubbled for years but heated up after the November 2022 deal to end the Tigray war. That conflict pitted federal and Amhara forces, as well as those from the Afar region and soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea, against those commanded by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF, which runs the Tigray region, was until recently the most powerful political actor in the country. It was predominant in the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa between 1991 and 2018. All the parties viewed the war in existential terms. Hundreds of thousands died, one of the world’s highest tolls in a decade.
The federal government’s 2022 agreement with the TPLF succeeded in stopping the fighting but shattered Abiy’s wartime coalition, alienating large numbers of Amhara and disappointing Eritrea, both of which had invested significant blood and treasure in the federal war effort but did not participate in the peace talks. Many Amhara felt betrayed. They accused Abiy of plotting to hand back to Tigray disputed lands that the Amhara region seized during the war from the TPLF, which had taken administrative control of the territory upon coming to power in the early 1990s. Discord between Abiy and Eritrean leaders, who had forged close ties with Amhara elements during the conflict, added to the unease. Eritrea, which fought a bitter border war with Ethiopia while the TPLF reigned in Addis Ababa, was irked that Abiy had yielded to external pressure to negotiate the peace deal at a time when the TPLF looked to be in full retreat.
The loss of the common TPLF enemy also brought to the fore acrimony between the Amhara and Oromo – Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, which together form the backbone of Abiy’s ruling coalition. Oromia, a majority-Oromo region, lies south of Amhara, and political leaders from the two communities have long been rivals. Clashes along the boundary have grown more frequent since Abiy took office in 2018, and today many Amhara assert that Abiy (himself from Oromia) is allowing Oromo militants to massacre Amhara civilians in Oromia. Distrust soared when, in February, Amhara politicians said Abiy was siding with Oromo clerics who split off from Ethiopia’s powerful Orthodox Church, a cherished institution among the Amhara and many other Ethiopians. As tensions increased, federal authorities increasingly resorted to blocking roads connecting Amhara with Addis Ababa.
Tensions kept rising. In April, many Amhara forces refused Abiy’s order to disband the regional paramilitaries and took to the bush with their weapons to join Amhara militias known as Fano, which had not demobilised after joining the anti-TPLF fight. Major clashes then broke out across Amhara in early August, plunging the region into a state of war. After fighting spread to important cities, including the regional capital Bahir Dar, Gondar and Lalibela, which the rebels briefly took over, federal forces succeeded in pushing them out. But the various Fano militias – which lack a central command – regrouped in the countryside, bolstered by paramilitary defectors, and launched new attacks on towns. Even if federal forces can continue to repel these assaults, they will face a gruelling uphill struggle to uproot the insurgents, who have elite backing and strong community ties. At the time of writing, Addis Ababa has made no public effort to engage with the resistance leaders. Fighting continues in various parts of Amhara, ebbing and flowing in intensity, with no resolution in sight.
The Amhara insurgency adds to pressures on [Prime Minister] Abiy as Ethiopia faces a deep economic crisis and violence in many parts of the country.
More broadly, the Amhara insurgency adds to pressures on Abiy as Ethiopia faces a deep economic crisis and violence in many parts of the country. With the Amhara conflict, Abiy has now faced major revolts – each with considerable elite and popular support – in all three of Ethiopia’s most powerful regions, including both Tigray and Abiy’s native Oromia, where an ethno-nationalist rebellion and counter-insurgency efforts have destroyed livelihoods and brought rampant lawlessness to Addis Ababa’s doorstep. While the core of Abiy’s Tigray peace deal has held up remarkably well, much remains unresolved there, too, including the dispute between Tigray and Amhara over western and southern territories in the former, known to Amhara as Welkait and Raya. The knot of intertwined grievances in Ethiopia will be difficult to disentangle.
Abiy’s defenders view the prime minister as embroiled in an unavoidable battle with foes at home and abroad who oppose his vision to unify and modernise Africa’s second-most populous country. They see Abiy, with his inclination to strengthen the federal government vis-à-vis the regions, as a bulwark against the centrifugal forces unleashed by the TPLF when it imposed an ethno-federation in the 1990s. Some in Abiy’s camp privately acknowledge that he could have handled relations with the Amhara and others more carefully. But they say his opponents want to weaken Ethiopia with parochial pursuits and are thus dangerous to appease. Further, they say, Abiy is likely to regard his consolidation of power despite these challenges as proof that he should not back down.
The cost to Ethiopia of Abiy’s approach to tackling his opponents, however, has been far too great. Conflict has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, and many more displaced, in the tumult since he came to power. The economy is on life support. Ethiopia’s previous reputation as an anchor of the Horn of Africa lies in shreds. Amhara, with around 30 million people, is in a precarious condition. Further, nearly all agree that Abiy’s popularity has plummeted, in no small part because his stock has fallen among many previously supportive Amhara, even if the prime minister’s hold on the state apparatus seems secure.
Although Abiy appears inclined to press ahead fighting the Amhara insurgents, a military approach alone is unlikely to work. Rather, he should take advantage of the power he has amassed to pursue peace with his opponents. While there is no straightforward way to end the war, he should ask his Amhara allies to reach out to those who can speak on behalf of militants to explore pathways to a ceasefire.
Meanwhile, he should prepare a broader plan of national reconciliation. Given the predominance of the Oromo, Amhara and Tigrayans in Ethiopian politics, Abiy should seek to bring them all to the table with the agenda of resolving the feuds among factions from those regions. Such an approach is the only convincing road to the stability and economic recovery (debt relief is particularly pressing) that Abiy needs to carry out his governing and modernisation agenda, in addition to post-war reconstruction in Tigray, Oromia and Amhara.
Notwithstanding Abiy’s disinclination to bend to outside pressure, international actors still have an important role to play. Horn and Gulf countries should resist the temptation to meddle in the conflict and instead call for a halt to fighting. The African Union (AU), which has its headquarters in Addis Ababa, and other African leaders, as well as officials from the U.S., European Union and United Arab Emirates, should offer quiet support for peace efforts in Amhara. They should also take every opportunity to urge Abiy to start conversations about national reconciliation among the Amhara, Tigray and Oromia elite – including his adversaries. The AU, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (the regional bloc that includes the Horn) and Kenya should also work to ease tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea. With the Tigray peace deal a year old, and conflict raging in neighbouring Sudan, the prospect of Ethiopia spiralling further into large-scale violence is chilling indeed. Now is the time for concerted efforts to lay the groundwork for peace and avert deeper conflict that neither the country nor the region can afford.