Fighting in Ethiopia’s northwestern Amhara region between the military and a local ethnic militia has escalated in recent weeks, resulting in the government blocking the internet and declaring a state of emergency. As a result, Israel has evacuated over 200 Ethiopian Jews and Israelis. The clashes stem from tensions over Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s proposal to dismantle special regional forces and integrate them into the army, a move that Amhara nationalists believe would compromise their region’s security. The ethnic militia, known as Fano, had previously supported Mr. Abiy in his campaign against rebel fighters in the neighboring Tigray region but is now fighting against the military to protect Amhara’s regional forces. This new wave of violence endangers the country, potentially leading to another conflict and further destabilizing a region already affected by the war in Sudan.
The current situation also undermines Prime Minister Abiy’s efforts to consolidate power in the federal government and rein in ethnic-based political groups vying for dominance in Ethiopia, the second-most populous country in Africa. Although federal authorities have claimed to regain control of lost cities and towns and promised to restore government services in the Amhara region, concerns persist about potential renewed attacks by Fano militants, particularly from rural areas with substantial support.
Residents in several cities across the region have reported continued closure of businesses and difficulties in finding food, particularly during the holy fasting days of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The United States and various other nations have issued a joint statement expressing concern about the violence and calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
The roots of the conflict go back to April when the government announced the disbandment of regional forces, triggering protests in the Amhara region. The Amhara population accused Prime Minister Abiy of extending his dominance and leaving the region vulnerable to attacks. Amharas, the country’s second-largest ethnic group, were also unsettled by their exclusion from the peace negotiations in Tigray, claiming that the deal did not address their disputed lands captured during the war. Rights groups have accused both the Amhara regional forces and the Fano militia of committing widespread abuses during the Tigray conflict.
In response to the protests, authorities conducted a crackdown resulting in the arrest of numerous activists, journalists, and local leaders. The federal security forces engaged in clashes with Fano militias, reaching their most intense level this month when the militias were accused of attempting to overthrow the federal government. Major towns and cities, including Bahir Dar, Gondar, and Lalibela, experienced violence. Although an official casualty count has not been released, residents in several towns reported over a dozen deaths. Temesgen Tiruneh, the director general of the national intelligence service, stated that the Fano militia released prisoners, looted government buildings, and destroyed documents in the captured towns.
The escalating crisis prompted the Israeli government to evacuate 204 people, including Ethiopian Jews, from different cities, such as Gondar, which has a significant Ethiopian Jewish community. The situation exacerbates Ethiopia’s existing economic, social, and political problems. Violence continues to destabilize regions like Oromia and Gambella, displacing many people, while millions face food insecurity. To de-escalate the situation, analysts recommend that the government engage in dialogue with the aggrieved parties.
Ethiopia’s central role in the region, its borders with six countries, and its historical significance as a pillar of security heighten concerns about the potential consequences for neighboring countries if the conflict escalates.