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Federal-Amhara clash reflects Oromo-Amhara political friction five years after the Prime Minister took office on the back of their alliance.
As Ethiopia observed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s fifth anniversary on 2 April, widespread protests were held in Amhara region, followed days later by fighting as some Amhara special forces refused to comply with government restructuring orders.
First, tens of thousands of Amharas took to the streets in cities throughout Amhara, including Debre Tabor in South Gondar and Merawi in West Gojjam.
They made several demands, including the removal of restrictions on travel for Amhara residents to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and condemned the government’s plan to dismantle regional special forces, portraying it as a ploy to weaken the Amhara people.
According to the Amhara Association of America, a U.S.-based lobbying group, the protests were “denouncing identity-based massacres, travel restrictions, demolitions of homes in Addis Ababa, and arrests, carried out by the Abiy regime”
Conversely, multiple demonstrations were held in different parts of Oromia in support of Abiy’s government – and quite possibly with its support.
Also over the last week, reports that regional special forces would be disbanded and integrated into other security structures raised concerns among Amharas. On 6 April there were clashes between resistant Amhara Special Forces and other authorities attempting implementation.
A federal government statement said on 6 April “…activities that disrupt the process have been observed by some Special Forces units in the Amhara region, who, on the one hand, have not properly understood the reorganization work and purpose, and on the other hand, were deceived by the false rumors intentionally disseminated by promoters of the agenda of destruction”.
On 4 April, the Security and Safety Joint Task Force had said a “covert group” had been arrested, alleging they planned to incite violence by attacking senior officials. Those held include Amhara academics, media owners, and activists. One of the detained individuals is a member of the Raya Amhara Identity Restoration Committee.
The developments show Ethiopian politics coming full circle after initial maneuvering to dislodge Tigray’s ruling party from national pre-eminence.
Around seven years ago, ruling Amhara and Oromo leaders began an informal alliance, dubbed ‘Oro-mara’, which resulted in the removal of much of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) federal power after Abiy took office.
‘Oro-mara’ was down to Lemma Megersa, the then president of Oromia, and other like-minded politicians from Oromia and Amhara such as Abiy and Amhara’s Gedu Andargachew.
It was forged primarily to bridge the historical divide between Oromo and Amhara elites and wrestle power from the TPLF. The alliance was instrumental in mobilizing support for Abiy’s candidacy and his eventual appointment as prime minister in 2018, which TPLF opposed.
But while it succeeded in outflanking TPLF, it has not spanned that chasm.
Oromo activist-turned-politician Jawar Mohammed in a recent paper identifies six fundamental differences that persistently cause tension between Amhara and Oromo. These are the politics of historical memory, the issue of Finfinne (Addis Ababa), border disputes, cross-border minority issues, power-sharing, and language.
Other politicians and analysts also concede that the alliance did not solve underlying differences.
“When they signed the Oro-mara agreement, which had no usefulness apart from being a tool for the ruling party, there was no progress made,” recently stated Merera Gudina, the veteran chairman of Oromo Federalist Congress, Jawar’s party. “Even now, the elites of all of Ethiopia’s communities are unable to advance the democratic agenda together”.
Sisay Mengiste, an Assistant Professor at Addis Ababa University and member of Addis Ababa city council, emphasized a lack of trust. He stated, “This is something that was not well thought out; they should have worked to make the temporary collaboration sustainable, but they didn’t. Both groups are suspicious of each other.”
Meanwhile plenty of Tigrayan analysts have long claimed that ‘Oromara’ was ultimately aimed at weakening Tigrayan influence in Ethiopia’s politics.
Much of the current discontent traces back to historical issues.
During the imperial and Derg era, Amhara elites were dominant and widely identified as the ruling class. This led to the development of a diffused identity among the Amhara, where they saw attachment to a particular ethnic group as regressive.
Instead, they identified themselves as Ethiopians and thus saw their role as the custodians of Ethiopian culture and tradition; while in parallel the dominant ‘Ethiopian culture’ shared many commonalities with Amhara and Tigrayan customs.
This was reinforced by the policies of the imperial and Derg regimes, which emphasized the importance of national unity and downplayed ethnic identities. As a result, Amhara people mostly tended to see themselves as Ethiopian rather than Amhara – as many still do.
Consequently, many Amhara hesitated to adopt and then participate in what they saw as the divisive ethnic-based political system introduced by the transitional government after 1991. This meant a delayed emergence of Amhara nationalism as many from the group rejected the constitution, which prioritizes the rights of identity-based groups, but offered little to some minority communities dispersed across the country.
Exodus to Ethnonationalism
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Amhara did not produce an ethnic-based insurgency, making it the only one among Ethiopia’s major ethnic groups not to do so.
Even the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, the party that purported to represent Amhara interests and was part of the ruling coalition, had a pan-national (or, Ethiopianist) ideology in its early days. Only later did it adopt an ethno-nationalist platform, transforming into the Amhara National Democratic Movement.
Recent years have seen a surge of Amhara nationalism, driven by perceptions of an unfair federal system, persecution, and unequal treatment by the federal government.
The growing sense of Amhara identity has led to the formation of new parties and organizations advocating for Amhara rights and interests. These include the National Movement of Amhara, the Amhara Democratic Party and advocacy groups like the Amhara Association of America.
Many Amharas initially supported Abiy’s government during the early stages of his tenure. This was partly built on a belief, which Abiy nurtured, that he would revise or replace the existing constitution.
The hostility shown towards the TPLF, culminating in the Tigray war, bolstered Amhara support, despite the government making no moves to amend the constitution.
The Amhara’s forceful reclaiming of Welkait and Raya – territories that were made part of Tigray as they were assessed during the transitional period to have a preponderance of Tigrinya speakers – as a result of the military campaign on Tigray, served to further strengthen Abiy’s popularity.
However, the government’s handling of massacres of Amhara minorities in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz resulted in increasingly vocal protests.
The federal government’s perceived tendency to take measures aimed at facilitating the gradual take over of Addis Ababa by Oromia has intensified Amhara nationalists’ already hostile view of Abiy’s administration.
Recent restructuring, which gave rise to Sheger City, and the enforcement of the learning of Afaan Oromo, hoisting of the Oromia flag, and singing of the Oromia anthem in Addis Ababa schools were also viewed negatively by Amhara nationalists.
The Pretoria agreement between the federal government and the TPLF, which legitimized the TPLF’s re-entry into Ethiopian politics, further agitated many Amhara.
The agreement stipulated that contested territories of Welkait and Raya would be resolved according to the constitution. For the TPLF, that means their return to Tigray, but it could also mean a referendum.
For the Amhara, it means a need to be able to resist in the event of Welkait and Raya being placed under the administrative control of the newly formed Tigray interim government, which heightens Amhara concern about the ongoing federal efforts to weaken regional forces.
The recent visit by the delegation of Tigray’s new leaders to Oromia further increased unease among Amhara nationalists that a potential ‘Oro-ray’ alliance may be in the making.
The demonstrations and the federal-Amhara clashes are thus a reflection of a deepening political crisis. Some politicians from both sides recognize this and emphasize the importance of moderation and negotiation.
Merera, who’s also a political scientist, warned that “without negotiated political stability, the problems could escalate and reach catastrophic levels”.
Rahel Bafe, the Vice Chairman of the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party and General Secretary of the Joint Council of Political Parties, commented that “extreme” elements from both sides are taking the lead. He recommends elites and “cadres” take a moment to reflect in order to avert a similar tragedy to the Tigray war.
In his paper, Jawar acknowledged the historical wounds, but encouraged Oromos to adjust their narratives and concentrate on reconciliation by commemorating common values.
Abiy, in a recent appearance at parliament, had expressed concern and said Amhara and Oromo actors need to “reduce the hatred”, partly as they will lose the most from the conflict.
“It is necessary to calm down and engage in dialogue,” he said.
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Correction: The reference in the second paragraph to Korem town in Tigray being in Amhara’s North Wollo Zone has been removed. We apologize for the error.