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Fano insurgents battling federal authorities are motivated by a multitude of factors.
You would have been forgiven for believing Ethiopia was finally getting herself out of the conflict quagmire.
As evidence, over the last nine months we’ve been witnessing the implementation of the peace agreement signed between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which mostly silenced the guns in the Tigray region. We also heard about the peace talks in Tanzania between the federal government and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
The two parties were comrades in arms when they marched into Tigray less than three years ago. But their honeymoon turned into a nightmare, culminating in a full-scale war. Fano have briefly captured a few towns and fierce battles have taken place to control two major cities in Amhara — Bahir Dar and Gonder.
There are five main reasons why the country found itself on a war path for the umpteenth time.
First, the groups that constitute Fano say they were forced to pick up arms and defend the Amhara people from “decades of marginalization, subjugation and genocide.” They are referring to the human rights violations committed against Amhara civilians residing outside of their region.
Examples are the massacres that took place in Western Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz. Many Amhara civilians were killed and maimed, with hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.
The failure to protect Amhara minorities living in other regions and to conduct independent investigations into the atrocities has raised questions about the integrity or capacity of the federal government in finding out who the perpetrators are. Some also suggest government forces were responsible for the killings. This failure has prompted Fano to take matters into their own hands. They have come to believe regime change is the surest way to protect Amhara civilians.
Second, when the war in Tigray began in November 2020, the first to act were the Amhara special forces and militias. At the war’s outset, the Amhara forces took over the territories in and around Welkait and Raya from the Tigray region. The federal government also cajoled them to join in and reinforce its troops.
The dispute over these areas is a long-standing one. The TPLF, which administered the region, had failed to address the deep grievances expressed by the Amhara community who believe these chunks of land are theirs. The TPLF responded with heavy-handed suppression of their demands, which later caused untold suffering to civilians.
According to a report by the UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, soon after they seized these areas, “the Amhara armed groups, including Amhara Special Forces, Fano and other militia rounded up Tigrayans and forcibly displaced them from their lands on short notice.” The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it “ethnic cleansing.”
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In line with the 2022 peace deal brokered in Pretoria, South Africa, the territorial dispute between the Amhara and Tigray regions is to be settled for the last time, most likely through a referendum. Such a move is anathema to the Fano insurgents who protest that they merely regained what belonged to them in the first place.
Fano consider the incorporation of Welkait and Raya areas into the Amhara region as a fait accompli. They picked up arms to quell any attempt by the federal government to change the status quo. They display complete disregard for the fact that the territories in question are part of Tigray in constitutional terms.
Third, the federal government passed a resolution a few months ago to disband the special forces that each of the country’s regions have constituted over the past three decades.
Members of the special forces were given the option to join either the police or the army, or return to civilian life. In line with the resolution, the Amhara and federal governments began to break up the special forces.
But that did not go down well among the special force members as well as the Fano. They consider the government’s decision as a ploy to weaken the Amhara movement. The government itself acknowledged that many of the special forces have joined the Fano insurgency, which bolstered their fighting capabilities.
Fourth, in Ethiopian politics, there is sometimes a real and other times an imagined feeling that power is controlled by one ethnic group. Lately, there is a widespread perception among Amharas that those who are from Oromia region in the current administration wield undue political influence.
Some cite as evidence the Prime Minister, the Chief of General Staff, and the Commander of the Air Force all coming from Oromia. This is despite the fact Abiy Ahmed had spearheaded the creation of the Prosperity Party in 2019 by merging eight ethnically organized parties into one.
The claims and counterclaims will continue, but more evidence is needed to reach a definitive conclusion. However, Fano members and their supporters believe that such undue influence from the Oromo wing of the Prosperity Party is real, so much so that armed resistance is required to resist it.
Fifth, Ethiopia’s perennial problem is getting the current federal order accepted by a substantial part of the populace and the numerous political parties that vilify it. The eleven regions of the country that make up the federation are by and large demarcated according to language, culture, customs, and identity.
Fano and their supporters argue that this system precludes the development of a national Ethiopian identity and instils an “us and them” attitude in a country where multiple nationalities coexist. They believe the system is the cause of the deadly conflicts and particularly the mass killings of minorities within the regions. The irony is that Fano fighters themselves are organized by their Amhara identity and display Amhara nationalist tendencies.
For the rest of the country, multinational federalism provides guarantees for communities to exercise self-determination and protects them from centralized hegemony. Over the years, the Prosperity Party has oscillated between these two positions. Fano and their supporters want to radically overhaul the federal arrangement, although their designs for what would replace it are less clear.
Members of the Fano and their supporters need not be convinced of all the five explanations outlined above. Most lie somewhere along the spectrum. The ardent will swear by all five. For others, one or two of the reasons suffice to fire a bullet or propagate the belief that they are worth taking up arms for.
Abiy boasts of having an invincible fighting force equipped with the latest technology to win wars. Fano fighters have retreated from the cities but continue to engage in combat with the federal forces.
As you read this viewpoint, the former allies are throwing grenades and dropping bombs at each other, unable to sit down and resolve their differences peacefully. If not stopped early, this conflict is in danger of sinking into yet another round of atrocities.
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Main Image: Armed Fano members in Mota, East Gojjam Zone; December 2021; Mota City Communication Bureau.
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.