Several regional conflict incidents in Ethiopia in the past month have highlighted the country’s continued threat of fragmentation and sectarianist violence despite the November 2022 Pretoria Peace Agreement which ostensibly ended the war in the country’s Tigray region. The peace accords ended a two-year war between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in which an estimated 600 000 people were killed. This war came as a result of the TPLF losing power in the then-ruling alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who ascended to the helm of the EPRDF and the country’s premiership on the back of an informal alliance between the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) – both EPRDF members – had partly hoped that the war against the TPLF would help unify the rest of the country under his leadership. This was evidenced by his restructuring of the EPRDF alliance into a single ruling political party, the Prosperity Party (PP).
However, it is clear that this dream of a more unified Ethiopia is failing and the Tigrayan war and the political reforms instituted by Ahmed have, instead fuelled, nationalism and sectarianism within the country. The latest evidence of this is the multiple conflict incidents which have occurred in the past month. The three most notable of these are:
- At least four people were killed when forces from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) – an Oromo militant nationalist group, attacked two police stations in Bekoji City, Oromia region on 19 May.
- At least 20 people were killed in battles between the OLA and Ethiopian security forces in the Oromia region’s East Shoa, West Shoa and Horo Goduru areas between 14 and 18 May.
- An unconfirmed number of people were killed in clashes between the Amhara Special Forces (ASF) – an Amharan nationalist militia – and government forces in the North Gonder, North Wollo and North Shewa areas of Amhara regions.
Such incidents are indicative of the frequent outbreaks of violence in Ethiopia. The country’s ethnocentric regions – named for the dominant ethnic group in each state – have long fuelled historic ethnic tensions, nationalisms, and separatist movements in the country. Instead of creating a common Ethiopian identity, the Tigray conflict, fuelled these different nationalist movements, especially in the Oromia and Amhara regions.
There are strong elements of both Oromo and Amhara elites who believe that their ethnic group are the rightful leaders of Ethiopia. The Oromo are the country’s largest ethnic group while the Amhara were historically the imperial rulers of Ethiopia. Tensions between the two had been set aside in order to dethrone the TPLF. However, the use of Oromo and Amhara nationalist militias in the Tigray War emboldened these nationalist movements, especially as they were able to settle ancient grievances over ownership of land located in the Tigray region. This rising nationalism has conflicted strongly with Ahmed’s campaign to build a coherent and unified Ethiopian nationalism. As a result, there is growing resentment among these nationalist groups, many of which are better armed and battle-hardened as a result of the war in Tigray.
The end of the Tigray war also ends the largest common interest between Oromo and Amhara hard-line nationalists. As a result, tensions between the two groups and between these nationalists and the central government are expected to grow in the coming months. This will especially be true in the Amhara region. The Amharans are clearly the junior party in the PP; the ruling party is dominated by Ahmed’s Oromo inner circle and has an Oromo cultural and nationalist bend. This is illustrated by the government’s plans to make Oromo a compulsory second language across Ethiopia. Such policies will grate hard-line Amhara nationalists.
However, the most likely pressure point which will ignite a larger conflict in Amhara is the ongoing crackdown by the police and intelligence service’s Ethiopian Joint Security and Intelligence Task Force on what it views as “extremist forces” in the Amhara region. This crackdown has targeted Amhara nationalist leaders and advocates. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), on 9 May, raised concerns about the tactics being used, claiming that the task force is committing human rights violations. This crackdown is feeding nationalist sentiment in the region and increasing resistance to the demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) programme. This programme has been extended to nationalist militias outside of Tigray and was already facing stiff resistance from groups such as the ASF.
The end of the Tigray War has laid bare the deep and extensive divisions within Ethiopia. The government remains weakened from the war. This, combined with the state’s heavy-handed tactics in addressing protests and nationalist movements, is fuelling deeper resentment. As such militant attacks by ethno-nationalist groups and incidents of communal violence will continue. If the situation continues to escalate it is possible that another civil war could erupt, threatening the future of Ethiopia as a contiguous state.