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Ethiopia facing multiple crises, part III: the Amhara-Oromo conflict and what’s next?

2024-02-05 11:13

Jan Záhořík

#RegionalTensions , #EthiopianConflict , #AmharaOromo , #PoliticalUnrest , #EthnicFederalism , #CrisisInEthiopia , #HumanitarianCrisis , #EthiopianPolitics , #NationalUnity , #ConflictResolution,

Ethiopia facing multiple crises, part III: the Amhara-Oromo conflict and what’s next?

"Exploring the critical Amhara-Oromo conflict amidst Ethiopia's looming crises, highlighting ethnic tensions, economic challenges, and uncertain future."

The War in Tigray which has affected the whole country has in one way or another metastasized into series of other conflicts and tensions. 


The most serious one which is complicating matters in Ethiopia now is the Amhara-Oromo conflict and rivalry. When the ‘Oromo protests’ that lasted roughly from 2015 to 2018 were joined by the ‘Amhara protests’ in order to revolt against the government of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rule under the umbrella of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), it seemed that perhaps for the first time in modern and contemporary history of Ethiopia, the two biggest ethnic groups were ‘on the same page’ in the fight for the future of Ethiopia. Few years later, both regions are in turmoil as a result of unresolved multilayered problems inherited from the past, not only from the era of ethnic federalism.




Ethnic federalism gave a space to “ethnic obsession” which emphasized the role of ethnic identity in daily lives and in politics. 


Parts of the Oromo elites have been using the narrative of historical suffering as their claim to power in Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia has never been colonized by a foreign power (with an exception of the short-lived Italian occupation in 1936-41), the colonial perspective began to be used by many Oromo scholars, particularly in the diaspora, and plenty of studies and books dealing with “Abyssinian colonialism” and “Oromo resistance” began to appear since the 1980s.[1] 


The long-standing resentment of the Oromo against the “Northerners” (basically the Tigray and Amhara people) resulted in the abovementioned Oromo protests and subsequent transformation in 2018 which put Abiy Ahmed into the position of the Prime Minister in Ethiopia. 


The war in Tigray which started in November 2020 and lasted for about two years saw the Amhara militias fighting side by side the Ethiopian Defence Forces against Tigray. This was already the era of the rise of Amhara nationalism. The Amhara elites saw themselves sidelined by both the long-lasting rule of the TPLF/EPRDF as well as the Oromo rise to power under Abiy Ahmed. The National Movement of the Amhara (NaMA) and Fano militias have been products of this rise.  


When the war ended, the government announced the plan to integrate all regional special forces into regular defence and police forces, a step vehemently refused by the Amhara people, with the fear of becoming vulnerable and an easy target for the Oromo militants from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and others. 


Already that time, Ethiopia was on the verge of just another conflict, this time between the Amhara and Oromo as the Amhara communities blamed Abiy Ahmed of not protecting the civilians against attacks committed by the OLA.[2] 




One of the phenomena of current Ethiopia is a tangible mistrust between representatives of all major groups. Many Amhara members of special forces began to enter Fano militias which only deepened this mistrust. 

In the meantime, security situation in the country has deteriorated to the point when it becomes almost impossible to travel across the country. Especially in Western Oromia (Wellegga region) and almost all across Amhara region, there are at least occasional incidents of violence. Recently, the OLA has announced a total blockade of all roads for Sunday, January 27, 2024, including the closure of banks, and schools, and other institutions throughout Oromia. It's not clear how long this situation may last and how it may affect already tense relations between the major ethnic groups. Situations like this create doubts whether the central government is capable of executing power over the whole territory of the country or whether what we see is the existence of a parallel government at least in Oromia.


According to people who understand the Ethiopian economy, the country is about five to six months away from economic collapse. 


This, combined with the intractable conflict in the Amhara region, could mean problems on a massive scale. The Fano forces are unlikely to be defeated because the Fano are by no means centrally organized. They are mostly people going to work on a regular basis, but take up arms when the Amhara identity is threatened. At the same time, the current announcement by Oromo clerics that the Oromo Church will separate from the Ethiopian (i.e. Amhara dominated) one has contributed to the split within Ethiopia.[3]


The reasons behind the security crises in Ethiopia are multiple. On one hand, it is definitely a heritage of the ethnic federalism which turned ethnicity into a fetish but did very little to set up a real federal system with self-rule and shared-rule. Second, the level of mistrust and animosity between leaders of various groups, parties or ethnic militias is significant. Third, there exist a supremacist agenda among the elites in every group in Ethiopia which can be described as a “winner takes all” policy. Such approach makes it very difficult to reach a compromise that would end up in what we may call a win-win situation. Last but not least, engagement of neighboring states, particularly Eritrea, is another component of the mosaic.[4]




What’s next? That is a question many people in Ethiopia fear to answer.


Ethiopia has undergone huge crises in past few years and this one seems to be the most significant as it brings together a toxic and explosive combination of socio-economic difficulties and regional, inter-ethnic and even inter-religious conflicts, turbulences, or disputes. Solutions are not easy. Without negotiations and peace inside the country, there can hardly be a renewal of Ethiopia’s economic growth which once impressed the world. And easier access to the sea will not change anything on that. The Ethiopian people are used to live in modest conditions but lack of resources can be seen everywhere, in education, health care, business, and people start to complain as the inflation is making their lives even more difficult. History (e.g. the Arab spring) shows us that socio-economic factors are usually the main mobilizing factor and it is a difficult task for the government of Abiy Ahmed to deal with these multilayered issues at the same time without a proper long-term all-inclusive vision. 



[1] See e.g. Birru, Lubie. "Abyssinian colonialism as the genesis of the crisis in the Horn: Oromo resistance (1855-1913)." Northeast African Studies (1980): 93-98.; Baxter, Paul TW. "Ethiopia's unacknowledged problem: the Oromo." African Affairs 77.308 (1978): 283-296.; Jalata, Asafa. "Sociocultural origins of the Oromo national movement in ethiopia." Journal of Political & Military Sociology (1993): 267-286.


[2] https://issafrica.org/pscreport/psc-insights/a-restive-amhara-needs-the-councils-attention


[3] Interview with a political analyst, Addis Ababa, 24th January 2024. 


[4] See e.g. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2024/01/04/why-did-peace-talks-fail-in-ethiopia-with-the-oromo-liberation-front/




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