The cabinet of the Somali regional state approved a resolution on April 10, 2023, paving the way for the dissolution of the region’s paramilitary police, also known as Special Forces. The cabinet, led by president Mustafe Ahmed, instructed the special police forces unit to discuss the situation and determine their next steps.
Somali, the first regional state to possess such a special paramilitary unit since the security lapses that followed the 2005 election, also became the first regional state to dissolve its special forces.
In 2007, the Somali regional government established a paramilitary force, primarily to combat the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and deter al-Shabab threats. Several times, the special force prevented al-Shabab’s attacks, including the most recent one in July 2022, when the group attempted to establish a base inside Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, the regional special force has been implicated in border conflicts with Oromia and Afar. Reportedly, it also became an army for regional politicians, particularly during the reign of former president Abdi Mohammad Omar, also known as Abdi Ille.
Following the 2007 establishment of Somali regional Special Forces, Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, the SNPPR, Gambella, and Benishangul, along with other regional states, established their own regional Special Forces. Even the Sidama regional state, which was one of the most recently formed regional states two years ago, was preparing to establish its own special force, thereby exceeding its budget.
The Oromia regional state has the largest Special Forces, having graduated multiple classes of Special Forces in the past few years under the leadership of president Shimelis Abdisa.
Regional states essentially lack the legal authority to establish their own paramilitary forces. The 1995 Ethiopian constitution gives regional states the authority “to establish and administer a state police force and to maintain public order and peace within the state.” This means that regional states can only establish standard police.
The standard police force is only armed with AK-47s. They are primarily trained to maintain peace and order in urban areas and investigate crimes. Regional Special Forces, however, are armed with machine guns, RPGs, DShK, explosives, and anything short of aircraft. Typically, they are deployed in border regions and strategic urban areas. The Special Forces’ role would also be a duplication of the work done by the federal forces.
Every regional state has thousands of personnel in their special forces. Together, they can surpass the forces of the federal government.
Since the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) deployed its special police forces to fight against the federal government in November 2020, the government has considered disbanding the special forces of all regional states in the federal system. The TPLF renamed its regional Special Forces the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). However, the TDF has currently handed over its heavy weapons to a monitoring team under the direction of the African Union (AU), in accordance with the Pretoria agreement that put an end to a two-year war. Former combatants are also undergoing rehabilitation prior to joining the regular police force.
In the past two years, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has informed the Ethiopian Parliament that the government is examining alternatives to prevent the proliferation of regional special forces.
This culminated in the government’s decision last week to order all regional states to disband their special forces, which are given the option of joining the National Defense Forces (ENDF), federal police, regional police, prison administration guards, or becoming civilians. Regional presidents and officials have agreed on the plan at the Prosperity Party (PP) level, according to officials. ENDF is then tasked with taking over security areas formerly held by the Special Forces.
A week after the decision was passed by the federal government, several regional states, including Somali, Oromia, the South Western Region, and Sidama, began dissolving their special forces.
“Our special force has been deployed to areas such as South Omo, where we share a border with Kenya and face illegal crossings,” said the head of the SNNPR Peace and Security Bureau, Alemayehu Bawdi, explaining that its forces are deployed in areas where it typically faces threats from the OLF-Shene.
“These areas include Gedeo, Burji, and Segen, among others. Our special forces have discussed this and agreed to implement the government’s decision. Now, the ENDF will control these security zones.”
Many youths and political groups in the Amhara regional state views the government’s decision to dissolve regional Special Forces as a relatively unwelcome development. According to reports, some members of the region’s forces believed the government’s decision only targeted the Amhara Special Forces. It was reported this week that 30 percent of the Amhara Special Forces have gone missing from their camps.
“Some of our special forces have left camps. We believe this gap is created due to miscommunication,” Yilikal Kefale (PhD), president of Amhara Regional State, said in a televised statement on Sunday on Amhara Media Corporation. He diplomatically stated the region’s special force refused to comply with the dissolution decision.
According to reports, the Amhara Special Forces fled to rural areas of the region, exchanging gunfire with the ENDF in certain areas. In addition, the region’s civilian youth, who opposed the dissolution, blocked roads to impede the ENDF’s movement.
Political parties like the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) supported the opposition. The party issued statements indicating that the Amhara region continues to face security threats and requires its own specialized force.
The federal government, however, disagrees.
Authorities believes that regional forces pose a threat to the country’s collective security as well as to regional state destabilization and civil strife.
“Regional special forces have threatened Ethiopia’s sovereignty more than one time. Apart from being a risk to Ethiopia’s unity, they are also a source of unnecessary competition and a show of force among regional states. Installing illegal inland control stations, contraband, bandit works, and other illegal activities are being run by regional Special Forces. We decided on Special Forces dissolution in the past but were only delayed because of the war in northern Ethiopia,” said Abiy in his statement this week.
“Special forces were formed in a regional state’s effort to give solutions for short-term problems. They cannot be considered as long-term solutions. So, the right decision is necessitated for the benefit of the national interest.”
Controversy over the reintegration of special forces surfaces as Ethiopia’s efforts at nation-building entangled in the recurrent conflict between federalist and unitarian political forces. Regional states have primarily relied on Special Forces to defend themselves against perceived or actual threats from other regional states. Since each regional state builds its own special forces to protect only its own region, this has not only been a hindrance to the country’s collective security, but it has also erected walls of power between ethnic groups.
Under Abiy’s leadership, the tension between federalist and unitarist political forces has reached a tipping point in Ethiopia’s long-overdue nation-building efforts. In the months since the administration secured an alliance with the TPLF, elites have displayed signs of discontent.
On the other hand, officials of the PP have repeatedly asserted that an underground coup is being organized. Just one week before announcing the dissolution of the Special Forces, the government announced that the alleged coup organizers had been apprehended.
Some political analysts concur that any attempt to forcibly seize power from the incumbent will result in a bloodier civil war, particularly between Oromia and Amhara forces. According to analysts, other regional states will align in support of one side or the other.
“The dissolution of the special forces is initially advantageous for Ethiopia’s relatively small regional states. The constant struggle for power is between the two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara,” a peace and security expert told The Reporter. The analyst believes that disbanding Special Forces will prevent not only collateral damage to smaller regional states but also the nation’s descent into another round of civil war.
Nonetheless, he also argues that the federal government is attempting to evade responsibility for atrocities committed by Special Forces during the northern Ethiopian war by dissolving all regional forces prior to the implementation of transitional justice. According to international human rights organizations, the Amhara and Tigray Special Forces were primarily responsible for war crimes during the two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia.
Others, however, claim that the PP is dissolving regional forces because it is fundamentally impatient with the autonomy and self-determination of regional states. According to these experts, the political support base of the party is no longer rooted in any of the regional states.
“The PP has previously attempted to align its political base with the Amhara and the Oromo. This strategy is no longer effective, and the party is attempting to expand its national support base,” the analyst told The Reporter.
However, experts stress that since regional states reside in the same country, they must rely on collective security. In addition, they emphasize that the central government must be impartial and strong in order to serve all regional states and ethnic groups in an equitable and efficient manner. Regional forces, the experts believe, can only surrender their forces if they have faith in the central government.
Others assert that the government reorganized regional Special Forces under the ENDF in order to bolster the ENDF following the northern Ethiopian war. They claim that the ENDF’s strength will soon double if all regional forces decide to join.
The PM did, however, promise that the decision to disband the regional Special Forces would be carried out “even at a cost.” This suggests that the federal government will take action against any regional special forces that refuse to dissolve.
“From now on, regional states will have only normal polices for crime issues. Security mandates are solely given to ENDF and federal forces. Regional states should no longer engage in unnecessary power competition and show off force,” Abiy said.
He asserts that regional states should compete on the basis of economic, democratic, and social development rather than by allocating a substantial portion of their budgets to their armed forces. The majority of regional states lack the means to maintain their special forces.
The question remains as to whether Ethiopia can achieve national development via top-down-coached integration or autonomous-but-consensual integration.