The brewing conflict in northern Ethiopia has spilled over, exposing cracks in the country’s political landscape. Nine months after the end of fighting in Tigray, another major conflict has erupted in Amhara region.
Over the past week, clashes that began two months ago in parts of the Amhara region have escalated dramatically. Ranging from guerrilla attacks to intense battles, fighting has broken out between Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and Fano, an informally armed group. Areas like Azezo near Gondar, Debretabor, Debremarkos, Lalibela, Kobo, Guba Lafto, Woldia, Dembecha, and Mota have become battlegrounds, according to sources.
Air travel to Gondar and Lalibela has been disrupted, roads blocked. Travelers from Addis Ababa to the region find themselves stranded en route, unable to reach their destinations.
Descending into crisis control mode, federal and regional government officials have clamored to pump out statement after statement in just the last week alone.
ENDF spokesperson Getinet Adane (Col.) downplayed Fano’s bold claims of taking over Lalibela airport and downing ENDF aircraft during a press briefing on August 1, 2023.
But the rapidly evolving situation on the ground suggests the conflict may be more serious than officials care to admit.
Getinet remains uncompromising, stating ENDF will not tolerate those destabilizing the region in the name of Fano.
“We are taking action against those who fire on ENDF, kill people, and collect illegal taxes. ENDF is ready to defend itself from any attacks. We will respond with equal firepower to any fired at us. Those involved in the fighting need to understand this,” said Getinet.
Regarding inflated claims circulating online, the Spokesperson dismissed them as “fake news and Facebook patriots.” This defiant stance contrasts with Birhanu Jula’s (F. Mar.) conciliatory rhetoric just a month ago that ENDF had “no reason to fight with Fano.”
However, the federal government’s position contradicts that of the Amhara regional administration. Recently appointed as the fifth president to lead the restive region since 2018, Yilikal Kefale (PhD) proposes a different approach.
While not objecting to ENDF’s intervention per se, Yilikal disagrees on the methods.
“Those armed in the region should come to the negotiating table,” implored Yilikal during a regional broadcast on August 2, 2023. “The region is ravaged. Differences should be resolved peacefully. Social and economic crises are devastating the region. People are being killed. Any issue can be discussed instead of fighting each other.”
He warned that the conflict “leads to lawlessness, regional instability, halts trade, and a situation difficult to recover from.”
The federal government and ENDF believe force can contain the uprising, but regional authorities are pushing for a peaceful settlement. Last week, members of the Amhara State Council also proposed negotiations with Fano to resolve the dispute without violence.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground escalates from minor clashes to intense combat as both sides maneuver for strategic advantage.
The factors fueling the revived fighting between federal forces and Amhara militias, though primarily linked to the northern Ethiopian war, fall into three categories:
First, the federal government recently ordered all regions to dismantle paramilitary Special Forces. At least 30 percent of Amhara’s forces refused, joining Fano along with their weapons, the regional government claims.
Second is the mobilization of youth rallied by the polarizing narrative of Amhara marginalization, experts claim. Conflicts targeting Amharas in Oromia, Tigray and elsewhere have stoked their sense of vulnerability.
Recently, Addis Ababa city councilors of Amhara origin alleged over 10,000 Amhara youth are detained in the capital and barred from entering. Months ago, Adanech Abebie, mayor of Addis Ababa City Administration, told the council that organized Amhara groups were plotting regime change under cover of holidays.
The third and immediate factor is pressure from Tigrayan authorities demanding the federal government return disputed western and southern lands now held by Amhara forces since the Tigray war – especially Wolkait, Tsegede, Tselemt and Raya.
While Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) did not outright propose a referendum as the solution, his remarks that the ultimate decision would come through public input stirred anger. It was during his latest Parliament appearance on July 06 that he said a “win-win” approach is key to solving the boundary dispute between Amhara and Tigray regions.
The contested areas of Wolkayit and Humera were administered by Tigray before conflict erupted last year. Now Tigray authorities want them back, but Amharas, some considering themselves Fano elements as well, remain unwilling to relinquish control regardless of what residents may prefer, after regaining the areas through fighting.
“Referendums are only done if the people request them. But Amharas currently in Wolkait, Tselemt, Tsegede and Raya are not asking for a referendum,” says Tsegaye Eshete, chair of the Tselemt Amhara Identity Restoration Committee.
Tsegaye claims the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) annexed these areas from Amhara and added them to Tigray in 1992, though they historically belonged to Amhara until then.
“For many years, nobody cared to resolve this. Now, we’ve regained the land through blood and bone. We took Tselemt, Wolkait, Tsegede and Raya from TPLF after heavy fighting. Nobody gave it to us. We won’t give it back at any cost. This is existential for Amhara.”
He adds they’ve sought the land for 30 years with no referendum offered before. “Why suggest it now, after we reclaimed it through our blood and bones? The land, people and history are Amhara. We have all the documents and evidence,” he says.
Tsegaye claims the current occupants are ethnic Amhara. “If Tigray has a claim, they can ask us peacefully.”
Officials of the Tigray Interim Administration (TIA) tell a different story.
Nearly a million Tigrayans displaced from Wolkait, Tsegede, Humera, Tselemt and Raya still cannot return home, even after the Pretoria agreement nine months ago. These fertile areas are Tigray’s breadbasket, they argue.
“The Pretoria accord clearly states Tigray’s borders should revert to the pre-war status, as respected under the constitution. But significant parts of Tigray remain outside interim administration control. Amhara and Eritrean forces continue displacing millions of Tigrayans from these territories, still committing atrocities,” said Kindeya Gebrehiwot (PhD), head of the social development cluster under the TIA.
The TIA, according to Kindeya, cannot begin substantive work until Tigray’s borders are restored and IDPs returned home. Amhara elites stress that relinquishing the disputed lands poses an existential threat.
Some insiders even claim war is inevitable between the Ethiopian government and Fano militias, who they say have Eritrean backing.
Kindeya maintains that securing Tigray’s territorial integrity by removing Eritrean and Amhara forces, reverting to pre-2020 status, is the federal government’s role. “We are in discussions with them to find a final solution on this issue, as well as Eritrea and Amhara armed forces.”
Currently there is no active conflict in the disputed border lands between Amhara and Tigray.
“During the fight with TPLF, we were with ENDF. Still, the ENDF is peacefully working in Wolkait Tsegede area, protecting it. We’re cooperating with ENDF. Wolkait Tsegede is peaceful. We have no issues with ENDF around here,” Demeke Zewdu (Col.), head of peace and security in Wolkait, told The Reporter. Demeke led the Wolkait Amhara Identity Restoration Committee for years. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) says he should be held accountable for rights abuses during the northern conflict. He has reportedly trained Fano members.
This suggests the Amhara conflict, concentrated in Gojam, Gonder, Shoa and Wollo, may not have links to the disputed lands.
Analyst Belay Mengistie (PhD), who follows regional developments, disagrees.
“Fano members say the ENDF is attacking them elsewhere to weaken Fano, letting Tigray forces retake disputed lands. So Fano feels threatened,” Belay says.
Another analyst said anonymously, “The more the federal and Tigray governments cooperate, the more Amhara feels insecure and threatened.”
Belay says conflict erupted in Kobo and Woldia, now consuming Amhara. Though Fano youth have light weapons, their firepower is limited. “As federal forces crack down, the escalating conflict gets more serious. This isn’t just a Fano issue, it’s an Amhara public interest. Detaining some won’t resolve it. Force empowers and mobilizes people to keep fighting the government.”
Some analysts relate the Amhara conflict to factions within the ruling Prosperity Party (PP). They claim the administration has lost support in the region, particularly since the Pretoria agreement and the House of People’s Representatives (HPR) removing TPLF’s terrorist designation.
Many underline the need for a peaceful federal resolution.
“Amhara is a large region – chaos there will spill over nationally,” Belay stressed. “Though other regions also face conflict, spillover from Amhara complicates matters. It could spark inter-regional fighting as armed groups target Tigray or Oromia, escalating conflicts nationwide.”
“The federal government must resolve the Amhara crisis quickly before factional violence tears the social fabric and security situation apart,” he warned.
Yet at the end, Ethiopia is at a crossroads. Tensions are escalating in Amhara, the country’s second most populous region. Either reason will prevail, bringing opposing sides to the negotiating table, or the country will descend further into chaos and bloodshed, analysts warn.
The Amhara region is already under a state of emergency, granting the federal government leeway to suspend some rights as it tries to achieve the monopoly of force it has been seeking over the past five years across the country, yet risking both fueling more violence and narrowing opportunities for peace that could help calm the situation.