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Abiy Ahmed’s Hidden War on Amharas in Ethiopia

August 8, 2023

By  Robel Z. Alemu
Director of Communications, Amhara Association of America (AAA)

“War and More War” – Siege on Amhara

Despite claims by international diplomats, peace remains elusive in Ethiopia with a hidden war raging in the country’s vast central Amhara Region. Since May 2023, the ruling Oromo Prosperity Party (OPP) of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has deployed federal forces which have coordinated with regional officials in what they call a “law enforcement” campaign to disarm Amhara Special Forces and Fano. The military operation followed the breakout of widespread anti-government protests in the Amhara Region in April 2023. Well over 30 cities and towns participated in the “Amhara resistance” which called for the resignation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his Prosperity Party in light of genocide, ethnic cleansing, persecution and other issues facing the Amhara community. In late June 2023, Abiy’s military forces under the command of Field Marshall Birhanu Jula besieged the ancient Debre Elias Selassie Monastery, a spiritual bastion and heritage site, and massacred hundreds of worshippers, monks and orphaned children making it one of the most heinous mass atrocities of the year. Despite this, the massacre got very little coverage outside of Amharic language publications/outlets. A trend which has distorted the global understanding of Ethiopia’s complex problems. This is an extension of trends seen during the war in Northern Ethiopia, in which selective reporting and bias led to a minimization of war crimes committed by invading Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) militants against residents in Amhara and Afar Regions. The second wave of invasion in 2021 was particularly destructive, unsurprising given TPLF’s spokesman Getachew Reda vowing to “settle a score” with Amharas which was following by genocidal massacres across dozens of cities and rural towns, weaponized gang rape against thousands of women and girls, and industrial-scale looting and destruction of property incurring billions in estimated property loss. In November 2022, following a decisive defeat of TPLF during its third wave of invasion into Amhara, a peace deal was reached, officially brokered by the African Union, with heavy influence by the Biden administration between the Prosperity Party and TPLF. At the time, the global Amhara-Ethiopian diaspora criticized the deal calling it exclusionary due to lack of Amhara representation and this led to the formation of the Amhara People’s Negotiations Delegation (APND) comprised of respected leaders from all facets of society based in Ethiopia and the diaspora. However, international diplomats sidestepped the APND in Pretoria and later in Nairobi. Experts at the time warned the deal would not bring lasting peace as it failed to offer justice and accountability for crimes committed during the war.

 

“Amhara Genocide and Oromo Apartheid” – Ethno-Fascism Six Years in the Making

The signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) prompted western leaders to praise the Abiy regime and TPLF for choosing peace, however state-sponsored attacks and persecution intensified throughout the country. Since Prime Minister Abiy and his OPP took power in 2018, there was a steady increase in ethnic violence throughout the country. This would also steadily become a source of criticism from Ethiopians who experienced unabated ethnic attacks and persecution by various armed groups with complicity from officials. And it increasingly became clear that Abiy would use ethnic violence to terrorize the country into submission. In one instance, he infamously threatened if anyone were to try and remove him from power “100,000 people would be killed overnight” – an overt and genocidal threat from the head of state, directed towards Amharas. But it was also clear that Amharas were targeted in mass atrocities by violent armed groups directly or indirectly supported by the regime. One of the epicenters of such atrocities was the western part of the country, where ethnic violence predated the war which later broke out in the north. In this area, ethnic Oromo, Tigrayan and Gumuz militants led genocidal massacres against ethnic Amhara civilians. The large-scale attacks began within months of Prime Minister Abiy taking office. In September 2018, dozens of non-Oromo civilians were killed in Burayu, a suburb of Addis Ababa. In October 2019, Oromo opposition figure and media mogul Jawar Mohammed incited Qeerro (Oromo hardline extremists – typically young adults) to attack Amhara people in retaliation for the Abiy’s OPP removing Jawar’s personal security. In December 2019, there was the abduction of over 17 Amhara female students from Dembi Dolo University by OLA militants, which government officials and media worked to actively suppress. And in late June 2020, following the assassination of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa, the country experienced one of its worst episodes of genocidal violence. Oromo media agencies including Jawar’s Oromo Media Network, far right Oromo religious figures, politicians, and influencers declared Hachalu was killed by Amharas and incited genocidal violence which left dozens of ethnic Amhara, Gurage, and Tigrayan civilians killed by mobs of Qeerro. Ethnic-based attacks also targeted followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) and members of the Rastafarian community. Attacks on civilians, and widespread property destruction were reported across the East Shewa, West Arsi, East Harargne, West Harargne Zones of Oromia Region. Reports later revealed when one lower official called Oromia Region President Shimelis Abdisa to deploy security, Shimelis told him to turn off his phone and “go to sleep”. Authorities then used the ordeal as an opportunity to arrest opposition figures including award-winning journalist and opposition party (Balderas for True Democracy Party) leader Eskinder Nega who was previously jailed under the TPLF regime, and his colleagues Sintayehu Chekol, Keleb Siyoum and Askale Demele. The ethnic violence continued up to the outbreak of the war in Northern Ethiopia and beyond. In the first quarter of 2021 for example, OSF and OLA carried out consecutive large-scale invasions into South-Eastern Amhara Region, decimating the towns of Shewa Robit and Ataye (North Shewa Zone) – killing hundreds of civilians and destroying millions in property. The attacks were carried out using the Oromo Special Zone in Amhara Region as a springboard, a deadly trend that has continued since at least 2019 up to present. In June 2022, one of the most horrific massacres occurred in Tole Kebele (West Wollega Zone, Oromia Region) where hundreds were killed by OLA militants. Following the signing of the peace deal in November 2022, attacks in Oromia Region reignited with veracity. Between November-December 2022, genocidal massacres and ethnic cleansing in Western Oromia expanded. In coordination, OSF, the OLA and Qeerro attacked majority-Amhara districts throughout East Wollega and Horo Guduru Wollega Zones. And in 2023, the attacks continued including with participation of ENDF personnel and Federal police. In parallel, in January 2023, the Oromia Region Government intensified ethnic cleansing of non-Oromo residents on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. As a result of forced home demolitions and evictions, more than 150,000 non-Oromo residents including ethnic Amhara, Gurage, Gamo and Tigrayan residents were displaced or moved to Addis Ababa, Debre Birhan and Arba Minch, among other refuges. In an interview, the Sheger city mayor Teshome Adugna (OPP) even mocked victims of ethnic cleansing. In February 2023, the ruling party endorsed the imposition of ethnic Oromo regime agents into the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), sparking peaceful demonstrations. In response, Federal and Oromia Region Government security forces opened fire on unarmed worshippers killing scores of civilians in Addis Ababa, Shashemane and other cities. The illegitimate Oromo bishops were escorted by government security forces to invade and usurp various churches particularly in the Oromia Region. Eventually, the religious strife extended to followers of the Islamic faith as Oromia Region authorities demolished over 20 Mosques in the Sheger city administration, sparking weeks of consecutive demonstrations and in turn fatal shooting of unarmed protesters. Overall, hundreds were killed, and thousands were arrested in the months that followed the peace deal, even prior to the war on Amhara Region which commenced in May 2023. In April 2023, large-scale anti-regime protests engulfed Amhara Region just as they did in 2022 and 2021.Despite, repeated waves of outrage the protests were scarcely reported.

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” – Silence of the West

While the diplomatic community lamented the “silencing of the guns”, Ethiopians collectively experienced a diametrically opposite reality. In fact, Ethiopian medias reported a rise in state-sponsored violence with dozens of genocidal massacres, ethnic cleansing in Addis Ababa, mass arrests and other tragedies. The relative silence of human rights organizations, media agencies and analysts emboldened the Abiy regime to continue unabated.

There was already a prevailing feeling that concern for human rights violations was selective, stemming from the mainstream coverage of the devastating war in Northern Ethiopia, with many critics pointing to the lack of reporting on atrocities committed by the TPLF and OLA against civilians in Amhara and Afar Regions. When the TPLF had initiated its third wave of invasion into Amhara Region in August 2022 and began facing military setbacks, diplomatic pressure increased to call for a cessation of hostilities which was eventually signed between the Prosperity Party and the TPLF in November 2022. This took place despite calls from the Amhara community for independent representation, and the establishment of the Amhara People’s Negotiations Delegation (APND) on October 21, 2022. The formation of the APND followed widespread discontent against the Abiy regime after mass arrests targeting Amhara people which intensified in May 2022 and other national issues which prompted anti-government protests across Amhara Region and in the global diaspora. Following the signing of the COHA, while diplomatic actors praised the “silencing of the guns” the APND warned that the Pretoria deal would not bring lasting peace. In the months that followed, experts criticized how the deal was not implemented accordingly including the failure of the TPLF to be disarmed, continued occupation of northern Amhara territories in Telemt and Wag, and eventually widespread anti-government protests in April 2023 and the full-fledged war on Amhara in May 2023. The protests followed the decision by the Abiy regime to disband regional special forces, a policy which critics called unilateral, unpopular, and unconstitutional. Many also noted its selective nature – targeting the Amhara Region while sparing the Oromia Region where the OSF were implicated in genocidal massacres of Amhara civilians. The decision was seemingly endorsed by western actors including the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa. When the Abiy regime commenced its so-called “law enforcement” operation in May 2023, the disbanded ASF units supplemented the Fano. In late June 2023, the U.S. Government State Department removed Ethiopia from its list of human rights violators despite ongoing violations against Amharas, paving the way for the Ethiopian Government to be reinstated to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). For Amharas, this was a reaffirmation of the Biden administration’s neglect for the human rights of Amhara people and other marginalized communities in Ethiopia. In parallel, the Abiy regime’s military have mounted widespread atrocities against civilians in Amhara Region including mass killings, weaponized rape, mass arrests, physical beatings, looting and property destruction. More than three months later, the resistance has gained momentum with Fano beginning to take control of large swaths of strategic ground in all corners of the region. Meanwhile, the relatively inexperienced federal army has faced numerous military defeats, defections and capture. As the situation intensifies further, the war zone has potential to grow and create regional destabilization combined with conflicts in neighboring countries including Sudan. In this way, the Biden administration’s policy of supporting Abiy may in fact pit the entire Horn of Africa into protracted conflict contributing to regional famine and the already dire migrant crisis.

“Projecting an Illusion of Peace without Justice” – A Failed Concept

Despite the scale of human suffrage, achieving peace though difficult is not impossible. The reality on the ground is that everyday people are joining the Amhara resistance in their pursuit of democratic freedoms, equity and the freedom to live with dignity. Sadly, there has been no tangible support this struggle but rather a total disengagement from international actors who have arguably participated in a suppression of the facts. The solution begins with pursuing inclusive processes that engage good-willed actors. Between July 21st -22nd, 2023, I was an invited panelist at the Ethiopian Diaspora Peace Conference at the University of San Diego. The inclusion of Amhara representation in this event was arranged at the last minute, while representatives from the Somali-Ogaden, Tigrayan and Oromo communities had already been included. The conference involved a private discussion with the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa (SEHOA) Ambassador Mike Hammer and representatives from various diaspora communities. Unfortunately, the delegation of diaspora Amhara representatives were forced to walk out of the meeting. To provide context, the delegation made several recommendations to promote peace in Ethiopia including:

  • calling for the removal of Prime Minister Abiy and his Prosperity Party and a shift to civilian-led transitional government,
  • withdrawal of non-Amhara forces from the region,
  • the immediate and unconditional release of all Amhara political prisoners,
  • restoration of telecommunications and internet services in war-affected areas,
  • independent investigations into genocide and ethnic cleansing of Amharas in and around Addis Ababa, Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz Regions and elsewhere in the country,
  • transitional justice predating November 2020 to account for atrocities committed by various groups including the previous TPLF-led EPRDF regime (e.g. genocide against indigenous Amharas in Welkait-Tegede since 1983) and targeted sanctions against officials and military leaders responsible for these crimes, and
  • revisiting the constitution which was imposed onto Ethiopians in the 1990s in an exclusionary process.

While some of the proposed items were received by the other representatives, others were rejected. These were red line issues for Amharas which led the Amhara representatives to abstain from endorsing the resolution, the items which were rejected included call for the removal of Prime Minister Abiy, and the introduction of a transitional government. Despite previously expressing talking points which aligned with this request, the other diaspora representatives did not support these demands citing various excuses. The SEHOA had even remarked that Amharas had constituted Prime Minister Abiy’s primary base, which the Amhara representatives challenged with evidence. The SEHOA then went on to try and convince the Amhara representatives to reconsider our stance of not wanting to endorse the resolution. And finally, a representative from the Oromo community made a genocidal remark directed towards Amharas, calling for “removal of all Amharas from Oromia Region”. The representative was not reprimanded and no apology was issued, prompting the Amhara delegates to walk out of the private meeting. Overall, the process felt disorganized, exclusionary and not a genuine diaspora-led initiative.

The proceedings of this conference signify a wider trend of excluding Amharas from shaping the destiny of Ethiopia, a misguided notion which has historically contributed to harm, persecution, and marginalization of Amharas and other communities in Ethiopia.

“It Could All Be So Simple” – A Way Forward

For Ethiopia to traverse this hurdle in its path, fundamental and drastic change is necessary and it should happen sooner rather than later. The Abiy regime has repeatedly proven its inability to foster peace and stability, rather it has affirmed its commitment to fueling chaos and discord. Ethiopia’s difficult road is tragic given its vast potential as a regional anchor and economic hub in the Horn of Africa. Combined with a young and vibrant potential workforce, the possibilities are endless. But to realize this potential, the country must transition away from survival mode and existentialism towards peace, genuine political plurality, inclusive and equitable governance, and freedom to work and travel within the country. The diaspora can also play a decisive role in realizing this potential. For Amharas, their fate will be decided by the outcome of their resistance which has just cause. Therefore, the realization of Amhara liberation is not simply a scenario but an inevitable outcome of the resistance. The real question is, who will stand on the side of truth and justice?

 

 

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