By Tesfaye Demmellash
In the wake of recent widespread protests and resistance actions triggered by the Oromo state’s attempt to disarm and disband Amhara regional forces and militia, the state has entered a period of intense crisis and instability. With the Abiy regime’s all-out military campaign in Amhara regions after the assassination of Girma Yeshitila, a top Amhara politician loyal to the Abiy regime, the situation has become all the more critical. Ethiopians have credible reasons to blame the misguided, faltering assault on the government as a plot and a pretext to carry out further brutal repression against the Amhara people.
After thirty-two years of nationally debilitating divide-and-dominate ethnic dictatorship that began in the TPLF era, conditions finally seem ripe for a concerted, transformative Amhara and Ethiopian opposition. Still, such resistance is easier said than done in thought, strategy, or practice.
While many Ethiopians at home and abroad will support continued public protests, engaging the regime in immediate, high-frequency media and propaganda warfare, few are able or willing to operate collaboratively on the terrain of broader, transformative, strategic engagement. The learned strata in the country – the intellectual and political classes – show little inclination or interest in helping organize and lead the widespread oppositional struggles.
In the era of tribal tyranny, as in the age of revolution decades ago, Ethiopians have been confronted with fundamental social change and national development issues. What distinguishes the present generation from the past is that it has no appetite or aptitude for resolving complex socio-economic, political, and cultural problems through organized ideas and action. Nor do Ethiopian and global conditions today resemble the past or lend themselves to comparably “radical” systemic analysis and understanding.
The revolutionary project of social transformation, moving from the periphery to the hub of national power to overthrow the system, seems untenable, even unnecessary, today. That is mainly because the entire “order” has become one twisted, ramified, simulated network disconnected from honest intention or disciplined thought and practice.
While narrowly tribal, Oromo domination has a nebulous form and lacks, by design, an integral national, i.e., an Ethiopian, value center. In place of a lasting, stable structural plan or pattern, readily changeable, unprincipled regime behavior and theatrical conduct help maintain the involuted tribal order, aided by daily “dissenting” media chatter that often circles upon itself or recycles through endless elaboration and commentary the regime’s rhetoric and agenda.
Today, the Amhara survival struggle is in danger more than ever, vulnerable to recurring reactionary crackdown by an oppressive, crisis-ridden Oromo ruling clique, unguided or unconstrained by practical ruling ideas and norms. Increasingly incapable of dominating Ethiopian society, especially the Amhara people, through its “normal” proxies and pretenses, the party of “Oromia” frequently engages in desperate repressive behavior, targeting peaceful dissenters and reporters, like Gobeze Sisay, no less than armed Fanno resistors.
As such, the all-out regime aggression has produced increased moral, intellectual, and political clarity between Oromo domination and widespread Amhara/Ethiopian resistance. Yet the ethnic state has a decades-old, sustaining force of inertia. It retains significant residual power to continue insinuating itself into the Amhara community’s affairs and customs, even while pursuing its goal of exiling the community to the margins and fringes of the Ethiopian political economy.
Following its recent military misadventure in Gondar, the government’s behavior demonstrates such political weaponization of culture in the service of power. When threatened by military setbacks or collapse, the Abiy regime avails itself of the traditional shimgilina practice of peaceable “negotiation” through elders’ and spiritual figures’ mediation. It does this by enlisting the services of dubious “mediators,” repurposing the practice as a tool to stave off defeat on the battlefield.
These circumstances have implications for why the alignment of regime and opposition forces remains indistinct. They also help explain the Amhara resistance’s lack of sustainable, strategic form and direction, often falling prey instead to the Abiy regime’s disabling political schemes and tactical deceptions.
The post-revolutionary era has been a time of unending instability and suffering for the Ethiopian people. From the tyranny of the Derg through the divisive ethnic reign of the Woyanes to the present sketchy but brutal Oromo tribal dictatorship, we have lived in a time of unrelieved national insecurity and misery.
Trans-ethnic commitments to progressive ideas and humanistic values, no less than fidelity to national traditions, have broken down or have been reduced to meaningless simulations, pretenses, and outright lies, often sinking into a low moral and intellectual level. There has been an increasing coarsening of Ethiopian national and political culture.
Unsurprisingly, the present generation of Ethiopians opposed to the oppressive rule, especially Amhara activists and armed fighters, seeing themselves waging an existential struggle, seem to have little or no truck with “political” or “ideological” niceties. These conditions help us grasp the resistance’s lack of ambition to resolve Ethiopia’s complex problems through systemic insight and strategic thought.
Moreover, the nakedly aggressive behavior of the sectarian state towards the Amhara community plays a more direct role in the immediately action-oriented and tactical orientation of the community’s Fanno fighters and other allied militia groups. The Oromo state’s extreme hostility is bound to destabilize its rule further, rendering it unable to exercise tribal power as usual over the Amhara and other Ethiopian cultural communities. And increasing internal instability and the threat of collapse will compel the tribal regime to engage in recurring, high-frequency behavior, often inducing matching Amhara defensive armed actions that repeatedly occur at short intervals.
Reducing the fundamental issues of structural change that the Amhara-cum-Ethiopian people confront to a set of immediate problems amenable to direct action is an approach that has a place in the struggle; it may be necessary, even. The immediacies of the method leave little or no room for thoughtful or systemic engagement. Still, they allow activists, media entities, armed militia, and civil society groups to operate practically and locally with a high degree of freedom and significant potential for collaboration.
The fascistic ethnic order is far from coherent, lording it over the Amhara people and Ethiopian society, and its internal relations and patterns of rule always remain sketchy, corrupt, conflicted, and contradictory. Gaps, spaces, and places exist within the political order that the resistance groups could collaboratively fill, occupy, and enlarge, even if they lack ambition or adequate political capacity for dismantling the entire system of tribal domination.
Limitations and Challenges of the Amhara Resistance
The widespread, lightly armed Amhara opposition has been gaining ground against oppressive Oromo/Tigre state ethnicism and proxy forces’ recurrent violent assaults. Still, its limited, mainly tactical, defensive approach is not nearly proportional to the profound existential threat the Amhara confronts, both as a distinct community and a vital, integrative part of the culturally diverse Ethiopian nation.
Fanno and allied Amhara militia groups’ constrained attempts at confronting the ethnic power structure may have varying proximate sources. But mainly, they turn on limitations and gaps of thought, organization, and action resulting from taking the political system for granted, even while resisting its particular policies and behavior or its manifestly brutal, destructive actions.
For example, there are, on the plane of thought, naively realist perspectives that unwittingly or knowingly confuse mere simulations or names (say, “federal government,” “ENDF,” and shimgilina) for the basic features of institutions the signs only seem to “represent.” Involved here is an error of misplaced concreteness common among Fanno warriors and Amhara political and intellectual dissenters from the Oromo/Tigre ethnic state.
The mistake of taking the ethnic system of domination as given practically amounts to taking the regime’s dubious partisan arguments at face value, surrendering to its duplicitous political language and rule, its prejudices and pretenses. A significant consequence of this error is that the Amhara, especially the Fanno armed resistance, doggedly construes its concerns and demands within the structural and supposedly legal limits of the tribal order. The effort involves little more than episodic reactions to the system’s excesses or highly offensive measures, like pushing back against the aggressive, state-supported Oromo campaign to disarm and disband Fanno and allied Amhara militias.
The effort’s limitation relates to how the Amhara existential struggle frames or directs its conflict with Oromo predatory state ethnicism. Fanno combatants and leaders largely formulate the matter as a clash or contention of interests within the existing identity-based political order, aiming to ensure the Amhara community’s survival and better its relative position.
While some of the fighters recognize that the conflict requires a breach of the structural limits of the tribal system of domination, Fanno‘s collective orientation and operations do not acknowledge the necessity of such a break. Instead, its actions have been practically system-maintaining. The Fanno militia’s support of the Oromo regime in the recent Tigray war, its demand for legal recognition of its existence, and its merely defensive stance in confronting the regime’s repressive campaigns remain within the confines of a set of political institutions and practices that make up or define the ethnic state.
Framing the conflict within the constraints of the existing political framework could enable diverse local or tactical militia operations and supportive social actions against the tribal order. Still, a vast gulf separates the growing popular uprisings and their conversion into an organized, symbolically ordered, unified engagement. Suppose the Amhara people are to save themselves and their country. In that case, we must go beyond episodic, defensive responses linked to crisis-generated conflict within the Oromo/Tigre identity regime. The challenge here is understanding the conflict’s broader dimensions and elements strategically, considering its national, regional, and global sources, past and present.
Another related limitation in the Fanno opposition movement arising from taking the ethnic-centered political establishment as given has to do with oppositional agency, the capacity to act or project power with sustained, united effort and lasting effect.
Even at the basic level of defensive militia operations, Fanno is not an integral entity that moves with significant strategic or practical oneness. While there is no shortage of Amhara unity rhetoric, the movement focuses on struggles in regional parts – Wello, Showa, Gojjam, and Gondar – around specific issues and regime actions at the expense of the whole.
Trans-regional collaboration does occur, but only occasionally, to ward off a large government assault that occurs in a particular Amhara area or locality. In each region, weak, fragmented Fanno organization expresses itself in personal leadership, like Mire Wedajo’s and Zemene Kasse’s, leaders whose run-ins with the Abiy regime and vulnerability to security forces’ entrapment through the tactical use of the customary shimgilina practice the media highlight often.
Fanno lacks collective leadership depth and adequate organizational cohesion, so even its defensive, tactical opposition or capacity to exert credible power is severely constrained, to say nothing of the resistance’s integral growth and strategic direction. Nor is traditional personal (ነፍጠኛ) agency or individuality, with all its implications nowadays for the organic structure and unity of the Amhara existential struggle, prevalent in the Fanno leadership alone.
Inspired partly by historic Amhara warrior practice and cultural values, it is favored and widespread among rank-and-file Fanno combatants – self-trained and self-armed volunteer citizen-soldiers. What seems to animate these fighters most are patriotic, spiritual, and humanistic values distanced from organizational discipline, often expressed without concessions to political or strategic considerations.
Underlying these constraints are paradoxes in the Amhara/Ethiopian struggle for structural change, particularly Fanno expressing a limited, laid-back, merely defensive armed fight for survival against an all-out Oromo aggression and project of domination. I take up this matter in the following, third, and concluding part of this discussion, where I shall suggest ways in which the contradictory features or qualities of the resistance could be ironed out and transformed.