Yonas Biru, PhD
Lurking beneath the current Amhara-Oromo conflict is a quantum energy gathering strength like the crackle of electricity before a lightning storm. Understanding and harnessing this dynamic phenomenon is essential to thwart the malignant crisis that is metastasizing and carries in its womb the seeds of the nation’s destruction.
Let us make one thing clear from the outset. The Prime Minister is the primary actor whose Oromummaa anchored tribal fantasy, wholly predictable and preventable disasters, and utter incompetence are pulling apart the nation at the seams. The war with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the mishandling of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) should have given him valuable experiences to reflect on and develop a deliberative conflict resolution process. Instead, with a sense of infallibility and certainly one of accountability to no one, he continues forging forward with his failed ways, deepening existing crises and creating new ones.
Ethiopians remember the TPLF war that the Prime Minister said he will wrap up in two weeks lasted two years with nearly a million people dead and over $28 billion economic structures laid to waste. On the heel of such a catastrophic war, he launched a new war against the Amhara Fanno with confidence to bring them to their knees in a matter of weeks. Five months have passed and Fanno is standing tall and getting taller.
Unlike the Oromummaa political project where tribal allegiance supersedes national identity, the Amhara challenge is that its tribal allegiance cannot be pursued outside of the survival of Ethiopia’s national identity. Therefore, Amhara’s struggle needs to be two-pronged: saving itself from Oromummaa cult politics and ensuring the continuation of Ethiopia as a nation.
In the current tribalized constitution and political and military organizational architecture, the Amhara will be foolish not to organize itself along tribal lines. A strong Amhara party offers organizational efficiency and political leverage. But its strategic goal for a transformative political change lies deeply in its ability to forge a broad-based national political agenda. የአማራ ኢትዮጵያዊነት ለጥያቄ እይቀርብም may be a nice bumper sticker but it cannot be a substitute for the lack of the two-pronged strategy noted above.
I am prompted to write this piece because I see Fanno risking a repeat of the failure of the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) to sustain its initial rapid growth, owing to the lack of a forward-thinking strategic vision to elevate itself to national prominence. They failed to make their movement the center of gravity around which other tribal homelands could coalesce in the quest to protect themselves and in the meantime be a bulwark for the nation’s peace and stability.
NaMA’s misguided decision stemmed from their belief that the right strategy was to first strengthen their Amhara base and then grow it into a national program. The problem was that once tribal parties are entrenched it is difficult to broaden their outlook. NaMA was preoccupied dealing with conflicts between Gonder, Gojam, Wello and Shewa interests more than building a national coalition.
This is not unique to the Amhara. By its very nature tribalism is restrictive, not all-embracive. Remember Oromo-PP, Amhara-PP, Somali-PP were all supposed to transform themselves to a national party. That was the Prime Minister’s aim in 2019 and early 2020. By 2021, the idea of transforming Oromo-PP into a national party was no more. If anything, it transformed itself into an extremist party in the mold of Oromo-Shene.
People say the Prime Minister was Shene all along. This is not true. What happened was he succumbed to the dynamism and inertia of Oromummaa. Sadly, he lacked moral fortitude, personal integrity, and political backbone to push back against Oromo tribalist forces. His lust for power made him look like a dry leaf on a windy day. His political position shifted, depending which way the wind was stronger.
The Theater of the Absurd
Abiy’s path toward a positive outcome is narrow and foggy. He is incapable of coming to terms that he is neither godly nor infallible. His presumed sense of holiness in the genre of Moses turned him into a cross between a mentally deranged king and an oblivious zombie sleepwalking toward a cliff.
Making the bad situation worse, his military power is bestowed in the hands of a delusional Field Marshal who is a reincarnation of Sancho Panza de la Mancha with a 16th century Oromummaa soul both in the title he holds and decisions he makes. Sancho Panza is a supremely entertaining early 17th Century peasant in Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece Don Quixote.
Notably, there are three differences between Sancho Panza and the Field Marshall. First, the Field Marshall is less likeable. Second, Sancho Panza was following Master (Don Quixote) partly out of curiosity and fascination about his silliness whereas the Field Marshal is driven by a sense of pride, reverence, and blind loyalty to his master. Third, unlike the Field Marshal who is reckless and dangerous to the stability of the nation, Sancho Panza was a harmless clown.
The Over Supply of Clowns in Ethiopian Politics
Ethiopian politics is never short of clowns. Some people see TPLF being another source of existential threat. I see TPLF leaders as a cross between a clown and a fly on a ceiling. TPLF is like a fly on a dining room ceiling flying from one corner to the other. Its presence does not make a material difference, but it may be an annoying nuisance. Your mind tells you to ignore it, but your eyes cannot avoid following it. The case with a clown is the same. You try to ignore its presence but you cannot remove your eyes from it.
Whatever TPLF’s leaders do to reduce their followers’ psychological trauma and win the support of its delusional diaspora, they will not change the political status of their tribal land in terms of influencing Ethiopia’s political trajectory. What is saddening for the people of Tigray is that TPLF is doing exactly what it was doing before the war. ጌቾም መሞጣሞጥ ጀምራለች:: የትግራይ ዳያስፖዎችም “እምበር ተጋደላይ” እያሉ በእስክስታ የታጀበ defiant dance ጀመረዋል:: It is the déjà vu of the symphony of the absurd – with Gecho serving as the Maestro. You want to ignore them, but you cannot help your eyes that follow them.
The Rise of Amhara Fanno
Amhara Fano is gaining momentum because of four factors. The first factor is TPLF’s and Oromo-PP’s flirting around the issues of Wolkait and Raya. The Prime Minister’s futile attempt to use Wolkait and Raya as a carrot and stick strategy to keep the Amhara under leash backfired by animating Amhara nationalism and militarism.
The second is Oromo PP’s monstrosity that is driven from the Oromummaa bestiality. The rank-and-file members of Amhara-PP, Amhara militia and Amhara special forces are aghast by the Oromo PP-led government. They have not only seen Oromo-PP leaders being christened in the holy mud of Oromummaa, but they have also witnessed as they forcefully evict Amhara people from the Oromo tribal land and deny them entry to Addis Ababa. This has led the rank-and-file Amhara-PP, militia, and special force to sympathize with, provide material and intelligence support to, and even join the Fanno uprising.
The third factor is the Amhara silent majority that has shunned Amhara Fannos in the past is now embracing them, going as far as providing them with cover and logistical support. Increasingly, the Amhara silent majority is taking bold actions, such as blocking roads and joining Fannos on battlefields.
The fourth factor is even more potent. The social psychology in the Amhara tribal land is changing. An optimistic, if not euphoric, Amhara national psychology is being birthed. This is planting new seeds of impulse that tickle and awaken Amhara’s slumbering inner strength. The Oromo-PP’s ultra-stupid desire to degrade, humiliate and bring Amhara to its knees ignited the fire of protest. There is no power that is stronger than an agitated inner strength borne out of a sense of betrayal and humiliation. It was like a coiled spring ready to erupt.
Recent repeated victories across the Fanno universe have energized vigorous uprising across the Amhara tribal land. The tale of victories and the sight of raised flags herald the Fanno resistance is inching toward an inflection point where the path to victory in terms of forcing the Prime Minister to blink is becoming clearer.
Once the point of inflection is breached, the defection rate from Amhara special forces will pick up speed and the silent majority will start to join the movement in mass in pursuit of freeing Amhara from political Oromummaa.
Let us remember that the Field Marshall is getting his military’s ass whipped by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in the Oromo tribal land. There are three critical differences between Amhara Fanno and the OLA warrant mentioning to give context to the emerging Fanno phenomenon.
First, the OLA is a criminal establishment that robs banks and kidnaps innocent people for ransom. In contrast, Amhara Fanno is restrained from criminal activities. Second, Amhara Fanno is increasingly embraced by the people of Amhara, while the OLA is rejected by the people of Oromo. Third, the OLA is very much restricted to Wellega albeit it is engaged in hit and run attacks outside of Wellega. By comparison, Amhara Fanno is lurking operating in every nook and cranny across the Amhara tribal land. New ones are sprouting like spring blossoms.
The Prime Minister and his Field Marshall are best advised to remember that there are 11 administrative zones in the Amhara tribal land. It will not be too long before each one of them marshals its own Fanno brigade spreading across the 185,700 square kilometer land, currently under the Amhara region. By comparison the Tigray tribal land is 19,088 square kilometers that is currently under the government of the government of Tigray.
Let us remind the Prime Minister that, in June 2021, he pulled the Military out of the Tigray region because it was not able to fight the TPLF that was supported by the people. He will be foolish to think federal forces can win against Fanno, who is increasingly supported by the people of Amhara with a population that is multiple times more than the population of Tigray.
What happened in Gorgora two days ago is a harbinger for what is to come in the Amhara tribal land. The field Marshall came by car and escaped by a helicopter. The strength of the current Ethiopian military that the Field Marshall has assembled is like the wheat Ethiopia is exporting. It exists only in the Prime Minister’s mind.
The federal forces that the Prime Minister as the nation’s commander in chief and his Field Marshal assembled to suppress Fano hail primarily from the Oromo and Southern Peoples tribal lands. The fact that they are suspicious of the allegiances of its military personnel of Amhara origins is bound to fracture one of the nation’s last bastions of unity – the military!
Potential Problem with Fanno
From Ethiopia’s stability and continuity perspective, I see two areas of danger in current developments in the Amhara tribal land: Internal Amhara Conflict and Amhara-Oromo Civil War.
In the absence of a unifying strategic political agenda that goes beyond protecting Amhara from Oromummaa, the emergence of 11 Fanno brigades working independently bears the seeds of discord and potentially even worse. Every strong military organization requires an even stronger political architecture with a strategic brain trust to guide and control it. Otherwise, as every Fanno brigade gets traction in its own area of operation, the Amhara tribal land will face a new environment that can potentially break it up into fiefdoms of warlords.
Only a political novice will think the political elbow throwing between Gonder, Gojam, Shewa and Wello factions will not happen between their armed forces. Of course, there is no surety that this will happen. Conversely, there is no guarantee that it will not happen. Wise leaders cannot leave such potentiality to chance. They need to be proactive.
Averting Civil War
In the face of Oromummaa’s insatiable appetite for domination and intemperate instinct for Mogassa inspired bloodletting, the continued strengthening of Fanno comes with an increased risk of a civil war between Amhara and Oromo. If this happens, as it is likely to happen, there will be no winner. Apart from massive death and destruction on both sides, Ethiopia’s stability and continuity is likely to deteriorate or even crossover to irreversibility.
In the face of existential threat, the Amhara people have no choice but to defend themselves. But from Ethiopia’s survival perspective, it is important to keep an eye on the dynamic that can spiral out of control as the two groups escalate their conflict, drawing energy from their hate to, and fear of, each other. If we fail to short-circuit the transmission line that allows polarization between the two groups, Ethiopia will enter a zone of entropic chaos. If and when that happens, the chance to slide into national disintegration will be of high probability.
A Two-Pronged Approach
Protecting Amhara from Oromo-PP may be a necessary condition to save Amhara from Oromummaa savagery and Ethiopia from disintegration. But it is not a sufficient condition. A winning political agenda requires a two-pronged approach: to save Amhara and create a political environment for national consensus building.
Consensus building is an arduous task that requires nuanced, judicious, tolerant, and inclusive agenda and strategy. Saving Amhara from Oromummaa brutality and building national consensus must be pursued concurrently, not sequentially. This is important for two reasons.
First, the speed with which the government is crumbling suggests the time window is narrow for a sequential approach. Second, as noted above, once tribal forces are entrenched at any level, it is next to impossible to broaden the agenda. This is what NaMA faced when they tried to reform their party to broaden their agenda and political horizon.
Currently, the political reality in the Amhara tribal land is encouraging in terms of defending itself. But that in and of itself cannot take us to the promised land. What happens in the Oromo tribal land is just as a critical component in defusing the ticking time bomb and averting a looming civil war.
Remember Ethiopia is bigger than Amhara and Oromo. Building broad national agenda with the Somali, the Gurage the Wolaita, the Afar, the Gambella and others who feel betrayed and harmed by the Oromummaa cult politics is of significant strategic importance. It will pave the way for an alignment of strategic forces around a unifying agenda to counter Oromummaa’s hegemonic fantasy. Amhara alone cannot author a national agenda and invite others to line behind it. The process of forging a national agenda is as important as the modality and substance of it.
A strategic national agenda is necessary to develop a concomitant roadmap to establish a winning national program that resonates with disgruntled Ethiopians in all parts of the nation. The strategy and the roadmap must win the support and confidence of Ethiopians of all hues and political persuasions. Above all, the strategy must be anchored in a win-win outcome. Such an approach will help build a national coalition and simultaneously strengthen the Amhara within its own tribal land by accelerating the support of the silent majority at home.
Another important point is having a clear and achievable endgame both at the Amhara and national levels. Is the Amhara end game to overthrow Amhara-PP? Then what? Is it to replace the Abiy government with a coalition government? If so, is this shared by other tribal homelands?
Equally important question is: What plan is in place to avoid a civil war between Amhara and Oromo? Remember, there are millions of Amhara in the Oromo tribal land. Is there a plan to protect and save them? Remember also that a civil war between Amhara and Oromo will blow life into TPLF and encourage it to open a new round of war against Amhara to reclaim the two contested lands. Is Amhara prepared to defend itself from both ends and still advance its tribal and national agenda?
There is Still Hope
Peace can come only if both Amhara and Oromo reconfigure their power calculus and reboot their political system. There is a reason to believe the political environment is progressively opening-up a space for a win-win outcome.
Despite the Prime Minister’s bravado and chest-beating, his powerbase and legitimacy are being increasingly eroded. The D-day of reckoning that he is a king without cloth is not far off. The growing broad opposition in the Amhara tribal land along with the rise of Fanno and the elevated restiveness of the silent majority is bound to change the nation’s political power balance.
Put in the vernacular, the descent of Oromo-PP from the pinnacle of political height and the rise of Amhara from political paralysis brings with them potential equilibrium points where a delicate balance can be struck between the two.
The question is: Is Amhara ready for this eventuality? If there is an opportunity to negotiate, who will speak for Amhara? What will be the political agenda? What and who will drive the strategic engagement? These are questions that need to be addressed with a sense of urgency.
Elders, civil society organizations, intellectuals, professional and business organizations, as well as trade unions and other national stakeholders need to weigh in with new energy and spirit to broaden the agenda and build consensus. It is past time the silent majority in the Ethiopian intellectual class step up and crowd out their cacophonous tribal counterparts who are peddling conflicts and bloodletting.