Ethiopia’s post-war challenge: Disarming regional militias

Sunday April 16 2023
Recruits for reserves of Amhara regional forces

Recruits for reserves of Amhara regional forces during their graduation ceremony on August 24, 2021. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was last week pushing through his controversial policy of mopping up regional militia, part of his long-term plan to have a unified national professional army. PHOTO | EDUARDO SOTERAS | AFP


Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was last week pushing through his controversial policy of mopping up regional militia, part of his long-term plan to have a unified national professional army.

The Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) is already somewhat professional, with an established chain of command and adequate equipment. But the controversy is related to Abiy’s call to demobilise all regional militia, some of which allied with the ENDF in the recent war in Tigray.

“This decision will be implemented…. for the sake of Ethiopia's... unity and for the people's peace,” Abiy said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The strength of a country's army is determined by its centralisation and chain of command,” Abiy added.

Deadly violence

One of the regions opposed to this is Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest state and closest to Tigray region, where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) waged a war against the ENDF for two years until last November.


For the last one week, Amharas in Ethiopia and abroad were protesting against the decision by Addis Ababa. It turned deadly, at home. On Sunday, the Ethiopian Red Cross on said that one of their ambulances was shot at "by unknown armed forces" in Amhara's Central Gondar zone, injuring a midwife and a driver.

Aid workers in other hotspots across the region have been warned to “hibernate” while the World Food Program suspended operations. A bomb blast on Monday night also left three killed and 15 others injured.

CRS staff shot dead

And two aid Workers for the Catholic Relief Services were shot dead by unknown gunmen, the aid agency said.

It all began last week on Thursday when the Ethiopian Federal Government announced a decree to disband paramilitary forces in all the country's 11 states in pursuit of building "a strong centralised army.”

The decision received support in some regions, including in Somali Region, Gambella, Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region, Benshangul Gumuz, Sidama and in the new Southwest regional state.

Opposition in Amhara

However, it triggered a huge opposition in Amhara.

Dr Dessalegn Chanie, an Ethiopian Federal MP and former leader of the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) told al-Jazeera that there had been no adequate discussion to assure the locals of their security.

“Currently the people of Amhara are facing lots of threats, especially threats from the Tigray Liberation Front. Unless the TPLF is disarmed and the soldiers demobilised, it creates a security risk and that is why our people are opposing it,” he said on Tuesday.

“In principle, we support a unified national army… (but) our people are demanding that we should have a security guarantee so that the Tigrayans do not attack us for a fourth time. According to the Pretoria agreement, TPLF was to be disarmed but there is no clear evidence that disarmament has been done.”

One Defence Force

The war in Tigray ended on November 4 last year, two years after the TPLF attacked a northern command centre of the ENDF and triggered one of the deadliest conflicts in the Horn of Africa yet.

Known as the ‘permanent cessation of hostilities,’ the peace deal in November provided for “one Defence Force” and the TPLF were to be disarmed in an “orderly, smooth and coordinated” way after which the Tigray region is to be protected by the government forces.

Both the government and TPLF also committed to reject “violence as a method of resolving political differences” in future

The deal wasn’t clear on whether other regions that supported the ENDF should disarm. Ethiopia has argued in the past that it negotiated the deal on behalf of all other parties that supported it but weren’t at the table in Pretoria.

But this conflict is also the culmination of simmering disagreement between the Amhara and Oromo Prosperity Party stem from persistent insecurity and inability to address the threats that the Amhara region says it faces.

Threats on Amhara

The Amhara that was once a stronghold for the ruling PP has suffered from multiple TPLF offensives and remains vulnerable to intraregional and interregional threats.

Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a senior political analyst on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region says "the speed and disguise circumstances with which Prosperity Party implements its strategy appears to be more of a power consolidation strategy.”

"Emboldened by its military victory over TPLF, PP continues pursuing military adventure to pre-empt perceived challenge from the Amhara" he said.

PP's current confrontation with the Amhara could be a strategy to consolidate hegemony by pitting the Amhara against Tigray and strengthen the position of Oromo ethno-nationalists, the political analyst added.

Contest over territories

According to Metta-Alem, disarming the Amhara regional forces before disbanding TPLF in accordance with the Pretoria peace agreement poses not only existential threat to the Amhara but also brings anxiety about the possibility of re-annexation of the contested areas following the rapprochement of PP and TPLF. Amhara and Tigray are still contesting over certain territories which each side claims belong to their control.

The demonstrations in Amhara region, which have continued for a week since the decree, may signal future cracks in that security arrangement. In the diaspora, groups lobbied for international attention on the issue. The Amhara Association of America put forward two petitions for the US and Canadian legislatures to “condemn killings” in many cities by government forces. The petitions have not pooled in the force yet.

As part of initial measures to quell the protests, the Amhara regional government responded by imposing a curfew in several cities and towns including on the popular tourist destination of Gondar town.

The central government has also shut down mobile internet services in the region while banks and businesses remain closed.

As protests continue, some units of the region's security forces refused to disarm and clashed with the federal military.

Additional reporting by Aggrey Mutambo