Ethiopia’s government has launched a crackdown on a powerful and increasingly autonomous regional security force in a bold and potentially risky move to extend central control into a volatile country.
More than 4,000 people, including militias, politicians, journalists and a key military leader, have been arrested in recent days in a crackdown on armed groups in the huge Amhara region.
There have also been attempts to limit gun ownership.
These new measures by the Ethiopian prime minister are aimed at smothering the wings of a growing nationalist movement in Amhara, and come months after a humanitarian ceasefire was declared in the war-torn Tigray region next door.
But it is unclear whether the Amhara crackdown will bring greater stability to restive Ethiopia, or will further fuel ethnic tensions in a country already struggling to contain powerful centrifugal forces.
The highly destructive Tigray conflict has shaken a complex patchwork of internal and external political alliances – including Ethiopia’s recent reconciliation with neighboring Eritrea, whose forces have actively intervened in Tigray and may seek to do so again.
In recent days, there have been reports of multiple clashes and deaths across Amhara, as well as street protests against the new crackdown.
Many other parts of Ethiopia, including Oromia, are experiencing growing insurgency and intercommunal violence that has blocked major roads and exacerbated economic hardships across the country.
Local Amhara soldiers and youth militias – known as Fano – played a key role in backing the Ethiopian federal army’s 18-month conflict with the neighbouring Tigray region, and some now fear they are being targeted by the central government. The government has been marginalized and even betrayed the government.
Early in their offensive, Amharic forces captured a strategically important part of western Tigray and remained determined to hold on. The disputed area along Sudan’s border could become a new flashpoint if the region’s status becomes part of any negotiations to end the Tigray conflict.
Amhara region president Ilkar Kefal confirmed the arrest of “illegal and sometimes armed men” linked to Fano, an armed youth group accused by human rights groups of unresolved civil war in Tigray atrocities committed during the period.
Amhara general Tefera Mamo, who is in charge of the region’s special forces, was also detained after criticizing the Ethiopian prime minister in a recent TV interview.
At least 10 journalists and commentators known to be critical of the government were also reportedly detained in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
The move by Tigrayan forces to release government troops captured in the northern region’s 18-month civil war has also been denounced by Ethiopian officials as “disinformation and propaganda” amid ongoing fears of a humanitarian ceasefire in the famine-torn region. Without proper implementation, it can break down.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 pledging to unite the country, end a widespread crackdown by security forces and accelerate economic reforms.
But after a widely acclaimed start to the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a long-running conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, Mr Abiy has faced growing criticism for his handling of Ethiopia’s complex ethnic divisions.
This was most evident in Tigray, where the civil war sparked famine and killed tens of thousands of people in northern Ethiopia.
After initially suffering heavy losses, the Ethiopian Federation and Allied forces, supported by neighboring Eritrean forces, eventually pushed Tigray’s forces back to their own regional borders.
But this apparent victory does not address Ethiopia’s broader political, military and economic challenges.