The still young peace agreement in Ethiopia is holding up – but the multi-ethnic state, battered by the two-year civil war, is extremely fragile. The situation is made more difficult by an old conflict that is flaring up again: while the guns have been silent in the former war zone in the northern state of Tigray since November 2022, militias from the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups and government troops are fighting inland.
The Oromo and the Amhara, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, have accused each other of killing civilians. It’s a conflict that escalated as early as 2022, according to Ahmed Soliman, an expert on the Horn of Africa at the London think tank Chatham House.
“A large part of the violence takes place in the border areas between the two regions and also in other regional states,” Soliman told DW. The confrontation of these regional forces has led to an unprecedented security crisis in the country.
Eyewitnesses told the AP news agency that several dozen civilians and combatants had died in violent clashes at the end of January. In Senbete in the Oromia zone, a region in the state of Amhara populated by Oromo, a resident told DW: “The conflict began on Monday, and there were numerous victims in the late morning.” Heavy weapons were fired afterwards and many people were injured.
Many residents of Shewa Robit, a town in southeastern Amhara state near the Oromia zone, have also fled due to increasing attacks. “I saw how four members of the special forces (the Amhara troops, editor’s note) were buried in one place. At the same time we buried three or four others in St. Mary’s Church. After that, a new grave was dug,” a resident of Shewa Robit told DW.
It is a historic conflict that is about to enter a new round: For centuries, the supremacy in Ethiopia lay with the elites of today’s northern provinces of Tigray and Amhara, and the Oromo have been striving for autonomy for almost as long. Since the resettlement of ethnic Amhara communities in parts of Oromia in the 1970s and 1980s, there have been clashes between the new residents and the Oromo over land and resources, Soliman says.
These clashes have escalated dramatically since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018. Fighting between Oromo and Amhara militias broke out regularly, often resulting in significant displacement.
According to experts, the two-year war between the government army and the fighters in the Tigray region has created a security vacuum in the rest of the country. This allowed the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels to escalate the conflict in Oromia, making it the most unstable region in Ethiopia.
According to Soliman, OLA specifically solicited support from local Oromo communities by accusing the Amhara of land grabbing in the region. Soliman warns that the large number of security-relevant actors is exacerbating the crisis. And demands: In order to create stability in this situation, there must be a political dialogue.
Meanwhile, there is hope that the situation in Tigray will stabilize further after a November peace deal sealed the end of fighting between government soldiers and the militia and local forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Since then, after long blockages, the vital aid deliveries to Tigray have been resumed, and the central infrastructure is slowly being restored, confirms Soliman from Chatham House: “There have been rounds of talks about the implementation of the agreement, which means a positive trend.” The TPLF is further along in the process of disarming their troops, said they withdrew up to 65 percent and surrendered their heavy weapons – in the presence of United Nations observers.
Nevertheless, a big question mark remains for the expert: “It’s about the complete withdrawal, which according to the Tigrayers will only take place parallel to the withdrawal of foreign and other non-government troops, meaning the Eritrean defense forces, the Eritrean army and the Amhara militias.”
The peace agreement also requires federal forces to be able to ensure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia’s borders. This means the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Ethiopian territory, including Tigray. “And that is the key to securing a sustainable peace in the north of the country,” Soliman said.
This point is also crucial from the point of view of David Shinn, an Africa expert at George Washington University in Washington, DC, USA. Although he has the impression that a relatively good relationship has developed between the Tigrayan defense forces and the national army of Ethiopia, Shinn told DW.
But: “I think there is still a lot of distrust between the Tigrayan and Eritrean armed forces. So many atrocities were committed during the time Eritreans were in the Tigray region that it will take a long time before trust can be restored,” says Shinn.
Eritrea, the Red Sea country bordering Ethiopia’s Tigray, had sent troops to support Ethiopian forces early in the war. However, it was not involved in the peace agreement. Shinn emphasizes that the withdrawal is a condition for the end of the war: “If not all Eritrean troops leave Ethiopia, the peace agreement is very much in question.”
But for a lasting peace, the diverse tensions between individual ethnic groups would also have to be settled. Things have remained comparatively quiet in southern Ethiopia. A referendum is scheduled to be held there in six zones and five special districts in the Regional State of Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNPR) on February 6 to vote on a possible twelfth state.
Autor: Martina Schwikowski
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The original of this article “Ethiopia: North pacified, center fought over” comes from Deutsche Welle.