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From Defense to Attack: Conflict shifts from Tigray to Amhara

In a scene that embodies the historical rivalry that has long existed between the Tigray and the Amhara, the conflict in northern Ethiopia spilled over from Tigray to neighboring Amhara. 

While hostilities between the two neighbors have deep roots and a long history, it is rapidly growing, escalating into a major war that might end in a complete disaster threatening the survival of Ethiopia. With the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) accusing each other of being responsible for initiating the conflict, no settlement of the crisis looms in the horizon, particularly after the Tigrayans had made significant gains against the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and managed to regain military advantage which increased their ambitions of restoring their political presence that Abiy Ahmed’s coming to power put paid to.

Tigray Between the Old Conflict and New Gains

Historically, the Tigray-Amhara conflict has been all about establishing control over the arable land west of Tigray, located on the borders with the Amhara region, an area that attracts the interest of the Amharas as their region is characterized by difficult terrain and rocky mountains which aren’t favorable for agriculture.

 This, together with the political conflict, historical rivalry, the Amharas’ dominance of power under Abiy Ahmed’s tenure, their adoption of persecution and arbitrary dismissal, and illegal trials, all deepened the divisions, which eventually led the federal government to wage its war on Tigray in November 2020.

The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) eyes Humera, located in the far northwest of the region, as a strategic target, being their only gateway to the outside. Seizing control of Humera would enable the TDF to break the nine-month siege imposed on them. Moreover, the city enjoys a strategic location being the border triangle between Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, with the Tekeze River running through it. If the TDF to take back Humera, they would have achieved significant gains, most notably opening a sustainable route for humanitarian and relief aid through Sudan, accessing a passage that would let Tigrayan leaders in and out of the region safely, rendering ineffective the Ethiopian government’s restriction of allowing in relief aid through air only, thus avoiding inspection at Bole International Airport, and achieving a moral victory that would leave them in a stronger position when engaging with the international and regional community.

The Amharas Mobilize for a Decisive Battle

After the TDF took control of areas in the south and west of Tigray, the Amhara provincial government issued a statement on 13 July 2021 calling for the general mobilization of the Amhara people for the great battle of existence to counter the TDF’s invasion. The statement called on residents of the Amhara with previous military and security service, retired officers, and all eligible young people to report to the Woreda centers to stand against the TPFL. Further, the statement called on all the Amharas in Ethiopia and abroad to do their part to support their nation, requesting the federal government and the Ethiopian people to stand up for the Amharas in their battle for existential survival, a battle, they claim, that aims at defending the Ethiopian state and its unity.

In a tweet, Agegnehu Teshager, the governor of Amhara, called on retired generals and senior non-commissioned officers to join the Amhara’s existential battle. Earlier, pro-Amhara media denied entry of the TDF into some of southern Tigray cities including Korem, Alamata, and Maychew, noting that the Amhara forces withdrew from these cities on the pretext that the TDF’s front soldiers were either children or women. In a televised address on 25 July 2021, Teshager stated that the people of Tigray are enemies of the whole of Ethiopia, underscoring that they should keep fight and eradicate them for Ethiopia to be safe. “We will not know rest until we have annihilated this enemy”, Teshager said.

The Proliferation of the Conflict

The alliance between Abiy Ahmed and the Amharas is no secret. The Amhara functions as the incubator of Abiy Ahmed’s centralization project adopted in place of Ethnic Federalism enshrined in Ethiopia’s 1995 Constitution. This situation provides the TPLF with an opportune moment to mobilize supporters for its project to restore power and overthrow Abiy Ahmed by opening multiple conflict fronts that would deplete the remaining military capabilities of the federal government.

Putting aside the serious conflict between the ruling elites in Tigray and Amhara, there are still substantive grounds for the escalating conflict, including primarily the cross-regional border demarcation issue which was exacerbated by Abiy Ahmed’s failure to establish a special commission to address disputed borders, a promise that he made after coming to office as prime minister but never honoured due to the Amharas’ objection to this commission since it carries the implicit threat of repatriation of about 5 million of the Amhara out from neighbouring regions including Tigray, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Oromia where they have seized farmland without having title deeds that prove their ownership. As the TDF is involved in a fierce war with the special forces of Amhara and the extremist nationalist Fano militia to gain control over the agricultural land, armed groups in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz can quickly engage in a similar conflict given the convergence of tactical interests.

The ongoing Tigray-Amhara conflict portends a major humanitarian crisis. The Amhara region is acutely threatened by starvation after missing the current agriculture season. Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM) may capitalize on the Amhara’s preoccupation with their war with the TDF and make the incursion into strategic areas in Amhara, seeking gains that would reinforce their position in their persistent pursuit for self-determination.

In a statement by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) on 23 July 2021, the movement declared escalation against the Ethiopian government accusing it of using children in its armed war on Tigray, stating that the ruling Prosperity Party carried out forced recruitment of the Oromos in several zones including Borena, Guji, Iluu Abbaa, and East Shewa and in areas under control of the government including Bale, East Bale, and West Arsi.

This host of circumstances could give rise to a coalition between the Tigray and anti-government ethnicities, including the Afars, Gumuz, Oromos, and Gambella. This would present a shift in the balance of power, which would likely bring down the Amharic government. 

Seemingly, Ethiopia’s internal conflict won’t be easily brought to an end, even if the West imposes reconciliation between parties to the conflict as it will remain, after all, a fragile agreement and soon disputes over power will again lead to conflict. 

Salah Khalil
A researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Social and Historical Studies

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