Two weeks after irregular militia fighters called the Fano seized several towns and cities in Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-biggest region, the barricades have been cleared from the streets and an uneasy calm has been restored by the federal military.
The fighting was the fiercest to grip Ethiopia since a November ceasefire ended the two-year conflict in the next-door region of Tigray.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had set his sights on welcoming back foreign investors and kickstarting the economy. Instead, earlier this month, he found himself putting down yet another regional rebellion. Across Amhara, the Fano – a historical term in Amhara for “freedom fighter” – ambushed federal military units and took control of government buildings as civilian protesters blocked roads and hurled rocks.
In Lalibela, Ethiopia’s main tourist destination, the Fano seized the airport, while in Gondar, Amhara’s second-biggest city, terrified officials barricaded themselves inside the main police station as militiamen freely roamed the streets outside.
The military answered with tanks, artillery and airstrikes, rushing in reinforcements from Tigray and the Sudanese border, as the government declared a state of emergency. In several areas, soldiers fired upon demonstrators, killing an unknown number of civilians.
Humanitarian access was also disrupted during the roughly one week of violence. World Health Organization boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is Ethiopian, called for Amhara’s healthcare system to be protected, and Save the Children warned that children’s lives were at risk.
“We must shield vulnerable children from violence, displacement, hunger and abuse and it is imperative that vulnerable families are granted safety and unimpeded access to essential humanitarian aid,” Xavier Joubert, Save the Children’s Ethiopia director, said in a statement.
Services to Alemwach, a camp outside Gondar that houses 22,000 Eritrean refugees, were suspended as government agency officials fled, according to residents.
On August 9, the authorities said the military had wrested back control of Amhara’s towns from the Fano, who have retreated into the countryside. “It is peaceful here now,” said a resident by phone from Bahir Dar, the regional capital, which had seen days of street fighting.
Unrest had been simmering in Amhara for months. In April, a plan to dismantle regional forces and integrate them into the police and the military led to gun battles and the assassination of the head of the regional branch of Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party.
Even during the war with Tigray, the authorities and the Fano had eyed each other uneasily. Amhara’s regional forces were a key ally of the military against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), but the Fano had clashed regularly with federal forces in the months leading up to the war, with many Amhara fighters instinctively mistrusting Abiy, who is an Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
Amhara forces took advantage of the war to seize Western Tigray, a fertile territory bordering Sudan long claimed by the Amhara, and an area called Raya. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say they waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray – characterised by arbitrary arrests, killings, and deportations – that uprooted hundreds of thousands of Tigrayan residents.
In mid-2021, TPLF fighters recaptured most of their region and then pushed deep into Amhara, committing their own human rights abuses while also looting hospitals and schools. Amhara was mobilised for total war, with thousands of young men given rudimentary military training and sent to the front as militia. Many felt let down by the government and regular military, which had been unable to stop the TPLF advance.
“The PM was saying during the war that these contested regions are Amhara, and now people feel betrayed.”
Then, in April 2022, during a truce with the TPLF, Abiy moved against the Fano, launching a sweeping crackdown that saw thousands arrested.
After the signing of the Tigray peace deal, the sense of spiralling mistrust heightened. Even though Amhara’s vice president was part of the team that negotiated the peace, Amhara activists complained that their interests were not represented at the talks.
The final text of the peace deal says the future of “contested areas” will be settled according to the constitution. Since it was agreed, Abiy has touted the possibility of holding a referendum to determine the status of Western Tigray and Raya.
Even questioning the status of these territories is deeply unpopular with Amhara nationalists, who see their return to the TPLF as an uncrossable redline. “The PM was saying during the war that these contested regions are Amhara, and now people feel betrayed,” a member of the Amhara branch of Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party told The New Humanitarian.
This feeling of betrayal feeds into a wider sense that the Amhara are under attack elsewhere in Ethiopia. In western Oromia, Amhara farmers have been massacred by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which says it is fighting for greater autonomy for the Oromo. There have been similar attacks in the Metekel region of Benishangul-Gumuz, where the Amhara are also a minority.
Under the imperial regime of Haile Selassie and then the communist Derg government, Amhara dominated Ethiopian national life. Many Amharas now complain that the Oromo have taken over under Abiy, Ethiopia’s first Oromo prime minister. Many even allege his government is behind the OLA’s attacks on ethnic Amharas.
A resident of Lalibela, for instance, told The New Humanitarian over the phone that the Fano are “liberators” from Abiy’s “OLA government”. Views like this are widespread. “Abiy is a dictator,” said a Gondar resident. “He is killing Amhara people everywhere in the country.” Both spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals.
“The war was a bonanza for the Fano. They could recruit, they could keep the weapons they found in Western Tigray for themselves, and they had the government’s support for everything they did.”
Yet, in many ways, Abiy helped create the Fano militia now fighting his government. Under Ethiopia’s former TPLF-dominated government, many of the leading lights of today’s Fano movement were locked up. When Abiy came to power in 2018, promising democracy, he released them as part of a mass amnesty for tens of thousands of political prisoners.
These Amhara strongmen subsequently built small-scale militias that were used to provide security services and fight other insurgent groups on the government’s behalf. On the eve of the war with Tigray, Abiy’s government was beginning to crack down on these Fano groups, believing they had grown too powerful. Then the fighting broke out.
“The war was a bonanza for the Fano,” said a Western researcher who did not want to be named. “They could recruit, they could keep the weapons they found in Western Tigray for themselves, and they had the government’s support for everything they did.”
That the Fano are now fighting the government is not surprising, said the researcher: “I was expecting this to happen much earlier.”
Abiy may have been compelled to act against the Fano after seeing the threat Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, pose to the country’s establishment.
“You have dozens of Hemedtis in the Amhara region, dozens of guys who are able to build forces and get some institutionalisation from the state apparatus, and that is exactly what the RSF did,” the researcher said.
Although the federal military has reclaimed control of Amhara’s towns, the Fano rebellion is not over. The group will likely continue to wage a guerrilla campaign in Amhara’s vast mountainous interior, where they have widespread popular support.
On Sunday, a government airstrike killed at least 26 people and wounded 55 more when it struck the Amhara town of Finote Selam. Many of the victims were local people who had been taking food to the Fano, according to eyewitness accounts.
Even before this month’s violence, rural Amhara was witnessing a similar uptick in insecurity. Unlike the TPLF, the Fano may be able to bring in supplies across the Sudanese border. Eritrea, meanwhile, helped train the Fano during the Tigray war, and many Western diplomats suspect it had a hand in fanning this month’s fighting. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was an ally of Abiy’s, but he is believed to have opposed the Tigray peace deal.
It is unclear what Abiy’s government can do to quash the growing rebellion in Amhara. The Fano are loosely organised, with deep internal divisions. Even if Abiy’s government wanted to negotiate with them, it is unclear who could talk on behalf of the movement.
A recent wave of arrests in the capital, Addis Ababa, which the state human rights body says is targeting ethnic Amharas, is only likely to fuel the group’s sense of persecution. Last week, Human Rights Watch said the federal government had responded to the unrest with “increased repression”.
Analysts predict a general breakdown of law and order across Amhara as the Fano insurgency escalates, similar to the situation in Western Oromia, the OLA’s stronghold, where government control rarely extends beyond the suburbs of towns.
If that happens, the group will not find it difficult to find recruits among the millions of young Amhara men fed up with Abiy’s government. “You can’t fight with the public,” said a resident of Kobo, one of the centres of the fighting. “The public supports the Fano.”
- The New Humanitarian report