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Drones and Machetes: The Race towards more Death

The fighting is often portrayed as a war between a federal government and one of the regions. Most attention so far has been focused on the power struggle between two clearly defined centers of power, and the challenges,



In the four months since the outbreak of the war in Tigray, the new battle for the future of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa at large has been compounded by  massacres of civilians and destruction of property. The fighting  is often portrayed as a war between a federal government and one of the regions. Most attention so far has been focused on the power struggle between two clearly defined centers of power, and the challenges, promises, and threats connected with them. Perhaps on the threats especially. The local undercurrents are relegated to a side show. 

This is the case when the violence against civilians that may be considered gratuitous or excessively brutal is perpetuated by militia groups. The role of informal non-state actors and external players and the relations between them is largely ignored. There would appear to be a pressing need to seriously document and analyze the hidden role of localized players and their linkages with state actors, particularly external engagement and its geopolitical considerations as well as assess domestic political undertones, but this is not happening. 

For more than four months Tigray has been racked by war and violence over ideology, territory and regional power order. In the midst of all this, major damages done by minor players seem to have been missed.

The “law enforcement operation” of the federal government applying a World War I type of human wave tactics to win a war,  a neighboring ‘looting state’ deploying all its military power in the service of squeezing and squashing a regional foe, a ‘transnational’ military conflict involving drones, a failed international effort to achieve a ceasefire and humanitarian corridor, have all overshadowed the mayhem caused by the Amhara militia who opportunistically followed in the footsteps of the Ethiopian and Eritrean mechanized forces. 

For the last one year or so, these militias have had a relatively low profile notably after the killing of the leaders of the Amhara region including its president in June 2019. The last important occasion of public uproar and apprehension about their activities was connected with the attack on Tigrayans in Gondar in early 2018 and the closure of the road from Amhara to Tigray ever since. Hence their mobilization for the latest war in early November 2020 produced little interest in the public mind. 

Many also assumed the federal government’s main purpose in this war was to destroy regional autonomous political power and restore a façade of military supremacy, different from what was claimed as ensuring a semblance of law and order. As a result, there were parallel surmises running in the minds of  that the conflict being essentially ideological, it would follow the famous aphorism of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that war is the continuation of politics by other means. In mid-November 2020 Ethiopians would discover, as the world did in the Darfur conflict, what we might describe as a corollary to revenge attacks and atrocities on civilians is a continuation of war by other (but distressingly criminal) means. This experience confirmed a reality that is new to Ethiopia: armed vigilantes organized by authorities in the neighboring Amhara region assaulted unarmed people in deserted war zones and carefully avoided conflict with Tigrayan fighting forces. 

The carnage and wanton destruction by marauding militias and shadowy groups produced a level of violence against civilians unparalleled in modern Ethiopian history. It is also the first war in Ethiopia that involves all kinds of weapons from drones on the one end to machetes on the other, and everything in between: modern armaments, air power, rocket launchers and hundreds of thousands with the Ak 47. As a consequence, understanding the actual nature and specific role of these groups has become more pivotal than ever.

Who are these shadowy groups?

In Ethiopia’s regional states there are militias tasked with peace and security in their respective regions. But in this particular case Amhara militias are deployed outside of their region in the Tigray conflict. Before that, the responsibility to deal across regions have been given to the federal government only. There is also the regional special (Liyu) police, a sort of paramilitary wing trained for specific security missions. Again its responsibility, at least formally, has been to look after the security of the Amhara region but now finds itself inside Tigray. Then, there is the most mysterious youth armed band composed mainly of vigilante groups calling themselves by such names as  Fano believed to be responsible for most of the killings in Western Tigray and the influx of refugees into Sudan and interior Tigray. 

This doesn’t mean all these groups are short of political agenda. They have territorial interests to achieve. Besides, some of them are sponsored by individual business-criminal networks, a largely under researched phenomenon.

They are, in fact, paramilitary organizations that functioned as armed auxiliaries of the Amhara regional ruling party. And yet it is far from clear whether the resulting series of militias, controlled by different interests with different aims, will be up to the task of taking on the full power of Tigrayan forces and maintaining a solid grip on occupied territories. One explanation for this seems to be that, while the defeat of Tigray may not be imminent, Amhara militias have been reassured by the knowledge that neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea is likely to allow the recently occupied areas to fall back to Tigrayan forces. But there is another explanation as well. With the Abiy government floundering and the Ethiopian army in disarray, the Eritrean leadership and military, which is involved in looting at an industrial scale, has reasserted itself as the pan Ethiopianist camp’s guardians, providing military, moral and, increasingly, political guidance. This magnifies the broader regional contours of the Tigray conflict. 

Challenges Ahead

But the mere fact that militias and armies from neighboring regions and countries invade another Ethiopian region with the tacit approval and support of the federal government and yet maintain a level of autonomy to do what they want to do is at least an abdication of power on the part of Prime Minister Abiy. Clearly, there may be some kind of short term agenda why the Federal government allowed this. Whatever the reasons, this is nothing short of embracing the progressive Janjaweedization of Ethiopian politics. Little wonder that people who longed for a quick end to the continued violence find themselves fearing, irrespective of who wins the war, the country might not return to normal politics. 

In the short term this will also pose a major challenge to Prime Minister Abiy’s power grip. Having let the gene out of the bottle Abiy will definitely find it difficult to enforce federal laws unless he gives huge concessions to the sponsors of the shadowy Amhara groups. After all, an unhindered role of shadowy groups in war zones is often a strong predictor of low state capacity, irrespective of whether or not states appear to be “outsourcing” violence.

This is reminiscent of the Darfur conflict in which the Janjaweed militia led by Musa Hilal and later Hemetti effectively used by Khartoum to crush Darfurian African tribes that have become so emboldened to challenge the government. Musa Hilal failed but Hemmetti succeeded. It was quite natural that having sided with the central government to exterminate local communities Arab militias would demand a pay back in both political and financial terms. Similar game is playing out in the axis between Prime Minister Abiy and politicians from the Amhara region. The similarity with Darfur is perplexing except that the shadowy Amhara groups roaming Tigray do not have a single recognizable leader like Musa Hilal or Hemetti fully in control of what is happening on the ground in Tigray. Rather what is happening is that the totality of the Amhara elite in Addis, many of whom empowered by Abiy himself for his eventual confrontation with Tigray and control power agencies such as the national intelligence, are seeking concessions sometimes through veiled threats. 

Will Abiy Ahmed be able to deal with them like he did with the Oromo opposition? Not very likely partly because they are already embedded in key government positions. Could he try to use Eritrean support the same way he did against Oromo opposition and the war in Tigray? Not easy, as President Isayas of Eritrea also wants to co-opt the Amhara elite to keep Abiy on the leash. He already has close links with Amhara region officials and his intelligence and military agents are already rooted in Bahir Dar, capital of Amhara region, as advisors and war leaders mainly against Tigray but also as a broader strategy of expanding Eritrea’s security file in Ethiopia . 

Although we should describe power struggle in national contexts, we might also explore transnational themes such as the role of Gulf countries and neighbors, notably the invited hand of the Eritrean president Isayas Afeworki. What is most striking about the slogan of the federal government that the war is an internal matter was that Abiy’s claim to be pursuing a law enforcement operation in the interests of Ethiopian security flew in the face of his overdependence on foreign combatants and armory to fight the war.

No doubt Isayas did not have the power to come out of political and diplomatic destitution until Abiy himself allowed him to enter Ethiopia’s military politics. That was in mid-2018. Now it is a different game as Abiy himself has become overdependent on the Eritrean army in the war on Tigray, not to mention the increasing infiltration of the national intelligence services by Eritrean officers with the approval of Abiy himself. Moreover, having invested a lot on Amhara politicians partly based on a common position against the TPLF, it is clear that they both will try to fend off their hawkish position against any sign of Abiy surrendering to international pressure to end the war. The larger point is that President Isayas of Eritrea has been allowed to meddle in Ethiopian military politics and he will try to use as many political choke points as possible to be able to play one actor against another. In this regard, Bahir Dar and Addis are like two sides of the same coin: they can be used at once but also interchangeably.

In such a situation Abiy Ahmed will have a narrow window of opportunity unless he moves back to the Oromo constituency which he has lost a year ago. He is not even sure what the Amhara elite are  up to i.e. the extent of their demands or pay back to be able to work out for mutual coexistence. In view is a potential bargain that would facilitate the inclusion of their demands, which negates the current federal arrangement, in official government policy documents—provided, of course, that they continue to project “independent military posture.” The question is, will he? This is the more so difficult because Abiy is deeply passionate about his personal rule. It is very unlikely that he will settle to a much constrained power. 

The point to focus is that the war in Tigray irrespective of its final outcome will have significant short term repercussions on the already volatile power politics in Addis, and the same applies to the potential role of Eritrea in swaying the direction of the contest. 

Abiy has willfully summoned a foreign power into Ethiopia’s internal affairs and he can’t be sure to keep all the cards close to his chest. This will not only complicate the search for peace but also the very power base of the prime minister himself. Arguably, Abiy invited all sorts of external players in a bid to isolate and squeeze Tigray but in the end he seems to have found himself isolated and squeezed. Hence, the argument developed in this piece is that beyond the inventory of different actors involved in the Tigray war and its blowback effect on national politics grappling with the looming ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia requires some level of deep understanding of the genre of shadowy armed militias. Not surprisingly neither the course of their engagement in the war, nor their modus operandi or even their future plans to occupy lands they claim as theirs in almost all parts of the country, notably Benishangul Gumuz and Oromia regions, has served to improve the state of peace and stability at the Center.

To the extent that there is a connection with Asmara, the inability of the Prime Minister to single-handedly deal with the issue meant the fundamentals of national sovereignty and the availability of the most needed Ethiopian agency for peace and stability cannot be guaranteed. And as far as Eritrea is concerned this process perfectly fits  its agenda of fracturing the country into weak and disparate constituencies prone to external patronage. 

Understanding the different actors, their interests and incentives is important if the international community is to come out of its paralysis in dealing with the humanitarian crisis or even a resolution to the conflict. Whatever the limitations the West managed to maintain some level of normative actorness by voicing protests to what is happening to  civilians in Tigray. On the contrary, one would like to add a note, the African Union is a bust. Its latest statements are nothing short of endorsing the slaughter and starvation of a whole population in its doorways by a coalition of governments. It affirms that the romanticized view about the conversion from the OAU to the AU has indeed been anchored on a commitment to new values, norms and principles is totally wrong. The Tigray conflict has sealed the fate of the AU; after all there has never been a transition of doctrine from non-interference to non-difference. Merging drones and machetes, the war in Tigray may also be a preview on the future of wars in Africa.

As pointed earlier, the nature of relations between the federal government and the Amhara militias in the war in Tigray resembles that of Darfur ten to fifteen years ago. The combined forces of the Ethiopian government and Eritrean regime and the Amhara militias  have been responsible for the death of a large number of people and the displacement of well over one million both internally and externally. This partly explains why South and West Tigray bordering Amhara region have suffered a series of afflictions since the war broke out. The same supremacist agendas and territorial expansionism are at play. But the level of brutality and scale of violence against women and children as well as the specific religious tone attached to the expeditions is akin to the tactics used by Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army/LRA/. Though both the people of Tigray and Amhara are predominantly followers of Orthodox Christianity there are indications of Amhara supremacy compounded by the Orthodox Church in both narratives and the prominent role played by young church leaders within the militia groups involved in the war against Tigray. 

Unlike the LRA, however, rejectionist agendas do not predominate the shadowy Amhara militias. In so far as territorial ambitions and a return to the pre-1991 Ethiopia status quo can be considered as legitimate issues, Amhara armed groups do not suffer from a lack of a coherent agenda. Thus beyond tactics of war, which makes the shadowy Amhara militias as modern day contemporaries of the LRA, the clear politico-military scheme makes them more similar to the Janjaweed of Darfur. Whether the Amhara elite will be able to conceive its own Mussa Hilal or Dagalo will be seen sooner than later. In the meantime, we may expect an escalation of warfare and the proliferation of proxy wars.

Dade Desta is a journalist and political analyst with a focus on the Horn of Africa region.

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