A foiled coup in the Ethiopian state
of Amhara that left five senior officials dead, including the army’s chief of
staff, has thrust ethnic militias in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies
into the spotlight.
The two attacks on Saturday night
were led by Amhara’s head of state security General Asamnew Tsige, who had been
openly recruiting fighters for ethnic militias in a state that has become a
flashpoint for violence.
Militias formed by ethnic groups are
proliferating across Ethiopia, threatening sweeping political and economic
reforms that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed kickstarted after he took power in the
Horn of Africa country in April 2018.
Ethiopia’s 100 million citizens come
from dozens of ethnic groups with competing claims to land, resources and
The country’s federal government
based in the capital Addis Ababa oversees nine ethnic-based regional states,
which have autonomy over their revenues and security forces.
The governing EPRDF coalition that
seized power in 1991 was dominated by the minority Tigrayans, who make up about
6% of the population. The government kept a lid on bubbling tensions for
decades by quashing virtually all dissent, including expressions of ethnic
But in 2018, Abiy’s predecessor
resigned after three years of widespread anti-government protests. Abiy was
selected by the EPRDF as its leader and his government prosecuted security
officials accused of past abuses, lifted bans on some separatist groups and
released thousands of political prisoners.
Local leaders are now taking
advantage of the new freedoms to build ethnic power bases. Groups that felt
excluded in a system once dominated by Tigrayans are flexing their muscles.
Some Tigrayans and other regional
power brokers also feel victimized by Abiy’s personnel changes, especially his
shake-up of the military and intelligence services.
Since Abiy embarked on his ambitious
reforms, old state border disputes have reignited. Large ethnic groups that
dominate in many regions are demanding more territory and resources. At the
same time, smaller groups, tired of being sidelined, are pushing back.
While Ethiopia’s constitution
guarantees all ethnic groups the right to a referendum on self-determination,
the government has long forbidden such votes. The southern Sidama people, for
example, are now demanding one.
The latest round of violence began
in Oromia, Abiy’s home region and the hotbed of the protests that propelled him
to power. A surge in killings there last year forced mass displacements of
Violence in other regions followed,
including in Amhara which has border disputes with two of its neighbors. Many
in the Tigray region are also now hostile to the federal government.
New York-based Human Rights Watch
has reported ethnic killings in the Harari and Somali regions of Ethiopia too.
Ethnic militias are committing
vigilante violence, killing local government officials, burning homes and
raping women, according to Addis-based officials, diplomats and aid workers.
Such attacks have driven some 2.4
million Ethiopians from their homes, the United Nations says.
In one of the worst recent attacks,
about 200 people were killed in tit-for-tat violence in May in the
Benishangul-Gumuz region near the border with Sudan.
Displaced people in southern
Ethiopia told Reuters they had fled Oromo youth armed with knives and firearms.
The family of a coffee farmer said a mob chopped his limbs off before hanging
his body from a tree.
Ethnic killings have also been
reported on university campuses in Tigray and Amhara as students turned on
students, university administrators say.