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GreyDynamics.com: Exploring Ethiopia’s Deadly Armed Factions

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Monday, 11 March 2024

 

1.0 Introduction 

Ethiopia is a nation steeped in cultural richness with more than 80 ethnic groups. Currently, the government is grappling with a turbulent landscape marked by the presence of various armed group factions in Ethiopia representing various Ethnic grievances. These factions, motivated by diverse ideologies and regional grievances, shape the country’s political dynamics and security environment. The history of the “divide-and-conquer” strategy to control armed groups deployed by the late President Meles Zenawi backfired in recent years, leading to civil war and instability [Source].

The road to Ethiopia as a federal state was led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which dominated a coalition of the ethnic-nationalist parties. Zenawi’s government created nine ethnic-based regional states and two federally administered city-states resulting in an asymmetric divide as regional states such as Oromia and Amhara have larger populations compared to others such as Gambella and Somali. This divide has “promoted ethnic self-awareness” and has been unsuccessful in helping address the grievances of the regions [Source]. As of 2007, the nine regional states also had permission to deploy their regional special forces [Source].

1.1 Abiy Reforms and Ethiopia’s Factions

Abiy reformed the previous Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) into the Prosperity Party promising to move away from ethnic division in the political scene. Recent activity of the armed groups in Ethiopia came after the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his reformed Prosperity Party. The recent civil war in Tigray led the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) to collaborate with regional armed groups. The involvement of Amhara-led militias in the Tigray conflict has been a controversial issue, with accusations of ethnic cleansing against the Tigrayan Defense Forces.

The partnership between Abiy’s government and the Amhara militias has also raised concerns among the Oromo people, who historically found themselves marginalised in Ethiopian politics [Source]. The Oromo make up the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and their political and economic exclusion has been a source of tension for years. Parallel to the Tigray conflict, Oromo-led activists and political groups such as the OLA, OLF, and Qeerroo have been fighting for more representation within the government. The precarious security situation made it difficult for the federal government to fight the war in Tigray as various ethnic and political groups were vying for power and influence [Source].

2.0 Overview of Armed Factions in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s armed group factions encompass a spectrum of movements, each with distinct objectives and modus operandi. Below are some of the prominent factions which have recently been actively operating within the country:

actively operating within the country:

Oromo Liberation Front- Oromo Liberation Army (OLF-OLA) also known as OLF-Shene

  • Founded: 1973
  • Key Figures: Dawud Ibsa Ayana (Chairman) Kumsa Diriba aka Jaal Marroo (Commander in Chief) 
  • Area of Operation: Oromia Region 

Tigray Defense Forces (TDF)/ Tigray Armed Forces(TAF)

  • Founded: November 2020
  • Key Figures: General Tadese Werede (Head of TDF)
  • Area of Operation: Tigray Region, Amhara Region

Amhara Special Forces (ASF) 

  • Founded: established in 2007 and dissolved April in 2023
  • Key Figures: Brigadier General Tefera
  • Area of Operation: Amhara Region, Tigray Region

Fano 

  • Founded: 2016
  • Key Figures: Zemene Kase
  • Area of Operation: Tigray Region, Amhara Region

3.0 Missions of Armed Groups and Factions in Ethiopia

3.1 Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) 

The OLF strives for the rights and autonomy of the Oromo people. Their political agenda advocates for self-determination and cultural preservation. Their armed wing is the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), representing the aspirations of the Oromo people, articulating a clear mission centred around the principles of self-determination, economic sovereignty, and socio-cultural recognition [Source].

3.1.1 Mission

The OLF list three key priorities for their struggle:

  • Political Determination: The OLA fights for the Oromo people’s right to determine their political destiny. They advocate for the establishment of a responsive government through freely elected representatives [Source].
  • Economic Sovereignty:  To safeguard the economic sovereignty of the Oromo people, the OLA opposes the exploitation of natural and human resources, aiming to use these resources for the collective benefit of all. This priority reflects the historical marginalisation of the Oromo in Ethiopia [Source].
  • Socio-Cultural Rights:  Recognizing the importance of preserving the Oromo language, culture, and history, the OLA demands respect for and full recognition of these socio-cultural aspects [Source].

  3.1.2 Armed Group Tactics

Many armed factions in Ethiopia, including the OLF and the ONLF, use guerrilla tactics, employing hit-and-run attacks to disrupt government operations and control territory. Due to government drone strikes, OLA fighters engage in ambushes when attacking. For instance, on 23 January OLA militants ambushed a government-affiliated militia after ENDF forces left the area [Source]. The OLA employs a mix of political activism and armed resistance to advance its mission:

OLA forces launched a counter-offensive on Hambiso town freeing over 100 political prisoners and captured of over 160 AKM rifles.

Viewing armed struggle as the only viable means to achieve liberation from oppression and rebuild Oromo identity, the OLA has committed itself to this path. However, it emphasises in official messages in press releases that armed conflict is not its preferred choice but a response to the tyranny imposed by the Ethiopian government.

3.1.2.1 Peacemaking 

Despite its commitment to armed resistance, the OLA often expresses a desire for peace and emphasises the importance of negotiation and dialogue in resolving conflicts between Ethiopia Factions. It seeks a negotiated settlement that addresses the grievances of the Oromo people and honours their sacrifices. For instance, in early 2023 they released a statement expressing a “commitment to engaging in constructive dialogue and working towards a peaceful resolution that addresses the grievances and aspirations of the Oromo people.” The Ethiopian government and OLA have engaged in multiple rounds of peace talks, though they have not secured an agreement as of early 2024 [Source; Source].

3.1.3 Activities and Impact

The OLA’s engagement with the Ethiopian government has been marked by a complex interplay of agreements, confrontations, and betrayals. Despite attempts at peace agreements, the government’s reluctance to implement key provisions has led to renewed hostilities. The OLA raises concerns about the Ethiopian government’s disregard for human rights and its systematic repression of the Oromo people. It highlights instances of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and forced displacement, calling for international intervention to address these atrocities. The OLA asserts that the Ethiopian government’s actions amount to crimes against humanity, including genocide, and calls for accountability and justice. It demands the release of political prisoners, respect for cultural rights, and an end to economic exploitation and political marginalisation [Source]. The OLA has also massacred ethnic Amharas living in the Oromia region [Source].

3.2 Tigray Defense Forces (TDF)

Tigray Defense Force fighters and Tigray flags at a march.

The Tigray Defense Forces are a militia group supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front since November 2020. They are also referred to as the Tigray Armed Forces. The TDF claims to protect Tigrayans from genocidal actors throughout the war on Tigray [Source]. However, they have been accused of disregarding international humanitarian law and committing war crimes. These include rapes, killings and lootings in the Amhara region from July 2021 onwards according to an Amnesty International Report published in February 2022 [Source].

3.2.1 Mission 

Regional Peace and Security: The Ethiopian constitution allows for regional states’ special forces to protect their respective regions. The TDF was formed from the Tigray Special Forces which were constitutionally entrusted to maintain peace within the region [Source].

3.2.2 Armed tactics

The TDF has used guerilla tactics and employed hit-and-run tactics to defend its territory. These tactics are used particularly after conventional defeat at the hands of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces [Source]. Along with the TPLF, and under their command the TDF, were aided through political manoeuvring through the diaspora and various actors in the region. 

3.2.3 Political Manoeuvring and Recruitment

Groups like the TPLF engage in political manoeuvring, leveraging regional alliances and international support to advance their agendas and garner legitimacy. The TDF forces were aided by doctors, professors, and other professionals who believed they had to join the fight. The TDF was also accused of forced recruitment by arresting family members and forcing Tigrayan youth to join the fight [Source].

3.2.6 Activities and impact

The TDF forces have been highly active since the start of the civil war in Tigray. Despite initial setbacks and losses of heavy machinery, the TDF drove out Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), and Amhara special forces and militia from parts of Tigray, reclaiming territories annexed by Amhara expansionists. The TDF continued its offensive beyond Tigray’s borders, pushing ENDF and Amhara militia further into the Amhara and Afar regions. Despite a declared unilateral ceasefire by the Ethiopian government, the TDF recognized it as a strategic manoeuvre to buy time for another offensive and continued its military operations [Source]. This Ethiopia Faction, the TDF, has been implicated in the deaths of over a hundred civilians amid intense clashes. Authorities from the region disclosed that the slaughter occurred in a village situated approximately 6 miles (10km) away from Dabat town around one week ago [Source].

General Tadese Werede speaks on the peace deal.

3.3 Amhara Special Forces (ASF)

The mission of the Amhara Regional Special Forces is to conduct counter-insurgency operations within the Amhara region. They serve under the authority of the Amhara regional government. The exact size of the special forces remains undisclosed. The ASF are led by Deputy Commissioner Biset Getahun, as reported by the Amhara Media Corporation on April 29, 2021. Presently, the special forces are actively engaged in both the Amhara and Tigray regions. They play a crucial role in maintaining security, particularly in the Western Tigray area.

The primary mission of the Amhara regional state special forces is on addressing armed conflicts with various groups. These include Qemant militias, Oromo militias, and factions associated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), both within the Amhara and Tigray regions. Additionally, clashes have occurred between the regional forces and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) at the Ethiopia-Sudan border [Source]. The Amhara Special Forces were dissolved in April 2023 following the Central Government’s decision to integrate regional special forces into the federal government.  During the dissolution, multiple Amhara forces joined the Fano in protest [Source].

3.3.1 Tactics employed by armed groups

As the Amhara Special Forces are a branch of the ENDF they follow federal government orders. They also do not necessarily have an organised political agenda in the manner of other armed factions. 

3.3.2 Activities and Impact

The ASF played a crucial role in Tigray war as they joined forces with the ENDF and Fano militia. The impact of their collaboration was massive. They provided support on the ground in the western and southern parts of Tigray. The Amhara Special Forces brought a level of expertise as they had regional knowledge that was essential in the conflict. Their involvement enabled the ENDF to gain an upper hand over the TPLF forces, and allowed them to regain control. The Amhara Special Forces proved to be an instrumental force in the Tigray War. Their contribution was pivotal to the government’s victories during the conflict [Source].

3.4 Fano

“Fano” youth perceive themselves as guardians of Amhara society and its territorial integrity. They are deeply committed to preserving the cultural heritage and interests of the Amhara people. The fano militias emerged during the mass protests from 2016-2018 against the former leadership under the EPRDF. The Fano was initially loosely organized and mostly saturated by the youth. Most of the early Fano leaders were imprisoned and later released under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rule in 2018. In a report from the African Report, local lawmaker stated that “The Amhara feel the government is out to destroy in their culture”. This sentiment comes from the mass killings of Amhara region as well as land disputed along the Tigray-Amhara border [Source]. Rooted in ethno-nationalist sentiments, their mission revolves around defending the Amhara ethnic homeland from perceived threats and advancing the cause of Amhara nationalism. [Source]

3.4.1 Armed group Tactics 

Fano has forged close ties with the Amhara Regional Special Forces, aligning their efforts with those of the regional government. They are deeply engaged in conflicts against TPLF-associated forces in Western Tigray. They conduct operations against militants linked to the Kemant Democratic Party in areas like Chilga. This alignment underscores their dedication to furthering Amhara regional ethno-nationalist aspirations. In interviews, Fano youth assert their role as “protectors of Ethiopia”. They promote the idea that Amhara nationalism is inherently intertwined with Ethiopian nationalism. This rhetoric contrasts with movements like the Qeerroo in Oromia. The Qeerroo primarily advocate for the interests of the Oromo ethnic group [Source].

3.4.2 Activities and Impact

Fano’s activities span from non-violent advocacy to direct engagement in conflicts. They have been actively involved in protests, particularly focusing on issues such as Western Tigray and the rights of ethnic Amhara residing there. Additionally, Fano has participated in violent confrontations across the state, aiming to neutralise perceived threats to Amhara interests. Some Fano youth acknowledge Solomon Atanaw as a leader within their movement. At the same time, the organisational structure and leadership hierarchy of Fano remain somewhat ambiguous. Overall, Fano youth play a significant role in shaping the socio-political landscape of Ethiopia. Driven by their staunch commitment to defending Amhara interests and advancing ethno-nationalist ideals [Source].

4.0 Future Trajectories

Armed group factions in Ethiopia represent a complex web of grievances, aspirations, and power struggles. This intertwined situation contributes to the country’s volatile security landscape. Understanding the missions, tactics, and activities of these groups is essential. Policymakers, analysts, and humanitarian actors seek to address the root causes of conflict and promote peace and stability in the region.

Following the recent dissolution of the Regional Special Forces, the regional armed factions have gained members fortifying opposition against the Federal Government. These armed factions will likely continue to pose a threat to the central government moving forward as different regional skirmishes break out. 


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