Africa Defense Forum
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Fano Attacks Threaten Return to War in Ethiopia


Ethiopia’s historic city of Gondar was the scene of a fresh round of fighting between an ethnic Amhara militia and government forces. The battle near a world heritage site threatens to plunge Ethiopia back into conflict less than a year after a peace agreement was signed to end the war in Tigray.

“Fears of another war that could match or even eclipse what happened in Tigray are not misplaced if a solution is not found,” Yohannes Gedamu, a political scientist and author of a book about Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, wrote in an essay for The Conversation. “The impact of another civil war in the Horn of Africa, at the same time as Sudan’s, would be catastrophic.”

According to BBC Amharic, the latest fighting occurred when members of Fano, an Amhara militia whose name translates to “volunteer fighters,” attacked two police stations and freed prisoners on September 24. A resident reported heavy gunfire in several parts of the city and civilian casualties. The government claimed that it killed at least 50 Fano fighters.

Members of the Fano said the attack was a show of their strength.

“We launched an attack to show that we can enter the city of Gondar at any time we want and to free hundreds of our detained members,” Tewodros, a public relations officer for the Fano group, told BBC Amharic.

The fighting is rooted in the end of the Tigray war. Amhara militias fought alongside government forces during the war but were not allowed to participate in the peace talks. Fano members were accused of some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, and, toward the end of the war, federal forces began arresting them. The peace deal angered many Amharas who said that it didn’t resolve the question of contested land known as Western Tigray, which they believe should rightfully be theirs.

After the deal, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced plans to disband militia groups, including the Amhara special forces, which are aligned with the state government. Ex-fighters would be integrated into the military or police under the plan.

But the Fano rejected the move, and an estimated 50% of Amhara special forces members joined them. Fighting continued throughout the summer and, in August, with the Fano in control of the regional capital Bahir Dar and other towns, Abiy declared a six-month state of emergency.

The unrest takes place against a backdrop of rising Amhara nationalist sentiment with many in the ethnic group feeling that they are being targeted for violence.

“The Amharas believe that the existing constitution and ethnic-based territorial arrangement disregards their interest and safety,” wrote Adane Tadesse, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Addis Ababa University, in an essay for the Wilson Center. “Amhara nationalists underscore that the narrations embedded in the country’s current constitution expose the Amharas to ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide.’”

Analysts say the prospects for peace are complicated by public support for the Fano and the fact that the group lacks a clear leadership hierarchy that can negotiate peace.

Since the declaration of the state of emergency, the federal government has regained control of some towns, but observers fear that fighting will persist.

“The government insists life has returned to normal in Amhara, yet fighting continues in rural areas,” the Africa Report wrote on September 26. “Most analysts predict the conflict will develop into a deeply entrenched, low-intensity insurgency that will turn huge [swathes] of this vast, economically vital region into lawless no-go zones for officials.”

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