A backfired Pretoria Agreement Has Left a Backdoor Attack on Amhara civilians

By Dejazmatch Tin-Tag

For the past several years multi-regional ethnic conflicts throughout Ethiopia have been widespread in areas deemed inaccessible, and not on the beaten path. To a certain extent allowed the crisis to remain hidden under the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) a majority TPLF (Tigray Peoples Liberation Front) party. The EPRDF administration first introduced Ethnic Federalism to the country in the early 90s when they first rose to power. Since then, a people who had once seen themselves as a nation with all the complexities of any African nation were conditioned to adopt a different ideology and governance system that endorsed regional states to operate as autonomous nations and exercise the right to secede using article 39 of the constitution as they will. The results have led to extreme polarization, disputes over land and territories, and ethnic-based armed conflicts. This transition involved the further rezoning of regional states, which had begun in the late 80s by the DERG who first divided the 14 provinces into 25 regional states and 5 autonomous states at the close of their reign. The EPRDF continued to make unilateral administrative decisions that gave rise to conflicts about land rights, land grabbing, and the mismanagement of resources including raw commodities to benefit their ethnic party and co-conspirators which led to the end of their rule.


Now the Prosperity Party a predominantly Oromo ethnic party, which is an extension of the Oromo Liberation Front OLF, and an offspring of the EPRDF under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had initially claimed to promote cultural cohesion. When he first came into office, he assured the people he would steer the nation towards a more peaceful state eradicating ethnic divisions, but instead a preoccupation with power and continued contradicting speech, arresting members of parliament, terrorizing citizens, and dropping heavy arms on innocent citizens for the past five plus years has brought the country to a boiling point not seen in this lifetime or recorded ever in Ethiopian history. His thirst for bloodshed using the ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Force) and other militant actors as his personal joystick has turned many territories throughout the country into mass grave sites committing similar and some would argue much worse human rights atrocities and war crimes then his predecessor, TPLF.


Initially, the advantage of adopting full autonomy seems an attractive option to remedy concerns often voiced by marginalized ethnic groups, but a bait-and-switch tactic left many of these regional states to relinquish control of their resources to Federal Government agents who were dispatched from the majority ethnic party of the day. This coupled with an unprecedented level of corruption, and resource exploitation left the local inhabitants of some regional states the target of ethnic cleansing and in a major economic deficit, which they have not been able to recover from. In addition, these ruling ethnic parties accrue debt in the billions in the name of the Ethiopian citizens for much-needed resources but dispense it to their regional state to their party members leaving many other areas underdeveloped and neglected. The monopoly of resources has been a point of contention for the members of many regional states across the board.


These unchecked disputes in pockets throughout the country have culminated and imploded giving rise to a resistance and uprising for the right to survival by said inhabitants. Today the main target is the Amhara civilians in their regional state, Addis Abeba, and other states throughout the country by the Federal Government of Ethiopia, Prosperity Party who has asserted their plans to take over Amhara state territories and other assets owned by Amhara’s. Ethnic federalism makes for easy preparation, classification, and persecution with the use of the ethnic ID card issued for all citizens. Their goal to annihilate the Amhara people has been met with great resistance by Fano.


The war crimes leading up to the current conflict against the civilian population in the Amhara region have multiple actors, which include the ENDF, Oneg/OLF Shene, and AGEW Shengo an actor groomed by the Tigray Defense Force (TDF militia). These atrocities have been mostly overlooked by international human rights agencies and media outlets either because of ignorance or because they can’t see their ethnic ID card with the use of GIS imaging. The Federal Government deflects ownership of attacks and claims that ONEG/OLF-Shene are the actors behind the Amhara ethnic cleansing in the Oromo, and Benishangul Gumuz regional states and bordering regions and affirms that they are operating on their own accord. However, it’s no secret that ONEG Shene is an extension of the OLF party that takes orders from the Oromo President. The ongoing violence has caused many Amhara’s to flee from ethnic-based war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, which has forced their migration to abandon their assets and reside in IDP camps (Internally Displaced Persons) throughout the Amhara region.


Classified by international agencies as “civil unrest” the status of many of the Ethiopian regional states in past years has been under the watchful eye of human rights organizations, but only in the past 6 years has escalated and commanded the attention of some international agencies and news outlets. However, the ongoing biased reporting in mainstream media has left many Ethiopian diaspora to question the overall sentiments, and collectively protest in many cities across the world. The reports by the local Ethiopian Human Rights Council reported the frequency of violence against civilians expressing concern and alarm; pleading for an international body of investigators to be granted access. The need for further investigation and reporting requires access to be given to agents from the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, the Federal Government has denied access to these agents. This has left them to conduct “remote” investigations leaving the ICC to conclude that evidence of war crimes and ethnic cleansing taking place in the Amhara region is inconclusive. Unfortunately, the international community has ascertained that the only body of legitimate agents eligible to investigate and prosecute genocide and other war crimes against humanity are the ICC investigators. This leaves a loophole for war criminals to remain operational.


The attack on the Amhara civilians in the region has left millions to cope with the effects of the 6-month State of Emergency (SoE) issued by P.M. Abiy Ahmed in mid-August, which enforces a curfew and disruption of communication services. Currently, there is no Internet in the Amhara region. The growing inflation throughout the country and conflict in multiple cities in Amhara have restricted movement and forced many to abandon their businesses, commerce, farming, and transportation services, leaving many unable to work. Food prices have sky-rocketed, and many are struggling with inflation and breakdown in the supply chain. The SoE is said to have been issued to diss-arm Fano, who recently served as an ally to P.M. Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopian National Defense Force when they responded to the TPLF attack on the Northern Command Post in November 2020.


The Ethiopian National Defense Force under the command of Field Marshall Birhanu Jula has carried out full-on attacks using war apparatus fashioned for foreign intruders like war jets and drones dropping bombs, which have killed women, children, the elderly, and any civilians in their path. The Federal forces claim that they are searching for Fano specifically. These multi-layered attacks throughout the Amhara region have left civilians, especially women and children vulnerable to heinous human rights atrocities and war crimes. There are multiple reports about women who were gang rapped by members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force. The devastation has left many communities quarantined and unable to access schools, hospitals, and banks, and restricting their daily movement for fear of being attacked. The prevalence of extra-judicial killings and other human rights atrocities has been widespread and affecting millions of families.


Attacks on Monasteries, Mosques, Businesses, and IDP camps have also been reported. The most recent report included Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the surrounding community, which suffered the effects of heavy artillery impacting one of the rock-hewn churches. A nearby shop owner explained that the people were living in great fear and tension due to the heavy presence of the Ethiopian National Defense Force who were arbitrarily beating, arresting, and robbing residents.


The Moseb Times conducted a Q&A interview with long-time senior human rights investigator, researcher, and attorney Yared Hailemariam who is currently in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to get a more in-depth understanding of the situation on the ground. Hailemariam has worked for one of the oldest human rights organizations, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, and has been involved in monitoring and documentation of human rights cases in Ethiopia since 2005. The views and opinions expressed in this Q&A article are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities he represents.


MT: What can you tell us about the situation?

YH: Since the first week the State of Emergency was issued, and the conflict began roads have been closed in Addis Ababa, and roads leading to the Amhara region. Random searches have been conducted during the day and night. Approximately 4,000 people had been profiled, apprehended, and arrested including those members of parliament, and some high-profile political figures in the initial weeks of mid-August. Among those disproportionately targeted are Amhara youth. The ethnic IDs make it easy to target a person by their ethnicity. This is like what happened with the Tigray population who were similarly apprehended in Addis Ababa and detained in military camps in Afar. If there is a war in a particular region of the country this leads to mass arrests of Addis Ababa residents of that ethnicity. Now the new conflict is in the Amhara region. Just to give you an example a colleague of mine who is a woman was asked to get out of her vehicle and was randomly searched by a soldier she asked the soldier if any female soldiers were available to search, and he insulted her and told her to shut her mouth and threatened to hit her.


MT: With the Tigray conflict the Norther Command Center was attacked by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front TPLF, and that is what triggered it, which has been confirmed by the TPLF. What triggered the Amhara conflict?

YH: That is correct, the TPLF didn’t deny that they attacked the Northern Command Center. The Amhara conflict was triggered after the decision of the Federal Government to disarm all Fano’s and Amhara’s special forces. Each region has its special force like a militia and has paramilitary training. This disarmament is in large a provision of the Pretoria Peace Agreement that was made between the TPLF and the Ethiopia Government on November 2, 2022, in South Africa. One of the provisions stated that the TPLF should disarm its special forces and deliver all its weapons to the Ethiopian Federal Government. However, it is my interpretation that after signing the agreement behind closed doors TPLF probably negotiated a contingency plan with the Ethiopian Federal Government to put a requirement of disarming the Amhara militia and/or Fano before they disarm, because they consider them a major threat. TPLF is trying to delay the implementation of their disarmament arguing that if Fano maintains their army like structures TPLF may not implement the agreement. This new move from the Ethiopian Government to disarm the Amhara militia and/or Fano is likely to be a result of this backdoor agreement. When the Federal Government asked the Fano to disarm the answer was no, because they see TPLF as a major threat due to concrete reasons because of what they observed during the war in previous months. Despite their concerns, the Ethiopian Federal Government promised the international community that they would disarm the Amhara militia and/or Fano.


MT: Who did they make a promise to, and who are you referring to when you say the international community?

YH: The African Union, The European Union, and the U.S.


MT: Were there any Amhara representatives or politicians present during the negotiations in Pretoria back in November?

YH: No, this issue was raised during the negotiations early on. The two Federal Government delegates were non-Amhara. There was also a TPLF representative. I recall the Amhara community was raising this issue stating there should be someone to negotiate on behalf of the Amhara’s. However, the Ethiopian Federal Government stated that their representation should suffice because if they represent Ethiopia then the Amhara is also represented. This was their response.


MT: The Ethiopian Defense Force is thought to be comprised of mostly Oromo soldiers and based on Ethnic Federalism are legally restricted to their national state. Do you have any figures on how many soldiers are Oromo soldiers and have been deployed to the Amhara state?

YH: To be frank I don’t have any figures, but there are rumors about some of the key army high-ranking officials like the head of the Ethiopian Air Force and the Field Marshall who is head of the military, and these positions are given to Oromo military persons only. I also heard about a phone call leak from a well-known Amhara General Abebaw who confirms that most key positions in the military have been given to Oromo officials. It’s already an issue discussed by many politicians across the government.


MT: According to the Pretoria Peace agreement that was signed by FDRE and TPLF there is a detailed program of disarmament whereby TPLF agreed to relinquish its arms and special force military. Has TPLF turned its military arms over to the FDRE?

YH: No and there is no report explaining that the process has started. It’s not clear how many militias are in Tigray according to African Union representatives and negotiators. To the contrary of this agreement, we have heard that there is still a heavy military movement in Tigray. Also, there is a TPLF-led military training camp near the Amhara border. A big portion of this mission has not yet been completed as its stated under the peace agreement. TPLF has an active military force and movement. It’s unlikely that TPLF will allow this disarmament to happen because they always argue they have a threat to the north from Eritrea, and to the south from Amhara forces and don’t have a guarantee from the FDRE. For this reason, they are still with arms and maintaining a TPLF-led military force.


MT: Do you know what kebele or woreda that TPLF is still undergoing training?

YH: I don’t have the exact name of the places where TPLF is training, but the media is reporting there are still tensions in conflict areas like Welkait, which is part of Gondar (Begemedir), and Raya, which is part of Wollo and have been under the Amhara administration for several centuries. TPLF has attempted to make claims on these wards and all press statements made by TPLF after the Pretoria Peace agreement suggest that they intend to declare Welkait and Raya under the Tigray Administration, which it had been only during the TPLF rule between 1991-2018. Before that these regions were always a part of the Amhara region. The tension is still there, and the military movement is near these areas.


MT: Can you talk about some of the human rights data/findings for the Welkait, and Raya area?

YH: It’s well documented by several organizations and human rights groups that during the 27 years of the TPLF administration, there were racial profile atrocities against the indigenous Welkait because there was resistance from the indigenous people claiming they are a part of the Amhara ethnic group. Because of this the TPLF security people were torturing thousands of Welkait persons, and killed thousands upon thousands, and many human rights atrocities took place, thousands were forced to evict and leave the area and had to migrate to other parts of the Amhara region to escape torture and killings. At the same time, TPLF was relocating residents from other parts of Tigray to reside and start their life in Welkait and this could be a strategy by the TPLF because they expect this kind of resistance would come one day and so if the issue leads to a Federation, they would have manipulated the census-it’s all very complicated. All these crises arose since the first Day TPLF took power in 1991. As I said there are a lot of documented findings, but it needs further investigation and inquiry by independent parties to have a clear figure image of exact numbers and the entirety of what took place in Welkait. It was reported by the current government-run media during the conflict in Tigray that they discovered mass graves throughout Welkait, and several survivor testimonies from Welkait were broadcast.


MT: Which Tigray governor was it who was questioned about the Welkait dispute?

YH: It was Ras Mengesha who was governor of Tigray and clearly stated that Welkait had never been under the administration of Tigray. Even if he didn’t say anything there is countless administrative and historical evidence that Welkait has always been under Gondar (Begemidir). The dispute isn’t a historical claim, but it’s a very rich region for farming and other resources and it’s just purely about having ownership over the resources. The ownership of the land is just a coverup of the real agenda.


MT: The TPLF manifesto written over 40-plus years ago indicates that acquiring Welkait and Raya is part of the goal, correct?

YH: Even publicly they say Tigray needs its economic resources and so on, and the land like Welkait and Raya are fertile land and favorable for farming. In any conversation, they try to evade to the topic of land ownership, but they don’t have any historical support.


MT: It’s safe to assume that the TPLF/TDF forces weren’t willing to disarm as per the Pretoria agreement because of their plans to invade the Amhara region and take over land and resources again. This is also why the Amhara forces are not willing to disarm because of their need to defend their sovereignty and right to live.

YH: The Pretoria agreement was done in the middle of the conflict and the international community already blamed the national defense force, Amhara special forces, and Eritrean soldiers for all atrocities in Tigray.  Also, TPLF were blamed for atrocities in the Amhara and Afar region, without an in-depth investigation. When the agreement concluded it was signed–only TPLF and the federal government agreed to the list of provisions. They undermined the resistance that this peace agreement might face from the Amhara and Afar region. When they signed off on it, they did it without consulting all parties of the war. Now when it comes to implementation, they need the cooperation of all, but without inclusive dialogue expecting cooperation from this peace agreement is facing grave challenges and leading to another conflict. Perhaps the federal government and TPLF can have an agreement, but the Federal Government never called a meeting with all their allies to discuss key issues. Before the signing of the peace agreement, government-led media outlets referred to these parties as an allied force, which included the Amhara special force—Fano, Afar special forces, and the Eritrean military, which were all endorsed and called to the frontline by the Ethiopian Defense Force when the TPLF attacked the Northern Command Post. The so-called allies heard about the peace agreement in the news just like everybody else. The Ethiopian Federal Government just sent a delegation to Pretoria, S.A., and there were only two parties who signed the agreement.


MT: How does Oneg-Shene fit into this puzzle? What role do they play?

YH: Oneg-Shene doesn’t have much to do with the Northern conflict. Their movement is largely in Oromia.


MT: Is that a fact? Some reports suggest that they operate out of Kemise, Wollo.

YH: At some point, they attacked civilians in Gambela, in Benishangel Gumuz several times, and have attacked civilians in cities in Amhara—Shoa Robit, and Atayay several times. The city of Atayay has been attacked by the Oromo liberation army 9 times. After attacking a city or village they return to the Oromia region where their camps are. They are known to carry out ambushes, and short attacks based on their missions that take place in other regions/national states, and then return to their camps in the Oromia region.


MT: Who is commanding/deploying Oneg-Shene aka Oromo liberation army?

YH: That I don’t know, but what is clear is that they have clear leadership by a person who goes by the name Jal Maro, and just like any other armed rebel group they have their military structure. They are everywhere in the region.


MT: Based on the types of missions they carry out it doesn’t sound like they are only in the Oromo region. Why are they not a part of the conversation? If everyone needs to disarm, why are they not also being disarmed?

YH: Because of its geographical locations the Oromia region is a neighboring state to all regions except Tigray. This armed group is everywhere in the region so they can easily invade/capture a particular city or village and occupy it for two or three days. They can carry out their attack on citizens in many different regions and return home. That’s why they seem to be active in all regions but it’s due to the Oromia landscape, and so you can feel their presence everywhere. There are incidents in Afar, Gedo, Gambella, Benishengul Gumuz, and many parts of Amhara in Shoa and Wollo provinces where there are killings of civilians and closing of roads by the Oromia Liberation Army OLA.


MT: Regarding the recent and ongoing conflict in the Amhara region how does this war affect the civilians due to the internet being shut off, roads closed, banks not operating, many businesses closed, and people aren’t able to buy food?

YH: Civilians are severely affected, public roads are closed, and military road blockades to and from Addis Ababa have been installed by the Ethiopian Federal Government for over a year now and the reason offered to Parliament by Prime Minister Abiye was that the decision was due to security reasons. Some military roadblockades had also been installed by the Oromo Liberation Army and targeted civilians. In the first week of August, a bus with 62-65 Amhara civilian passengers was kidnapped and still nobody knows about their whereabouts. As the conflict began to intensify fighting between Amhara forces and the Ethiopian defense force public transportation was suspended, airports were seized, and so depending on the intensity of the fighting airports weren’t operational and days later might be operational in Bahar Dar, Gondar, Lalibela, Debre Markos, and Kombolcha. Their right to movement and their security is largely compromised. Schools were closed for several weeks of the conflict but have since opened and operate under a state of emergency. Thousands are facing mass arrest and extra-judicial killings have been prevalent in many rural parts of the Amhara region. Generally, the battles are taking place in more of the rural and mountainous areas, which has been a strategy of the Fano. Also, random road closures have been an ongoing thing restricting Amhara people’s permission to enter the capital and this continued during celebrations like Meskel, and New Year in September, which is a violation. High-profile politicians and journalists are detained in a military camp in Awash, Afar region. It was also reported that Chrisitan Tadele a high-profile politician who was imprisoned opted for a hunger strike.


MT: Are there any reports about hospitals offering service?

YH: As you can imagine in this kind of situation–Hospitals are going to focus on giving care to soldiers and people who have appointments are not likely to risk their lives in the middle of a battle to seek medical attention. It’s very difficult to travel from rural areas to larger cities for medical treatment because roads are closed and there are active conflicts in the town.


MT: With all that you’re describing here it sounds like this conflict is like the Tigray conflict that just ended less than a year ago. How is the nature of this conflict different?

YH: During the Tigray war all Amhara people including FANO, and special forces were aligned with the Ethiopian Defense Forces and were defending themselves against the TPLF forces. The TPLF forces were only able to capture some small cities including Lalibela, and Dessie. There was no resistance in Bahar Dar and now the whole Amhara region is under tension. The TDF forces carried out heavy conventional war, which included large artillery used in striking neighboring cities and started as an offensive. However, the current conflict in Amhara is more of a defense war, and the Fano have individual weapons and are defending themselves and trying to resist the Ethiopian National Defense Force and other actors.


MT: Has the Ethiopian National Defense Force used air strikes or drone jets?

YH: Yes, they have used drone jets on Finote Selam and other Amhara towns resulting in many civilian casualties.


MT: Are there any human rights organizations or UNHCR agents on the ground who can monitor and evaluate the conflict?

YH: No humanitarian groups have access only witnesses in each city will give you their testimonies about what they are experiencing and the kind of artilleries that are being used. The conflict in countries like Ethiopia doesn’t give access to investigative journalists. Journalists in Ukraine are recording from both sides they have video cameras, and journalists are allowed to report from the battlefield and then broadcast to an international audience. In Ethiopia forget about international journalists not even local media are allowed to report. Because of the nature of the government, they want to hide each and everything. Like during the Tigray war, there are narratives and records from both sides, but no independent reportage that shows how the war was going. It’s an easy way of escaping accountability. When the war ends the next issue is the post-conflict situation there’s always accountability.  If you allowed journalists, they would be made accountable based on their findings and documentation.  After all that crisis in the two years of war millions of civilians lost their lives and the two parties— TPLF and ENDF leaders just sat together and continued with their business as usual, as if nothing happened. No regret, no acknowledgment of the mistakes and then they just shook hands and TPLF officials received an award and certificate from the federal government…its funny, all these things are just to escape accountability. If they cheer each other on who is going to be accountable tomorrow. No one.


MT: What about the Ethiopian Human Rights Council? How are they able to conduct their reports?

YH: They have local agents in various locations that conduct investigations have different offices across the nation and don’t rely on any media reports. They recently released a report about the killings in Gondar and other cities throughout the Amhara region. Expressed their concerns that civilians have been severely affected by the conflict.


MT: Why it is difficult to obtain accurate news from the media coverage about what’s going on?

YH: Most of the media coverage from both sides is propaganda and they are fully appointed by the conflicting parties. As far as I know, there were no independent media reporting.


MT: So that’s why social media has become the only viable option.

YH: Yes, with all its flaws—hate speech, fake news, exaggeration, and all its challenges. It’s not reliable but that’s all we have so far. However, it’s tough to get news from the region because there is no Internet. Sometimes content can get through and just now as we’re talking, I just received a video that shows Federal Military personnel shooting civilians in the streets of Bahar Dar. If the government didn’t give any justification or deny the footage for the moment we take it seriously, but it’s still hard to report based on this footage because it’s hard to verify whether it’s true or not.

MT: If that’s the only way it can get out to the public whether it’s internally to the country or internationally so that some sort of response and a determination can be made about the breach of international laws its validity can be determined by technologies and GIS information. Why isn’t there any budget for tools that analyze video footage that determine if it has been altered or not?

YM: For organizations in Ethiopia, they may not have the technology to analyze it and as far as the international agencies they may have the technology, but I’m not sure there is an interest. They can collect satellite data. For local Human Rights organizations, there’s a gap and we don’t have the capacity. Organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have the expertise and budget to use these kinds of technologies. What we typically do is just refer our findings to them with a disclaimer that we aren’t able to verify the validity and pass it on to them asking for their help.


MT: How do you see these things getting resolved?

YH: I don’t know. I wish I had an answer. Now it’s getting complicated from time to time. It’s very frustrating. The only safe way is getting all parties, political, and economic to sit at the round table and discuss a viable way out. Unfortunately, there is no sign of this kind of dialogue and the Federal Government only seems to want to use excessive force to solve its problems. Other prominent political parties may release a statement now and again when they see the level of tension escalating, and others believe it’s a hopeless environment and decide to create a unified coalition to address the needs of their region. For example, Eskinder Nega who was initially known at large as a journalist and transitioned to be a part of a peaceful political movement has since decided to join the Amhara Forces—Fano. The only solution that I see is that I think the government needs to open the platform for genuine dialogue and the establishment of a national task force for crisis management tools like negotiation with armed groups. Recently the ENDF started dialogue with the OLF in Tanzania, but it didn’t go far. At least the government should open the door for stakeholders to have this kind of conversation.


Yared Hailemariam is also an author of, Memoirs of a Human Rights Advocate. English translation coming soon, in the meantime you can obtain a copy of the Amharic version here.


End of Interview.


Other related links:

Deepening Crisis in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region

Prof. Ann M. Fitz-Gerald

Horn Africa Insight


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