Gun battles and mass protests have engulfed parts of Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-biggest region, after a move to centralise the regional security forces of the country’s 11 states.
The federal government announced the policy last Thursday, in pursuit of building “a strong centralised army”. People from several towns in Amhara responded with protests, while some units of the region’s security forces refused to disarm and clashed with the federal military.
On Sunday, two aid workers employed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) were shot and killed while driving near the town of Kobo. “Details of the murders are still unknown,” the group said. The Ethiopian Red Cross said that one of their ambulances was shot at “by unknown armed forces” in Amhara’s Central Gondar zone on the same day, injuring a midwife and a driver. Aid workers in other hotspots across the region have been told to “hibernate” while the World Food Programme has suspended operations.
A US embassy alert reported “serious exchanges of gunfire, involving heavy weapons” in “several areas of the region”, including the towns of Kobo, Woldia and Sekota. Shooting was also heard in the towns of Debre Birhan, Dessie, Debre Tabor and the regional capital, Bahir Dar, in recent days.
Elsewhere, protesters burned tyres and blocked roads as banks and shops closed. The Amhara regional government has responded by imposing a curfew and blocking mobile internet services in some areas, including Gondar, a popular tourist town.
The Amhara region’s security forces were prominent in the civil war against Tigray, fighting alongside the federal military. The conflict erupted in 2020 and ended with a ceasefire signed in November, leaving tens of thousands dead.
Ethiopia’s constitution allows its federal member states to run a “police force” to maintain peace, law and order. But some states have also built powerful security services resembling small armies that sometimes clash.
The prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has vowed to push on with dismantling these regional security forces, calling them a threat to Ethiopia’s integrity. “This decision will be implemented for the sake of the multinational unity of Ethiopia and the peace of its people, paying a price if need be,” Abiy said.
Abiy has lost support among the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest group, who feel let down by his failure to stop an offensive by the Tigray rebels into their region in 2021 and prevent a series of ethnically motivated attacks against Amhara people in the state of Oromia. Many Amharas say they need their own security force to protect themselves against these twin threats.
This week, the National Movement of Amhara, the region’s main opposition group, called the federal government’s decision to dissolve the regional force “completely irresponsible” and demanded its reversal.