NAIROBI — A plan by the Ethiopian government to disarm regional forces has sparked protests and a deadly clash in the northern Amhara region after some residents said they feared disarmament might force them to give up territory that Amhara now controls or leave them vulnerable to ethnic attacks.
At least four people, including two Ethiopian aid workers with Catholic Relief Services, were killed in the town of Kobo after the federal military clashed with a volunteer civilian Amhara militia known as Fano. One resident said members of the uniformed Amhara force did not take part in the fighting but that many left town to avoid being disarmed.
The Ethiopian military spokesman, government spokesman and regional spokesman for Amhara did not return calls seeking comment.
The confrontations come at a delicate time for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has been struggling to contain growing ethnically based political movements that could threaten the integrity of Africa’s second-most-populous nation.
Abiy finally signed a peace deal with rebellious forces from the northern region of Tigray in November, after a two-year civil war there claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. He is also struggling to contain a spreading insurgency in the southern region of Oromiya, where Amhara civilians have frequently been the target of mass killings.
Ethiopia has 11 federal regions, each of which has its own security forces. Over the years, those forces have grown powerful enough to sometimes present a threat to central authority. Many regional forces have also been accused of human rights abuses.
In 2019, the commander of Amhara’s regional forces killed the regional president in what the government called a failed coup attempt; dozens of people died in the fighting. Tigray’s regional forces joined the rebellion against the federal government. In Oromiya, regional forces have been accused of torture, murder and mass killings of civilians — accusations they deny.
The federal government announced last week that it would integrate regional forces into federal forces. That provoked a storm of protest in cities in Amhara, where some leaders have expressed fear that the peace deal with Tigray means the federal government might make them give up newly conquered territory.
Those areas of rich farmland are claimed by both Amhara and Tigray but are currently under the control of Amhara. Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were forced to leave their homes there during the war, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to declare that acts of ethnic cleansing had taken place. Tigrayan residents who fled said Amhara uniformed forces and Fano militia members committed rapes and murders and burned homes. The forces and militia denied the charges.
“When the federal government was in need, the people of Raya did not hesitate to get up and fight alongside them. So why are they turning against us now?” asked one resident who witnessed the clashes in the town of Kobo on Sunday and Monday morning. He declined to say whether he was a member of the militia but added: “The Fano want reassurance from the federal government this land will not go back to [Tigray].”
All residents who spoke to The Washington Post did so on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation.
If parts of the Amhara forces rebel, federal government forces could face armed insurrections in the country’s two most-populous provinces, Amhara and Oromiya.
On Sunday, a shootout between federal forces and the Fano Amhara volunteer militia killed two Fano fighters in the town of Kobo, said a resident who attended both funerals. Another resident confirmed two deaths. Dozens of uniformed Amhara forces left town rather than give up their weapons, said another resident, who claimed to have seen one of the Fano fighters shot during an exchange of fire near a gas station.
A third resident said he also saw many Amhara special forces members selling possessions and leaving town with their weapons.
“The Amhara people are facing an existential threat,” said the third resident, naming several contested areas prone to violent clashes. “Why did they start the disarmament with Amhara?”
Six Amhara journalists have been arrested in the past two weeks, according to the Amhara Association of America and social media posts. The head of the Ethiopian Media Authority did not respond to requests for comment on the journalists’ arrests.
Late Sunday, Abiy warned that the federal government would not tolerate opposition to the decree.
“The decision will be implemented even if it comes at a cost. We will try to explain and convince those who are opposing it without understanding. But for those who are intentionally playing a destructive role, law enforcement measures will be taken,” Abiy said in a statement.
Catholic Relief Services said a security manager and driver were killed in Kobo on Sunday, but the details of how it happened were still unclear.
“The depth of our shock and sorrow is difficult to measure,” said Zemede Zewdie, the group’s Ethiopia representative. “We honor their sacrifice and deeply mourn their deaths.”
On Monday, sporadic shooting continued, but then community elders went to speak to both sides and the shooting stopped, residents said.