Failed coup puts Ethiopian ethnic militias in the spotlight

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A foiled coup in Ethiopia’s Amhara state that left five senior officials dead, including the army’s chief of staff, pushed ethnic militias in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies into the spotlight.

Two attacks on Saturday were led by Amhara head of state security General Asamnew Tsige, who has openly been recruiting fighters for ethnic militias in a state now a flashpoint for violence.

Militias formed by ethnic groups proliferate across Ethiopia, threatening sweeping political and economic reforms Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed kick-started after he came to power in April 2018.

WHY ARE MILITIAS EMERGING?

Ethiopia’s 100 million citizens come from dozens of ethnic groups with competing claims to land, resources and influence.

The country’s federal government based in Addis Ababa oversees nine ethnic-based regional states, with autonomy over their revenues and security forces.

The governing EPRDF coalition that seized power in 1991 was dominated by minority Tigrayans, about six percent of the population. Government kept a lid on bubbling tensions for decades by quashing virtually all dissent, including expressions of ethnic nationalism.

In 2018, Abiy’s predecessor resigned after three years of widespread anti-government protests. Abiy was selected by the EPRDF as its leader and his government prosecuted security officials accused of past abuses, lifted bans on some separatist groups and released thousands of political prisoners.

Local leaders are now taking advantage of the new freedoms to build ethnic power bases. Groups excluded in a system once dominated by Tigrayans are flexing their muscle.

Some Tigrayans and other regional power brokers feel victimised by Abiy’s personnel changes, especially his shake-up of the military and intelligence services.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Since Abiy embarked on his ambitious reforms, old state border disputes reignited. Large ethnic groups that dominate in many regions demand more territory and resources. At the same time, smaller groups, tired of being side-lined, are pushing back.

Ethiopia’s constitution guarantees all ethnic groups the right to a referendum on self-determination government has long forbidden such a vote. The southern Sidama, for example, now demand one.

HOW WIDESPREAD IS THE PROBLEM?

The latest round of violence began in Oromia, Abiy’s home region and hotbed of the protests that propelled him to power. A surge in killings there last year forced mass displacements.

Violence followed in other regions, including Amhara which has border disputes with two neighbours. Many in the Tigray region are now hostile to the federal government.

New York-based Human Rights Watch reported ethnic killings in the Harari and Somali regions of Ethiopia.

HOW BAD IS THE VIOLENCE?

Ethnic militias are committing vigilante violence, killing local government officials, burning homes and raping women, according to Addis-based officials, diplomats and aid workers.

Attacks have driven some 2.4 million Ethiopians from their homes, the United Nations says.

In one of the worst recent attacks, about 200 people were killed in tit-for-tat violence in May in the Benishangul-Gumuz region near the Sudan border.

Displaced people in southern Ethiopia told Reuters they fled Oromo youth armed with knives and firearms. The family of a coffee farmer said a mob chopped his limbs off before hanging his body from a tree.

Ethnic killings have been reported on university campuses in Tigray and Amhara as students turned on students, university administrators say.