That morning, the faithful were preparing to don their white shawls for the traditional Holy Mary procession in Merawi, a town in the Amhara region of northwestern Ethiopia. No one reached the church. Gunshots rang out at dawn and a long clash ensued between the Ethiopian army and the Fanos, a nationalist Amhara militia. Federal soldiers later combed the town of 40,000 for rebels, in a bloody door-to-door raid that left about 100 victims, according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. published April 4.

Despite the Internet shutdown that has affected Amhara for several months, images of this disastrous January 29 were broadcast on social networks: they show dozens of lifeless bodies scattered along the main road to Merawi. The residents’ stories, joined by HRW, describe blind vengeance against at least eighty people, picked up by the soldiers from their homes or in bistros in the city.

“It seems they were targeting men that day,” said a resident, who witnessed the summary execution of three of his neighbors: a priest, a tailor and a student. “For six hours, Ethiopian soldiers shot civilians in the streets and during house-to-house searches. Soldiers also looted and destroyed civilian property,” the HRW report said.

Amhara, a province of 30 million people – Ethiopia’s second largest region – has been under a state of emergency since August 2023. Under the guise of a law enforcement operation, the federal government of the former Minister Abiy Ahmed is waging a merciless war against the Fanos militiamen. “The armed forces’ brutal killings of civilians contradict the government’s claims that it is trying to restore order in the region,” said Laetitia Bader, deputy director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

Amhara militiamen face the federal army

During the Tigray War (2020-2022), the Fanos fought alongside the Ethiopian army against the Tigrayan rebels. But feeling marginalized after the peace agreement signed at the end of 2022 and fearing losing disputed territories that they had conquered, the militia refused to disarm in April 2023. To force them to do so, a force came from the capital Addis Ababa was sent to the northwest. The fighting began in August.

A nationalist movement from the countryside and self-proclaimed defender of Amhara identity, the Fanos have until now been poorly structured. “But over the past year, more than half of the Amhara special forces – a regional detachment of the federal army – have joined the Fano insurgency and brought with them know-how and weapons,” says Mengistu Assefa, an independent researcher based in the Ethiopian capital. Since then, they have done more than resist. »

Amhara is now practically cut off from the rest of Ethiopia, the road linking the province to Addis Ababa having been closed by the army for a month. The press cannot go there and the United Nations has only restricted access. The Federal Parliament was forced to extend the state of emergency for another four months in February due to the resilience of the militiamen who would also benefit from support from neighboring Eritrea, according to several sources.

Hundreds of civilians killed

On March 2, the Fanos managed to capture the regional capital, Bahir Dar, for a day. In this same city, members of the administration now live secluded in a hotel, under heavy military protection, for fear of being the target of an attack. According to regional authorities, the damage linked to the war is around 260 million dollars (240 million euros).

In the Fanos stronghold, in the west of the region, the Ethiopian army hardly moves anymore and mainly resorts to drone strikes, including in city centers. Hundreds of civilians paid the price. Chief of Staff Berhanu Jula even boasted, during a national television interview in December 2023, of the use of the recent fleet of unmanned aircraft acquired by Addis Ababa – Chinese aircraft , Turks and Iranians – on its territory.

“The accusations of massacres and drone strikes against civilians have the opposite effect and cement the support given to the Fanos in the Amhara region,” assures Mengistu Assefa. In addition, Eskinder Nega, an opponent who was a candidate for the 2021 presidential election and popular in the Amhara region, went underground and joined the armed struggle.

Investors worried about instability

The United States, followed by European countries, said they were “deeply concerned” about the actions of the Ethiopian army in Merawi against civilian populations and called for investigations. A clear change in tone compared to the appeasement gestures of last year.

In 2023, Washington removed Ethiopia from its list of countries “committing gross human rights violations.” And in October of the same year, the country’s Western partners helped bury the United Nations’ International Commission of Experts on Human Rights in Ethiopia (Ichree), the only body capable of investigating there.

Would this double decision, experienced as compromise by human rights protection organizations, have given Abiy Ahmed a free pass? His government is now carrying out brutal repression with impunity in Amhara and Oromia, and arresting numerous opponents in Addis Ababa, including foreign journalists. Three Amhara MPs are behind bars, as is the deputy minister of peace.

At a time when the Prime Minister promises to liberalize the Ethiopian system and hopes to obtain a program from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to compensate for his country’s overindebtedness, investors are worried about the instability reigning in the North, while the Peace in Tigray is still fragile. “For the moment, there is neither a military solution to the conflict, nor the will to negotiate a political solution,” analyzes Mengistu Assefa.