The recent murders of regional officials and top federal army officers raise serious questions about Ethiopia’s ability to manage and contain various regional militias and militant formations which could threaten the country’s territorial integrity.
It is now almost a month since the murders of three Amharan regional state officials and two army generals – one of whom was General Seare Mekonnen, Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces – events which signified a level of violence in Ethiopia that could threaten the future unity of the country. The investigation continues. However, it seems probable that the Amharan attacks which killed the regional leaders and the fatal shootings of the army generals that occurred hours later 200 miles away in the capital, Addis Ababa, are linked. Despite international media claims, these shocking events fall well short of any organised coup d’état. Nor do they presage any longer-term attempt to destabilise the government and provide an alternative constitutional arrangement. But they do signify increasingly disparate views towards issues concerning Ethiopia’s governance and security arrangements at both the federal and regional levels.
The events also present a longer-term security challenge to Ethiopia and its international friends, for at the core of the current problem is the question of how governable the federal state is. The murders reveal fissures which, while longstanding and gradually developing, were less evident under the deliberate policies of the former administration, which focused on economic growth and played down underlying regional and ethnic tensions. To survive, Ethiopia’s federal government will, in future, have to come to terms with greater and more disparate regional autonomy. One of the keys to this puzzle lies in the development of the regional security sector, which comprises both formal and informal groups.
The regional police forces already include some specially trained and equipped units used for the purposes of riot control and other threats. But beyond these constitutionally mandated institutions are armed and periodically trained rural farmers which make up a voluntary force to provide, where necessary, rural back-up for the police. The informal groups also include the Liyu Haile (Amharic for ‘special force’), a force of well-trained professional soldiers, many of whom, according to author interviews with regional and federal officials, have defected from the national defence force and are attracted by a number of incentives including, certainly for some regions, higher pay.
The ‘special force’ first emerged in the Somali regional state in 2007 in response to the insurgent Ogaden National Liberation Front, a group fighting for the self-determination of the region. During this period, this special force was accused of committing extra-judicial killings, torture, rape and violence. Its killing of hundreds, and displacement of thousands, of both Oromo and Somali residents in the Somali Regional State in 2018 led to the arrest of the Somali regional president.
What differentiates the regional security sector today from the regional security sector of the past is the bolstered numbers and sophistication of these contingents, their access to recruits, state-of-the-art training, specialised equipment and their association with anti-government sentiment. The rise of these more prolific informal armed groups could pose the greatest threat ever to the country’s federal unity.
Little is known outside Ethiopia about the exact numbers, structure, funding, command arrangements and roles of these special forces. Yet they are certainly extensive and media sources confirm that all regions have them. Numbers range from thousands to tens of thousands, depending on the region. Whereas some have existed for longer than others, and access to weapon stockpiles and equipment differs between regions, the development of others has only unfolded in recent years. For example, a further 6,000 recruited to join the Amhara force only completed their training days before the recent atrocities.
These regional developments no doubt reflect feelings of dissatisfaction and mistrust of the top federal level as well as limitations facing the desires of minorities. It is not just a question of a growing sense of autonomy or territorial/ethnic disputes between regional states, but also a perception in the regional capitals and ethnic elites based in them that the federal government in Addis Ababa is not capable of responding to the wider African regional cross-border security threats, the negative consequences of which fall most heavily on Ethiopia’s peripheral states.
Whereas in the past there was perhaps a greater tendency to invoke the constitutional provision of military aid to civil authorities for support to the formal regional police forces, times have now changed. Arguably, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s new leadership cadre and reform agenda has prompted challenges from his opponents on what appears to them to be a risky new security policy. Despite recent calls for the ‘depoliticisation’ of the formal security institutions, recently retired officers will know that such a new culture and mindset cannot change overnight. Moreover, other measures taken as part of the new reforms to allow for no more than one ethnic group to be represented in the management structure at every level of military command (from unit to divisional command) will only set further limitations on the career development for any ethnic group that is over-represented. This, combined with the regulation that caps time in any rank at a maximum of five years, will leave no option but for members of the over-represented ethnic groups to leave. Further increases in the regional special forces, both by those leaving and those feeling further threatened by the leavers, will be inevitable.
Article 52.7 in Ethiopia’s Constitution allows regional states: ‘To establish and administer a state police force, and to maintain public order and peace within the State’. The ambiguity within the latter part of this provision has allowed the creation of further informal security forces. The government is currently drafting a bill which allows for regional militia with limited mandates and capabilities. But this is likely to require some dismantling and disarming of forces that already exist. It is unlikely that the regions will agree to this, particularly those which can claim higher levels of threat. Even if the bill passes with a majority, and limitations are placed on the weapons and munitions permitted in the regions, refusals to downsize and increased arms-smuggling activity are likely. With the government currently demonstrating a lack of consistency on issues concerning compliance of regional states with the law, these new restrictions are unlikely to be observed.
The reality is that, despite higher numbers of regional security structures – both formal and informal – being one of the country’s greatest threats to peace and unity, their numbers are unlikely to diminish. The government should, therefore, go for the least unpalatable option, which would be to maintain both the ‘special force’ and a ‘reserve force’ for all regions, but provide them with concise mandates, legal frameworks and resource limitations. Federal forces should be required to train with the regional security forces and enhance interoperability. Detailed and difficult command-and-control arrangements will need to be negotiated. Some kind of federal inspectorate of regional forces might be possible. The knowledge and experience of reputable former military leaders could also be leveraged to support the further development of the ‘reserve’ force concept – akin to a ‘national guard’ – across all regions. This may help to serve as both a national concept yet also a local solution to increased vigilantism across the country.
Such measures will require bold leadership to ensure consistent and unquestioned implementation. Although this will not come without a heavy cost, it may be a cost worth shouldering until other ‘binders’ to the country reassert themselves, such as economic improvement and a fall in unemployment levels. But as future foreign direct investment in the country will require certain levels of predictability and constitutionally upheld security arrangements, all these issues remain closely related.
Any mandate sanctioning formal and informal regional security forces in Ethiopia must build a professional culture and ethos reaching across all security forces supporting the country’s unity. For not doing so would lead to the break-up of the country and the production of non-viable statelets that the rest of the world would be less inclined to help. It would be wise to remember that most civil wars experience parties with external sponsors who do enough to enable them not to lose, but not enough to enable them to win. Surely, this sorry condition, which afflicts several of Ethiopia’s close neighbours, should deter Ethiopia from taking the same path.
Ann M Fitz-Gerald is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and Director, Defence & Security Leadership, Cranfield University.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Professor Ann M. Fitz-Gerald
Senior Associate Fellow