Special zones and special histories: conflict and collaboration in Northern Shewa  

A look into the history of North Shewa sheds light on the current crisis in the area. 

The recent declaration of a state of emergency in the Amhara region surrounding the town of Ataye and the Oromia special zone is indicative of the need to examine more closely the ways in which many factors may come together to create or exacerbate conflict, as well as influence how the state interprets conflicts.

Paying attention to history and the ways in which history influences events is always important. In Ethiopia, history is long, complex, and intertwined with livelihood systems. Accordingly, it pays to examine how governance, state-building, and the development of initiatives over the years have enhanced or exacerbated these systems.

As Ethiopia deals with the crisis in Tigray, it is necessary to keep track of other new and old incidents and be open to drilling down into what antecedents could trigger potential flashpoints or what lies simmering below the surface.

For humanitarian organizations, it behooves them to also look into their own history of presence in various parts of Ethiopia, taking stock of what lessons they learned or preserved from their work in these areas, and how they have or have not tracked the impact of important changes.

Northern Shewa and Oromia special zone

Northern Shewa is one of the 10 zones in the Amhara region. Ataye (previously known as Effeson) and Kemise, the places which have recently experienced an outbreak of inter-communal violence, are towns found 350 km northeast of Addis Ababa, on the main road that leads from Addis Ababa to Dessie. These towns are part of a string of other towns such as Bati, Senbete, and Shewa Robit.

During the imperial period, the towns were under ‘Shewa province.’ After that, they have been mapped and re-mapped into different administrative systems starting from the Derg military period in 1989 and then again between 1994 and 2007 under EPRDF’s ethnic federalism, whereby the province became divided up between the Amhara, Oromia, and Afar regional states.

Based on ethnic federalism and in recognition of ‘enclaves’ of different ethnic groups within some states, a group of five woredas of the Amhara region itself were further reconstituted into the “Oromo Special Zone” with Kemise town being its zonal capital.

These towns and the regions which they now border also lie along or intersect major rivers such as Jewaha, Ataye, Borkena, and Cheffa, which are tributaries that flow into the Awash river, one of the major rivers of Ethiopia.

Many of these towns have multiple layers of significance both politically—as centers of local administration and service delivery— and historically—as market centers where products from various communities within northeast Ethiopia were sold and exchanged.

They also embody some of the complexities which arise when politically driven boundaries are created and overlaid on local spaces where everyday interaction and collaboration occurs and where the creation of new borders pit citizens against each other.

Livelihoods and history

North Shewa zone can thus be viewed as a microcosm of the encounter of different histories and livelihoods in Ethiopia. In ecological terms, it encompasses all three of the major agro-ecological zones of Ethiopia: the Dega highlands populated by mostly Amhara farmers who practice plough-based agriculture, the Woyna dega semi-arid lowland area populated by Oromo agro-pastoralists, and the Kolla arid elevations below 1,500 feet populated by the Afar community. Furthermore, the zone has communities of Argobba and Saudani farmers, who are said to be descendants of West African pilgrims who have settled on their way to or from Mecca.

Geography has shaped and is still shaping much of the collaboration between the different communities. Highland farmers exchange grains for milk, butter, and incense from agro-pastoralists; pastoralists foster out livestock to be fattened up in higher elevations and make arrangements for their livestock to graze the stubble from newly harvested fields whilst the dung serves as vital fertilizer for these same fields. Salt from the Danakil depression has long been traded for coffee and medicinal herbs from the highlands; Argobba weavers and craftsmen exchange cloth and other needed handicrafts for meat and grain.

The same geography also drove much of the local conflicts over resources as population pressure and need for land began to push communities together, compromising previous arrangements between herders and agriculturalists for access to the flood zone pastures – ‘safe havens’ of the river valleys where livestock could be sheltered and nurtured during the summer months and times of drought.

The history of empire and state-building has also left its mark on the zone. Its incorporation and pacification by Emperor Menelik, its modernization under Emperor Haile Selassie, the consequences of the Italian invasion, and the exploits of princes and rebels are all well remembered.

North Shewa is also the place where three key trends shaping Ethiopia’s historical narrative manifest themselves – the demarcation line between the south-westward movement of the Christian Abyssinian kingdoms, the westward movement of the Islamic principalities of Ifat and Adal, and the great Oromo migration that eventually wedged between them.

Religious histories are also well preserved and can play out their ramifications in the event of any official re-naming or moving of zonal or woreda frontiers. Hilltop churches and town names attest to the coming of Orthodox Christianity from Tigray and Amhara in the north whilst newly excavated archaeological sites such as the great Weissiso-Nora and Fagi Dabis mosques attest to faith and trade links that connect communities all the way to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

There are also other well-known Islamic sites with famous sheiks which have long been part of pilgrimage sites for people coming from as far as Hararghe, Bale, and Arsi. When it comes to the Protestant mission history of the region, an interesting aspect are the ruins of a health center in Rasa Guba, an outpost of the Red Sea Mission based in Tio (Eritrea) and Djibouti, which developed the first written script and dictionary of the Afar language between the 1950s and 60s.

Disasters, development, and ambivalent decentralization

Like many areas of Ethiopia, the zone is also impacted by climate change and has a long history of drought, human and animal pandemics, locusts, armyworm, and caterpillar invasions. These, which often occurred in tandem with conflicts, have affected and shaped the household management of risks and vulnerabilities.

Government-sponsored development has also had its impact and influenced perceptions of inclusion and exclusion. During Haile Selassie’s period, most of the region (especially along the rivers) was said to be ‘owned’ by members of the royal family and there was some attempt to establish farming. Shewa Robit had a prison farm that was said to have housed many student radicals during the military regime.

The Awash valley further east was given over to local and foreign investors for cotton and sugar farming which resulted in heavy salination, loss of valuable pasture, and further inter-communal conflict, which was also caused by the movement of Afar households into areas held by Oromos.

The area suffered greatly both in the 1974 and 1984 famines. Destitute families gravitated to relief camps set up by the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. During the Derg period, the government attempted to bring some relief in the form of food aid and by designating the area to international aid agencies such as Save the Children US.

However, Derg’s own political and development policies created resistance. Large numbers of farming and herder households were separated and resettled to Gambela where many died of malaria and dysentery. The forced villagization program moved populations from the highlands onto the Cheffa valley and caused more conflict over grazing rights.

These outbreaks of conflict between Oromo/Afar herders and resettled farmers along the river valleys were then dealt with heavily by the arrival of government troops from Dessie. Despite numerous appeals by Oromo agro-pastoralists that rights for grazing in the Cheffa valley was granted by Emperor Menelik in the 19th century, little was done to alleviate or accommodate the situation.

Numerous conscription campaigns for the war in Eritrea and Tigray also depleted household labor and caused additional resentment. The growing presence of the TPLF as it gradually moved towards Addis Ababa heightened fears amongst the local administration and all tensions were attributed to either ‘Woyane’ or ‘Oromo’ infiltration designed to stir trouble against the state, echoes of which are still being repeated.

The persistent conflict and heavy government response resulted in many of the Oromo villages in woredas then called Fursi and Gemza to isolate themselves and refuse any government or NGO community development initiative, such as the rehabilitation of water points and education programs. They instead insisted that emergency food supplies be dropped off at a certain distant point from which they themselves would redistribute and allocate to needy families.

After the fall of the Derg, development initiatives were created to follow the new Agriculture Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) and Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) programs. Regions developed their own development priorities and signed agreements with NGOs, investors, and other partners. Donor funding changed and different modalities for addressing a series of food security crises—1999, 2003-2004, 2015, 2019—which threatened the region were developed.

Cross-cutting both ethnic and geographical boundaries, several affected areas were designated vulnerable ‘ASAL’—arid and semi-arid lowlands zones—and were targeted for change based on the acceleration of commercial, irrigated agriculture. At the same time, chronically vulnerable households and those always dependent on food aid were incorporated into special productive safety net programs, which is now in its new fifth phase and has grown to be the biggest social protection program in Africa. A new label of emerging regions began to be used to distinguish regions— peripheral regions such as Afar, Somali, and Benishangul-Gumuz were considered weak in capacity and in need of different approach to development.

The last 20 years have witnessed exponential infrastructural developments such as new schools, health centers, hospitals, colleges, and improved roads and bridges. For example, in the Afar Region zone 3, closest to the Oromia special zone, a whole new permanent town Hadalele was created and designated as a Zonal capital.

Urban development itself expanded with the development of new hotels, restaurants, and businesses. Migration to Middle East countries and other regions increased the flow of remittance, reinvigorated contacts with Saudi Arabia, and initiated the refurbishing or the building of new mosques and religious centers to proclaim new alliances of faith and transglobal connection.

Some of these changes produced visible differences between towns and populations: the adoption of full-length face and body coverings by women in majority Muslim towns such as Kemise is one example while the prominent display of the cross and other religious adornments in majority Christian areas is another.

In 2015, the Turkish company Yapi Merkezi started work on the next phase of the new Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway with the building of the Hara Gebaya new branch stretching westward from Awash station to connect Shewa Robit, Karakore, Kombolcha, Woldia, and Mekelle.

By 2018, tunnels, bridges, and stations had been completed, carving a very tangible and new marking of progress and modernity into an ancient countryside.  The new railway line is further complemented by the giant new steel pylons of the Ethiopian Electric Light and Power Corporation striding across the hillsides and plains of the countryside necessitating further acquisitions of land from urban and rural households who will now need adequate compensation.

How far new projects, regional administrative changes, and the perception of uneven development have created new winners and losers will need to be determined. At the same time, how fiscal decentralization has enabled or challenged the appropriate allocation of federal resources is also an issue to be studied. It will also be crucial to know what impact the latest political changes since 2017 and the dissolution of the EPRDF have had on wereda and village level cadres and their role in the delivery of basic services.

What is concerning is the report from yet another area of Ethiopia where different stakeholders and parties accuse each other of ethnic cleansing, and communities are being galvanized to arm and protect themselves in the absence of state protection.

The challenge for Ethiopia will be to untangle the legacies of the EPRDF regime and decide on how to deal with the ramifications of both its negative and positive outcomes. This can only be done through a peaceful exploration of the root causes of local grievances and addressing the real concerns of those who may feel threatened by the imposition of a new order which might bring with it new hierarchies and new forms of oppression.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: A bank in Ataye partially destroyed in the current flare-up; social media

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About the author

Angela Raven-Roberts

Angela is a former UNICEF Regional Chief of Emergencies and Director of Save the Children US in Ethiopia. She has over 40 years of research and policy engagement on disaster relief and livelihood issues in Ethiopia.


  • Thank you for the interesting developments in North Shewa. It is such a disappointment that ethnic federalism has divided these diverse communities who lived together for centuries.

  • September the 11th, 2021 will be the day when the Amara people in tens of thousands if not in hundreds of thousands will leave Ethiopia by mass immigration to neighboring countries in exile. The US President and the US Homeland security along with the UNHCR need to be made aware of the upcoming Amara mass migration out of Ethiopia so all parties will take appropriate measures in advance to accept their fair shares of these victims of the Amara genocides i by making exceptions or by being lenient towards those Amara’s genocide victims whether they enter their destination countries legally or illegally.

  • Angela Raven Roberts

    I Couldn’t agree more with it. You are well-informed on the history of the region and upto date as per area situation unlike many clueless diaspora including me, or among even among the locals from distance corners and regions in the country. As you mentioned , it is very compllex issur in terms of historical, political, socio-economic, religious and even geographic and climatic settings. That said , I am personally wondering how much the nefarious policies and social engineering of the past Ethiopian rulers starting from Menilik impacted and payed these inter-communal conflict or resentments overtime setting aside other external factors
    such as environmental , resources scarcities , overpopulation and so on.

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