Refining another ethno-nationalism, or towards a renewed Ethiopian identity?
Hundreds gathered on 2 March outside Mulualem Hall, the preferred venue for grand political and cultural events in Bahir Dar, the lakeside capital of Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-most populous regional state. Dozens of horsemen in colorful attire created an air of festivity; trumpets played; patriotic songs abounded. It was a celebration of the 125th anniversary of Ethiopia’s defeat of Italian colonizers at the Battle of Adwa.
Mulualem Hall is where the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), one quarter of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of regional parties that ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist from the early 1990s until its official demise in 2019, habitually celebrated its formation every November and its ascent to power every May.
This was also where the opposition National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) held its first convention on 10 June 2018 in an event marked by an unapologetically ethno-nationalistic fervor.
On the podium in March stood a triumphant Agegnehu Teshager, the region’s president, only four months into the job. This year’s festivity is a very special one, Agegnehu told the cheering crowd, “Because we are celebrating it in the wake of the burial of our eternal enemy.” He was referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had been the dominant force in Ethiopia’s politics for close to three decades.
In November, the TPLF-run regional administration entered a war with Ethiopia’s federal government. The conflict drew in Eritrean troops as well as armed forces from neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.
“I congratulate you as we observe this day after burying the TPLF,” Agegnehu repeated.
When Agegnehu assumed the presidency, Tigray’s conflict was on its fourth day. And for the man who replaced one of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s closest allies, Temesgen Tiruneh, now heading the National Intelligence and Security Service, the first order of business was to lead the Amhara forces alongside the federal army and ensure the defeat of the TPLF.
Within weeks, Amhara forces managed to control disputed districts in western and southern Tigray. They erected billboards declaring the places that belong to the Amhara region and appointed transitional administrators. “We fought to retake the identity that was stripped off from us. We didn’t go there looking for land,” Agegnehu, a former head of the region’s peace and security office, said in late December. “It’s a question of justice.”
A-PP: in need of a new story
The conflict in Tigray was bound to play a pivotal role for the Amhara region’s ruling Prosperity Party (A-PP) ahead of national polls in June.
Given that TPLF’s ouster is advantageous for an A-PP that needed a popularity boost, it’s hardly a surprise that it embraced a military approach. Remarks by the late former Amhara police chief Abere Adamu that Amhara forces mobilized along the Tigray border before active fighting broke out suggests there was at least some preparation for the conflict before the Tigray government moved against the federal military in Tigray late on 3 November.
A-PP has gone through a number of makeovers over the years. Originally formed as the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, a pan-Ethiopian organization, it was one of the many armed groups mushrooming in the early 1980s Ethiopia against the brutal socialist Derg regime. It later joined hands with the TPLF and was christened the ANDM, the Amhara wing of the ruling EPRDF coalition succeeding the Derg.
The party claimed the change was necessitated by the need to ensure the improvement of the Amhara people whose name was so often used and abused in the past but who still languished in poverty. Not many among the Amhara were convinced; its critics saw the ANDM as a vassal of the TPLF, not just in enacting policies initiated by Tigray’s ruling party, but also in the advancement of a political creed that defined the people it claimed to represent, the Amhara, as historical oppressors.
Ethiopia’s political tide turned in 2018.
Riding the wave of popular anti-government protests mainly in Oromia and Amhara regions, accompanied by an insurgence of Oromo and Amhara officials within the EPRDF against the TPLF, Abiy became prime minister in April. He immediately began introducing dramatic changes, one being the rebranding of some members of the ruling coalition. The ANDM became the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP).
The move was seen by some as an effort to cast off the legacy of oppression and suppression of the preceding two and a half decades, but it left the party’s structure and a large portion of the rank and file untouched. The name didn’t stick. A little over a year later the Prosperity Party was formed; with that, the ADP was turned into the Amhara wing of the national Prosperity Party.
Squeezing the TPLF out of the ruling circles of the federal government for the first time since the early 1990s and expanding itself to include the ruling parties of the other peripheral regions (Somali, Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Harari, and Afar) were the most immediate consequential measures of the newly formed party.
However, despite persistent references to the ‘merger’ of the parties to a ‘unified,’ ‘national’ party, the Prosperity Party has still been forced to maintain some regional identity, allowing regional branches considerable autonomy. Many, in fact, still see the conversion of ANDM members into A-PP supporters as offering no more than a simple facelift with no substantial change of ideology, structure, or zeal.
Hone Mandefro, a doctorate student at Concodria University in Montreal, Canada, commentator on Amhara issues and advocacy head at the Amhara Association of America, believes the “repackaging of the EPRDF as Prosperity Party” initially helped the party gain some support in the Amhara region, “especially since the TPLF decided not to join the PP.”
But members of Amhara PP “were not courageous to capitalize on the newly acquired better perception and failed to meet expectations of the Amhara PP evolving to become a vanguard of Amhara interest.” As a result, the senior leadership within the party has been perceived as allowing itself to fall into a “new loyalism”: “discontent against them has grown…including among the middle and lower ranks of the party.”
The A-PP needs to shake off the image of subservience and subordination if it is to perform well in the upcoming polls, especially as it will be facing relatively stronger opposition and an increasingly self-aware Amhara electorate.
Terefu Birru, originally from the Wag Himra Zone in northern Amhara, which saw clashes in late March with what local authorities described as ‘remnants of the TPLF’, now lives in Bahir Dar. Two years ago, she was enthusiastic about the elections. Now, she is not even sure that they should be held. “There’s killing everywhere. Who’s going to elections? Everyone is dying,” she said referring to recurrent violence in various places across the country.
“I don’t expect anything new. Unless it’s from God, nothing is expected from the government”, she told Ethiopia Insight. The changes that the ruling party boasts of introducing are not sufficient, she argues. “We are still maintaining TPLF’s legacy,” she added, and that, for her, is the problem.
The A-PP is, however, making an effort. Of its 138 candidates for the House of People’s Representatives this year, all but one are new. Among those representing the party for federal and regional seats are technocrats like Mamo Mihretu, one of the Prime Minister’s economic advisors, and Abebaw Ayalew, a prominent art historian.
But new blood is not enough. The A-PP’s major opponent, NaMA, has a massive youth following, mostly in urban areas, and, having been founded only three years ago, is without A-PP’s politico-historical baggage.
A-PP needed a new story. It needed victory. The removal of the TPLF from the position of dominance within the federal government was going to be one important rallying cry. Then the conflict in Tigray happened, and in the A-PP-organized rallies and gatherings, the ‘victory’ in Tigray inevitably took center stage.
The Tigray nexus
A-PP-ADP-ANDM’s fallout with the TPLF cannot be explained only in terms of power relations among members of a coalition. The former was pushed into an inescapable corner by a burgeoning popular force, Amhara nationalism, which it had provided a fertile ground to flourish as it challenged TPLF’s hegemony.
Attempts to mobilize the Amhara along ethnic identity were made in the early days of the EPRDF— a notable example is Asrat Woldeyes, a prominent surgeon who founded the All Amhara People’s Party in the early 1990s—but these efforts did not make progress until much later.
Amhara nationalism, as an important political force, only began to take shape in the mid-2010s when many felt they were facing identity-based marginalization and oppression.
While the marginalization and oppression were alleged since the EPRDF’s early days, the boost for Amhara nationalism two and half decades later can be attributed to two facts. One is generational as by then millions of young people were coming of age in EPRDF’s Ethiopia that preached the primacy of ethnic identity over a national one.
The other reason is an inspiration from Oromo nationalism which, at that point, with the instrument of ethnic mobilization, was able to express defiance against the government. It was, at one level, a reaction to the more developed Tigrayan nationalism that had brought the TPLF to power and, with it, the current political order. It was also a reaction to EPRDF-propagated discourse against ‘the neftegna’—often meaning the Amhara.
The EPRDF often said the term neftegna represented an imperial system of governance in which aristocrats ruled over nations and nationalities through the barrel of the gun, and not the wider Amhara public. But many Amhara nationalists see TPLF’s targeting of their group went as far as tampering with census results, and in the process shrinking the population of the community by more than two million.
The claim is largely based on a lower population number and lower growth rate of the Amhara presented during Ethiopia’s last census in 2007 than the predicted figure. Explaining the discrepancy, the then head of the Central Statistical Agency Samia Zecharia said lower population in the region could be a result of a higher prevalence of HIV, something that did not convince many Amharas. Following the controversy, an intercensal survey was conducted, which, according to the agency, provided a slightly higher growth rate.
There was also the example of a revived Oromo nationalism in the protest-plagued years of 2015 to 2018. Amhara nationalism was further emboldened by the metamorphosis of an informal gathering of concerned activists into a formal political party, NaMA. These years also saw a growing number of people vocalizing their Amharaness, often partially at the expense of a pan-Ethiopian identity.
The first reaction of the then ANDM to the appearance of the NaMA was to try to discredit, even crush it, but, looking to stay relevant in a time of change, it then accepted its presence and activities. The ANDM’s rebellion against the TPLF may have been partly inspired by the actions of the EPRDF’s Oromo wing, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), but it was also a response to the Amhara public showing growing ethnic awareness and demanding that the government should ‘respect Amharaness.’
Amhara nationalism’s problem with the TPLF has essentially been two-fold. First is the issue of disputed land along the Amhara-Tigray border that many Amhara nationalists believe was forcefully appropriated into Tigray by the TPLF in the 1990s and the identity of the people living in those areas. These disputed areas include Wolkait, Tegede, Humera, and Telemt in the west and Raya in the east.
When in August 2016 the historic Amhara city of Gondar was the scene of anti-government protests, which later spread to other cities and towns in the region, the immediate driving factor was a government attempt to arrest community leaders in the Wolkait area who had been advocating for an Amhara identity. Colonel Demeke Zewdu, a prominent figure among those leaders, has since been hailed by many Amhara as a heroic figure whose refusal to be arrested inspired an era of defiance. A-PP now calls him security chief and deputy administrator in what they say is Wolkait-Tegede Amhara region zone in the area of West Tigray Zone.
In January this year, Colonel Demeke was a guest of honor at a special A-PP-sanctioned Ethiopian Christmas event held in Wolkait. It was transmitted live on regional television. “We didn’t ask for a new identity; we didn’t ask for new land,” Demeke said, thanking, alongside the army and regional police, the Prosperity Party. He called life under the TPLF an “era of darkness”, during which many ethnic Amhara were pushed out to make room for ethnic Tegaru who were being systematically settled in these areas.
In subsequent weeks, tens of thousands of Tegaru fled their homes in these areas and sought shelter in central Tigrayan towns like Shire; they accused Amhara forces of violently driving them out. The Amhara regional government has said it’s now administering the areas and A-PP officials seem to want to capitalize on the ‘return’ of these disputed areas to garner support. “They were taken by force,” regional spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh said assertively in mid-March, “now they have been returned by force.”Second, proponents of Amhara nationalism accuse the TPLF of crafting a system of governance in which the Amhara are cast as the historic villains who oppressed other ethnic groups and forced them into involuntary assimilation. This inaccurate historical analysis, Amhara nationalists argue, has been used to justify attacks against the Amhara.
Today, it is not uncommon to hear A-PP and NaMA officials, and even unaffiliated Amhara nationalist activists, speaking in unison, explaining how the current system’s analysis and understanding of history has been creating a number of tribulations for the Amhara, from identity-based killings to forced displacement. The A-PP often speaks of correcting the ‘anti-Amhara hatred cultivated in past years.’
But is such rhetoric enough? Certainly not for Worku Alemu, a retired civil servant who now runs a small restaurant in Bahir Dar, who hopes the upcoming election will produce something better than the previous one. He sets his eyes on parties that advocate systemic change. “My position is very clear. As an Amhara, I don’t think I’ll be voting for a party that supports this constitution [built on] an oppressor-oppressed narrative,” he told Ethiopia Insight.
His aversion to the constitution is, by extension, an accusation against the ethno-linguistic federal structure introduced when the EPRDF came to power. This is a sentiment still shared by many among the Amhara and the urbanites in cities like Addis Abeba, despite surging ethno-nationalist tendencies across the country.
For critics, the use of ethnic identity as a primary mode of political mobilization in the past few decades is the root of many of the evils that currently ail the country, from persistent communal violence to the conflict in Tigray. “We all know what the ethnic politics has brought us,” Worku said disapprovingly.
Ethnic politics conundrum
When the Prosperity Party was formed, its critics accused it of envisioning “a return to Ethiopia’s centralizing and homogenizing past”, that is to say plotting to abandon the ethnic-based federal system. But the party, which is now rallying under the theme “multi-ethnic brotherhood for a common prosperity” in its election campaign, vows adherence to a federal system.
Officials from the A-PP may increasingly echo viewpoints held by NaMA supporters, that Ethiopia’s federal system has particularly disadvantaged the Amhara, but they don’t go so far as to reject it outright. Rather, they attribute the failures of the system to deficiencies in practice.
There are many among the ruling and academic elite who hold the view that the Amhara region, unlike Oromia and Tigray, has provided the minorities in the region with the chance to administer themselves in special zones and districts. It has, therefore, been far ahead in implementing the federal system properly. These arguments are often made in response to commentaries, usually by Tegaru and Oromo nationalist figures, that the Amhara, generally, want to see the system replaced
Such viewpoints are, however, not baseless. “I don’t believe in ethnic politics,” says Temsegen Abiy, a civil servant, speaking for many Amhara who are skeptical of the system, in and outside the region. “If ethnic politics continues to win,” in the next election, Temesgen told Ethiopia Insight, “I fear for the existence of the country.”
One opposition party aiming to capitalize on underlying suspicions of ethnic-based federalism is Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, commonly known as Ezema. It is second only to the ruling party in the number of candidates for federal and regional seats (1,385) it registered across the country for the elections. Among the 547 electoral districts, Ezema will run candidates in 446, including all of the 138 constituencies in the Amhara region.
Ezema prides itself on its structure and organizational capacity relative to other opposition parties. “Even if people like you, as long as you don’t have the candidates, it doesn’t matter,” Mengistu Amare, the party’s regional election coordinator told Ethiopia Insight in Bahir Dar.
Ezema wants to put the issue of constitutional amendment up for a referendum, Mengistu said. It sees the identity-based attacks and clashes across the country, which have claimed the lives of thousands, as symptoms of flaws in the constitution. It argues cosmetic solutions will not solve this problem. It will need larger changes, such as a return to a presidential system which is one of the significant changes Ezema advocates, along with restructuring regional states into more manageable, and less ethnically homogenous, chunks.
While the ruling A-PP still stands for a continuation of the current federal structure and thus some ethnic politics, Mengistu, mirroring the fears of skeptics like Temesgen, notes Ezema believes political parties formed along ethnicity are “threats to the country.” The problem is to translate these concerns into actual votes.
Ezema needs to overcome two hurdles. One is an image problem. Some Amhara see Ezema as standing against the interests of their community. This viewpoint is partly based on the perceived closeness of the party, or of the party’s leaders, including veteran politician Berhanu Nega, to the government, and particularly to the Prime Minister. It also arises from alleged remarks by the party’s leaders and prominent figures affiliated with the party apparently questioning the existence of the Amhara as a distinct ethnic group.
Casting doubt about the existence of the Amhara as a unique ethnicity is hardly a new phenomenon, nor is it one associated with a single party. It has been an issue of discussion, particularly in academic circles, since the institution of the federal system that recognized the Amhara as a separate ethnic group with their own territory and culture. The argument is that the Amhara and their language, Amharic, should rather be seen as a melting pot into which other ethnically and linguistically diverse people have liquesced to form a supra-ethnic, Ethiopian identity.
Back in 2005, when the leading opposition party, the pan-Ethiopian Coalition for Unity and Democracy, seen by many as a precursor of Ezema, had massive acceptance among the Amhara, Dr. Siegfried Pausewang identified the dual nature of the Amhara view of their identity. On the one hand, there are rural Amhara who, very much like many other ethnic groups in the country, see Amharaness as their core identity; on the other, quite distinct, there are the “urban, generally well-educated, ethnically mixed, assimilated cultural Amhara,” who prefer to celebrate their Ethiopian identity.
Ezema, for some, is the embodiment of pan-Ethiopianism, set to deny the reality of any separate ethnic existence. It needs to win the hearts and minds of many in the region who feel that single-minded devotion to pan-Ethiopian nationalism has left the Amhara in a disadvantaged position in comparison with other ethnic groups, especially the Oromo and the Tegaru. Even as recently as two years ago, Ezema had difficulty conducting meetings in a number of towns in Amhara due to animosity from local youths, expressed in the form of blockading meeting halls and preventing party members and leaders from attendance.
Amhara nationalism, unlike its counterparts in Oromia and Tigray, has not had decades of history and growth. From the 1960s, ethno-nationalist movements among the Oromo and the Tegaru were framed in opposition to the Amhara, who were portrayed as the ruling ethnic class of the Imperial era. Realistic Amhara nationalism only emerged in the past five years, as a reaction to that ‘otherness’. As described by Gondar University’s Tezera Tazebew, for example, it has been formed as a reverse discourse, a Foucauldian term in which “a once despised category of identity instigated a claim for authenticity and recognition.”
Amhara nationalism today is marked by the claim of a separate identity and its accentuated expression. Like other brands of ethnic nationalism, it makes territorial claims. In addition to the disputed areas in Tigray, one claim often made by Amhara nationalists is over the Metekel Zone in Benishangul-Gumuz. They argue that the zone—where many Amharas live and that had been within the province of Gojjam, the rest of which became part of the Amhara region when the federation was constructed—was included in Benishangul-Gumuz to diminish Amhara.
Amhara nationalism is also characterized by a renewed pride in history. Figures like Emperor Menelik II and events like Adwa victory day are given renewed significance with an added Amhara twist. This puts Amhara nationalism on a collision course with its Oromo counterpart in particular, as Oromos consider Menelik II responsible for their ‘forced’ incorporation into the empire.
The question of the ownership of Addis Abeba is another bone of contention.
NaMA rejects claims by Oromo nationalists that Ethiopia’s capital is ancestral Oromo land. Members of the Oromia-Prosperity Party, and other Oromo political figures, routinely criticize NaMA, which they see as the organizational personification of Amhara nationalism.
NaMA’s current chair, Belete Molla, a philosophy lecturer at Addis Abeba University argues the Amhara played the most important role in forming Ethiopia and then defending its sovereignty, and in the process of forming the Ethiopian state, “we had become more Ethiopian than Amhara.” He told Ethiopia Insight: “We now know that being more Ethiopian and less Amhara played only to our demise while the majority of other Ethiopian peoples are conscious primarily of their ethnicity and organize along that line.”
Equally, NaMA’s belief in the primacy of Amhara identity doesn’t mean the rejection of an Ethiopian identity. Sitotaw Kerie, NaMA’s election coordinator in Bahir Dar, said the party’s end goal is Ethiopia. “Our struggle is double-edged; first is to save the Amhara” he told Ethiopia Insight, in his office in Bahir Dar, arguing, rather emphatically, that every political organization in Ethiopia in the past three decades had fundamentally been Amharaphobic, “but then is to save Ethiopia and build a country in which all nations and nationalities are equally respected.”
While some avowed ethno-nationalist parties in Ethiopia, at one time or another, have flirted with the idea of secession, NaMA has not. Sitotaw, who is in his mid-30s and also works as an assistant professor in Bahir Dar University, stresses his party can work with any political organization in the run-up to and following the elections, though he adds “we don’t negotiate about the unity of Ethiopia.”
In its first year of existence, NaMA, with a large youth membership and support, managed to hold a number of town halls across Amhara region and in Addis Abeba. Its articulation of decades-long resentment, its call for a change or amendment of the constitution, and its campaign for what it called the ‘territorial integrity of the Amhara—that is for the return of land that it claimed was taken from the Amhara—struck a chord.
Can NaMA deliver in the upcoming elections? It registered 491 candidates for regional and parliamentary seats. This compares with the ruling party’s 2,432 and Enat (Mother) Party, a relatively unknown pan-Ethiopian organization that has 573. NaMA’s focus, however, is on Amhara and Addis Abeba, where it is attempting to forge a partnership with other parties like Balderas for Genuine Democracy. While there are millions of Amhara in other regions including Oromia, Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNP), and Benishangul-Gumuz, it’s not clear how far NaMA is able to campaign freely in those areas or win votes.
On 22 June 2019, the then regional president Ambachew Mekonnen and other senior officials were killed in Bahir Dar. The alleged mastermind of what the federal government has insisted on calling “a coup attempt”, Brigadier General Asaminew Tsige, was killed a few days later. Many still see him as a hero, as was again demonstrated in many of the rallies in April this year, but the incident also rekindled antipathy towards vehement ethnic politics among the Amhara.
For many Amhara nationalists, the Abiy-era is, to paraphrase Dickens, the worst of times and the best of the last three decades. It has been an era of hope and fear, wretchedness and happiness, self-assurance and uncertainty. The pleasure over the political death of the TPLF is often overshadowed by the plight of the Amhara in many places, particularly western Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz’s Metekel Zone.
Seven weeks from the polls, thousands in multiple Amhara cities and towns came out to the street to protest the killing of ethnic Amharas across the country. In banners held and slogans shouted, the protesters denounced the ruling party and Prime Minister, who they said were implicated in the atrocities.
On 3 November, just a day before open conflict broke out in Tigray, the tone of the Amhara-PP was somber. In a hall inside the Prime Minister’s Office where parliamentary sessions have regularly been held since the pandemic, lawmakers representing Amhara constituents were visibly distressed by the reports that more than 50 ethnic Amhara had been killed in a village in western Oromia, allegedly by Oromo Liberation Army militants.
The recurrence of such attacks over the past three years in various parts of the country, particularly in western Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz (where Amhara nationalists rail against the constitutional privileges granted to ‘indigenous’ groups as well as claim territory) and parts of SNNP, has led to fierce criticism of the Amhara wing of the ruling party for failing to ensure the protection of ethnic Amhara living in other regions.
Since ‘the reform’—party-speak for the period since Abiy came to power—identity-based attacks particularly against the Amhara have multiplied, a parliamentarian said fervently. “I am losing hope,” MP Birtukan Sebsibie said, struggling with her tears. “People are dying in masses. We must stop this.” Parliament couldn’t hold its regular session as Amhara MPs demanded the Prime Minister’s presence to answer questions.
Where are the defense forces and the intelligence? Why haven’t they managed to stop these atrocities? Why are all these attacks happening against the Amhara? These were and are questions among many Amhara.
For opposition parties like NaMA, the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz wings of the Prosperity Party are implicated in the atrocities either by commission or omission; and, by extension, the A-PP as the Amhara wing of the ruling party is part of the problem.
“We have seen the Amhara Prosperity [Party] doing nothing for the Amhara living in other regions,” NaMA’s Sitotaw said. For him, the A-PP is maintaining a legacy that sees the Amhara living in other regions as settlers or even remnants of an oppressive past. With these attacks continuing as the elections approach, they could become the most important among an array of issues that could determine the results of the polls.
When he took office, the Prime Minister pledged to conduct free and fair elections, raising great expectations for the polls. Now, after repeated violence, mass displacements of biblical proportion, arrests of prominent opposition figures, and conflicts in many places, expectations have plummeted. Even so, the Amhara region, along with Addis Abeba and to some extent SNNP and Somali region, could still see contested elections despite the hostile environment for them.
In Tigray, elections have been postponed due to the continuing conflict. In Oromia, the two major opposition parties have been radically weakened by arrests of members, including some of their most prominent figures. They have suffered constant harassment and have declared they cannot participate.
There are no insurgent groups actively roaming the forests and mountains of Amhara. The opposition, although many experienced arrest in the wake of the June 2019 violence, remain largely free—but the regional political issues remain no less complex and uncertain.
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This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP), a series in-depth reported pieces from across Ethiopia in our ‘Elections 2021’ section that analyze issues related to this year’s polls.
Main photo: Amharas in Raya Kobo protesting the killings of ethnic Amharas in various parts of the country; April 2021; amharagenocide.net.
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