Ethiopia’s Tigray War Is Fueling Amhara Expansionism
Abiy Ahmed depends on the support of ethnic Amhara leaders and militias whose goal is to reconquer what they consider lost territories—from Tigray to Sudan
By Kjetil Tronvoll, an anthropologist and professor at Bjorknes University College in Oslo.
April 28, 2021
(Foreign Policy) — The war in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, is ostensibly about political control. The federal government’s stated objective is to arrest the political and military leadership of the ousted regional government in what it still refers to as a law enforcement operation. But among the ethnic Amhara political elite, it is seen as a war to regain territories lost in 1991. Being the second-largest ethnic group in the country, the Amhara militia and special forces have been pivotal in the war campaign. Western and southern parts of Tigray are thus currently being incorporated under Amhara administration and control despite protests from the interim regional government in Tigray.
Access to and control of land is essential in any subsistence agricultural society, and this is particularly true in parts of Ethiopia where land has been cultivated for millenniums. Life in rural Ethiopia revolves around land; it defines who you are, where you belong, and your status in society. Rural agricultural land is state-owned, and rights to till it are traditionally given based on a blood and soil connection—in other words, proven descent from the community grants access to land.
Administrative borders of provinces have been altered during all regime changes in Ethiopia and are often used as a means for the central government to divide and rule by maintaining political control over local nobility and political elites aspiring for central power. The latest such redesign took place after the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) assumed power in 1991.
As Ethiopia was transformed from a unitary to a federal state, nine new regional states were designed according to Article 46 of the 1995 constitution on the basis of “settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people.” The borders of the new regional states crisscrossed former administrative delineations and were simply imposed without popular consent through a referendum or election. The Amhara territorial claims to areas currently considered part of the Tigray regional state are thus based on a pre-1991 understanding of predominantly Amharic speaking administrative regions. Prior to 1991 there was no region called Amhara; the Amhara were divided among several administrative regions.
The new regional state of Tigray gave away territories to the east to the new Afar state while gaining ground to the west by incorporating Welkait district and the fertile lowland plains of Setit-Humera, which had been part of the former Gondar administrative region. The lowland areas are the key sesame cash crop belt in Ethiopia and, back then, were inhabited by a mix of Amhara and Tigrayan farmers—without any verifiable census on who was in majority. Since 1991, tens of thousands of Tigrayans from the highlands and former refugees have been resettled to the area, titling the population to a clear majority of Tigrayans.
In 2016, protests erupted in western Tigray, organized by the Welkait Amhara Identity Committee (or Welkait Identity and Self-Determination Committee), demanding a realignment of the administrative status of the zone under the Amhara regional state. The protests in Tigray were quickly quashed, and Welkait Committee leader Col. Demeke Zewdu and others were arrested. This sparked massive demonstrations and protests across Amhara state, leading to dozens of people being killed.
After the announced resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February 2018, Demeke, together with thousands of other prisoners, was released, whereupon he promised to continue the struggle to return the Welkait, Setit-Humera, and Tsegede districts to Amhara control. This position was subsequently adopted by the regional government of the Amhara Democratic Party (then a component of the EPRDF).
In Raya, southern Tigray, a similar committee was established in 2018 with the aim of achieving recognition of the Raya identity to establish an autonomous administrative zone but had been stifled by the regional government in Tigray, then led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Raya are bilingual and split between Amhara- and Tigrayan-leaning subgroups. The Amharic-speaking part expressed a wish to return the area under Amhara administration.
When the military offensive against Tigray was launched on Nov. 4, 2020, as the TPLF executed a strike against federal forces in the Northern Command, Amhara regional special forces and militias had been prepared for war for a long time. The offensive on the western Welkait front line was mostly constituted by Amhara forces, agitated by the cause to reclaim the lost territories of the three districts of Welkait, Tsegede, and Setit-Humera. In a recent commemoration ceremony of the offensive, the Amhara regional president, Agegnehu Teshager, stated that “the people of Amhara have been liberated and will never return to slavery again” and called for Amhara resettlement of the reclaimed territories.
Tens of thousands of Tigrayans have been driven off the land since the war started, in what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called ethnic cleansing, an accusation the Ethiopian government rejects. At the same time, Amhara state officials have repeatedly asserted that the area belongs to them and that the land “was taken by force and now has been returned by force.” The Amhara regional state spokesperson also claims that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has approved the reincorporation of the disputed territories to Amhara—despite protests by his colleagues in the interim Prosperity Party government in Tigray.
International humanitarian workers and others who have recently traveled in western Tigray—and wish to remain anonymous for safety reasons—confirm that old Tigrinya names and signs have been eradicated and replaced with Amhara signs, which is also happening in Raya areas. The few Tigrayans left are either forced to “go back home”—meaning east across the Tekeze River—or to “shift identity” and proclaim loyalty to Amhara, as they are told that “this is Amhara.” Another manifestation of Amhara control of the area is the reported process of destroying all old Tigrayan ID cards and replacing them with new Amhara IDs.
Although Abiy personally may not endorse this territorial realignment by force, he appears to be in no position to confront the Amhara political elite on this issue, as he is fully dependent on their support to stay in power. After being brought to the premiership thanks to the momentum generated by the Qeerroo protest movement on an Oromo nationalist ticket, Abiy soon deserted his own ethnic base and shifted to an Ethiopian nationalist policy. Aiming to recentralize political power under a reformed federal system, Abiy’s vision aligns with the interests of Amhara nationalists, who have so far given him conditional support.
Amhara elites’ territorial ambitions are creating trouble for Abiy both domestically and internationally.
But Amhara elites’ territorial ambitions are creating trouble for Abiy both domestically and internationally. Adversaries in Benishangul-Gumuz and the Amhara region’s Oromo special zone argue that the conflicts in their areas are driven by Amhara expansionist territorial ambitions. Furthermore, Sudan’s government blames the border conflict in the Fashqa triangle on Amhara settlers expanding their agricultural activities on territory that Khartoum argues is Sudanese according to the 1902 border treaty. The Ethiopian foreign ministry—led by Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen, who is a leading Amhara politician—rejects Sudanese territorial ownership and has accused Sudan of “invading [Ethiopian] territories, plundering & displacing civilians & beating war drums to occupy even more lands.”
Compounding Abiy’s challenges is the recent unrest in Amhara region. This points to a deepening schism among Amhara political elites, which could also destabilize the political underpinnings of Abiy’s federal government. The popular Amhara opposition party National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) is organizing regionwide demonstrations questioning the actions and loyalty of Abiy to the Amhara cause and accusing him of deliberately stirring unrest and ordering killings of Amharas. The regional government, led by the Amhara Prosperity Party, rejected these accusations, hitting back at NAMA and labeling it an anti-prosperity enemy.
The intra-Amhara discord, as well as the conflicts among the various regional chapters of the governing Prosperity Party, is seriously weakening the government and destabilizing the country. Ethiopia’s National Security Council recently warned that regional border disputes were being utilized and driven by external and internal enemies and even people “embedded inside the government” to “kill and displace” civilians, which threatens the “existence of the country.”
The party infighting is a continuation of the power struggle that unraveled the earlier EPRDF governing coalition in 2018; the Prosperity Party is simply a new name attached to the old EPRDF party structures, minus the TPLF, which exited in 2019. Abiy has to a large degree alienated the Oromo constituency that brought him to power, and currently it seems that he is losing at least part of his Amhara support base, too.
The question is how long Abiy will manage to keep the lid on the internal differences within the party and balance the various factions at loggerheads with each other; the outcome may well lead to his political demise. Although it is highly likely the Prosperity Party will win in a landslide in the June national elections, since the key opposition parties have withdrawn from the process due to an alleged unlevel playing field, the prime minister might be challenged from within the party by the Amhara faction.
Col. Demeke, the leader of Welkait Amhara Identity Committee, was true to his promise to continue the struggle until Amhara regained control of its so-called lost territories. Demeke has been rewarded for his dedication and is currently the deputy chief administrator and security head of the new Amhara zone of Welkait, Tsegede, and Setit-Humera. The new zone is so far only recognized by the Amhara regional state itself, and its forceful incorporation is being protested by other factions in the Prosperity Party.
A formal incorporation of the territories under Amhara control will not end the conflict, however; it will only prolong it.
Abiy would need to formalize the process of Amhara land realignment, either through an endorsement in the upper house of Ethiopia’s parliament (which is fully controlled by the governing party) or through a decision by the government-appointed Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission. To legitimize the process, a referendum on belonging among the new postwar population of the area could be conducted. Initially, the Welkait Committee was against a referendum, but apparently after the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans there, it has no objection against it.
A formal incorporation of the territories under Amhara control will not end the conflict, however; it will only prolong it. On a satellite link from the battlefield, the ousted Tigrayan regional president and TPLF head, Debretsion Gebremichael, told me that there will be no peace or negotiations before all enemy forces have withdrawn from Tigrayan soil, including Amhara regional forces currently occupying western Tigray. “We are fighting for our identity. We are fighting for our rights,” he said. “We are fighting against all invaders to the end.”
Kjetil Tronvoll is an anthropologist and professor at Bjorknes University College in Oslo. He has conducted research in Ethiopia and Eritrea since 1991. Twitter: @KjetilTronvoll