The return and resurgence of an imperialist Amhara nationalism
Left unchecked, the hegemonic and expansionist strand of Amhara nationalism that aims to resurrect a unitarist Ethiopian state is a recipe for genocide.
(Awash) — In a grisly massacre captured on camera last month, a mob in Shawa Robit drags wounded victims out of a visibly marked emergency ambulance and beats and slaughters them with knives. The victims were ethnic Oromos injured in an ongoing conflict in the Oromia Special Zone of the Amhara Region. The Amhara mob stopped the ambulance as it transferred the wounded to a hospital in Shawa Robit for treatment. At least 300 people were killed, 369 injured, 1,539 Oromo houses razed to the ashes, and 40,000 displaced in fighting that began in mid-March. The Oromia branch of the ruling Prosperity Party has accused its Amhara counterpart of “war crimes” for what locals describe as an act of ethnic cleansing.
It was not an unforeseen conflict. Amhara nationalists, organized and armed, including under the so-called Menelik Brigade, have been threatening to return all “lost Amhara territories” forcibly. The ethnic cleansing in western Tigray and the latest carnage against Wollo Oromos is part of the Amhara nationalists’ “rist masmeles” expansionist campaign.
It is essential to underline that these are not spontaneous communal conflicts. They are organized around and driven by a hegemonic Amhara nationalism that is on the ascendance in recent years.
Ethiopia is back in the global media spotlight with disturbing headlines about ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, and war crimes in Tigray. Tragically, it is only the tip of the many atrocities across the country, including in Oromia, fueled by greed and grievance.
Mainstream discourses often ignore or overlook the greed part and long-standing inter-group conflicts instigated to achieve cheap political objectives. In Ethiopia today, the rise in genocidal rhetoric and a winner-takes-all culture is hastening mutual annihilation instead of fostering peaceful co-existence. This is why it is important to closely examine the return and resurgence of a hegemonic Amhara nationalism to understand the dueling narratives and disinformation coming out of Ethiopia.
Let’s start with a simple question: where was this resurgent Amhara nationalism before it returned?
The story begins with the arrival of a people known as Habesha in Northeast Africa from South Arabia between 1000 and 500 B.C. Amhara and Tigre are prominent among the Habesha people, also known as Abyssinians. Local Abyssinian rulers fought bloody wars for supremacy before they turned their sights against the indigenous Cushitic people.
The first Cushitic victim of Abyssinians was the Agew people, who lost their famous dynasty to the Solomonic dynasty from Gonder in 1270. Abyssinians then conquered Wollo Oromo in the 1850s and Tulama Oromo in the 1880s. The Abyssinians had an edge in the fight against Cushitic people because of their access to modern firearms and written language, which they used to disseminate their ideology. The Abyssinian expedition had imperialistic ambitions.
Menelik II (1866-1913) consolidated power over Abyssinia following the death of King Yohannes of Tigre at the battle of Metemma or Gallabat fought against Mahdists in 1889. After establishing his supremacy over Abyssinia, Menelik launched his Southward expansion as part of the European Scramble for Africa, making him the only black ruler and an eager participant in the conquest and subjugation of the indigenous Cushitic and Nilotic people. He completed his mission by signing treaties with Europeans creating imperial Ethiopia.
Since the creation of imperial Ethiopia a century and a half ago, Ethiopia has been ruled by a dogmatic political ideology that promotes Amhara supremacy with only a few short interludes. Consequently, Ethiopia became identified with the Amhara culture and Orthodox Christianity. Amhara language and culture have been imposed on more than 80 different nations and nationalities because Amharic was elevated as lesane negus or the language of the king.
Amhara identity was similarly accorded a national status creating a hegemonic and assimilationist cultural state while denigrating the diverse identities in conquered areas. In essence, the Amharas fine-tuned Ethiopian identity to their own ethno-cultural identity alienating everybody else. The Amharanization project was such that its proponents deliberately conflated Amhara culture, values, worldviews, and traditions with Ethiopian identity.
In other words, Amhara nationalism was hidden behind the Ethiopian mask to create a centralized state around Amhara supremacy violently. This distinct strand of Amhara nationalism is now making a comeback with the same supremacist objective.
The re-emergence of Amhara nationalism
Amhara and Tigre rulers shaped the modern Ethiopian state through internal and external warfares. They played critical roles in designing and redesigning the state machinery. At the same time, they brutalized each other and other people of Ethiopia in the struggle for the throne and supremacy.
It is sufficient to note one significant historical event that underscores the lose-lose political tradition of the two Abyssinian groups. When Yohannes IV died in the battle against the Mahdists in 1889, his son, Mengesha, was supposed to succeed him. However, Menelik II betrayed Yohannes, breaking his promise to back him up at the battle and usurping the throne in violation of the traditional bloodline succession. Tigrean nationalists begrudge Menelik’s mischief to this day. Menelik’s ascension dealt a final blow to the Tigrean hegemony until the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) defeated the Derg more than 100 years later in 1990.
TPLF’s victory weakened the Amhara domination of power but did not end their cultural and structural hegemony. TPLF promoted equality by first enshrining self-rule in the 1991 transitional charter and later in the 1995 constitution, albeit in theory. The Amhara elite did not openly decry when TPLF cadres told them that they are now equal with such minority groups as the Mursi or the Gumuz.
The Amhara elite’s fightback strategy was not clear at the beginning. One of their strategies was claiming victimhood, alleging that the rebel forces that ended their hegemony were committing genocide against the Amhara. They framed their loss of privilege under the federal arrangement as an attempt to exterminate the Amharas. They went as far as fabricating the disappearance of two million Amharas under TPLF’s 27-year rule based on mere contestation over the number of Amharas in the 1994 and 2007 population censuses. The Amhara elite also inculcated a siege mentality among the Amhara minorities settled in different regions outside their Abyssinian homeland and began to arm them. At first, their campaign failed to gain traction partly because some influential Amharas denied the existence of Amhara as a distinct ethnic group.
Some two decades later, the denialism hit a dead end when ordinary Amharas decided to fight TPLF’s rule and reverse the alleged annexation of Welkait to the Tigray region. The allegations that Amhara children were forced to learn in Tigrigna and assimilate to the Tigre culture united all Amharas behind the effort to reclaim Welkait-Tegede. The campaign against TPLF’s expansionist tendency in Western Tigray was also framed as a genocide against the Amhara people.
Two additional developments propelled the revival of the unmasked Amhara nationalism. First, in June 2018, Amhara nationalists established the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). Second, buoyed by the widespread Oromo protests that began in 2014 and the bottom-up push for change, some Oromo and Amhara politicians within the EPRDF coalition started to speak up against TPLF’s policy. Externally, given the mainstreaming of identity politics, particularly the resurgence of Oromo culture and nationalism, some Amhara elite were pressured to reconsider the viability of hiding behind the mask of Ethiopiawinet.
After living in the shadow of Ethiopian-ness for more than a century and a half, Amhara nationalism came out into the open during the last decade of TPLF’s reign because of the campaign to reclaim Welkait, the emergence of Amhara-based political movements, and related developments in the country, including the role of some Amharic language media.
TPLF’s tight grip on the throne informed the Amhara elites’ decision to organize and fight for power in the name of Amhara. Amhara nationalists saw the weakening and eventual demise of the TPLF as a do-or-die moment to restrain the federalist camps and re-establish their dominance. Although nothing is wrong with being or coming out as Amhara, Amhara nationalism turned militant upon arrival.
Amhara nationalism is based on the supremacist belief that the Amhara people are superior and the most civilized of all ethnic groups in Ethiopia (አመረ የሰዉ ዉሀ ልክ ነዉ). This kind of grandiosity has certain inherent features that carry the potentials for genocide.
Amhara nationalism is imperialistic
Between the 1880s and 1890s, Menelik II conquered about three-fold the size of his homeland, Abyssinia. Haile Selassie continued and perfected the assimilationist state-building project, forcefully annexing Eritrea and Ogaden in the late 1950s.
The contemporary Amhara elites are displeased that their kingdom is reduced to the old Abyssinia—less Tigray— under a new name: The Amhara Regional State. They believe dismantling the current federal structure would herald their come back to the center. The Amhara elite sees the practice of self-rule as an affront. In 2019, an Amhara patriot, or arbegna, boasted about his capability to easily seize Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region.
In 2018, shortly after TPLF was forced out of power by popular protests in Oromia and Amhara regions, General Asaminew Tsige was released from prison and appointed as the Amhara region’s security chief. Gen. Asaminew sprung to action, proclaiming that the Amhara faced an existential threat similar to when Abyssinian kings fought against Islam some 500 years ago. He trained tens of thousands of Amhara militia and special forces, impelling them on to repeat the glorious deeds of their forefathers. He marched against Wollo Oromos in the Oromia special zone in a campaign that led to civilian deaths, destruction, and displacement. Asaminew was killed before seeing his vision through, but the imperialistic strand of Amhara nationalism he promoted is still destabilizing Ethiopia.
In Oct. 2019, Amhara militias massacred more than 20 Qimant people by burning them alive for demanding self-rule. Next, they marched against the people of Gumuz, murdering hundreds, selecting them by their darker Nilotic skin color. Then, they joined arms with the Ethiopian National Defense Force to massacre Tigreans at multiple locations over the last five months. The campaign against Tigreans is coordinated with the ruling regime in a deal to wipe out the TPLF. When the TPLF retreated to the mountains, the Amhara special forces turned to cleanse Tigrayans from the “liberated” areas. The ongoing attacks against the Wollo Oromos that already claimed dozens of lives are part of the same imperialist quest and expansion.
Amhara nationalism and the Orthodox Church
The historian John Markakis maintains that Ethiopian nationality has been theologically defined, and a non-Christian cannot be an Ethiopian. The sect of Christianity that defines Ethiopian identity is the Orthodox Tewahedo Church. A popular refrain among Amhara supremacists underscores this point: ኦርቶዶክስ ሀገር ናት or Orthodox is a Country, elevating one religion to an overarching national identity.
Haile Selassie, whose many titles include the Defender of the [Orthodox] Faith, once lamented, “Ethiopia is a Christian island in the sea of Islam.” Most Amhara nationalists still believe this to be the case. In fact, Amhara elites believe they inherited Ethiopia from their Christian forefathers. All others, i.e., non-Christians and non-Amharas, live in Ethiopia out of their goodwill in a sovereign country forged through the blood and sweat of their forefathers.
Muslims make up 34 percent of Ethiopia’s total population. The majority of Muslims in Ethiopia are Oromo, making both Islam and the Oromo the ultimate other and arch-enemy of the Amhara. The majority of Amhara are Orthodox Christians. As a result, the political aspiration of the people and the dogmatic religious belief are mixed up to the level where Orthodox priests hypocritically stand up for Amhara rights while condoning the misery of other Ethiopians.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) was formally designated as state religion (Church of the Empire) under the 1955 constitution. It has been accused of being a safe haven for perpetrators of atrocities and serving as weapons storage. Amhara nationalists often invoke የኢትዮጵያ አምላክ or the Ethiopian God with reverence. Their love for God is usually expressed in their love for a mythological Ethiopia that shines out their glories over the rest of the people.
Amhara priests often use their religious position to promote narrow interests. For example, they decry the killing of ethnic Amharas in Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz while shamelessly cheering on and praying for the success of the deadly military campaign in Tigray and Oromia. EOTC has been and remains a political tool for the imperialist and expansionist Amhara nationalism.
Amhara nationalism is regressive
Amhara nationalists swear in the name of their forefather Menelik II. They call him emiye, which literally means mother in Amharic. The brutal warrior is like a mother to them. By refusing to listen to the stories of injustice their mother-like king inflicted on others, Amhara nationalism lost common ground with every other people in Ethiopia. Instead of righting the past wrong, committing to reconciliation, and working for a better Ethiopia, the Amhara’s dream about bringing back imperial Ethiopia that was rejected by everybody else. Ethiopia is hell-bent if the national political influence of the nihilistic elites is not reconsidered.
Imposing the Amharic language and Orthodox Christianity on other people was undemocratic and racist from the beginning. Sustaining the one national language policy despite the opposition from many groups of Ethiopian people is racist. Many attempts towards creating a bi-lingual Ethiopia failed to achieve its goal due to fierce resistance from the Amhara elite. To make things worse, one of the notorious EOTC deacons who publicly denounced praying in Afaan Oromo became a top adviser to the current prime minister, where Oromos make up half of the total population.
Amhara nationalists hate the current federal structure because it equated the Amhara with everybody else. From their viewpoint, democracy either never works, or it should only serve their dominant position. They never settle with their fair share of the national cake. They oversize themselves to control the whole nation. Their argument ends in an ‘all or none’ position.
A close look at the mentality of Amhara nationalists and activists hints at how racist they are. The Amharas still enjoy calling the rest of the Ethiopian people derogatory names their forefathers gave to the people they came into contact with during the conquest process. Amhara nationalists do not have the minimum decorum to work with others for a better Ethiopia collaboratively. They think people are conspiring against them if they do not speak in Amharic.
Amhara nationalism deeply believes in conspiracy
The most conflict-prone characteristic of Amhara nationalists is their deep belief in preemptive attacks on their adversaries. They do not believe in negotiating and amicably settling political differences. If they come to a negotiation table, they do it with a hidden agenda. The Amharas conspired to get rid of Zewditu and Lij Iyasu, the legitimate successors of Menelik II, because the former is a woman and the latter is half Oromo.
In recent experiences, Amhara nationalists have engaged in conspiracies with severe consequences. The day Jawar Mohammed feared for his life in October 2019 due to the removal of his security details in the dead of night, thousands of Oromos took to the streets to show him their support. Amhara residents of some cities like Adama confronted and killed peaceful protesters, hiding behind military members deployed to keep the peace. At least 86 people, the majority of them unarmed Oromo youth, were reported dead as a result. The killers were members of the army and armed Amhara individuals. However, Amhara nationalists instrumentalized this incident for campaigning against the prominent Oromo activist as if he killed people or advocated for it.
When violent clashes ensued following the death of the beloved artist Hachalu Hundessa on June 29 in 2020, hundreds of people died, the majority of whom were Oromos, as per the account of the regime in power. However, Amhara activists once again conspired and campaigned against the Oromos, labeling them as terrorist killers. The Oromos got to die and take the blame according to their conspiracy. The Amharas shamelessly added religious flavor to the violence to rally the Christian world behind them. There were conflicts here and there in the Oromia region at the time. However, it was a wicked Amhara conspiracy to escalate the events to the level of disinformation campaign equating what happened to jihadism.
In 2019, they played another premature conspiracy to inflame a war against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) operating in Western Oromia. Amhara activists and politicians alleged that OLA abducted 27 Amhara university students near Dembi Dollo. To date, no journalist or official has produced any evidence that the students were indeed abducted.
Amhara nationalists committed atrocities for centuries hiding behind the name Ethiopia. They have been orchestrating the news of “genocide against Amhara” since the introduction of the federal state structure in the 1990s. The rhetoric of genocide against Amhara got traction recently after aggressive activism and media campaigns. Finally, greed for power, grievance towards TPLF, the emergence of such organizations as NaMA, and other factors together resulted in the return of hegemonic and militant Amhara nationalism.
Amhara nationalists created a siege mentality among Amhara settled in other parts of the country and armed the Amhara civilians massively. They sowed mutual mistrust between Amharas and other Ethiopians, taking the rampant inter-group violence to a very dangerous level. The regressive Amhara nationalism is now heavily armed in the form of Amhara Special Force, Amhara militia, and the Fano; some clusters of the armed wing of Amhara nationalist are named as Menelik’s brigade to the surprise of many Ethiopians.
Ethiopia’s past offers too little to forge unity among its people. The way forward should pay attention to Ethiopia’s history only to rectify the wrongs that pulled the people apart in the first place.
Left unchecked, the return of the hegemonic and expansionist Amhara nationalism with the objective of resuscitating a unitarist Ethiopian state is a recipe for genocide.