‘Amhara Politicians’ and Amhara Nationalism: a bumpy road and an evolving agonizing process

Girama Berhanu article _ Amhara
Professor Girma Berhanu

By Girma Berhanu (Professor)
October 23, 2020

A few weeks ago a physicist friend of mine asked me: “Why is Amhara politics failing?” “How come that Amhara politicians are unable to defend the Amharas?” “Is Amhara nationalism the way out of the quagmire…?” Very much apprehensive about the genocidal act well underway against the Amharas, my friend pleaded for help to sort out his ideas! I find this very intricate and difficult to answer in uncontentious and satisfactory details. Hence I call upon the reader to contribute to the discussion.

The text below is a discussion note that may offer some concise new defences of a familiar view, advance a novel argument, or otherwise make some contribution that does not require more lengthy development.  Accordingly, my discussion notes are organized in the form of a bullet-point list.

▀ Generally the Amharas are deeply connected to other ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The animosity that we see against them is orchestrated by organized groups, in particular Tigrean and Oromo extremists. The lack of strong political organizations among the Amhara is partly because the Amharas are “invested” in national politics, ideologically based unifying forces and citizen-based politics.

 ▀ Current discourses and structural ramifications and institutional basis appear to be the major obstacle for pan-Ethiopian nationalism and the survival of the Amhara as people. These are the works of EPRDF/TPLF by design! Ethnic based politics are the culprit for this mess[1]. TPLF is out, Oromo nationalists are in; as we speak a new age of ethnic hubris is setting in as the virus of tribalism threatens to disintegrate and induce a civil war that could shatter the nation. The threat posed by ethnic rancour looms large and forebodingly.

▀ The Amharas identify themselves mostly as Ethiopians and secondly with their place of origin or provinces or districts. Moges (2020) rightly wrote that ‘Historically, public consciousness has been based on sub-regions, (Gojjam, Gondar, Shewa, or Wollo), or even smaller zones or districts. Anything larger has been Ethiopian national identity’ which had nothing to do with ethnic identity. All lived together in the region and proud to be of that region rather than tribe. Up until the last quarter of the 20th century, “Amhara” was only used (in the form amariñña) to refer to Amharic, the language, or the medieval province located in Wollo, called the “Amhara Saint (modern Amhara Region). Still today, most people labelled by outsiders as “Amhara”, refer to themselves simply as “Ethiopian”, or to their province (e.g. Gojjamé from the province Gojjam). According to Ethiopian ethnographer Donald Levine, “Amharic-speaking Shewans consider themselves closer to non-Amharic-speaking Shewans than to Amharic-speakers from distant regions like Gondar.”[2] Amharic-speakers tend to be a “supra-ethnic group” composed of “fused stock”[3] This could be evidenced from the fact that most of the Menlik’s top ranking military officials that scored victory at Adwa were Shewan Oromos, which include well-known names, like Ras (Lord) Gobana datche, Dejazmach Balacha Aba nebso, Ftawrari Habtegiorgis Dinagde, etc.

▀ The Amhara as a distinct ethnic group was not solidified in the past and they are still not unified by the rather “shaky” politics of identity.[4] The persecution and constant atrocity crimes committed on the Amharas have recently made them aware of the need for organizing to protect themselves. As Moges (2020) aptly captured:

“Amhara identity, in its current form, is a recent introduction and forced self-appropriation, caused by an existential threat and alienation. The younger generation has adopted its ‘Amharaness’; but most ordinary people are yet to fully embrace it, not least because of the lack of any effectively articulated ideological foundation or priorities and the absence of any ‘tailor-made’ solutions to the challenges facing them”

▀ The Amhara intellectuals appear to be “confused”. They are at a “crossroad” and in “crossfire.” They are deeply divided between Amhara identity and Ethiopian nationalism. ‘The sustained policy of oppression gradually sowed the seeds of victimhood, alienation, discrimination, and a resentment which finally inspired Amhara nationalism’[5].

▀ Ethiopianism and Amhara are inextricably intertwined, which is one reason for their endless persecution! Anti-Ethiopia elements have aversion to the Amharas’ zealousness[6] about Ethiopia.

▀ The current federal system is responsible for the Amhara’s suffering and persecution because Amharas in various regional states are now considered settlers in their own country. Shiferaw (2020), in a recent article titled Uglier faces of discrimination against the Amhara people in Ethiopia, wrote that discrimination has become a culture in Ethiopia. And the government seems to be busy with justifying and socializing (instead of correcting gaps) citizens to be comfortable with discrimination in different aspects. Workplace, employment, and the appointment is one area where the problem manifests itself vividly. For instance, a recent advertisement by revenues authority unveiled that almost all the potential candidates are taken from one college and ethnic group. Besides, appointments to civil and military positions especially critical ones are filled with people from one ethnic group[7]. This past week the news is awash with that “one needs to know two languages to be employed in the capital city”. That simply means marginalizing/excluding only Amharic speaking groups.

▀ The targeted eviction and episodes of the genocide of ethnic Amharas in the regional states of Benishangul Gumuz and Oromia is extremely worrying. At the time of composing this discussion note, tens of thousands of residents in Gura Ferda, most of them Amharas, have been displaced and tens have been massacred in horrible and appalling manners. The pictures I saw: beastly cruel, dreadful and ghastly. “At a small town known as Gura Ferda, 31 people have been brutally murdered. Witnesses say most victims were Amharas. The elderly, pregnant women and minors have not been spared. The attackers, as usual, are described as “unknowns”, but from the brutality of the attack, it can be said that OLF or qeroo is behind… It is the well-known modus operandi of groups hostile to the Amharas. There no group in Ethiopia today capable of committing atrocities to civilians at such horrible scale except the qerroo! (Personal communication, verbatim, 2020.10.23)[8]. The Derg is often portrayed as a continuation of an old ‘pro-Amhara’ imperial system, but its documented history shows that Amharas were among the primary victims of its brutality[9] (Zola Moges September 2020). In his prison memoir, titled The Tripping Stone, written in the Derg’s dungeons, the first President of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Taffara Deguefe, noted what seemed to be a policy of discrimination against Amhara: “The only ‘minorities’ who are scorned are the hopeless Amhara for their past privileges. They have to pay for it now in lost jobs and positions for their hateful identification to a past now seen as distasteful to the military junta.”[10]

▀ The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front[11], which was one of the constituent parties of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, has always considered ethnic Amharas an enemy. It has used their perceived historical dominance as the basis for forming a coalition of minorities to oppose their push for a united Ethiopia.

▀ National and ethnic identity of the Amhara has been strongly intertwined with a form of the Christian faith since about 350 CE when Syrian (Nestorian) Christianity was introduced to the royal family by a young Syrian sailor.  This long and glorious history[12] might have caused a sense of inferiority complex among extremist groups[13].

▀ Ruins of the ancient city of Axum can still be seen in Tigray Province.  Except for a few notable exceptions, the Amhara have been the dominant people group in Ethiopia history.  The strength of their culture is shown in this influence[14]. That might be a cause for some groups to dislike the Amharas’ superior culture, literacy and warrior skills in history.[15]The fact remains that most of the people that are speaking Amharic are actually people who were displaced from Axum in Tigray and settled as far as Shewa and Harar. Therefore, “Amharas” are simply identified by the language and religion rather than family tree. If family tree mattered, starting from Emperor Haileselassie (whose Father was Mekonnen Welde Michael Gudissa, and even Emperor Menelik only have a fraction DNA from their Shewa Amharas.

▀ According to a foreign observer, though their life is hard, the Amhara are proud people–proud of their ethnicity[16] and Ethiopianess, simultaneously, their religion, and their special place in the world.  Their culture is strong, developed over many centuries, and it has withstood the incursions of outside governments and religions[17].  Despite their hard life, the Amhara is a friendly and hospitable people[18].  The Amhara are proud of their culture and religion, and ready to give their lives for the country’s unity and integrity.[19] This has cost them a lot.

▀ Unfortunately there are no political leaders or strong organizations that protect the human rights of this ethnic group[20]. As for those officials of ANDM that were part of EPRDF and the ADP united to the Prosperity party, they first were recruits of the TPLF and the later are just the same people, but now serving the ODP’s interest, rather than standing up for the Amharas. The Amhara civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights are violated through various means. Though all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the legally binding International Covenants of Human Rights are considered essential, there are certain types of violations we tend to consider more serious. Civil rights, which include the right to life, safety, and equality before the law are considered by many to be “first-generation” rights. Political rights, which include the right to a fair trial and the right to vote, also fall under this category. The Amharas living in the regional states of Benishangul Gumuz and Oromia are denied all of these.

The above points may help my friend’s inquiries on the plight of the Amhara people. I hope others will contribute to the discussion note.

Notes :

[1] https://www.ethiopoint.com/the-trouble-with-ethiopias-ethnic-federalism/

[2] Donald N. Levine “Amhara,” in von Uhlig, Siegbert, ed., Encyclopedia Aethiopica:A-C, 2003, p.231.

[3] Takkele Taddese “Do the Amhara Exist as a Distinct Ethnic Group?” in Marcus, Harold G., ed., Papers of the 12th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, 1994, pp.168–186. Takkele Taddese (1994) further wrote that he Amhara can thus be said to exist in the sense of being a fused stock, a supra-ethnically conscious ethnic Ethiopian serving as the pot in which all the other ethnic groups are supposed to melt. The language, Amharic, serves as the center of this melting process although it is difficult to conceive of a language without the existence of a corresponding distinct ethnic group speaking it as a mother tongue. The Amhara does not exist, however, in the sense of being a distinct ethnic group promoting its own interests and advancing the Herrenvolk philosophy and ideology as has been presented by the elite politicians. The basic principle of those who affirm the existence of the Amhara as a distinct ethnic group, therefore, is that the Amhara should be dislodged from the position of supremacy and each ethnic group should be freed from Amhara domination to have equal status with everybody else. This sense of Amhara existence can be viewed as a myth.” This statement can be contentious, though.

[4] This was not because Amhara people suffered from social, political, and economic subjugation less than others but Amhara identity as we know it today was only constructed in response to a target of repression, with the rise of Derg. https://www.theafricareport.com/43182/ethiopia-defining-amhara-nationalism-for-a-better-country/

[5] https://www.theafricareport.com/43182/ethiopia-defining-amhara-nationalism-for-a-better-country/

[6] As many observers have testified, the Amhara people are a symbol of patriotism, bravery and part of the core Ethiopian national identity and soul. The continuity and prosperity of Ethiopia is also in the Amhara people’s enduring interest (Moges, 2020).

[7]http://www.branapress.com/2020/03/04/uglier-faces-of-discrimination-against-the-amhara-people-in-ethiopia/

[8] We have yet to corroborate or substantiate with more data on who the perpetrators are behind this pogrom.

[9] Smith, Lahra. Political Violence and Democratic Uncertainty in Ethiopia. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2007

[10] https://www.theafricareport.com/43182/ethiopia-defining-amhara-nationalism-for-a-better-country/

[11] The dominant segment, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, had identified the Amhara as its “eternal enemy” at the start of its armed struggle, and after 1991 turned this party manifesto into government policy, implementing it in earnest, using state structures and instruments of violence.

[12] Pankhurst, Richard. A Social History of Ethiopia. Trenton: Red Sea Press, 1992.

[13] Marcus, Harold. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

[14] Levine, Donald. Wax and Gold. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

[15] http://www.ethiopianreview.com/index/382

[16] This is arguable and might contradict with what was said before. “The Amharas are not proud of their ethnicity but region they come from, as Gajjame, Gondare, Welloye, and for the Amharas in Shewa, as Bulge, Menze, Mere etc. (Personal communication, Wondmye 2020-10-23).

[17] See also Ullendorf, Edward. The Ethiopians. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

[18] Buxton, David. The Abyssinians. New York: Praeger, 1970.

[19] The Amhara people have a long history of independence, state culture and government, amazing and colorful traditions, civilization and wonderful societal values such as kindness and honesty, gallant spirit and fear of God. Amhara nationalism should cultivate and exploit these. Amhara nationalism should thus be revisited and rebuilt on pride, popular self-esteem and the mythos of love rather than hatred and resentment (https://www.theafricareport.com/43182/ethiopia-defining-amhara-nationalism-for-a-better-country/)

[20] While Amhara nationalism has had an impact on the political consciousness of the youth and articulated common interests, it is still characterized by a lack of ideological clarity, and a dependable institutional bulwark, a cohesive social base or even, as opposition politician Yilikal Getinet has pointed out, a centre of gravity. (Moges 2020).



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One Response to "‘Amhara Politicians’ and Amhara Nationalism: a bumpy road and an evolving agonizing process"

  1. Salaam   October 25, 2020 at 6:45 am

    The biggest reason is that not only are the Amhara intertwined with other ethnic groups, but a vast number of them have lived for generations outside what is today defined as their region. A successful Amhara nationalism would result in even more radical ethnic nationalism throughout the country, resulting in millions of ‘migrant’ Amharas being displaced back to Amhara. The Amhara in, say, Awassa, understands this very well. He wants to be Awassan, and he wants a strong centre to defend him. That’s why the only peaceful route is strengthening the centre, which is terribly hard work given the centre’s 50 year self inflicted collapse.

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