AEPAC Background Materaial on Current Ethiopian Crisis
Prepared by Yonas Biru, PhD
The Ethiopian Constitution has trapped the people in a social dynamic that is anchored in an identityladen politics. The natural outcome is an innate gravitation of the political order toward centers of polarization. Of recent, Wolkait and Raya (W&R) have become the epicenter of the war theater in the Amhara-Oromo-Tigray conflict nexus. The conflict carries with it the seeds of a protracted war that is bound to draw Eritrea in. Three worrisome current developments need attention.
First, the W&R conflict can potentially become a battleground where long-fostering animosity and ill will between Amhara and Tigray reach the apex of a mutually destructive combat.
Second, the danger is compounded by PM Abiy who is polarizing the conflict and seeking alliance with Tigray to thwart the Fanno uprising. This was manifested in a recent speech at the Mekele Stadium by a high-level Oromo official who called for Tigray and Oromo to unite and deal with their common enemy for once and for all. The official made sure the public knew that his speech was made at the behest of Shimeles Abdissa, the President of the Oromo region.
Third, Getachew Reda, the President of the Tigray interim regional government has publicly stated Eritrea’s involvement is complicating the return of Wolkait to Tigray and expressed his administration’s readiness to help the Federal government fight what he called the Eritrea-Amhara alliance.
They say behind every dark cloud exists a silver lining. Since the Fanno uprising and revolt, changes in public opinion are fermenting, and voices of discontent are emerging from a growing undercurrent movement in the back alleys of the Amhara-Oromo-Tigray political nexus. These developments have opened a window of opportunity for change.
However, with so many moving parts, seizing the opportunity is by no means straightforward. The window of opportunity is narrow and the time available is short. But it is an opportunity that must be seized. The purpose of this article is an attempt to connect the scattered dots to forge a coherent story and chart a roadmap to seize the moment.
The presentation is divided into five parts. Part one presents a succinct overview of the state of the nation. Part two provides an exposé of the political epicenter and fault lines of the current crisis, focusing on the primary sources of the W&R conflict that precipitated the ongoing war in the Amhara
region. Part three discusses a scenario whereby the convergence of the Amhara-Tigray-Oromo conflict on W&R risks drawing in Eritrea and opening a gateway for a proxy war involving regional and international forces. Part four proposes specific steps for a way forward. Part five concludes.
Readers who are sufficiently familiar with the sources of the conflict may be tempted to go directly to part three. We strongly advise reading the document in its entirety to understand pertinent facts and situations undergirding the recommended roadmap for a way forward. For example, the viability of the role that the International Community (IC) plays cannot be fully appreciated if the salient points of its strengths and handicaps are not highlighted upfront. Similarly, a viable solution cannot be teased out of the claims and counterclaims of the Amhara and Tigray regions over W&R without identifying and describing the fault lines in their narratives.
2. Wolkait: The Epicenter of the Amhara-Tigray-Oromo Conflict Nexus
There is nothing the PM will not do to stay in power. In this venture, his friends become his enemies and his enemies turn into his friends at the snap of the fingers. The only thing constant is that he has neither loyalty to a cause nor integrity in his person. Some say his loyalty is to Oromummaa (Greater Oromia). Others say he is riding the Oromummaa wave only if it serves a higher agenda of keeping him in office. If not, they say, he will drop it in no time.
Nothing is off limit in his conflict brewing venture in pursuit of perfecting a zero-sum personal political gain. During the war between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and Tigray People’s
Liberation Front (TPLF), he was unequivocal that Wolkait belongs to Amhara. On national TV he stated:
“The people of Armacho, Wolkait and Tegenie have maintained in the past and continue to maintain to date their Begemder [Amhara] identity, despite 30 years of violence perpetrated against them. They never stopped to uphold their Begemder identity while they were being killed and exiled.”
This was not a onetime statement. In another televised speech he stated:
“You all know the Wolkait freedom committee has been fighting for years [during the TPLF era]. Who amongst you does not know leaders of the Wolkait Freedom Committee were arrested in Sululta (outside of Addis Ababa) when they were traveling to file an appeal to the Parliament? Wasn’t the reason why we established the boarder commission to address this and other similar problems? The Junta [TPLF] is against the boarder commission because it knows what it has done.”
The Fanno uprising led him to change his stance in a New York second. Last week, the minister of defense suggested W&R were illegally annexed by the Amhara. He declared the federal government will take over the administration of the two areas, return Tigrayans who have been forcefully displaced since November 2020, and conduct a referendum to give the people opportunity to determine where they belong. The Minister suggested this is what was agreed during the Pretoria agreement between the Ethiopian government and TPLF.
This is disturbing on many levels. First, the involvement of the minister of defense militarizes the conflict when in fact the conflict is rooted in a legal dispute of land ownership rights. Second, the PM is using the Minister, who is a Tigrayan, to send a signal of support to the TPLF position. Third, the Minister’s statements were politically driven and stand in stark conflict with the PM’S earlier public statements.
“The Pretoria summit has no authority over the issue of Wolkait. I do not understand why the issue of Wolkait is dragged into the Pretoria summit. We need to realize there is border conflict in Northern Shew between Oromia and Amhara. Are we going to take this to South Africa for resolution? Don’t we have the means and experience to address our problem by ourselves? Haven’t we established a border commission to sort out such conflicts.”
The Minister’s statement also clashes with a public statement Getachew Reda referred above where he suggested the Abiy Administration is working on returning Raya and Tselemt to Tigray. Regarding Wolkait, he said the presence of Eritrea is complicating the matter and Tigray is ready to help the government if requested. This shows the so-called referendum is a farce. This is clear in Getachew’s speech where he made no reference to any referendum.
Evidently, the decision has already been made by Oromo-PP without the involvement of the Abiy administration or the Parliament. The tacit threats embedded in the Defense Minister’s statements were unveiled by the above-mentioned Oromo Official who made a public call for a military alliance between Oromo and Tigray against the Amhara.
A Bird’s Eye View of Amhara Grievances on Wolkait and Raya
The Amhara contention that the TPLF annexed Wolkait by force has been corroborated by many Tigrayan politicians. Ras Mengesha Seyoum, a Tigrayan and former governor of Tigray (1960-1974), told the Voice of America: “When I was the governor of Tigray, [what is now known as Western Tigray] was under present-day Amhara region. The same was true when I was a child growing up.”
The Governor’s statement was affirmed by Dr. Aregawi Berhe, the founding chairperson of TPLF, who publicly stated: “Wolkait was annexed from current day Amhara during the TPLF gorilla days. The land was critical to get an outlet into Sudan to smuggle weapons and transport food for TPLF fighters. It was unjust for the Amhara.”
There are many TPLF founding members reaffirming this, including Abraham Yayeh who in 1982 confirmed W&R were taken from Gonder – aka Begemder – and Wello (parts of present-day Amhara). He further stated the people in both lands were Amharic speaking. His statement is consistent with the 1984 Ethiopian census that shows 69% of the residents in Wolkait self-identified as Amharic speaking.
Historical documents during Tigrayan Emperror Yohannes’ reign (1871 – 1889), also indicate the boundaries between Gonder and Tigray is the Tekezé River, lending credence to the Amhara position.
The fact that the TPLF annexed the two regions long before the 1995 constitution was enacted is incontrovertible. Similarly, the fact that the Constitution has no bearing in the demarcation of borders between Tigray and Amhara is undeniable. Amhara forces further allege the TPLF:
• Settled its former fighters in tens of thousands and forcefully displace people of Amhara heritage out of the annexed regions.
• As part of the social engineering to change the demography of W&R Schools stopped teaching in Amharic in 1991.
• Perpetrated mass killings of Amhara forces.
Amhara’s demand is for government administrative and legal recognition as the legitimate owner of W&R. The problem is that though there is unanimous agreement about the question of legal ownership, there is neither consensus nor a legitimate authority with a mandate to speak for Amhara, considering Amhara-PP is seen as Oromo-PP’s willful hostage.
Notably, there are Fanno leaders who have talked about the movement’s agenda and end goal. But that is not a substitute for a political architecture with an agreed-upon mandate to forge a shared vision, strategy, and roadmap.
Some prominent figures within the Fanno military ecosystem believe the Amhara reclaimed his ancestorial lands that were taken by force by Tigray and that is the end of the story. Case closed. Others believe a negotiated settlement is a viable and most peaceful option.
The lack of consensus on Fanno’s end game on the issues surrounding W&R, the administration of the Amhara region and Ethiopia at large complicates the problem. There is no guarantee that political differences among different Fanno groups will not lead to armed conflicts and lend itself to the emergence of regional warlords in Gonder, Gojam, Wello and Shewa.
A Bird’s Eye View of the Tigray Stance on Wolkait and Raya
Tigryan forces allege W&R are historical parts of Tigray before Emperor Haile Selassie transferred them to Begemder (part of the present-day Amhara) by a royal decree. This argument is refuted with maps showing Wolkait in Gonder during Emperor Menelik, decades before Emperor Haile Selassie was born. In response, the Tigrayan forces use old maps from the 18th and 19th centuries as evidence where Wolkait is shown in Tigray.
The Amhara refuted this with older maps going as far back as 15th century listing the names of regions within Tigray without mentioning Wolkait-Tsegede or Raya (Source: Catalogue Raisonné de Manuscrits Éthiopiens Appartenant à Antoine d’Abbadie). There are also multiple maps between 15th, and 17th centuries showing the Tekezé River separating Tigray and Gonder, giving credence to the Amhara narrative (Source: Crawford O.G.S. (1958), Ethiopian Itineraries, Circa 1400-1524, Cambridge; and Paez, P. (2011). Pedro Páez’s History of Ethiopia, 1622 (Vol. 23). Ashgate Publishing, Ltd)
There are many more maps produced at different times. For example, during the Italian occupation both contested lands were incorporated within Eritrea. If old maps are accepted as evidence, Eritrea can become a party to the conflict with some degree of legitimacy. Its legitimacy draws from internationally recognized national boundaries that separate and define African nations based largely on lines drawn by colonialist powers.
When the map argument fails to sway the public, Tigrayans shift the argument to language and claim W&R were incorporated into Tigray because the people are Tigragna speaking. This has been refuted by many including founding members of TPLF. As noted above with a link to a video clip, Abraham Yayeh is on the record, stating the people of Wolkait and Raya were Amharic speaking when the two regions were annexed by TPLF.
The attempt to justify demarcation of regions by language is futile in many ways. If language was the determining factor, more than a third of Benishangul would have been incorporated into the Amhara region. Addis Ababa where Oromos account for only 19% and Amhara represents 47% should have been incorporated into the Amhara region.
Tigrayan forces allege, since the recent war, Amhara forces have forcefully displaced hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans and brought in Amharas to change the demography of the two regions. The allegation is widely coved by the international media and international human rights organizations. The problem here is Tigrayans are conveniently playing oblivious to the fact that the forceful displacement of people was started and sustained by them until 2018.
Tigray’s demand vacillates between three positions. At times they demand the government reinstate the two lands into Tigray, recognizing the prewar status quo as part of the constitutional order. At other times they express to use force to reclaim the two regions. Yet at other times they demand a referendum after the people of Tigray who were forcefully displaced are returned. They put the forcefully displace number to 1.5 million. According to a 2017 census conducted by the regional government of Tigray, the population of Wolkait Was estimated well under 500,000.
Getachew Reda’s recent speeches in Colorado came with a mixed message, partly nuanced (walking a tight line between war and peace) and partly vacillating between peace seeking and war mongering. For example, at some point, he talked about the unimaginable sacrifice young Tigrayans have paid and the fact that “the people of Tigray do not have a shoulder to tolerate another war.” On the other hand, he talked about “the capability or heroism of [Tigray’s] over 200,000 soldiers” and offered to help the federal government to fight Amhara and Eritrea.
His speech seems to be crafted to throw enough red meat to Tigrayan warmongers and in the meantime wave olive leaves to calm the peace seeking public in Tigray and the diaspora.
Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com
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