Days after Federal communication ministry announced unspecified stand on Wolkait, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed says referendum will determine its status
The issue of Wolkait has been a bone of contention even after the TPLF, which incorporated the region as part of Tigray after taking power in 1991, lost its power in the Federal government and retreated.
Residents say thousands of residents were murdered, tortured and displaced during TPLF’s three decades control of power because they claimed their ethnic Amhara identity. Wolkait and Humera in North Western Ethiopia were parts of Gondar province immediately before TPLF incorporated it as part of Tigray region as part of the new ethnic based federation. It was incorporated even before the current ethnic based constitution was drafted and approved. The Story of Raya that used to be part of Wollo province in what is now the Amhara region.
When the TPLF attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Defense Force in November 2020 and subsequently attacked Afar and Amhara regions , it lost battles in Humera and Wolkait. Its forces fled from the region to Sudan, after carrying out massive massacres including in Maikadra, where they were accepted as “refugees.”
Abiy Ahmed’s government has been gambling on the issue. At a time when it needed the political and military support of ethnic Amhara people during the bloody two years’ war, he was speaking publicly making the point that it is undeniably Amharan and that “there is no one who does not know how it was included as part of Tigray.”
After the Pretoria Agreement which ended the war between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed’s government, everything was twisted. Although Wolkait was not mentioned by name in the agreement, the Federal government agreed to resolve the issue in the Tigray region “in accordance with the constitution.” The TPLF’s calculation was that the areas now being described as “contested” areas would be part of Tigray if the “constitution” was implemented. Speaking of constitution, ethnic Amhara people in Wolkait and Raya were subjected to three decades of ruthlessness only for aspiring to exercise their constitutional rights.
In the post Pretoria agreement, the TPLF and the Federal government under Abiy Ahmed-which is said to be dominated by radical ethnic Oromo-nationalist forces- emerged as political allies. Oromia regional government even sent delegates to the Tigray region to declare allegiance and representative of the delegate who read out the message from the Oromia government during a festival in Tigray region in August said “Tigray, Oromia and other nations and nationalities” were facing a political group that seeks to rule by itself without sharing power. The message was understood to be against ethnic Amhara at the time and the video footage of the speech was widely circulating on social media.
The Federal government has been sending blurry messages about the status of Welkait. It was only last week that the Federal government communications Ministry said that the Federal government has a firm stand on the question of Welkait without stating what exactly it is.
In the final part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s “lecture” on artificial intelligence, to his top officials, the video of which was published by State-owned media, the issue of Wolkait came up. And he said there is going to be a “referendum” on Welkait ( Implied that Raya too will be subject to referendum). People in Wolkait have protested that they will not accept the referendum. Lesane Gifuan, an organization representing Wolkait people, have made it clear that no referendum will be accepted.
Abiy Ahmed has also disclosed that “displaced People” will return to Wolkait first before the referendum. People in Wolkait are saying that the TPLF has been pursuing a massive settlement program as a strategy to change the demography. The Ethiopian Prime Minister sounded as if the referendum was the right thing to do and that the Federal government does have a capacity to address all the demands – certainly something that people in Wolkait will not accept based on recent statements from leaders. For that matter, people in the Amhara region will not accept that as has been demonstrated in public rallies with the chant ” Wolkait is Amhara.” There is a likelihood that the situation could lead to war. Abiy Ahmed’s government has been waging war in the Amhara region since April of this year with the aim to disarm Fano forces. The TPLF has managed to retain over 200,000 armed forces despite the Pretoria agreement requiring the TPLF to disarm fully.
Abiy Ahmed has also expressed his intention of acquiring access to the Red Sea by any means which may mean war against Eritrea. Whether his announcement of the Welkait referendum is calculated, will be seen in the weeks and months to come.
In the meantime, an alleged political disagreement within the TPLF is emerging. This week, Getachew Reda, president of Tigray Interim government, terminated four prominent TPLF leaders. Contrived as a political tactic or otherwise, not definitely known.
For TPLF Wolkait, with its access to the Sudan, is of strategic significance for imagined rainy days. For ethnic Amharas, it is a matter of identity and they have paid for it in life.
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