(OPride) — Ethiopia is embroiled in multiple and existential political crises. Widespread and sustained protests have rocked the populous state of Oromia for nearly 10 months. Ethnic discontents, hitherto the domain of southern states, have recently resulted in similar protests and deaths in the northern Amhara state.
Some scholars argue that conflict has a constructive function. In this context, conflict is understood differently from violence as the latter has too little constructive outcomes. Such a conflict prevents stagnation and stimulates curiosity, leading to the opening of doors for airing grievances to resolve it. A consultative approach to conflict resolution normally leads to a better relationship among the parties in conflict.
The political grievance of the Walkayit people is normally seen as one among the multitude of political problems facing Ethiopia. However, the recent standoff between security forces and the Walkayit people may serve as an opportunity for resolving the bigger identity related conflicts in Ethiopia. It is my hope that the Walkayit protests have awakened an important constituency —the Amhara elite — to finally recognize the need to address the questions of nationalities in Ethiopia in a comprehensive manner. One hopes that such a realization will lead to a better understanding among the Amhara elite about the inseparable link between identity and politics in Ethiopia.
The assimilationist policies of successive Ethiopian governments have created deep resentment among the majority non-Amhara identity groups. This resentment led to political movements in the 1960s. The armed movements that came out of the ’60s protests and revolution in theory ended Ethiopia’s centralized feudal system. Following the downfall of the Derg regime in 1991, identity politics took the center stage in the national political discourse. The various ethno-national liberation fronts under the leadership of the three major rebel forces i.e., the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) devised ethnic federation as a compromise political framework for a deeply fractured nation.
Crucially, the champions of the revolution directly or indirectly held the Amhara elites accountable for the perils of the oppressed masses in that country. The Neftegna system that forcibly ruled Ethiopia under a centralized command was equated with the Amhara. Anything about Ethiopian unity became Amhara issue. Since the wrongs were done in the name of unity, centrifugal politics is shamed by the new rulers.
Amhara elites and identity politics
The prominence of ethno-national issues over the ‘Ethiopia First’ motto in the early 1990s enraged the Amhara elites. With the downfall of Derg, the Ethiopian unity mantra started to diminish from public discourse. The plural “Nations, Nationalities and People” overshadowed the Amharanized notion of “one Nation.” The oversized influence of the Amhara on the Ethiopian national policy also ended with the demise of the unitary system. But they didn’t give up. They fought back ridiculing and demonizing anything ethnic.
One of their rhetoric was to deny the existence of Amhara as a separate ethnic category. Other times they said all highlander Ethiopians are Amhara. For example, on his last days as Ethiopia’s ruler Mengistu Hailemariam, who maintained Amhara superiority in the name of socialism, tried to persuade us that every highlander is Amhara. This was followed by former Addis Ababa University professor Mesfin Woldemariam arguing that Amhara doesn’t exist. A curious discussion between this prominent scholar of Amhara origin, and the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a Tigrean, reveals a clear stand taken by Amhara elites at the time. During the exchange, Mesfin unequivocally argues that there are no people called Amhara — a common position among Amhara elites at least in those days.
The denial of Amhara’s existence as a distinct ethnic group was a well thought over political strategy and an instinctive defense to the vengeful attack that targeted the Amhara at the time. Absent independent armed group that stands up for the Amhara, scholars like Mesfin tried to divert the focus away from what they saw as a revenge by ethno-nationalists for Amhara’s long held dominance over Ethiopia.
But their politics of denial did not last long. Ethiopia’s post-1991 political dispensation made ethnic identity a mainstream organizing principle and a key factor for planning and executing every administrative policy. Budget is streamed to linguistic based regional states. Political appointment, even if largely symbolic, was given to representatives of various ethnic groups. Almost every political engagement and the benefit driven therefrom came in the name of an ethnic administrative unit. Eventually, there was no room or less of it for the Amhara, whom Mesfin declared did not exist as an ethnic grouping. The comparative disadvantage of the Amhara under the current dispensation became increasingly clear, the Amhara camp began to reconsider their positions.
In the late 1990s an Amhara-based political movement emerged, claiming that the Amhara were not well represented and they do not have a proper voice in the country. The Mela Amhara party, which openly proclaimed “Amhara Pride,” was created and entered the national political arena. But TPLF already had a satellite organization representing the Amhara in its loose coalition, EPRDF. Hence, they had no room for the All Amhara Party even after they are organized along ethnic lines. This forced the Amhara camp to reconsider its position for the third time.
Scholars and elites began to ask one vexing question: Who is going to protect the Ethiopian unity if Amhara politics is reduced to ethnic level? They could not trust TPLF or other ethnic-based fronts with the task. After a decade and a half of searching, the Amhara elite made a huge come back in 2005. They built a coalition of all pro-unity political parties and individuals and stood for elections under the banner of Coalition for Unity and Democracy, also known as Kinijit. It’s a truly landmark political phenomenon for many reasons. It caught the TPLF regime by surprise, but did not end the politics of identity. Amhara elites remain uncomfortable with the idea of Amhara identity and nationalism. The Walkayit protests emerged amidst this political confusion.
Elites from the Amhara ethnic group do not want to disassociate their identity from the broader Ethiopian identity constructed on their self-perception. ‘Ethiopian identity’ and the Amhara ethnicity were deliberately intermarried during the nation building process. The process created an overlapping and confusing perceptions about Amhara and Ethiopia. The Amhara rulers forged the boundaries of Ethiopia while the elites from other ethnic groups fought to stop the imperial project that denigrated their culture, identity and ways of life. This is why Amhara nationalism developed in an opposite direction compared with that of other ethno-national groups in Ethiopia.
It does not take a genius to understand the advantage of making Amharic the only official language in Ethiopia. It gave Amhara kids comparative advantages in schools, at churches, workplaces, in politics and the economic sector. Ethiopia’s laws and history were written and read in Amharic. Ultimately, the Amhara culture became the de facto national culture. The Amhara dress and hairstyles, their dances and other social artifacts were elevated to a higher status —above all other social and cultural artifacts.
Following the demise of the Amhara dominated system, Tigreans became Ethiopian airlines hostesses and were crowned Miss Ethiopia. This is why some individuals of Amhara background can only see what TPLF did over a short period of time while being indifferent to and even defensive about the transgressions of their forefathers under the old system.
Ethiopia is ethnicized from its very inception. For the Amhara elite, there is a higher ideal and benefit built into being Ethiopian than being Amhara. Today’s Amhara scholars and elites have no reason to fail this project and claim their ethnic origin. Truly speaking, some of them cannot see the two apart, while others carefully refuse to see it. Amhara elites crippled Ethiopian nationalism the day they Amharanized it.
This is the Amhara equivalent of white privilege. Born into an unjust complicated interplay of social, political and economic process, it is not easy to see oneself as a beneficiary of the system. When you are an insider, it flows naturally. For a conscious Amhara person, it’s not a matter of choice to stick to Ethiopiawinet. It is not a mere political identity for them. It has an inherent social meaning of self-perception. That is why some people fail to see Amhara nationalism. But this is not a proof for its non-existence.
The Walkayit awakening
Identity in most cases is a given factor and not a problem by itself. The biological and psychological needs of people provide a factual ground for potential conflict. There is hypothesis that says conflicts arise from human relations in two principal ways: first when people have different values, needs and interests. And when people have to fight to access scarce resources. In other words, identity based conflict emerges either from competition over resources, or the imposition of alien values and identity by the dominant group.
The Walkayit question has a bit of both elements. The people of Walkayit were forced to become Tigrean through social policies such as education system. Walkayit children learn in Tigrigna at school while their parents speak Amharic at home. Walkayit people can only receive government services in Tigrigna, the official language of the Tigray state. As one Walkayit campaigner told the Voice of America radio recently, they are being required to dance to a Tigrigna New Year song called Ashenda of instead of the Amharic “Eyu Abebaye.” This is a clear imposition of a value external to the people with the aim of transforming the Walkayit people into Tigre.
Following the fall of the Derg regime, TPLF annexed almost every surrounding fertile lands to Tigray in making the new provincial borders. The second important factor is the fact that the Tigray region is poised to prosper at the expense of all other people and regions in Ethiopia. In the case of Walkayit, a section of the Amhara people is annexed into Tigray region to increase the national share of Tigray region. Following the fall of the Derg regime, TPLF annexed almost every surrounding fertile lands to Tigray in making the new provincial borders.
At the beginning of 1990s there was no political force on the ground to stop TPLF from demarcating pieces of lands from Wollo, Afar and Gonder into Tigray. The only local parties were TPLF satellites. The people did not have the muscle or necessary information to put up a meaningful resistance. As the winner of the war with Derg, TPLF ultimately imposed its own narrow wishes on the surrounding people, planting a time bomb that erupted years later. The Walkayit case is one of such eruptions.
In conclusion, I hope that the Walkayit protests is a wakeup call for the urban Amhara elites. The fact that their ethnic identity is being jeopardized in the hands of the current regime should force them to come out of their denial and accept that ethnic politics is here to stay. I also hope that the Walkayit issue will unite the Amhara political camp with ethno-political organizations toward forging a common, just and equitable future for all. Most importantly, this is an awakening that should help all Amhara elites and pro-unity politicians to understand how identity politics started in Ethiopia. If this happens, the constructive function hypothesis of the Walkayit conflict proves true.