December 10, 2018
Teshome M. Borago
he ruling Amhara Democratic Party and the newly established National Movement of Amhara have been working hard to get support from the Amharic-speaking Ethiopian population nationwide.
Their key talking points include “restoring” Amhara identity in external territories and providing protection for Amhara living around the country, including by instituting Amhara zones to achieve self-administration.
But a big question remains: what is the future of Amhara nationalism, and by extension ethnic federalism, if and when its proponents realize that they can’t deliver on most of their promises to the people?
In the past, Amhara nationalism failed, as scholars couldn’t even agree on whether an Amhara ethnicity ever existed. During the 2005 polls, the only relatively free multiparty election in our history, the then-Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM, now ADP) was embarrassed, with nearly zero support in the cities and even suffering major electoral losses in Amhara state to the CUD opposition party, which is now represented by Ginbot 7.
For years, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi supported building up ANDM, because his ultimate success depended on native Amharic speakers buying into ethnic federalism. Yet, ANDM remained the laughing stock of the country for two decades, as it rigged ‘elections’ to stay in power and serve TPLF. And even when Amharic-speaking Ethiopians were repressed, ANDM did nothing.
We’re faced with a half-baked Amhara ethnic identity
Even ideologically, the majority of Amharic speakers have been historically affiliated with Ethiopianism, instead of Amhara nationalism. So ethnic Amhara movements didn’t receive grassroots support—until now that is.
After 27 years of normalizing ethnic differentiation in Ethiopian society, the resulting growth of identity-based youth movements and the weakening of TPLF have finally provided legitimacy to the ANDM, and thus a fertile ground for organizations like NaMAto promote Amhara nationalism.
When it comes to Amhara ethnogenesis, some observers give credit to the forces of “external ascription”; claiming that the current Ethiopian young generation grew up only knowing and breathing tribalism, constantly being told “you are Amhara.”
While this is a major factor, Amhara identity also seems to have emerged out of what sociologists like Max Weber credit as victimhood or, both real and perceived, shared persecution. Thus, Amhara identity was born out of a sense of common adversity, despite the concept of an Amhara nation never existing before.
Therefore, these social constructionist factors helped to cover up the reality that tens of millions of geographically dispersed Amharic speakers who might otherwise be eligible for “Amhara membership” actually do not have the common ancestry, the common custom, values, religion, appearance etc or even the common polity and sense of national identity that are all necessary ingredients to qualify as a real ethnic group. Their only commonality was facing hardship in the name of Amhara.
Nonetheless, we are now faced with a half-baked Amhara ethnic identity, and both ANDM (ADP) and NaMA have become influential independent actors in Ethiopian politics.
Can ethnonationalists attract Amharic speakers?
Let’s play the devil’s advocate and take these Amhara nationalists at their own word. One of the prime reasons why ADP and NaMA have gained support is reportedly due to the persecution of Amharic speakers nationwide.
So, ADP and NaMA claim that they can protect Amhara people from these problems. NaMA has even opened up new branches outside Amhara, in Addis Ababa and other cities, where Amharic speakers reside. Despite their critics blaming the rise in Amhara tribalism for causing more death and displacement to Amharic speakers living outside “Amhara state,” NaMA and ADP are still winning many hearts and minds.
Amhara identity protests in Wolkait, Metekel and Raya are some examples of Amhara nationalists demanding their rights outside of Amhara. Accordingly, many Amhara nationalists have been applying a ‘holier than thou’ approach when it comes to the current Ethiopian constitution.
They claim that Amhara state is the most democratic inside the ethnofederal system because minorities have self-administration. The biggest example to support this claim is the Oromia and Agew Awi zones inside Amhara. In the Oromo zone, Afaan-Oromo is the working language and Oromo politicians control local government.
Many urban areas in Oromia are dominated by Amhara
Thus, Amhara nationalists want reciprocal benefits for their people outside Amhara. The prime candidate where new Amhara zones would be established is in Oromia. Historically, just as Oromo speakers have migrated north, Amharic speakers migrated south, or simply intermarried. Therefore, today, many urban areas in Oromia are dominated by Amhara, especially Addis Ababa and Nazret (Adama).
According to the 2007 census, about 60 percent of residents in Adama Special Zone had Amharic as their mother tongue. Therefore, in a country where language-based federalism is the law, Adama (Nazret) would constitutionally comprise one of the Amhara zones inside Oromia. This eventually might disqualify Adama from being the seat of Oromia parliament. Also in Bishoftu (Debre Zeit) City of Oromia, residents with Amharic mother-tongue makeup even higher proportions: at 72 percent. And in Jimma city in Oromia, out of 120,000 residents only about 48,000 were native Afaan Oromo speakers. Even in Mejenger Zone of Gambella, the majority by mother tongue is actually Amhara.
There are more. Other candidates for Amhara zones include small parts of Hawassa, Assosa and Dire Dawa which contain about 100,000 Amhara residents each.
If we include Welkait and other parts of Tigray where a large population of native Amharic speakers live, it is possible to have over a dozen major Amhara zones outside Amhara state.
Will ADP and NaMA deliver Amhara zones?
Or, as NaMA chairman Desalegn Chane recently said, can they actually restore the “dignity and God given rights of Amhara people”?
Of course not.
Particularly, Amharic speaking majorities living in urban Oromia and other states are abandoned by Amhara nationalists. Yet, even in rural Oromia districts like Dera Woreda, which is the northernmost district of North Shoa Zone, where Amhara makeup between 45 to 55 percent of the population, thousands of Amhara protested for self-rule last week; but both ADP and NaMA have so far done little to meet their demands.
Establishing Amhara zones inside Oromia, Tigray and other regional states is a fantasy, for many reasons. After all, ethnic federalism is created at the expense of both Amhara and multiethnic cosmopolitans, who are either forced to pick a fraction of their ancestral identity during a census or become invisible.
First of all, creating Amhara zones, just like Oromo zones, will lead to more ethnic conflict and territorial disputes. Secondly, it will lead to a more dangerous zero-sum game when it comes to ethnic politics, by weakening moderates and empowering extremists. And this threat of civil war is what keeps leaders like Abiy Ahmed up at night. That is why Oromo leaders like Lemma Megersa, and Abiy, preach unity and “Ethiopiawinet” whenever they are in front of diverse audience.
Abiy did tell the truth about our intertwined history
For example, during his speech in Germany, Abiy was questioned about the fate of Amhara living outside Amhara, particularly in Tigray. His instinctive response was to discourage tribalism among Amhara activists. In his answer, Abiy cited historical accounts about Abyssinian kings who were dependent on thousands of Oromo soldiers who marched to Gondar. Abiy said the northern movement of Oromos has resulted in intermarriages and multiethnic mixture. Thus, Abiy concluded that there is no pure Amhara blood today because people were mixed for centuries.
While Abiy did tell the truth about our intertwined history, one can only imagine the level of outrage if the roles were reversed, and if an Amhara leader said there is no pure Oromo because of post-conflict ethnic fusion. Such a person would have been crucified by Oromo elites and their social media cheerleaders. It seems like for Oromo nationalists, they embrace history only when it is convenient.
Abiy’s speech in Germany was not the first time he rebuked Amhara nationalism. When Abiy was asked about the Welkait-Tsegede issue earlier this year, he was quick to scold and discourage “Amhara tribalism.”
Abiy is not alone, although others have different motives. Jawar Mohammed and like-minded influential ethnonationalists turn on and off the Welkait switch as a bargaining chip against TPLF. Otherwise, they prefer not to push Amhara nationalism too hard to the right. For these tribalists, Amhara nationalism is good only to justify the existence of some ‘foreign’ land where Amharic ‘settlers’ can go back to. Otherwise, it is something bad, something to be discouraged or shunned, because they know it can ultimately backfire on them.
It appears that in the eyes of the Prime Minister, TPLF and most ethnonationalists, the Amhara question of Welkait, Raya and Metekel is dead on arrival.
Amhara nationalism is toothless
So, one must ask: if Amhara nationalists cannot even achieve their basic responsibility of restoring lands they claim to belong to Amhara, what is the purpose for their existence? If Amhara nationalists cannot establish Amhara zones outside Amhara, what is the point of embracing ethnic federalism?
To be blunt, the harsh reality is, the ethnic “Scramble for Ethiopia” was supervised by TPLF, OLF and other similarly minded organizations two decades ago to determine who gets which pieces of the pie.
Let alone Ethiopian nationalists, even independent Amhara were not invited to that party. Unless Amhara nationalists redraw the maps and declare Addis Ababa, Wolkait, Adama and many areas in other states as Amhara zones, their nationalism is meaningless. It has no purpose. They exist only to facilitate the current ethnofederal system and to justify further persecution of Amharic speakers nationwide.
The Amhara revanchists’ rhetoric might appear like an existential threat to neighboring states. But, other than slogans and posters, Amhara nationalism is toothless. So far, Amhara tribalism is only serving its original purpose for its creators: to weaken Ethiopian nationalism.
What is fascinating about Amhara tribalism is the potential for it to be a double-edged sword for its creators.
Meles Zenawi passed away without seeing the fruits of his ethnic federalism vis-a-vis Amhara nationalism. Ironically, he would not have been that excited about the Wolkait rhetoric either. After all, he wanted an Amhara nationalism that he can control and exploit. He wanted Amhara ethnic awareness; not the empowering version, but a self-hating one. He wanted an Amhara population that is forever filled with a sense of imperial guilt.
For him and for Oromo nationalists, all historical problems in Ethiopia are pinned on the Amhara. For that to happen, the Amharic speakers who used to only call themselves Gojjame, Wolloye, Shewan, etc must first embrace the Amhara label and then wear the guilty Amhara costume.
Once Amhara nationalists digest the reality of their powerlessness and gradually realize that tribalism was never created for their benefit, the next natural step should be to consider the alternative: Ethiopian nationalism and individual rights.
By all measures, Amhara nationalism is not the only nationalism that is failing today. Ethnic federalism is slowly unraveling and proving increasingly toxic. Even since Abiy arrived and preached tolerance, peace and democracy, hundreds of deaths and more than a million internal displacements have brought a sense of hopelessness. Hidden behind the media headlines of women appointments is the reality that Ethiopia is now ranked first in the world for the most internal displacement of its own people in the first-half of 2018.
As Berhanu Nega told Addis Standard recently, Ethiopian society is losing its “moral compass.” The last seven months have proven that Oromo lives do not even matter to Oromo elites like Jawar who are ignoring the killing of Oromos in Somali region and Kamashi Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz. In the past, every single Oromo death triggered outrage on social media and it was weaponized for propaganda. But today, it seems some Oromo leaders care more about saving the face of the ethnic federalism system than they care about their own people.
Behind the scenes, Oromo nationalists are doing the same thing the TPLF did to the Amhara over the last 27 years: shifting the demographics. Now that they have gained some power, Oromo elites don’t even talk publicly about Finfinne anymore because they saw how Addis Ababa residents utterly rejected Oromo nationalism and OLF in September.
Individual liberty will lift all boats
Their new focus now is changing the demographics of urban Oromia. They are copying the TPLF blueprint of Tigrayan mass resettlement policy in Wolkait by pushing Oromos into urban and suburban areas in Oromia, where they are a minority. That is why we see so many more ethnic conflicts in Dire Dawa, Adama, Harar, etc.
News of Qeerroo evicting urban neighborhoods and ethnic cleansing kebeles has become the new normal. Even in Bishoftu (DebreZeit), where virtually all residents are native Amharic speakers, Oromo youths are threatening and disenfranchising local citizens.
Therefore, instead of enabling the ethnic-segregation laws of the country, it is now more important than ever that Amharic speakers reject Amhara nationalism, and instead advocate for citizenship-based democracy.
Amharic speakers must thus choose the alternative: give more support to groups like Ginbot 7 who promote individual rights and civic nationalism, instead of wasting their capital on supporting Amhara nationalism.
In the end, individual liberty will lift all boats, resulting in not only benefiting persecuted Amharic-speaking Ethiopians, but also benefiting all Ethiopians no matter their religion, clan, region or ethnicity. When that time comes when we respect the rights of every individual over the rights of an identity-based political group; we can then regain our moral compass and cherish every human life.
For that to happen, let us dream of that future, when all Ethiopians have the right to live anywhere in Ethiopia, when no land has a tribal label on it, and when we all belong everywhere in Ethiopia.
That is also when we can unleash our social and economic potential and guarantee our basic rights as human beings. And that will be a country we can be proud of, which we can all call our home.
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Main photo: NaMA’s founding event in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara region