by Shiferaw Abebe
Amhara nationalism is not a recent phenomenon; it had surfaced 23 years ago when the great Professor Asrat Woldeyes formed the All Amhara Peoples Organization (AAPO). Professor Asrat understood perhaps more than any other person at that time how much hatred TPLF and Meles’ circle in particular harbored against Amharas and the illusory Amhara domination in particular.
Soon after TPLF took power several horrendous genocides took place in Arbagugu, Bedeno, Gara Muleta, and Harar that took the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Amharas, some of them burned to death when their houses were set aflame. In which of these instances TPLF was the sole culprit, the architect or a tacit accomplice may be debated, but its involvement in all of these crimes in some form or shape cannot be furthered from the truth. So with those heinous crimes in the background, no wonder a sizable number of Amharas stood behind Professor Asrat when he formed AAPO.
In just a few years, however, AAPO and Amhara nationalism run their course out, and while the arrest of Professor Asrat might have played a role, the fast tracked end was inevitable. The names of the two parties that emerged out of it – the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Party (UEDP) – Medhin said it all: Amharas were not ready to abandon Ethiopiawinet just yet! AEUP went on to become the largest opposition party at least until the 2005 election.
Since the end of AAPO to the summer of 2016, there have been several instances where Amharas were evicted from their land, robbed their property or in the worst cases killed. Incidents in Gura Ferda, Bale, and Benshangul and Gumuz can be cited. These crimes were again either masterminded or tacitly approved by the TPLF regime at the top level. On a day to day basis, the TPLF regime has for the last 26 years maligned, harassed and persecuted Amhara intellectuals, business owners, and public figures with a particular zeal and viciousness.
The simmering frustration and indignation of Amharas finally boiled to the surface in the summer of 2016 when the Wolkayt identity question became a flashpoint.
The Wolkayt identity question is, of course, more than a trigger. It is an important issue in its own right. The systematic measures TPLF and the Tigray administration implemented to thin out the Amhara population in Wolkayt to make them a minority if not extinct altogether is a crime against humanity for which, when justice reigns in the land in the future, the perpetrators will have their day in the law of court.
But the Wolkayt identity question is also an indictment of what is fundamentally wrong with an ethnic political system. Ethiopia’s regions have been reconfigured several times in the past but it is only under TPLF this became a sensitive issue. During the 1987-1991 period for example, Derg had divided the country into 25 administrative and 5 autonomous regions. As a result, Assab was taken from Wollo and Ogaden from Hararghe and each were made an autonomous region. King Haile Selassie’s period has seen changing administrative boundaries more than once. But before 1991 nobody made administrative boundaries too much of an issue because Ethiopia was in the final analysis all Ethiopians’. When one could go anywhere they wanted to go and live as an Ethiopian, administrative boundaries matter very little.
The comfort, the assurance of belonging to one whole country regardless where one lives or which ethnic group one belongs to disappeared right after TPLF took power. As a result, living under the Tigray zone is not the same as living under the Amhara zone, not only because of the language and other day to day challenges, but more fundamentally because ethnicity became a defining identity factor than citizenship.
From its inception, one of TPLF’s primal goals has been to undermine Ethiopiawinet. In return TPLF is never trusted as truly Ethiopian by most Ethiopians who, to this day, believe TPLF’s agenda of seceding Tigray and making it an independent state is well and alive. Tigray’s annexation of Wolkayt, Tsegede and Humera to the west and part of Raya-Kobo to the south is seen as part of that agenda.
It is in this broader context that the Wolkayt identity question must be looked at, and why it calls for a broader solution.
That is why, once out on the streets, Gonderes and Gojjames didn’t stop at demanding a solution for the Wolkayt question and an end to the way the regime treated Amharas in general. To the regime’s shock, they voiced their solidarity with the Oromo people chanting the Oromo blood is my blood, and they demanded an end to TPLF’s tyranny. They said nothing short of the removal of the scourge from power would address the Wolkayt or the Oromo, or the Amhara question, let alone heal the ailing country.
Half a year has passed since then. That magnificent movement in Gondar and Gojjam failed to pick up momentum in Addis Ababa, Shewa, Wollo, and many other crucial places. Had those places joined the uprising, we would be talking today about something different altogether. The reasons why Addis Ababa and other places failed to join the revolutionary wave could be many which I have no intention to go into here.
TPLF is still in power, perhaps breathing easier, but the conditions that will guarantee its demise sooner rather than later are irrevocably planted. For one, its brute response in Gondar and Bahir Dar has sent thousands of young people to the bushes; the regime has produced its own lethal pill.
Unfortunately, in the last six months, we have also witnessed obstructive, divisive and destructive tendencies and activities in some quarters of both the Amhara and the Oromo movement. On the side of the Oromo movement, while the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) took a historic step in becoming a party to the newly formed and promising coalition – the Ethiopian National Movement (ENM) – a significant number of Oromo activists are anything but going in the same direction. In fact, they are going in the opposite direction. Because of their ability to utilize social media, the Oromo Media Network and other media outlets effectively, it appears as though these activists are controlling the narrative, hence the Oromo movement to a significant degree. This is something that must be challenged head on by ODF, ENM, and all Ethiopians.
Where does the Amhara movement go from here?
For the last 26 years Amharas have, against all odds, kept Ethiopiawinet alive. They have organized themselves under multinational parties based on the principles of citizenship, liberal democracy, and individual rights. They have accommodated ethnic issues, even formed coalitions with ethnic parties, to ensure Ethiopia remains stable and unified for the benefit of all. Time has proven the validity of their stance and the resilience of Ethiopiawinet, while the value proposition of ethnic politics is shattered beyond repair as toxic, undemocratic, and destabilizing.
It is therefore incomprehensible why some Amhara activists are willing to abandon Ethiopiawinet in favor of Amhara nationalism at a time when Ethiopiawinet is being reaffirmed by many who doubted it, even worked against it, in the last 25 years? What is it that they can accomplish as an Amhara that they cannot accomplish as an Ethiopian? Can Amharas free themselves from TPLF’s tyranny when others are still under its boots?
Amharas have every right to voice and fight against the plight of Amharas, but no more or no less than they would voice and fight against the plight of other Ethiopians. Unless the whole of Ethiopia is free first, Amharas cannot live in freedom.
The notion that Amharas need their own political organization to defend themselves is ill thought out. If that was so, other ethnic groups with multiple political organizations would have been free from TPLF’s oppression a long time ago. On the contrary, ethnic politics is one of the key factors that kept the opposition side disunited and weak, and delayed the day of freedom.
In the long term, Amhara nationalism has nowhere to go for historical and philosophical reasons, perhaps a topic for another day. In the short term however, it can cause a significant damage to the fight against the TPLF tyranny. For example some Amhara activists and political organizations have aligned their strategy with some Oromo activists and directed their virulent attacks at unity forces, not at TPLF. In doing so they have succeeded in creating an atmosphere of confusion, doubt, and misinformation among a sizable section of Diaspora Amharas. This is nuts and must stop.
Finally, nationalism cannot free Ethiopia or any particular group; only patriotism does!
Whether called democratic or by any other adjective, nationalism is basically a negative consciousness. It is selfish, isolationist, and destabilizing. It is driven more by resentment or arrogance than love, respect and mutual interest. Amhara nationalism is wrong for Amharas and Ethiopia. Oromo nationalism is wrong for Oromos and Ethiopia. In fact, Ethiopian nationalism is wrong for Ethiopia!
What we need is Ethiopian patriotism! Patriotism is what Ethiopia lacks today. Patriotism is generous, selfless, patient, inclusive, and stabilizing. Patriotism is how our forefathers and mothers kept Ethiopia free and together.
Long live Ethiopia!
Long live Ethiopian patriotism!
The writer can be reached at [email protected]