Ethiopia’s Tigray War Is Fueling Amhara Expansionism

The conflict in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, is ostensibly about political control. The federal government’s said objective is to arrest the political and military leadership of the ousted regional authorities in what it still refers to as a law enforcement operation. But among the ethnic Amhara political elite, it’s far visible as a war to regain territories lost in 1991. Being the second-biggest ethnic group in the country, the Amhara militia and special forces had been pivotal in the war campaign. Western and southern parts of Tigray are thus currently being integrated under Amhara administration and control despite protests from the meantime nearby government in Tigray. 

Access to and control of land is vital in any subsistence agricultural society, and that is especially actual in parts of Ethiopia in which land has been cultivated for millenniums. Life in rural Ethiopia revolves around land; it defines who you are, in which you belong, and your status in society. Rural agricultural land is state-owned, and rights to till it are traditionally given based on a blood and soil connection— in other words, established descent from the community offers admission to land. 

Administrative borders of provinces had been altered at some stage in all regime changes in Ethiopia and are regularly used as a way for the central authorities to divide and rule through retaining political control over local nobility and political elites aspiring for central power. 

The latest such remodel occurred after the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front assumed power in 1991. 

As Ethiopia was transformed from a unitary to a federal state, 9 new regional states have been designed in step with Article 46 of the 1995 constitution on the basis of “settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people”. 

The borders of the new regional states crisscrossed former administrative delineations and have been surely imposed without popular consent through a referendum or election. 

The Amhara territorial claims to regions presently taken into consideration as a part of the Tigray regional state are as a result based on a pre-1991 understanding of predominantly Amharic speaking administrative regions. Prior to 1991 there has been no region called Amhara; the Amhara have been divided amongst numerous administrative regions. 

The new regional state of Tigray gave away territories to the east to the new Afar state even as gaining ground to the west by incorporating Welkait district and the fertile lowland plains of Setit-Humera, which were a part of the previous Gondar administrative vicinity. The lowland regions are the key sesame cash crop belt in Ethiopia and, back then, have been inhabited through a combination of Amhara and Tigrayan farmers without any verifiable census on who was in majority. 

Since 1991, tens of lots of Tigrayans from the highlands and former refugees had been resettled to the region, titling the population to a clear majority of Tigrayans. 

In 2016, protests erupted in western Tigray, prepared through the Welkait Amhara Identity Committee (or Welkait Identity and Self-Determination Committee), demanding a realignment of the executive status of the zone under the Amhara regional state. The protests in Tigray have been quickly quashed, and Welkait Committee chief Col. Demeke Zewdu and others have been arrested. This sparked large demonstrations and protests throughout Amhara state, leading to dozens of people being killed. 

After the proclaimed resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February 2018, Demeke, collectively with lots of other prisoners, was released, whereupon he promised to hold the struggle to return the Welkait, Setit-Humera, and Tsegede districts to Amhara control. This role changed into eventually followed through the regional government of the Amhara Democratic Party. 

In Raya, southern Tigray, a comparable committee was mounted in 2018 with the purpose of reaching recognition of the Raya identity to set up a self sufficient administrative zone but had been stifled through the regional authorities in Tigray, then led through the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. 

The Raya are bilingual and break up among Amhara- and Tigrayan-leaning subgroups. The Amharic-speaking part expressed a desire to return the region under Amhara administration.