The evidence also suggests that the area was majority Tigrinya speaking prior to the federal era.
Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution introduced a system of multinational federalism that radically altered the country’s politics and administrative structure.
It created highly autonomous regional states delineated along ethno-linguistic lines. This entailed reconfiguring the former provinces, which were partly based on geographic divisions, into regions based on groups’ settlement patterns, language, and other demographic features.
While the administrative boundary readjustments were welcomed by many in Ethiopia, elites from the Amhara community were among the most consistent detractors. The inclusion of the areas known as Welkait, Tsegede (Tegede), Tselemti (Telemt), and Humera into Tigray Regional State has been a specific point of contention.
These territories were part of Begemder and Gonder provinces dating back to at least the era of Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) but, after 1995, were formally incorporated into Tigray under the federal structure. The detractors assume that because Amharas previously dominated these provinces politically and economically, the territories belong to Amharas, and so must become part of Amhara region.
The movement to ‘restore’ Welkait (a term often used to refer to the four areas) to the Amhara region remained a constant force in Ethiopianist-Amhara circles throughout the 1990s. Amhara residents of Welkait, a mix of older residents and more recent settlers who came seeking to work in the large farms, have long resisted Welkait’s inclusion into Tigray.
The Amhara residents, just like their Tigrayan counterparts, trace their ancestry on the land back centuries and, although a minority, are dispersed throughout the contested territory. The movement to unite Welkait with Amhara region led to the establishment of the Welkait Identity Restoration Committee in August 2015.
While that name suggests a distinct Welkait identity, those involved generally don’t identify as a separate nationality, but that they are Amharas seeking to get their Amhara identity affirmed.
The Welkait committee then galvanized a movement throughout Amhara to annex Welkait by any means including military action. It gained momentum during the early months of Abiy’s term and culminated during the outbreak of the Tigray war when Amhara forces ‘reclaimed’ the land in late 2020, leading to what Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have described as “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” in Western Tigray.
This violent irredentism stands in stark contrast to the relative silence among other regional or ethno-nationalist elites of, say, Oromia, Tigray, and Sidama, who generally don’t make similar claims on, respectively, Gambella, Afar, and, Wolayta, even though they can present equally compelling justifications along the lines of the arguments put forth by Amhara nationalists.
During the Tigray war, Amhara forces annexed the four districts in West Tigray and Northwest Tigray zones, which are now under the Amhara region’s administration. Yet, since the federal government has not officially recognized the change, the forcible annexation remains unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, by the federal government implying that such a military takeover of contested territories is acceptable, the annexation has set a dangerous precedent for handling territorial disputes among regional states.
Moreover, the occupation is perhaps the biggest obstacle to successful negotiations between Addis Abeba and Mekelle. Tigray’s government considers the restoration of its control over the area to be non-negotiable, a stance that is diametrically opposed to the Amhara government’s position.
While the TPLF-led regional government—and later the federally appointed Tigray interim administration—insisted on the dispute being settled through constitutional means, the Amhara government, as well as many Amhara elites, have consistently justified the military takeover and called for the federal government to give blanket legal recognition to the ‘restoration’.
The contrasting stances of the two rival regions are driven by their respective faith in or distrust of the constitutional system and the strength of their case regarding ownership over Welkait.
An examination of the legal, demographic, and historical evidence provided by the two sides sheds light on why Amhara nationalists resorted to reclaiming Welkait through military action.
The 1995 constitution declares that regional states are “delimited on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people concerned.” This was the basis upon which new regions were created.
As such, these criteria have consistently been the basis by which territorial disputes between member states within the federation were resolved. The validity of Amhara claims to Welkait would thus need to be addressed based on their congruence with the constitution.
Amhara nationalists argue that the TPLF’s “forceful annexation” of these territories into Tigray was done illegally.
On the one hand, Amhara elites accuse ethnic federalism of fomenting division and disunity by emphasizing what separates rather than unites Ethiopians, and reject ethno-nationalists’ demands for recognition and entitlements based on claims of indigenous land ownership.
But, on the other hand, those same elites fight to uphold the historical entitlements of Amhara people—entitlements they believe Amharas have been unjustly deprived of by Tigrayan leaders during the three decades of the federal era.
While they generally avoid examining the dispute based on the constitution, claims based on the constitutional system by Amhara nationalists manifest in two forms: allegations of TPLF-led demographic engineering in these territories, and of sustained state coercion of the local Amhara population.
The claim that the TPLF carried out ethnic cleansing to alter the demographics of the disputed territories has been made by Amhara activists since the 1990s.
Achamyeleh Tamiru, in an essay titled “Forceful Annexation, Violation of Human Rights and Silent Genocide,” summarizes the claim as follows:
“The Amharic speaking areas contiguous to Tigray State have been recipients of the brunt of the atrocities. One of the methods used by TPLF to erode away Amhara identities is the dislocation of Amharas from the area and settling thousands of former TPLF fighters from arid and infertile lands of Tigray to the more fertile land of Wolkait-Tegede region. It took steps to change the administrative language of the area, started producing documents and stories to inculcate the “Tigrayness” of Wolkait.” [p.2]
For the most part, advocates of the ‘Amhara genocide’ thesis recognize as legitimate the 1994 and 2007 national census data wherein Tigrayans constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of the contested territories.
However, to reconcile their position that ethnic Amharas dominated Welkait with the contradictory census data, they put forward a theory that TPLF, since its guerrilla days, carried out systematic ethnic cleansing of the areas, resulting in a dramatic demographic shift in Tigrayans’ favor.
The evidence they point to involves the alleged discrepancy between the 1984 census data, collected under the Derg, and the subsequent censuses of 1994 and 2007 conducted during EPRDF rule.
As two authors argued in a piece published last year:
“One cannot help being struck by how the population of the area could have changed so drastically in just a decade, that the population of northern Gondar alone could have become 97 percent Tigrayan, when the Tigrayan population in the entire province was only 6 percent in 1984?”
This supposed ‘drastic’ shift then leads them to conclude that TPLF must have carried out ethnic cleansing of Amharas coupled with a large-scale settlement of Tigrayan ex-combatants and refugees in the areas.
The problem with their reasoning is that the 1984 census, upon which the theory rests, doesn’t support the conclusion.
First, it states that certain lowland areas of Northern Ethiopia have not been covered and proceeds to give their estimated population sizes. In fact, Welkait, Setit, Tsegede, and Tselemti are listed among those areas which were not covered by the census.
Second, attempts by Amhara irredentists to use the 1984 census to portray a picture of an Amhara majority population in Welkait prior to TPLF’s alleged tampering with the demographics fails due to a major miscalculation: the population of Welkait, Tsegede, Setit, and Tselemti constitute only seven percent of the total population of Gonder.
This being the case, even if the entire population of these territories was Tigrayan, the census would still show an over 90 percent Amhara majority in Gonder.
Therefore, while it is true that there was a mass settlement of Tigrayans during the 1990s into what were relatively sparsely populated areas of Western Tigray, the 1984 census doesn’t support the claim of an Amhara majority in Welkait.
Indeed, several pieces of evidence show that Tigrayans constituted the majority of the population of the contested territories long before TPLF came onto the scene.
Donald Levine’s classic work, “Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture,” published in 1972, contains a map of the then Northern Ethiopia that clearly shows the territories as Tigrinya speaking.
The slanted pattern showing the Tigrinya-speaking territories includes Southern Eritrea, Welkait-Tsegede, and Raya-Azebo, which were outside of the former Tigray province. It doesn’t include the eastern part of the Tigray province, which was later incorporated into the newly formed Afar regional state.
As such, the Tigrinya-speaking shade fits neatly with the current boundaries of the federal-era Tigray regional state.
Similarly, two other books published during the Derg era by the government-funded Ethiopian Revolution Information Center also confirm that the disputed territories were populated by Tigrinya-speaking people long before TPLF’s alleged tampering with the demographics.
Another interesting piece of evidence is a letter by an Eritrean opposition figure, Seyoum Maascio, during the years of the Eritrean federation that was published in Ruth Iyob’s history of Eritrea’s independence struggle.
In it, Seyoum not only identifies Tselemti, Welkait, and Tsegede as Tigrinya-speaking but also affirmed his party’s intent to incorporate these territories as part of an attempt to create an independent Tigray-Tigrinya nation.
This shows that the perception of the people and territories of Welkait-Tsegede as Tigrayan predates TPLF and was prevalent even among Eritreans.
Although Tigrinya speakers were the majority in Welkait well before the emergence of the TPLF—which invalidates the assertion that TPLF needed to carry out resettlement to shift the demographics of the area in Tigray’s favor—there nonetheless was a resettlement of Tigrayans in what has become Western Tigray after the coming to power of TPLF-EPRDF.
However, the resettlement was not different from intraregional resettlement programs implemented elsewhere in the federation, including the Amhara region. The program has more to do with helping food insecure and displaced populations by resettling them to more fertile areas than a sinister plot to tinker with demographics.
The impact of the resettlement on the demographics can be determined fairly accurately from the changes reflected between the 1994 and 2007 censuses.
The first step would be to determine the impact of resettlement before the 1994 census.
Before the 1994 census was conducted, two refugee repatriation operations were carried out in Humera under the stewardship of the United Nations in June 1993 and February 1994.
These resulted in the resettlement of 14,288 refugees, which is 8.2 percent of the total 174,630 Tigrayan residents in Western Tigray as registered by the 1994 census.
The resettlement increased the resident Tigrayan population from 80.7 percent to 87.9 percent. Although this is significant, it by no means turned a minority group into a majority.
Other resettlement operations were implemented well after 1994.
For instance, the ex-combatant resettlement program of Humera was announced in late 1994, which means that it didn’t affect the 1994 census. This implies that whatever influence the resettlement of refugees and ex-combatants had on altering the ethnic demographics of the area should be reflected in the changes observed between the 1994 and 2007 censuses.
Indeed, from 1994 to 2007, the resident Tigrayan population of Western Tigray rose from 87.9 percent to 92.3 percent.
The resettlement of refugees and ex-combatants may of course have played a part in the close to five percent rise of Tigrayan inhabitants. However, a five percent increase on an already overwhelming Tigrayan majority does not constitute significant “demographic engineering”.
When examining specifically the demographic shift of Welkait Wereda in Western Tigray, a more startling picture emerges. Between 1994 and 2007, the population of ethnic Amharas doubled while the Tigrayan population decreased by more than four percent.
The increase of ethnic Amharas in Welkait is the result of a large influx of Amhara laborers, some of whom later settled there. This is a far cry from claims that local Amharas were persecuted and ethnically cleansed.
Therefore, evidence indicates that the effect of these resettlement programs was negligible and that some areas in Western Tigray have actually seen an increase in the Amhara population while the number of Tigrayans decreased.
Another line of argument presented by Amhara nationalists declares the 1994 and 2007 census data invalid, along with documentation from the TPLF era regarding the demographics of the contested territories.
Moreover, despite asserting TPLF-directed persecution of Amharas in the contested areas, it nevertheless maintains that, up until the start of the Tigray war, the population of Welkait-Tsegede was an Amhara majority repressed by the regional state apparatus.
This movement culminated in the formation of the Welkait Identity Restoration Committee. The committee largely conducted its meetings in Gonder but was able to gather 25,000 signatures from allegedly exiled Welkait Amharas living in the Amhara region.
Although more research needs to be done into the issue, claims of economic injustice may well have played an integral role in motivating the identity-based political campaign.
For example, a key player in the committee was Colonel Demeke Zewdu, a former TPLF member with Tigrayan parentage who is now a senior Amhara administrator in the annexed zone. He was among those who some researchers claim was motivated by implementation of a Tigray regional investment law that disadvantaged them.
Around a decade ago, Mekelle insisted that individuals had to have ten hectares of land to qualify as an investor, which Demeke didn’t possess. He was therefore treated as a farmer and the excess over five hectares, the maximum for a non-investor, was stripped from him.
In 2016, the committee he was part of submitted a petition to federal and regional institutions, including the House of Federation, calling for the government to recognize their Amhara identity and grant them the right to practice their culture as well as protect them from persecution.
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However, the House of Federation decided that the issue should be addressed at the regional level and sent a letter to the Tigray government, which ignored the matter. Instead, government authorities, primarily in Addis Ababa and Gondar, reacted by arresting the leaders of the committee and banning public meetings. These types of oppressive measures lasted until the 2018 transition, with, for example, Demeke released from prison in February, around a month before Abiy was appointed EPRDF leader.
Such authoritarian tactics by the TPLF-EPRDF authorities wasted a crucial opportunity to handle the issue through peaceful, constitutional means. That approach fuelled the Amhara irredentism that led to an explosion of violence in 2020.
However, the fact that Amhara forces ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans from Western Tigray demonstrates a determination to alter the demographics of the contested territories—create an Amhara majority—before it’s possible to try and settle the dispute through a referendum.
After all, the rush to force Tigrayans from the disputed territories wouldn’t have made much political sense if the resident population was indeed majority Amhara.
This reinforces the evidence from the demographic polls demonstrating that the majority of residents in the disputed territories identify as Tigrayan and they were there well before the TPLF-EPRDF took power in 1991, and indeed before the TPLF’s rebellion gathered strength in the 1980s.
At the core of Amhara irredentism are claims and evidence that supposedly demonstrate that the Amhara have a unique right to the disputed territories.
This historical argument is two-pronged: On the one hand, evidence is presented to try and show that the contested territories have never been administered by Tigray province. On the other, lines are quoted from historical records to show that the contested areas have always been an integral part of Amhara society.
However, Amhara as an ethnic identity is a recent construct whose existence was vigorously disputed as late as the 1990s.
A famous debate on the issue took place between Mesfin Woldemariam, a pan-Ethiopian academic, and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 1993, where the former denied the existence of an Amhara ethnicity.
Similarly, among many other prominent pan-Ethiopians, Andargachew Tsige—an Ethiopian nationalist politician and an Amhara—often argues that there is insufficient ground to characterize Amhara as an ethnic group, and that the Amharic language is the sole binding feature of the Amhara identity.
According to historian Brian J. Yates: “Scholars and politicians have attempted to sketch out what an Amhara is, but there are considerable divergences on the nature of this identity. Some argue that it is a cultural identity; however, much of the scholarship indicates that it is solely a class-based identity, devoid of ethnicity.”
Consequently, owing to the lateness of the development of an Amhara identity and the absence of basic features of an ethnic group, it can’t make a cogent, legitimate territorial claim.
Tegegne Teka writes:
“The Amhara do not possess what people usually refer to as objective ethnic markers: common ancestry, territory, religion, and shared experience except the language. The Amhara have no claims to a common ancestry. They do not share the same sentiments and they have no mutual interests based on shared understandings. It is, therefore, difficult to conclude that the Amhara belong to an ethnic group. But this does not mean that there is no Amhara identity.”
What is now Amhara region used to be a group of kingdoms turned provinces in which the majority of inhabitants spoke Amharic. In contrast, Tigray—or Tigre as it was known during imperial era—for centuries operated almost as a confederate, a consolidated administration with somewhat defined territories.
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Several historical books do identify a loosely allied group of areas around Lake Tana as Amhara lands. Such historical references in some instances even identify the contested territories as belonging to the Amhara.
Nevertheless, it should be remembered that these same historical sources exclude Gojjam, Shewa and, at times, Wello, from the list of territories they consider Amhara land.
At least in this sense, Amhara irredentists’ claim to Welkait is self-defeating; the supposedly authoritative sources that are quoted to justify ‘reclaiming’ Welkait also suggest Amhara region should forfeit Shewa and Gojjam.
The absence of irredentist claims on the southern half of Afar, which used to be part of Wello province, also reveals the inconsistent and politically motivated nature of the claims on Welkait.
Similarly, arguments by Amhara scholars to prove that Welkait never belonged to Tigray are unconvincing, as a number of historical sources show that there were several periods since medieval times when these territories were part of what can be considered Tigray province.
Among these, the most widely quoted evidence is from a 19th-century book by Michael Russell titled “Nubia and Abyssinia, Comprehending their Civil History, Antiquities, Arts, Religion, Literature, and Natural History.”
In this book, the territories belonging to Tigre province are listed, and include Welkait, Simien, and Lasta. The latter two are currently part of Amhara.
Professor Wolbert Smidt recently published extracts of a map that shatters the claim of absolute and uninterrupted Amhara historical control over Western Tigray.
Among these, Handtke’s map of 1849 clearly shows that 19th-century Tigray included Welkait and Waldubba. These pieces of evidence prove that there were periods in Ethiopian history when these territories were under the administrative control of historical Tigre—a forerunner to the present Tigray regional state.
Moreover, the fact that most of the place names in Welkait are Tigrinya names points towards a very strong Tigrayan presence since ancient times. For instance, out of 30 villages and towns in Welkait Wereda, around twenty have distinct Tigrinya names.
|Villages and towns in Welkait|
|1. Mai Gaba||11. Adi Gaba||21. Indabo|
|2. Mai Chea||12. Wef Argif||22. Salasa Ayna|
|3. Mai Timket||13. Bilamba Michael||23. Adi Werki|
|4. Mai Humer||14. Bilamba Kirshi||24. Awra|
|5. Mai Tsemri||15. Kulita||25. Shekuda|
|6. Belesa Qokuah||16. Bet Mulu||26. Welel|
|7. Adi Filho||17. Ruba Lemin||27. Debre Mariam|
|8. Kalima||18. Jamus||28. Midri Weyzero|
|9. Megue||19. Kisad Delela||29. Shirela|
|10. Adi Remets||20. Selam||30. Dejena|
Places with indisputably Tigrinya names are italicized.
The arguments and supporting evidence presented above show that the inclusion of Welkait into Tigray was carried out in accordance with constitutional requirements.
There is insufficient evidence to support the claims by Amhara irredentists that the TPLF used criminal tactics to steal Amhara territories.
All evidence indicates that these territories have always been populated by a Tigrayan majority, a fact that provides constitutional justification for their inclusion in Tigray.
What should also be recalled is that such territorial readjustments were carried out throughout Ethiopia. Each of the pre-1991 provinces underwent radical reconfiguration along ethno-linguistic lines, leading to many groups losing chunks of territory that they had been historically associated with.
For example, just as it obtained districts in Western Tigray from Gonder, Tigray lost its entire eastern territories, which it had controlled for centuries, to the newly formed Afar.
The provinces making up Oromia also lost territories: Assosa had been part of Wellega, Gambella was administered as part of Ilubabor, Jigjiga belonged to Harar, and so on.
Using the same logic, the newly established Sidama regional state could claim the entirety of Wolayta and Borena.
Yet, all other regional states have remained more or less faithful to the constitutional criteria for territorial configuration. In contrast, efforts by Amhara irredentists to annex Tigray’s territories amount to open defiance of the constitutional order.
Consequently, the manner in which the House of Federation tries to settle Amhara claims on Western Tigray may set a precedent for how it will deal with other irredentist campaigns.
Providing legal recognition to the militant takeover of Tigray’s territories could lead to expanding conflict to settle old territorial scores across the federation.
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Main photo: A bridge over the Tekezze River that was destroyed during the war.
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