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Ethiopia: Defining Amhara nationalism for a better country

As Amhara nationalism emerges, it should not adopt the same divisive tactics as Ethiopia’s other competing ethno-nationalisms.

In Ethiopia’s ever-changing political landscape, one recent phenomenon has been the emergence of Amhara nationalism. Compared to other substate nationalisms, namely, Oromo, Tigrayan, Somali and Sidama, it’s a latecomer.

This was not because Amhara people suffered from social, political, and economic subjugation less than others but Amhara identity as we know it today was only constructed in response to a target of repression, with the rise of Derg.

The Derg is often portrayed as a continuation of an old ‘pro-Amhara’ imperial system, but its documented history shows that Amharas were among the primary victims of its brutality. In his prison memoir, titled The Tripping Stone, written in the Derg’s dungeons, the first President of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Taffara Deguefe, noted what seemed to be a policy of discrimination against Amhara:

“The only ‘minorities’ who are scorned are the hopeless Amhara for their past privileges. They have to pay for it now in lost jobs and positions for their hateful identification to a past now seen as distasteful to the military junta.”

Such policies increased after the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Demcoratic Front seized power in 1991.

The dominant segment, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, had identified the Amhara as its “eternal enemy” at the start of its armed struggle, and after 1991 turned this party manifesto into government policy, implementing it in earnest, using state structures and instruments of violence.

Amhara people were subject to forced disappearance, displacement, arbitrary killings and humiliation. Building on Derg’s accusation of past Amhara privilege, TPLF worked to depict Amhara as the “outlaws”, “oppressors”, and “enemies” of other “nations and nationalities” to successfully marginalize and exclude them from the economic windfalls of political power.

Now, by any objective standard, an average farmer in Amhara region stands at least as poor as an average farmer in any of the other allegedly oppressed regions.

The birth of Amhara nationalism
The sustained policy of oppression gradually sowed the seeds of victimhood, alienation, discrimination, and a resentment which finally inspired Amhara nationalism.

Its origin dates back to the early 1990s, but it only took its current shape two years ago with the establishment of the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). Ironically, TPLF and Oromo ethno-nationalist forces welcomed this development, with many proclaiming succcess in longstanding efforts to force “Amharas to embrace their Amharaness”; the latter saw it as the dawn of a new political scene allowing for renegotiation of the existing federation. Others, concerned by the dangers of ethnic nationalism, expressed their fear that this would intensify an already polarized political climate and lead to disintegration.

While Amhara nationalism has had an impact on the political consciousness of the youth and articulated common interests, it is still characterised by a lack of ideological clarity, and a dependable institutional bulwark, a cohesive social base or even, as opposition politician Yilikal Getinet has pointed out, a centre of gravity.

Some of these problems arise from the size of Amhara population and the Amhara region’s diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic composition, making collective action a real and unavoidable problem.

Historically, public consciousness has been based on sub-regions, (Gojjam, Gondar, Shewa, or Wollo), or even smaller zones or districts. Anything larger has been Ethiopian national identity.

Amhara identity, in its current form, is a recent introduction and forced self-appropriation, caused by an existential threat and alienation. The younger generation has adopted its ‘Amharaness’; but most ordinary people are yet to fully embrace it, not least because of the lack of any effectively articulated ideological foundation or priorities and the absence of any ‘tailor-made’ solutions to the challenges facing them.

Congenital problems
Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s population seem not to have reached the stage where individual merit receive higher premium than membership to a particular group. This has made nationalism a very potent weapon to claim and secure political and economic power.

Tarnishing Amhara nationalism is therefore hypocritical as well as counterproductive. Rather, it needs to develop to withstand competing forces and preserve the interests of Amhara people in national political disputes. This will enable Amhara people to play their role in building a new Ethiopia founded on rule of law, equality and freedom. The makers and breakers of Amhara nationalism should thus come out of the delusion of self-efficacy and (re)consider its content and future trajectory.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said “…every people has, or must have, a [national] character, if it lacks one, we must start by endowing it one”. Most nationalist movements in one way or the other follow the same logic, but one of the congenital defects of Amhara nationalism has been its attempt to replicate the 50-year-old Tigrayan or Oromo nationalism model and a failure to pave its own road, one that reflects the realities of the Amhara people and Amhara region.

The latter two movements are ‘mature’, in terms of endowing their people a national character, shaped by a nationalist psyche, founded on a too readily accepted sense of victimhood and politics of resentment. This has made their respective constituencies view their circumstances as the fault of others, not the product of broad historical social, economic, and political forces.

In contrast, let alone Amhara nationalism, as indicated, Amhara identity is only a recent occurrence to many Amhara people.

While the region is also home to various other micro-nations, its people are also spread across the whole of Ethiopia. Amharic being a widely spoken language, the Amhara, unlike Oromo and Tigrayans, also do not have their own media that, in the words of Carol Skalnik Leff, “ [is] insulated by language barriers from alternative viewpoints” allowing them to maintain a private “segregated intellectual universe”.

The failure of Amhara nationalism to acknowledge these and other strategic vulnerabilities means its actors have often appeared oblivious to their own aims.

One intrinsic marker of many nationalist movements is the willingness to sacrifice private desires for the greater collective interest.

Individuals who are considered complacent towards the ‘enemy’, those who do not assertively speak [the] truth to power, without fear or favor, are made outcasts or even ruthlessly expelled. Amhara nationalism is also suffering from this: creating a ‘hierarchy of Amharaness’; its propagators often question the integrity and ‘genetic quality’ of other fellow Amhara with different political views, particularly, those currently in power. They do not seem to understand that politics based on hierarchical blood authenticity is an affront to one’s being, dangerous and self-destructive.

There could not be a better example for this than the Bahir Dar incident of 22 June 2019 that lead to the death of high regional officials, who were comrades-in-blood as well as in purpose.

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