Violent Qemant dispute fueling explosive Amhara-Tigray divide

Violent Qemant dispute fueling explosive Amhara-Tigray divide

December 16, 2018
The bitter argument over the status of the Qemant people is part of a dangerous political struggle between the leaders of Amhara and Tigray regions

In early November, a Qemant community militia erected a checkpoint to search for weapons as people passed through their district in Amhara region.

The travelers were attending an event recognizing that Negade Bahir, a town of around 7,000 people, would become part of an an Amhara enclave in an otherwise ethnically Qemant area, said Yirga Teshager, a priest, former civil servant, and member of a committee campaigning for self-determination for the Qemant people.

“We respect the decision of the people in Negade Bahir but we feared that conflict would be created as armed Amhara farmers passed through our districts,” he said in an interview in Addis Ababa on Nov. 12.

Locals also worried that Amhara officials would gradually seek to control surrounding Qemant kebeles, Yirga explained. Those concerns come after the Amhara government granted self-rule to the Qemant in 69 districts last year, but withheld it in three others, saying they were not suitable for Qemant administration as they were not contiguous with the other territories.

Instead of preventing trouble last month as intended, the Qemant firearms checkpoint at Meqa led to a clash. Two days later conflict had again expanded to surrounding areas in Chilga Woreda, Genda Wuha, and Shinfa, where Qemant houses were reportedly torched.

Regional security forces and mobs killed at least 42 Qemant in a week in Metema and Chilga woredas of West Gondar Zone before the military controlled the situation, said Yirga. Amhara’s security head Asaminew Tsige said that the Qemant were the aggressors in fighting that’s killed at least 69 people in two recent flare-ups: “The conflict was provoked by Qemant, not by Amhara. Almost nine grain mills were burned, 67 houses were burned, and some people were massacred.”

The violence is tied to the deteriorating relations and territorial disputes between Amhara and Tigray’s governments. Asaminew believes Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) officials are stoking a manufactured Qemant identity issue and—referring to separate areas from the Qemant territories—that there is “no doubt” parts of southern and western Tigray are rightfully Amhara land. “They are clearly getting support from previous TPLF leaders and we have identified that some groups from the military were also providing support for the Qemant people. TPLF has given an assignment to destabilize Amhara society as Amhara people have a question of identity to be resolved by TPLF leaders. We are claiming these areas (in Tigray), and they want to block that issue by giving an assignment in our region,” he said by phone from Gondar on Dec. 15.

We are claiming these areas

Retired Brigadier General Asaminew was sentenced for allegedly being part of a group of soldiers that were involved in a Ginbot 7 coup plot in 2009. He told judges he was tortured in detention. Asaminew was released in February under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s rule as part of a political amnesty. A leaked U.S. Embassy cabledoubted the charges against the group of 46. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reinstated his military rank and pension in June.

Asaminew’s appointment in recent months as Head of Peace Building and Public Security Affairs Bureau is part of the harder positioning of the ruling Amhara Democratic Party. And his allegation that military elements are assisting Qemant aggression raises the specter of fissures in the defense forces and clashes between the troops and Amhara security forces. Prior to his arrest, Asaminew and colleagues had allegedly complained about the control of the armed forces by former TPLF rebel fighters, who formed the core of a new military after the Derg’s overthrow in 1991.

TPLF leaders say Amhara revanchists are orchestrating unrest in the ethnically mixed Raya and Wolkait areas of Tigray, which used to be part of the Wollo and Gondar provinces that are now in Amhara. “They think—and wrongly so—that they can get away with an anti-Qemant pogrom and focus on Tigray later. Most of them operate with a mindset that is reminiscent of the Era of Princes,” said Getachew Reda, a TPLF politburo member and political advisor to Tigray’s de facto president, about Amhara expansionists, referring to an approximately 80-year period until the mid-19th century when chieftains from modern-day Amhara, Oromia and Tigray battled for control.
One of the recent victims, Beletu, who was contacted via a political activist, described a campaign that sounded like ethnic cleansing, saying Qemant were beaten, killed, evicted, fired from government jobs, and told they can’t live in Metemma.

“In the last two weeks the regional security armed mobs and the mob started hunting. Every Qemant is taken away from their farm, their property robbed and put in warehouses, and their houses are set on fire. In Metemma Woreda you can’t find a property that belongs to Qemant,” she said on Nov. 8.

Mohammed, a Qemant government worker, said he was forced from his home in Genda Wuha by Amhara groups in September and received reports of extreme violence after the Meqa fighting. “Properties are completely destroyed. They killed a certain person and took 5,800 kilograms of sesame. 600 cattle were robbed. Houses are set on fire,” he said.

‘Ethnic cleansing’ is not a specific crime under international law, but a UN expert commission on Yugoslavia defined it as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

Web of competing claims

Insufficient reporting and civil society investigations mean it is hard to verify the claims of violence in Qemant areas, which occurred again this month. Without independent assessments, this inter-regional dispute with potentially seismic ramifications is shrouded in a web of competing claims.

The recent accounts echo events in December 2015 when the government’s Human Rights Commission held Amhara Special Police and locals responsible for illegal killings in Chilga, Metema, and Lay Armachiho woredas. The deaths of 74 Qemant and 23 Amhara, and burning of properties, occurred after Amhara’s government granted the Qemant an initial 42 kebeles, the Commission said in a November 2016 report. That led to Qemant protests demanding more districts and counter demonstrations.

The Qemant areas to the west of Gondar

Factions from both groups encouraged lawlessness and local officials and party cadres sided with their own ethnicity. The “hardliners” included the Amhara Committee that organized an illegal demonstration in Shinfa on Dec. 9 that was attended by approximately 65,000 people, around a quarter of them armed, according to the Commission.

It “was replete with racial hatred, often accompanied by the war song “Yileyal Zendiro” (“It will all be resolved in these times”). This brought about enormous harm to Qemant and Amhara nationalities as well as those of Tigrayan origin engaged in business activities in Shinfa Kebele,” the report said.
Genetu Yibeltal, a representative of new opposition party, the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), said the Commission produced disinformation as it was headed by a Tigrayan. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International did not report on the 2015 violence and said they did not have enough reliable information on November’s events. The non-profit Ethiopian Human Rights Council said on Nov. 29 that insecurity had made it difficult to access the area recently and so it had been unable to conduct adequate research.

Daniel Berhane is a political activist who claims the federal government is using propaganda to agitate a genocide against Tigrayans. He says Tigrayans and Qemant have been persecuted in Amhara but Western rights groups have ignored the type of evidence that they normally rely on to make allegations of violations in Ethiopia: “Why did the human rights industry have difficulty getting information about Tigrayans and Qemant being targeted in the same area where they boldly reported other abuses?”

The Qemant had self-rule requests rejected by the region after raising the issue in 2009 with the House of Federation, which adjudicates on constitutional questions and has representatives from each ethnicity. Qemant leaders were detained by regional authorities who said they were Amhara.

Qemant people are the same as Amhara

That viewpoint is shared by NaMA’s Genetu: “The Qemant people are the same as Amhara. They don’t have a different language, culture, or geographical landscape from Amhara. Qemant and Amhara are indeed two sides of a coin. But still they have the right to self-rule if they need to.”

And also by Asaminew: “Qemant and Amhara have no differences in religion, culture, or other practices. Qemant have 99 percent of similarity with Amhara compared to other people. We are living with the same geography and we are interconnected. The name Qemant is only known for five years.”

The Qemant, a group of less than 200,000 people, are a subgroup of the Agew. That now scattered people speak a Cushitic language and ruled Ethiopia under the Zagwe dynastyduring the 12th and 13th centuries when Lalibela’s monolithic churches were built.

Frederick C. Gamst, a U.S. anthropologist who published his thesis on the Qemant, said their religious culture was damaged during the 1872 to 1889 reign of Emperor Yohannes IV, a militant Christian from Tigray, which exposed the “Pagan-Hebraic Qemant” to Amharization. Writing in 1967, Gamst expected full assimilation over the next three decades, which may have been prevented by the institutionalization of identity politics that culminated in the 1995 federal constitution.

Another Agew group, the Awi, have an administrative zone inside Amhara, as do the Oromo, which Genetu and Asaminew say demonstrates that minorities are respected in the region. The Agew Democratic Party is campaigning for an Agew state, while several ethnic zones in Southern Nations region are on course for statehood.

Mohammed thinks that violence renewed in Qemant areas because the Tigray-Amhara flared over protests in Alamata in Raya, while Genetu, who sits on NaMA’s audit and inspection committee, says it was due to TPLF scheming: “Destabilizing, impoverishing and killing Amhara has been the main agenda of TPLF because they consider the Amhara as a threat to their power and looting of the country.”

Roughly two years ago the TPLF was pushing the Qemant claim at party and government meetings and has also provided members with intelligence, a source close to the committee said. Getachew said TPLF was only to blame for “its failure to highlight the pogrom on Qemant as the opening salvo for the concerted campaign to destroy the federal arrangement. The leadership of EPRDF—TPLF included—miserably failed to sound the alarm when it was obvious that many in the ruling party in the Amhara region were either complicit in the campaign or reluctant to stand up to those who were hell bent on finishing off an unfortunate minority.”
Amhara activists have produced a 238-page report alleging a TPLF-led “genocide” between 1991 and 2015. Some claim birth control programs were used to suppress the Amhara population, a dubious theory that appears to have contributed to the October mob killings of two health researchers in West Gojjam Zone.

The Amhara allegations are just one tier of multi-layered grievances in Ethiopia’s political landscape. For example, the TPLF-engineered federal system was nominally designed to overcome the oppression of minorities that occurred under a military regime it ousted and the preceding feudal system, which was generally dominated by native Amharic-speakers.

But the TPLF has long been accused by opponents of imposing authoritarian hegemony using divide-and-rule tactics. Activists from less populous ethnic groups that occupy poorer, peripheral regions, such as Benishangul-Gumuz, say they have been oppressed by Amhara, Tigrayans and Oromo, Ethiopia’s most populous ethnicity.

In the past, Amhara opposition politics was associated with a pan-Ethiopianism that rejected the ethnofederal system, while the regional ruling party was viewed as subservient to the TPLF. But it is now also characterized by groups such as NaMA, and consequently the ruling Amhara Democratic Party has become more forceful as it strives for popular legitimacy in an increasingly competitive environment.

Something of a turning point was a demonstration in Gondar in August 2016 over the Wolkait issue. That appeared to be facilitated by the ruling party and involved strong expressions of Amhara pride. There was also violence around the time of the rally that involved the targeting of Tigrayans and their businesses and a subsequent mass exodus of Tigrayans. This occurred after a leading activist on the Wolkait issue, Colonel Demeke Zewdu, was arrested following a shootout with security forces. He was also released in February.

Heightened feeling of inequitable representation

Dereje Feyissa Dori, an Addis Ababa University federalism expert, believes the current more assertive Amhara politics is driven by a legitimate desire to protect vulnerable Amhara, particularly those outside the region, as they are blamed for historic injustices; a heightened feeling of inequitable representation in the constitutional order; and, for some, imperial nostalgia, or at least a re-channeling of pan-Ethiopian impulses.

“It feels that Amhara ethnicity politics is replicating the ethnonationalism of the other groups in the early 1990s. This suggests that they will soon moderate their demands and expectations, such as fixing the Wolkait and the Raya questions immediately,” said the associate professor, who’s also a Senior Research Advisor at the Life & Peace Institute.

The Raya and Wolkait disputes appear problematic as they are not readily solved through constitutional means such as referendums. That is because activists do not dispute that they are majority Tigrinya-speaking areas, instead they allege that since its rebellion in the 1980s the TPLF has resettled Tigrayans in the area.

Rather than a demand for the federal system to be respected, claim of Tigrayan annexation can therefore be seen more of an outright challenge to the current constitutional order, which the TPLF was key to designing in the early 1990s after spearheading a successful rebellion and forming the core of a new military, ruling coalition and government. Furthermore, like elsewhere in Ethiopia, the multi-faceted identities in southern Tigray and Qemant areas reflect the fluidity of ethnicity, and therefore arguably the challenges inherent in organizing administrative structures according to such criteria.
Although it was denied by Getachew, an individual connected to the Amhara and Tigrayan political establishment said that at the root of the Wolkait problem is competition for scarce fertile land. The claims that Wolkait and surrounding areas were Amhara only gathered strength after the government in Mekele stopped distributing plots in 2012, the source said. A key crop in the northwest is sesame, one of Ethiopia’s highest earning exports.

Getachew said two senior Amhara officials were directly involved in organizing the November attacks on Qemant. “They are using the same tried and trusted tactics to unleash terror on the Qemant and Tegarus—that they are Trojan horses for TPLF,” he said. “The Qemants are a thorn in the side of the Amhara expansionists as they fear they will stand in the way of their plans against Tigray.”

Such viewpoints reflect Tigrayan fears of encirclement, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed allies with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, the autocratic arch-enemy of TPLF veterans, and Amhara president Gedu Andargachew. Tigray region hardened its stance recently when de facto president Debretsion Gebremichael accused the federal government of selectively targeting Tigrayans as it cracked down on corruption and abuses.

Nahusenay Belay, an Addis Ababa University political scientist, says the TPLF, and by extension Tigrayans, are being unfairly blamed for all of the country’s ills, particularly by the neighboring region: “The government in Amhara is not able to provide answers on issues of employment, political participation, and governance, so as a matter of strategy they have externalized all of their problems to Tigray.”

We will never stop our identity quest

After Abiy initially expressed a desire for reconciliation, the government pardoned Eritrea-backed armed groups, but then began prosecuting the former intelligence officials who had been monitoring those groups when they were classified as terrorists, said Nahusenay, who works at the Center for Federal and Administration Studies.

Expressing a theory that has gained traction among Tigrayan activists, he thinks there is a plan by Abiy, Isaias, and Amhara leaders to coerce Tigray into cooperation by backing the claims that it annexed Raya and Wolkait. Debretsion has said the TPLF is prepared for a struggle to defend the federal system and there have been large protests in Tigray against federal government policy recently.

Abiy’s official approach to the federation’s troubles is a new commission on borders and identities and sweeping democratic reforms to facilitate free and fair 2020 parliamentary elections. He visited Gondar last month with Isaias and told Fekadu Mamo and other leaders of the Qemant committee that their requests must be pursued constitutionally and that the House of Federation would investigate the request for additional kebeles.

Fekadu said in an interview that there was more violence against his community this month, as the dispute simmers. “Unless we are granted our constitutional rights, we will never stop our identity quest,” he said.