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Amhara nationalist claims over Western Tigray are a smokescreen for ethnic cleansing

A comprehensive analysis of historical maps and records by Professor Jan Nyssen, a geographer at the University of Ghent, undermines the arguments made by Amhara elites.

Since the military conquest and ethnic cleansing of Western Tigray in 2020—mainly by Amhara special forces and Fano militias with direct and tacit support by Eritrea and Ethiopian federal authorities, respectively—post hoc justifications have been offered to consolidate this unconstitutional takeover.

As many as 723,000 Tigrayans have been violently chased from their lands, while the number of civilians killed is undoubtedly high but could not be ascertained by human rights investigators because their access to the areas was blocked by the occupying forces.

To justify these expulsions and killings, the supposed eternal Amharic character of Welkait and the surrounding districts is commonly invoked.

An example of such arguments, Tibor Nagy, former US Assistant Secretary of African Affairs, wrote in a recent op-ed that, “When the TPLF came to power, they transferred a fertile section of Amhara State (Welkait district) to Tigray, renaming it Western Tigray, and brought in ethnic Tigrayans to displace ethnic Amharas. Thus, Amharan militias eagerly joined the fight and forcibly reclaimed Western Tigray.”

However, there was no Amhara state in the pre-federal eras and Ethiopia’s federal constitution stipulates that the ethno-linguistic demography of a region, rather than the historical control of a territory by a certain group, determines how the country’s internal borders are organized into regional states.

As a result, areas known as Welkait, Tsegede, Tselemti, and Humera were initially incorporated into the Tigray region during the 1991-1994 transitional period, because the residents of those areas were overwhelmingly Tigrinya speakers and ethnically Tigrayan.

However, many Amhara nationalists have claimed historical possession of these lands. Although this historical ownership argument is irrelevant to the current federal setup, Amhara irredentist claims should nonetheless be scrutinized more closely.

After all, Amhara irredentism has been a driving force in the Tigray war. Removing this most productive zone from Tigray that borders Sudan appears also to be part of a strategy to impoverish and subjugate Tigray, while encircling it with hostile forces.

This territorial dispute between Tigray and Amhara regions remains a sticking point that has impeded peace in Ethiopia for two years. The possession of “Western Tigray” or “Welkait” was not directly addressed in the peace agreement signed on 2 November.

While the negotiated settlement’s emphasis on abiding by the existing constitutional framework has raised fears among Amhara nationalists that “ancestral Amhara lands” will be transferred back to Tigray, the agreement is subject to interpretation on this matter.

Mapping Welkait

A wide array of historical maps and records jointly reveal that the territorial organization of northern Ethiopia has changed repeatedly and considerably over the last four centuries.

Our research team at the University of Ghent has retrieved all historical maps representing the Western part of the Tigray region, otherwise known as Welkait and its adjacent districts, from well-established repositories.

Only maps prepared in the same period as they depict were used. Each map was screened for representation of internal borders, indicating territorial control. Out of 109 maps, spanning the period from 1607 to 1967, 66 explicitly display territorial control.

Such historical maps provide a lot of information about toponyms, meaning regional names, and territorial boundaries. They were not only the work of visiting cartographers and scholars; these maps were the outcome of intensive local assistance and contacts with local partners who were experts in territorial organization and socio-political practices.

Starting from the late seventeenth century, internal boundaries are clearly shown, with 37 maps between 1683 and 1941 displaying a boundary that is located close to the current southwestern border of Tigray, or even south of the Simien mountains.

The Welkait district is explicitly included within a larger Tigray confederation during the 1707-1794, 1831-1886, and 1939-1941 periods, while it is briefly mapped as part of Amhara in 1891-1894 and part of Gondar from 1944-1990.

Gondar province was established by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1946, with an Amharic centre, while the wider borderlands were inhabited by other ethnic groups, namely Tigrayans, Gumuz, and Agaw. To this day, Gondar is the stronghold of Amhara nationalism.

During other periods, Welkait is shown as being independent or as part of a larger Mezaga, meaning ‘dark earth’, lowland region. The claimed age-old Amhara/Gondar-Tigray border is only mapped on the Tekeze River during short intervals, from 1844-1847 and 1891-1896, and then more lengthily between 1944 and 1990.

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However, after 1980 the Dejena mountain range in Welkait became the main base for Tigrayan resistance against the Derg regime that was in power at the time, and so parts of it were under their de facto control.

This meta-analysis of the historical maps shows that for the larger part of the last 340 years, the area today known as Western Tigray has been under Tigray’s jurisdiction. However, particularly during times of upheaval such as during the ongoing civil war, the territory has been briefly reorganized under Amhara polities or was autonomous.

As the historical maps demonstrate, the argument that Welkait was always a part of Gondar, or else Amhara region, is not based on evidence, apart from a territorial reorganization in the mid-twentieth century.

Ellero’s notes

Next, we analyzed the field notes from Welkait of Italian ethnographer Giovanni Ellero, and extracted a list of 574 place names as recorded by Ellero and his translators.

Ellero was in Welkait in 1939-1940, where he was district administrator as part of the Italian occupying administration. His wife, Pia Maria Pezzoli, typed and organized his field notes when Ellero was put in prison by the British in 1941 and was at the same time administrator in Eritrea under the supervision of the British officer S.F. Nadel.

In 1942, Ellero was transferred to South Africa as a prisoner of war, but he perished when the ship on which they travelled was sunk by the Japanese navy.

During his fieldwork in Ethiopia, Ellero visited all villages of Welkait. For every village, he noted, among many other details, the number of inhabitants, the origin of the first inhabitants of the village, and the genealogy of how the inhabitants were related to the founders of the village. Languages practiced, religion, cropping system, and sometimes tales, habits, and customs were also recorded.

In almost all villages studied, the inhabitants remembered that, many generations earlier, their forefathers had migrated from a specific place of origin in the Tigray highlands. The majority of people were reported to speak Tigrinya, with only a passing knowledge of Amharic.

However, the priests commonly preached in Amharic, as was common all over Ethiopia at the time. While those who were literate wrote in Amharic, Ellero specifically mentions the reason; all communication with the administration was in Amharic.

The etymology of almost all 574 recorded names of villages and hamlets in Welkait is of Tigrinya origin. Less than ten locations in 1939 held a name of Amharic origin.

To characterise the indomitable character of the Welkait people, Ellero mentioned a verse commonly used by the Welkait farmers: “My land is Tigray, my croplands Welkait. My cow is wild, my wife angry. Now, the two have joined forces.”

Settlement patterns

Having all this knowledge publicly available, we can only conclude that those who persistently claim the enduring Amharic character of Western Tigray wish to justify their claims on the territory, which involved ethnic cleansing in that region after 2020.

A modification of regional boundaries as a result of conquest warfare by Amhara elites is unacceptable. The establishment of regional boundaries should especially consider the pre-war settlement patterns, as indicated by census data and language maps.

Contemporary Tigray is a valid territory, whose legitimacy stems from modern federalism’s initiative to create regions without reference to concepts of the Ethiopian empire-state. When the boundaries of the Tigray region were established in the early 1990s, an assessment of demographics that led to self-rule was more important than historical maps.

While Amhara nationalists have made it necessary to enter into such debates over historical ownership, settlement patterns of each group are, in fact, the basis upon which the existing federal structure is built.

The 1984 census conducted by the Derg only mapped the ethno-linguistic settlement patterns of Gondar province as a whole, and not Welkait specifically, so is not particularly useful in this respect.

The 1994 census data collected by the EPRDF shows ethnic Tigrayans constituted 96.5 percent of the population in the disputed areas, while only 3 percent were Amharas. This changed to 92.3 and 6.5 percent in the 2007 census.

Remarkably, the consensus among twentieth century ethno-linguistic maps of the Ethiopian state also sustains the current extent of the Tigray region.

Historical evidence produced by anthropologist Frederick J. Simoons in 1960 and by a team of linguists led by M. Lionel Bender in 1976, among others, demonstrates that, despite the fact that there were mass resettlements of Tigrayans in sparsely populated areas of Western Tigray during the 1990s, Tigrayans constituted the vast majority in these areas long before the TPLF was even formed.

In other words, the Amhara nationalist narrative that Amharic speakers have maintained continuous ancestral ownership of Welkait over the centuries is not confirmed by a meta-analysis of the historical maps and ethnography.

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Main photo: Western Tigray, the place of origin of most Internally Displaced People from Tigray; Tigray: Atlas of the Humanitarian Situation.

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