In the last several decades, Ethiopia has been one of America’s closest allies in Africa. To date, Ethiopia remains the top recipient of American foreign aid in Africa. However, recently American Ethiopian relations is increasingly strained. Since the chaotic Trump presidency in general and November 2020 in particular, Ethiopians both at home and in the diaspora are adopting a more critical attitude towards American action and inaction concerning Ethiopia. Among others, the ongoing war in the Tigray region between the terrorist group called Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government forces is the source of tensions between the two countries.
America’s insistence to preserve TPLF’s conquest of Amhara provinces that were occupied and forcefully annexed into Tigray in 1991 when it assumed state power without any due process by changing the age-old border between Gondar and Tigray and Wollo and Tigray has been at the core of Ethiopia’s ongoing most destructive and volatile conflict. In a series of official statements issued by US Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken, America has argued the need for the recognition and preservation of TPLF’s conquest of Amhara provinces into the pre-war borders and territorial status quo of Tigray. In his most recent public statement, Secretary Antony Blinken, for example, advocates for the territorial status quo  and against any change in the internal and international borders of Ethiopia.
Soon after the series of statements by American officials, many Ethiopians began to change their views on America and become skeptical of the motive of what they believe are decidedly pro-TPLF take on the conflict. While there are many issues over which America and Ethiopia differ, America’s insistence on the return to the pre-war border (where provinces of North Gondar and North Wollo have been forcefully annexed from the “Amhara region” and given a name of “Western Tigray” and “Southern Tigray” respectively by the occupying force, i.e., TPLF) preserve Tigray’s status quo ante in the occupied territories and the endorsement of this territorial status quo of Tigray has been the most perplexing to many Ethiopians. While the immediate reaction to Blinken’s statement was one of outrage and disbelief, it has recently elicited sharp criticism and anti-America social media campaigns. As I write this line, many Ethiopians unsettled by Blinken’s biased statement are actively participating in a Twitter campaign denouncing him under various hostile and critical hashtags.
Recent American policy towards Ethiopia bred resentment and outrage among many people because they closely and increasingly resonate with the position TPLF has taken on several issues. One of the conditions the TPLF set for peace talks with the Ethiopian government is a refusal to relinquish its control of occupied territories and the restoration and preservation of the pre-war unjust (not to mean colonial) borders of Tigray. American advocacy for the territorial status quo of the pre-war unjust borders of Tigray, therefore, favors the claims and demands of TPLF. Blinken’s statement in favor of the territorial status quo of the pre-war unjust borders of Tigray is considered “pro-TPLF,” and, therefore, anti-Ethiopian. Blinken’s statements regarding the border issue are out of touch with public opinion and unencumbered by knowledge of the history of the territorial occupation of TPLF that led to, among other things, the current war in Ethiopia. It is apparent that America formed its policy about the border based on information fed to the foreign secretary by TPLF. In the view of many Ethiopians, TPLF is a terrorist organization and remains the greatest single danger to the peace and very survival of the Horn of Africa. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, America’s support to an organization seen by many Ethiopians as unlawful deeply outrages them.
Some Ethiopians are also outraged at secretary Blinken’s statement because of his insistence on the recognition and preservation of Tigray’s unjust pre-war borders that was one of the main reasons leading to the current conflict in the first place. Although the ‘Ethiopian constitution’-cum TPLF manifesto has no provision regarding administrative borders, Blinken prescribes that the pre-war internal and international borders must not be modified in violation of the constitution. Blinken is woefully ignorant of the fact that both the current Ethiopian constitution and internal administrative borders were forcefully imposed on the country by TPLF in 1991 and are therefore illegitimate in the eyes of many Ethiopians and even this very same constitution is mute on the matter.
The constitution referenced in Blinken’s statement about the border is nothing more than a repackaged TPLF anti-Amhara and anti-Ethiopian secessionist manifesto issued in 1976 when the particularistic Tigrean ethnonationalists launched their guerrilla movement against Ethiopia. There is a growing consensus among Ethiopians that the deeply unjust territorial status quo of Tigray has caused, and continues to cause, misery and tragedy for millions of people over the last several decades. Ethiopia’s internal regional administrative boundaries were reconfigured arbitrarily based largely on ethnic criteria in 1991 by the TPLF government. These ethnic states and administrative regions closely resemble the ethnic homelands, pejoratively called “Bantustan,” the intensely racist apartheid regime of South African created in the twentieth century.
Like their Southern African Bantustan counterparts, the ethnic regional states and homelands in Ethiopia have decrepit, outdated, and inflexible borders. Like the apartheid regime, TPLF created these ethnic homelands to divide Ethiopians and bred mutual suspicion and conflict among each other. Many people were opposed to the current ethnic-based regional borders, both at the time of their creation in 1991 and subsequently. The territorial dispute has been a highly destructive force and consumed Ethiopian national politics since 1991. The ongoing conflict in Tigray shows painfully and clearly the urgent need to undo the deeply flawed territorial status quo. Ensuring peace in Ethiopia is therefore predicated upon abolishing inflexible borders and overcoming territorial conflicts. Conversely, supporting, preserving, and defending the unjustified Tigray borders would carve them into stone and thus perpetuate the conflicts and the allied bloodshed instead of resolving them.
The statements by Blinken and others like him are underwriting and adding new fuel to the already raging irredentist fire in Ethiopia. Irresponsible, ill-conceived, and ill-informed statements such as Blinken’s will only deepen the Amhara and Tegre division instead of overcoming it. For the half-million Amhara in Wolkait, an Amhara province TPLF illegally occupied for over three decades and still claims as Western Tigray, the recognition of the pre-war borders would be a blatant betrayal and a return to certain bloodshed and suffering. Virtually any kind of TPLF presence in Wolkait would lead to renewed bloodshed and massacre of the Amhara who live there. Given the continued clear and evident threat the TPLF presents to the Amhara in particular and Ethiopians in general, the American advocacy to the territorial status quo is to most people prejudiced and unfair at best and irresponsible and inflammatory at worst. What is to be gained from making such a damaging statement? Instead of trying to promote reconciliation and heal divisions, the incendiary statement by Blinken would exacerbate an already violent and precarious situation with his belligerent and divisive rhetoric.
Bliken’s partisan statement further undermines the sovereignty of Ethiopia and encourages ongoing violence. It should be up to the Ethiopian people to determine the legitimate borders of their own country and administrative regions. It is beyond Washington’s purview to decide upon which Ethiopian regional borders it legitimizes and supports and which ones it rejects and delegitimizes. Competing ethnonationalism and the allied irredentist conflicts are shredding the national fabric of Ethiopia into thousands of pieces and threatening to destroy it altogether. Thus, given the many territorial disputes that exist in Ethiopia, Blinken’s incendiary statement could potentially reignite a new wave of disputes elsewhere in Ethiopia.
Undue intervention and unwarranted statements by US officials have done little to prevent violence and destruction. It bears repeating that Blinken’s statement is counterproductive because it could only help to entrench rather than to overcome territorial disputes and ethnic sentiment. It is apparent that America has learned little from history. The current pressure which America is putting on Ethiopia is an eerie reminder of previous Western interventions on several Middle Eastern and Asian countries that led to state collapse and allied violence and atrocities. The tragedy and fate of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are an object lesson in the perils of misguided US foreign policy and intervention. The United States has to learn from its recent history and avoid undue intervention in Ethiopia with potentially deadly consequences.
The US can contribute to a stable peace in Ethiopia by supporting the country’s effort on overcoming the rigidity of ethnic-state borders and promoting integration. I believe that achieving stable peace in Ethiopia and cultivating good relations and friendship with Ethiopians constituted the primary goal of American foreign policy. Despite Ethiopian priorities and distinct interests, I also recognize that America has the right to pursue its foreign policy and security interests as it deems fit or appropriate. However, American insistence on the preservation of Tigray’s pre-war unjust borders and demands for the withdrawal of Amhara Security forces from areas rightly theirs is grossly unfair and inaccurate (if that matters). Secretary Blinken and other US officials have made such repeated statements without careful nuancing. The advocacy for or against the territorial status quo and the withdrawal of Ethiopian security forces from certain areas must consider the history of those Amhara territories (that were conquered by TPLF in 1991 and forcefully annexed into Tigray) and the complicated play of factors that led to the current Tigray conflict.
The administrative boundary, historical geography, social & population history of Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, and Humera (and that of Raya) provinces of Ethiopia, from ancient times to the 1990s, had never been controversial or a matter of debate. Anyone interested in the administrative boundary, historical geography, social & population history of Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, and Humera provinces of the area can read the well documented The Wolkait Affairs book that includes more than 700 primary and secondary sources, from archives in and outside of Ethiopia .
The TPLF dominated regime remapped and reorganized the internal administration of the country based on ethnic and language criteria in 1991. In total, 9 ethnic regional states plus Addis Ababa city administration were created. While the predominantly Amharic speaking and Amhara majority province of Raya (to the south of the historic Tigray province) was forcefully incorporated into Tigray regional state in 1991, Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, and Humera were illegally occupied by TPLF as early as the early 1980s. The spatial, historic, and the natural boundary of Tigray with the Amhara province of Bagemeder and Semen (renamed Gondar in 1975) was the Takaze river. East of the Takaze was the historic true Tigray. Until 1991, when they forcefully formally occupied it and renamed it Western Tigray, historically Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, and Humera had never been under Tigray province even once. TPLF occupied Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, and Humera in the 1980s, although then overwhelmingly Amhara and Amharic speakers, not for ethnonational reasons, but for strategic and economic reasons. Whereas historic Tigray is an environmentally deprived and fragile region, Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, and Humera are naturally endowed and agriculturally fertile land. Nearly half a million Tigrean colonists were settled inland in Wolkait by displacing the indigenous Amhara .
Although TPLF had perpetrated horrendous crimes against the Amhara people in Raya, it was the people of Wolkait that bore the brunt of TPLF’s systematic and genocidal repression and violence. Indeed, the breadth and depth of TPLF’s violence and crimes perpetrated against the Wolkait Amhara people stretching over a period of four decades is yet to be systematically documented. TPLF is among the few terrorist organizations in the world that has promoted one of the most egregious and virulent cases of narrow and violent tribal politics. Its defining features are corruption, theft, hate, and violence. While TPLF was oppressive and violent across the board during its 27 years of misrule and massive theft of Ethiopia, the Amhara people were, and still are, the special object of its hate policies. Within occupied Wolkait, in particular, TPLF was actively engaged in massive and relentless population purges, miscegenation, displacements, and extrajudicial killings to eliminate the Amhara people and their culture and transform the province into an ethnically homogenous Tigrean homeland. There are no acts of social engineering the TPLF had not applied to disrupt the ethnic and cultural integrity of the Amhara in Wolkait.
The claim of the Amhara over Wolkait is not merely rooted in the conviction about the borders of the ancestral homeland of the Amhara, but it is primarily based on ethnic sentiments. The issue of identity is a crucial matter in the Amhara irredentist claim over Wolkait. Since time immemorial, Wolkait has been an integral part of the majority Amhara inhabited part of Bagemeder and Semen. The people of Wolkait were Amhara through and through and through. Wolkait held profound meaning for the Amhara history, especially for Gondare history. It is a territory profoundly and deeply embedded into the Gondare’s soul. Wolkait is deeply ingrained in the imagination, cultural ethos, psyche, and identity narrative of the Gondare Amhara people. Wolkait is a land that the Gondare cannot do without.
As indicated above, in the 1980s, TPLF militarily occupied Wolkait. In 1991, it formally detached Wolkait from the historic region of Bagemeder and Semen and placed it under the Tigray regional state in the face of violent resistance from the indigenous Amhara. In 2021, Wolkait returned to Gondar. In between was at least half a century of bitter enmity between the Amhara and TPLF. To their peril, by incorporating Wolkait the Tigray region came to have a significant and proud Amhara population within its borders. The Amhara, especially the Amhara in Wolkait never recognized the new borders TPLF created between Tigray and Gondar. Western Tigray was never referred to as a part of Tigray. The lost territories in TPLF renamed as west Tigray are referred to by their historic name as Wolkait. The Amhara never condoned the dismemberment of the historic province of Gondar. TPLF’s responded to the peaceful Amhara request to reunification with Gondar with violence and repression. Yet, as the repression against the Wolkait Amhara intensified, so did the resistance and the longing for reunification with the Amhara region. The memory of the Wolkait lived on. No Gondare could come to terms with a loss of Wolkait which has so much meaning to them.
The Wolkait Amhara fought back the TPLF occupiers with the force of arms, created songs and committees to work towards reunification with the Amhara region. The extremely popular song by the famous singer Fasil Demewoz about the forceful occupation of Wolkait by TPLF titled “Aresut” (literally means “they plowed it”) has had quite an electrifying effect on the Amhara people. “Aresut” unleashed an outpouring of Amhara consciousness and galvanized support to the Wolkait cause. It drew attention to the plight of the Wolkait Amhara who were suffering under TPLF hateful rule. “Aresut” reignited the movement for reunification, formulated the identity narrative and the attachment to Wolkait quite literally and radically. By singing his music Fasil has contributed to keeping the Amhara people of Wolkait in the collective memory of the larger Amhara population of Ethiopia. TPLF’s bellicosity made violence inevitable and caused havoc and misery in Wolkait and elsewhere in Ethiopia. In July 2016, the festering enmity and hostility between the Amhara people and TPLF over Wolkait flared up into a violent uprising when Colonel Demeke Zewdu [v] successfully resisted illegal arrest. In November 2020, the war between TPLF and the Ethiopian government broke out after the former attacked the Ethiopian army stationed in Tigray. The Amhara special force along with the Ethiopian army drove out TPLF from Wolkait. After forty years of repression, genocidal violence, and plunder, the Amhara people of Wolkait are liberated and reunited with their kith and kin. In reincorporating Wolkait into Gondar the Amhara are not detaching a part of the territory of another regional state. But instead, they are simply retrieving their ethnic kin along with the ancestral homeland they have successively inhabited for thousands of years forcibly detached from Gondar.
The Wolkait case is a salutary reminder of the risks involved in trampling on peoples’ inalienable rights, cherished culture, and customs out of greed and for narrow ethnonationalist interests. If the current ethnic federalism is allowed to continue indefinitely, stable peace in Ethiopia and the surrounding region will never be achieved. A return to the pre-1991 administrative division or the reconfiguration of the administrative boundaries of Ethiopia based on criteria less to do with language and ethnicity appears to be the only hope for keeping territorial disputes and the ensuing bloodshed at bay. The current rigid ethnic borders could only encourage narrow and short-sighted ethno-nationalism and offers no long-term solutions. This is the certain lesson of the case of Wolkait. Blinken and other US officials’ support for the preservation of the pre-war borders that are misguided and are not grounded in history only adds to the already complex and interwoven problems facing Ethiopia. As a nation of freedom and liberty, the US should stand by the Wolkait Amharas who suffered genocide, ethnic cleansing and endured unimaginable violence under TPLF’s brutal occupation of the area and support the struggle of the Amhara people of Wolkait against oppression, colonization, and TPLF terror by applying meaningful pressure on TPFL for the return of occupied territories in Gondar as well as Wollo.
References: Independent writer, Commentator (Ethiopian Affairs), and Economic Researcher and Analyst.  https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with…/  A similar English article on the history can be read here: https://ecadforum.com/…/ethiopia-a-quest-for-identity…/  See Achamyeleh Tamiru, 2019, ‘The Wolkait Affair’ https://www.amazon.com/Wolkait-Affairs…/dp/1513653806, Page 427.  A notable Wolkait Amhara who has been elected as the leader of the Wolkait Amhara identity committee
Achamyeleh Tamiru is an Ethiopian living in the US, an ex-lecturer of Economics at Mekelle University, independent writer, Economic researcher, and analyst.