Ethnic Tensions in Gondar Reflect the Toxic Nature of Ethiopian Politics

From uneven development to authoritarian government, the morass of issues facing the city of Gondar offer a snapshot of Ethiopia’s wider problems

Gondar’s predicament is a microcosm of Ethiopia’s: a toxic brew of uneven development, polarised debate amid a virtual media vacuum, contested history, ethnic tensions, a fragmented opposition and an authoritarian government. (Photo: William Davison)

By William Davidson | Bloomberg,

In Gondar, a city in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, a lone tourist pauses to take a photo of a fortress built more than two centuries ago. Nearby, past a row of gift shops, lies the wreck of a coach torched during unrest in August.

Gondar, known as “Africa’s Camelot”, was once the centre of the Ethiopian empire – at a time when that empire was defined mainly by Amhara traditions.

Today, the city is facing new tensions that have a complex history. A territorial dispute between elites here in the Amhara region and those in neighbouring Tigray has been simmering for at least 25 years.

Tigrayans have been accused by opponents of wielding undue influence over Ethiopia’s government and security agencies since 1991. In recent months, these and other grievances have led to protests, strikes, vandalism and killings in Gondar, causing a drastic reduction in foreign visitors to the tourism-dependent city and an exodus of fearful Tigrayans.

Shops and schools have reopened in Gondar, after the authorities reasserted control in urban areas by declaring a state of emergency on 8 October. But sporadic clashes with the military continue in the countryside.

“We don’t feel like it is our country. We feel like it is the time when the Italians invaded. We are like second-class citizens,” says a prosperous local businessman. Like all interviewees, he requested anonymity due to fear of reprisals from the authorities. Europeans never colonized Ethiopia, but Mussolini’s army occupied the country from 1936 to 1941.

Gondar’s predicament is a microcosm of Ethiopia’s: a toxic brew of uneven development, polarised debate amid a virtual media vacuum, contested history, ethnic tensions, a fragmented opposition and an authoritarian government.

Ethiopia’s rulers show few signs of being able to solve the morass of problems, which many believe the government itself caused.

Trouble began in Gondar in July 2015, when word went around that the authorities intended to arrest Col Demeke Zewdu, a former rebel and retired military officer. When security forces tried to arrest Zewdu, who is a member of a committee campaigning over the contested Wolkait territory, armed Amharas protected him and several people, including security officers, were killed.

Wolkait is an administrative district in Tigray that borders Amhara. The committee says Wolkait and others areas were taken out of Gondar’s control by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1992, when Ethiopia was divided into a federation along ethno-linguistic lines. Allied rebels led by the TPLF, who unseated a military regime in 1991, introduced the system and still monopolise power.

Critics of the committee point out that a 1994 census found more than 96% of the people of Wolkait were Tigrayan , and that the complaints of annexation stem from the town of Gondar, not the district itself. The activists say the TPLF moved Tigrayans into the area during the rebellion.

The issue struck a chord in Gondar. After Demeke’s arrest, rural militiamen paraded through the city on 31 July, firing bullets into the air during a large, peaceful demonstration. It is thought that the demonstration was facilitated by the Amhara wing of the TPLF-founded Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – a four-party coalition that, along with allied organisations, controls all the country’s legislative seats.

A Tigrayan lecturer at Gondar University said he abhors Ethiopia’s ethnicised politics and believes jostling between the Amhara and Tigrayan EPRDF wings lay behind the Gondar violence. The TPLF is the predominant party in the EPRDF, and Amhara National Democratic Movement politicians are seeking greater power, he said. “I don’t believe in parties which are organised on ethnicity. I prefer it to be based on the individual.” An end to ethnic politics would make a resolution of the Wolkait issue possible, he believes.

ethiopia-ethnic1Among activists from Amhara, disavowal of the ethnicity-based system is at the crux of disagreements over how to oppose the EPRDF. Because federalism formally protects the rights of communities marginalised during previous eras, when Ethiopia was a unitary state, promoting national unity at the expense of ethnic autonomy is often cast as regressive.

Groups promoting Amhara identity within a democratised federation are therefore at odds with those focused on national cohesion, according to Wondwesen Tafesse, a commentator on Amhara issues. “Since most diaspora Amharas support Ethiopianist political parties, they seem to have this fear in the back of their mind that a resurgent Amhara nationalism, and the possible emergence of a strong Amhara political organisation, might undermine their political designs,” said Wondwesen.

In the weeks after Demeke’s detainment, there was more unrest, amid allegations that Tigrayan businesses were being targeted and Tigrayans attacked. People in Gondar say the companies were targeted because of their connections with the regime, rather than the owners’ ethnicity.

Unrest in Amhara was preceded by protests by the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, who also complain of marginalisation and repression. In response, the government has reshuffled officials – and intensified repression. During the state of emergency, the government has sent at least 24,000 people to camps for indoctrination under rules that allow the suspension of due process. According to the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, security forces killed some 600 demonstrators over the past year.

oromo-revoltsSince the beginning of November, a new federal cabinet has been announced and similar changes made in the Amhara government. But while maladministration and corruption were tagged as the pre-eminent problems, there is little evidence of officials being punished, or of policy reforms. An Amhara government spokesman said systemic changes were not required.

In August, on the outskirts of Gondar near Demeke’s neighbourhood, a crowd looted Baher Selam hotel. It was targeted following a rumour that the Tigrayan security officers allegedly involved in the operation to arrest the colonel were staying there.

Near the wrecked hotel, an elderly lady was roasting coffee beans. On the morning of the incident she was coming home from church when she heard gunshots.Business has since declined and large numbers of unemployed young people have been mobilised against the government, she said.

People here believe Wolkait was part of Gondar throughout history. “If they take that place, where else are they going to take?” the woman asked. “The situation is not going to go back to normal. If you light a match, it’s small – but it can burn a whole area.”

Amba Giorgis town in the North Gondar district of Ethiopia’s Amhara region. A territorial dispute has recently caused clashes between farmers and the military. (Photo: William Davidson)

26 thoughts on “Ethnic Tensions in Gondar Reflect the Toxic Nature of Ethiopian Politics

  1. TN news you are so oppsesed with ethiopian situation. By posting too much about ethio government weakness you are helping them to cure it. We need to focus on our own problem so we can bring solutions.

    1. Hi there, what happened to twitter? Isn’t twitter enough for your to spread your nonsense? This article should be a learning lesson for everyone, especially you. Had you and your likes given the chance, Eritrea would have faced similar faith as your favorite TPLF Ethiopia — full of division, cynicism, and suspicion among ethnic/regional groups and religions.

  2. There is nothing worse than a lazy journalist. At leastbe a man enough to suggest an alternative but to suggest TPLF wanted federalism is just down right dishonest. For the record, there is no tension between our leaders but “activists” in diaspora that would like to change the federalism system to God only knows what. Either way, our suggestions has always been consistent, form a freaking party and compete in 2020. Any other way has been closed but Asmera hosting the actors, you are more than welcome to try for an audition, best of luck.

    1. Everything you see and read comes to you from a person who can analyze his individual reaction to events that are unfolding in our neighboring countries be it Ethiopia , Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya,and south Sudan. whether you like it or not, any internal or external mass unrest and conflict have direct or indirect impact within this neighboring countries.
      One important thing that you must understand about Tesfanews is that, He/She treat us equally with a balance, effective and objective reports that might influence our region name it from Art, Music, politics, and Culture.
      If you follow the TPLF’s cheap political game by hiring wegane’s (Eritrean) websites, Foreign Journalists, Lobbyist, Ex-Eritrean officials and officers who are under direct and indirect pay-role (mercenaries) of the TPLF regime, their false confusion and report with a short shelf expiration dates, had made us Eritreans to unite and fight against all eventualities and adds.
      Don’t be a whiner, build the sprite of resilience and accept the reality.

    2. Brother, you are blinded by the indoctrination of TPLF. Do you know why EPLF and TPLF started the war back in 1998? It is not because of Badme or economics. The war was about idealogy. TPLF wanted to rule Ethiopia based on Ethnicity, but EPLF strongly objected to the idea of dividing people based on Ethnicity. See what happens when you don’t listen to Eritreans? TPLF has just dug its own grave. The pondora box that TPLF opened in Ethiopia is going to make the suitation in Somalia look like a picnic. TPLF has only it’s stupidity and insecurity to blame. Eritreans are not and will not be Your enemy. Wake up.

      1. Really dude? You might have mistaken me with the Amharu crowd. Did you really make the argument, EPLF fought war because ethinicity was an issue for them? Wow, it even hearts to read it but just so you know, EPLF was behind OLF, Tamerat Lyane people advocating federalism. TPLF was out numbered and truly we still believe it’s the best way. If someone feels different, tell that to Somali or Oromo people. Tegaru can do either or but using that as a wadge issue doesn’t create a good opposition, it just shows to the Ethiopian people diaspora has no vision.

        1. No, what I said was TPLF went to war with Eritrea to keep its ethnic based rule in Ethiopia. Eritrea was just on the defensive. The fallouts started in 1996. Yet again you are TPLF cadre. You would swear up and down and claim that milk is black in order to advances your interests. No point talking to you. Evil is just Evil.

          1. Thats not what I understood from the first comment but will take it back. TPLF job is to respect the constitution that was agreed upon by majority then and now, unity through diversity. If there are better ways, we are glad to listen. As for the fallout, the lion of Nakifa wanted to have it both ways, simple as that.

          2. Your plan was to destroy Ethiopia from the get go. You should have been more honest from the beginning. Now what are you going to do? The true Ethiopians are coming after your TPLF.

      2. The long held expansionist mentality, eminating from feudalist Ethiopians was skillfully exploited to start the war against Eritrea back in ’98. Woyanes were provided with billions of dollars, diplomatic cover etc.. but when the puppet masters realized its imminent collapse at the hands of heroic warsay-yikalo they rushed to save their house negro by calling for a “truce” and followed up with covert/overt maneuvers to undermine Eritrean nationhood including sanctions based on fabricated evidence.
        18 years later however, Ethiopians have realized that they’ve been taken for a ride.

  3. Eritrean air force tested some of its fighter jets in Asmara. the mood in Addis is so somber thinking Eritrea might go after Woyne. I was in Gonder just a week ago and people already talking about if war broke out which side they are going to support, Eritrea. The woyne army seems overstretch and the air force is under pressure from disagreement between high level officials and lower ranks because of a difference opinion among the air force unit in the Ethiopian air force. Some officials in Addis are blaming TPLF for Ethiopian army to be in these positions. But, they are hoping Eritrea will not attack Ethiopia at this point since the country is under a lot of political pressure inside, weak diplomatically and the drought is still a problem and, the economy is in down slide. Some think Ethiopia is in a venerable position that anytime for Eritrea army to after Ethiopia. Another factor they are looking into is that the UISA administrations are on transitions and the Ethiopian government is at odds with Washington at this time. The Ethiopian army just sends a brigade to Gonder to control the situation in that area and the army is going through difficult time. Besides, the Ethiopian official fear that Egypt will back Eritrea in full since all of the other options to stop Ethiopia from BUILDING GERD have been unsuccessful. It seems that by looking in the Eritrean army positions and the air force exercise Ethiopia is going to get its life time surprise and the timing looks perfect for Eritrea and ist army to liberate occupied land of Eritrea.

    1. There seems to be two person under one name “Selam”. The only difference that a reader might differentiate between the two us is the logo (one with Eritrean flag and one with out) may be not. And if she was in Gonder just a week ago, she don’t deserve the Eritrean flag as identification. Not only that, the comment is baseless and senseless.

      1. ~
        ክብርቲ Aoura ( ሰላማዊት ኩልሻዕ) / – – – “ሃይ!”

        “And if she was in Gonder just a week ago, she don’t deserve the Eritrean flag as identification.” & & & “Not only that, the comment is baseless and senseless.”

        እንታይ she ኡ ደኣ፧ – – – ሳልሖ ወይ ከብተለኣኣኽቱ ሓዲኦም ይኸውን’ምበሪ።

    2. First let me congratulate you for writing one of the most interesting fiction of the year on this site. Second, brigade consists of three or more battalions, what the hell do we need that for Laptop fighters anywhere in the country? Third, we have excellent people in charge for those areas by name of Masho Hagos and Tegabu Yillima, try to see how starched they are. Forth, Asmera might be crazy but not death wish, you might have mistaken the noise fighter jets with potash maker or something. Last, Egypt has read the history of Yohannes from their grandfathers, with all the headaches they have and five months before GERD war is not an option, only proxy thru idiots like you, Komal.

      1. Are you referring the idiot and fool yohannes who was easily deceived by menilik which lead to his shameful death, komal? BTW, are you eritrean or komal? KOMAL is patented by eritreans to use it against filthy, thieves, liers weyanes as you. If you are weyane you should be ashamed to use KOMAL as a punch line. You’re a dirty species that would never be cleaned. Get lost KOMAL!

        1. I wish every eritrean who cares deeply for their country follow your statement including the editor!
          once PIA said ‘ nehaquom don’t engage with them, just let us do our job’

  4. It’s too late now.. Woyane-Tigray opened the Pandora’s box and there is no turning back. Woyane controlled Ethiopia thru ethnic division and by making the ppl busy thru ethnic wars they suck all the regions wealth dry. And took everything to tiny-Tigray in-order to help build the dream of greater Tigray republic.

    And it’s understandable why the TPLF is not letting go the Tigrayan dominated power. Cuz what is Tigray, without the Amhara economy and Oromo land? Nothing! And the Amhara knows that and they will not back down unless republic-tiny-Tigray give back the lands that it took from them. U know the four Woredas(districts) that were part of Gondar province==>> kefeta humera, wolqait, tedege, and tselemet. And of-course handover power. But the TPLF apartheid regime is not going to do that, so it means more conflict is on the way.

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