Ethiopia remains on the brink of renewed ethnic conflict as thousands of displaced people stage protests demanding to be resettled in the country’s volatile northern regions.
While focusing on quickly ending a war that killed more than 600,000 people and shattered the country’s economy, the November 2022 peace deal between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) left underlying territorial disputes unresolved. More than a million ethnic Tigrayans have fled the fertile lands in places such Alamata, Raya, Welkait and Humera in western Tigray, now under Amhara control.
Human right groups say the Tigrayans were forcibly evicted by federal and Amhara forces in a bid to unite the areas to the Amhara region. Now many fear that reluctance to settle the territorial dispute may push Ethiopia to a second round of civil strife.
The Tigray regional government has been appealing to the African Union to force the withdrawal of Amhara forces. Meanwhile the Amhara regional government continues to insist on its ancestral link to the disputed areas.
‘Not about land’
“A referendum is likely,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s national security adviser Redwan Hussien announced at the conclusion of the Pretoria Peace Agreement, acknowledging the fluidity of a situation that has become a wedge political issue for both regions.
Recent weeks have seen sustained protests across the Amhara region and in the disputed areas amid calls for federal authorities and the international community to help settle regional boundaries once and for all. Last month the US Embassy in Ethiopia sent a delegation to Amhara-occupied Alamata in southern Tigray, exacerbating the ire of the Tigrayan government who accused the US of “endorsing” the Amhara occupation.
“For Amharas, Welkait and Raya … is not about the land per se. It is about justice, identity and the right to life,” says Hone Mandefro, advocacy director at the Amhara Association of America.
“Conversely, letting the TPLF administer these areas would mean forsaking the Amharas in those areas and allowing the TPLF to reinstate its genocidal attacks against them,” he adds. “Ethiopians know that the TPLF has no historical bases to claim those areas. Those areas were annexed by force and are now liberated.”
Muluwork Kidanemariam, a former Tigray electoral commissioner turned political analyst, believes the slow progress in resolving the boundary dispute since the 2022 agreement is a recipe for more strife.
“In addition, with Eritrea viewing Tigrean nationalism as a threat, that can’t be a good sign,” he tells The Africa Report.
The territorial quarrel is further exacerbated by the drawn-out fight over Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution.
Under the supreme law of the land, the disputed areas belong to the Tigray region, reinforcing legal claims that the current situation should be reversed. For the Amhara, however, the constitution itself – promulgated back when the TPLF was still in charge at the federal level – unfairly granted the Tigray region control over areas that should belong to them.
Welkait is home to Ethiopia’s largest sugar plantation and biggest irrigation dam. And Humera is known for its rich agricultural lands and sesame production, generating more than $150m annually for the federal and regional governments.
In a 1 June report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused local authorities and Amhara forces of continuing an “ethnic cleansing campaign” against Tigrayans in the West Tigray Zone since the truce agreement.
“The November truce in northern Ethiopia has not brought about an end to the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans in Western Tigray Zone,” HRW Horn of Africa director Laetitia Bader said in previewing the report.
Authorities in Tigray have expressed their outrage after the federal Ministry of Education labeled the disputed areas as belonging to the Amhara region.
The ministry’s official report ‘makes it abundantly clear that the ministry has no intention to even pretend to pay lip service to the Pretoria Agreement – much less to the  constitution – by including legitimate Tigray territories in the Amhara region,’ Getachew Reda, the president of the Tigray Interim Administration, wrote on Twitter. ‘The latest report by the Federal Ministry of Education is yet another addition to an increasingly dangerous pattern.’
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