You must have heard the allegation that ‘Tigray annexed Amhara lands’That is mainly in reference to the four Woredas(districts) that were part of the former Gondar province, now part of western Tigray.

Yes, it is a 19 years old issue and it has lost steam after its peak in 2005, when CUD(Kinijit) used it in a bid to inflame the Amhara people and also to create disillusionment on the Tigrayans themselves and other ethnic groups.

Yet, among the Ethiopian diaspora it is still a favorite talking point among the right wing opposition media and parties.

True to form, the issue appears to be a chief mobilization tool of Ginbot 7 – a party led by Berhanu Nega, one of the leaders of the former CUD. A random check on Ginbot 7 publications between Feb. 11/2010 and Jan. 13/2011 reveals that the issue is raised at least 8 times(probably more) – all in the context of showing the ‘conspiracy against the Amhara people’.

Indeed, this is a propaganda theme shared by most groups and media in the far right camp.

The issue and The fallacy

Ethiopia had been organized in fourteen provinces for most of the Dergue era.

Though Dergue issued a new map in 1989, that map didn’t stick to the public memory. Thus, the pre-1991 Ethiopia is remembered as one with 14 provinces.

Thus, the provinces north of Addis Ababa were: Eritrea, Tigray, Gondar, Wello, Gojam, and Shewa Provinces. (See map)

Northern Ethiopia in 1988

[Map – North Ethiopia until 1988]

Following the downfall of the Dergue, the Transitional Government Council issued, in 1992, ‘A proclamation to provide the establishment of national/Regional self governments’ which reorganized sub-national units based on identity.

Thus, the country was organized into 14 National Regional Self-governments – that is, excluding Eritrea which had become de facto independent by May 23, 1991.

Consequently, Tigray, Amhara, Afar, and Benshangul-Gumuz states make-up the northern Ethiopia currently. (See map)

Northern Ethiopia in 1995

[Map – Northern Ethiopia in 1995]

The process of forming the new states was conducted based on identity, essentially language, and without regard to the pre-1991 provincial maps.

Thus, the new Tigray state consists areas previously located in Tigray province, Gondar province and Wello province. Afar state is composed of the previous eastern Tigray province and eastern Wello province.

The current Benshangual/Gumuz comprises areas previously parts of Gondar province and Gojam province.

Amhara state consists most of the areas in the previous Gondar province, Gojam province, Wello province, Shewa province as well as some areas of Tigray province. 

It is in this process that the four weredas – namely: kefeta humera, wolqait, tedege, and tselemet, which were part of Gondar province – became part of Tigray state. And, it is in reference to these Weredas that you hear the right-wing saying – ‘the lands Tigray took from Gondar’.

By ‘Gondar’, they mean Amhara.

The fallacy is that Gondar province was not an “Amhara Province” – be it by law or in terms of composition. Gondar was inhabited by Amharans and Tigrayans, just like Tigray Province was populated by Tigrayans and the Afar.

In fact, there is no relation between the current States and the former Provinces, though, accidentally, there has been a Province by the name Tigray before 1991.

Thus, the real claim is that ‘there are areas in Tigray state that should have been assigned to Amhara state.’

A Constitutional solution

A Constitutional solution to such issues is to hold a referendum in the area.

Since the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is organized based on identity, the constitution stipulates border delimitation to be conducted based on demographic data and, if necessary, by a popular referendum in the concerned area.

Article 48 of the FDRE Constitution states:

“All State border disputes shall be settled by agreement of the concerned States. Where the concerned States fail to reach agreement, the House of the Federation shall decide such disputes on the basis of settlement patterns and the wishes of the peoples concerned.”

But that would not satisfy the far right.

Because, as part of their development denial mantra, they started to reject all data presented by the government in the last 6 or so years – in which the government mostly reported a double-digit growth.

Thus, it is likely that they would reject a decision based on the 2007 Census data. Likewise, holding a referendum in the areas won’t help, as they might reject the outcome.

Even a new census and referendum that could be conducted by the far-right themselves if and when they seize governmental power won’t answer the issue, either.

Because, in a bid to complicate the matter, they claim the demography of the areas has been altered by settlement programs.

They must be referring to the farmers’ Voluntary Settlement Program (VSP) conducted in all regions after 2003. An idea praised at the time by Berhanu Nega himself as a good move to achieve food self-sufficiency.

They could also be talking about the high influx of day-laborers due to the surge in agricultural investment in the area recently. (For example, for several weeks in Oct-Nov. 2010 an organization named ‘Humera Investors Union‘ was running an ad on the national TV claiming 500,000 day-laborers were needed.)

At any rate, since they allege the demography of the area is changed, the ‘Tigray annexed Amhara lands’ allegation is supposed to linger on the relationship of the two people, no matter what any future census or referendum may reveal.

In fact, even a future government by the right-wing themselves may not bother to clarify the matter, since they aim to dismantle the current states and re-organize them based on a new formula.

Thus, we shall look into the past for answers.

The 1994 Housing and Population Census

Perhaps, the right-wing may accept the 1994 Census results. After all, that was the data unquestioningly cited by the opposition in the run-up to election 2005, even in the ‘Vision 2020’ forums, organized in 2003, and attended by almost all the well-known personalities in that camp.

Here is the data from the 1994 Housing and Population Census. [Source:Central Statistics Agency – CSA]

Wereda Kefta Humera Tsilemti Welkait Tsegede
All persons 48,690 97,630 90,186 59,846
Tigraway* 41,999 87,012 87,099 45,532
Amhara 3,800 10,382 2,734 14,226

[Table – 1994 census, CSA]
[*Tigraway refers to Tigrayan or a person from Tigray nation. – see foot note.]
[There are about five smaller ethnic groups that I left out in the table above]

Still, it is not improbable that the far right might come up with some reason to reject this data. Perhaps, they might take a U-turn and start rejecting the 1994 Census data.

In that case, we would only be left with the 1984 census – the only other census Ethiopia conducted in her recent history.

What about the 1984 census?

Though I couldn’t yet find the 1984 Census data, it is unlikely to be of much help. At least for two reasons.

For one, the questionnaires of the 1984 Census didn’t not contain ethnic identity.

Second, it is doubtful if the Census had been conducted properly in those areas – as they were conflict areas and partly controlled by the then insurgent group TPLF(Tigray Peoples Liberation Front).

A Rare Dergue era map

At this point, you might say, justifiably, there is no point in debating with one who wouldn’t accept two pervious Census data and unlikely to be convinced even by a future one either.

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and present them a rare map published by the Dergue regime – a regime with undisputed credentials as a nationalist right-wing and could not be suspected of favoring Tigrayans.

A ‘Nationalities in Northern Ethiopia’ map (see below) was prepared by Dergue and published in a book, titled ‘Class Struggle and the Problem in Eritrea’, in 1978(1971 Ethiopian calendar) by ‘Ethiopian Revolution Central News Disseminator’.

It is a 165 page book and one of the few that explain Dergue’s ideology concerning the issue of self-determination, including the history of the Oromo, religious disputes and on ‘chauvinist and narrow-nationalism tendencies’.

The book is divided into five chapters. The first chapter contains President Mengistu’s speech, the second is about the ‘peace efforts’ conducted in Eritrea, the third chapter is ‘an interpretation of Ethiopian History’, the fourth deals with ‘Marxism and the National Self-determination Question’, and the fifth discusses ‘historical background of the problem in Eritrea’.

The last page of the Book contains a map that is titled ‘Nationalities in Northern Ethiopia’.

The book provides no explanation or background information about the map. Thus, it is not clear how accurate it is about the distribution of ethnic groups in Northern Ethiopia. Yet, it will at least give us a general picture.

Why on earth would Dergue publish a map that shows the residents of northern Gondar province as Tigrayans if it weren’t true?

If this wouldn’t sway the extremists, perhaps, nothing will.

Map - Nationalities in northern Ethiopia [published by Derg regime]
[Map – Nationalities in northern Ethiopia]

Note – In the map above:

  • the shadings and the legend on the right-side refers to ethnic groups or nationalities.
  • the word Tigray, on the right-side legend, refers to the Tigrayan people.[See footnote]
  • All those written in red, including the left-side legend, are my insertions.


Footnote: Words about words

As you noticed above, there is a confusion on the proper term to refer to a person of Tigray origin. For example; the Central Statistics Agency, which used the word Tigraway in its publications of the 1994 Census, uses Tigrie and Tigray in other publications.

Similarly, in the above Dergue era map the words Tigrinya and Tigray are used in the Amharic and English legend, respectively. It appears an effort to avoid confusion with the other ethnic group Tigre, yet they were unsure of the proper word.

To complicate matters further, texts in English language use the words Tigrayan and Tigrean(a derivation of the word Tigrie). On other hand, documents in Tigray language employ the words Tigraway, singular, and Tegaru, plural.

The word Tigrie, on the other hand, is an incidental term with no meaning in any language and considered as a pejorative one in some context.

At any rate, it is the word Tigray – say, ‘she is Tigray’ – the one in official use, also suggested by historians and a politically correct one, so to speak.


Daniel Berhane

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