Addis Abeba, April 16/2018 – Among the flurry of public tours and speeches Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, made last week, his remarks about Welqait made in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray regional state, during a town hall meeting on Friday April 13 drew criticism from various Ethiopians.
PM Abiy Ahmed said during questions and answers session that 99% of Ethiopians in diaspora love their country and have genuine concerns about what happen in their country. However, “the biggest problem is that the source of information for diaspora Ethiopians is Facebook and social media,” PM Abiy said, adding the reactions from diaspora Ethiopians to these information “add fuel” to the situation on the ground. PM Abiy said that for that to stop, what he wishes to see was diaspora Ethiopians from areas like Welqait and Armachiho and are spread in various parts of the world to “come to their country and see the life and the problems of the people” firsthand. “The people are asking for schools, clinics, road, [and] electricity. I believe that when they [the diaspora] realize that any agenda outside of these is not the public’s agenda, many of those who have been disillusioned unknowingly will side with the public. The solution is [for them] to come and see,” PM Abiy said.
However, the Prime Minister’s remarks blaming the disputed (and delicate) issue of Welqait for lack of access to infrastructure has invited several critical comments from many individuals and online activists.
The identity and boundary question of Welqait was at the heart of the summer 2016 Amhara Protests in Amhara regional state. The protests were ignited following the arrest of members of The Welkayit identity question committee, which was established by a group of people led by retired army Colonel Demeke Zewdu (see picture), to seek constitutional response from Ethiopia’s House of Federation (HoF) based on what the committee said was “the historical background of Welqait’s identity as Amharas.”
The backdrop of this identity and boundary question of Welkayit traces its root to the early 1990s redrawing of Ethiopia under the current federal arrangement. This redrawing saw four Weredas previously under the Gonder province become part of the Tigray regional state. Welqait is among these Weredas. The rest are Tsegede, Tselemit, and Kefta Humera. The border redrawing means the identity of the people of Welqait and the rest has become Tigrayans and not Amharas. (Please see Addis Standard’s detailed interview on the legal, constitutional background of Welqait here.)
Following the formation of the the Welqait identity question committee, a grassroots committee than one that is instigated by diaspora activists, several public discussions initiated by local elders such as this one have taken place in Gonder and other parts of the Amhara regional state in order to discuss how to bring peaceful solutions to the decades old dispute. However, the response from the government was not renegotiating the issue but to conduct a security crackdown that saw members of the committee detained in Gonder and in Addis Abeba. The arrest escalated the matter, eventually leading up to the biggest anti-government protests the Amhara regional state ever witnessed since the coming to power of the current government.
The issue of Wolqait has always been a flashpoint since early ’90s and reached a certain point during the 2005 contested elections when the opposition, CUD, raised it during its elections campaign. Speaking to the media in August 2016, Colonel Demeke Zewdu said: “The people have been opposing this in different forms until now. Under the Tigray Region administration, the people didn’t gain any benefits. Land has been taken away from them and they don’t have socio-economic advantages. The society feels like it is regarded as second-class citizens.”
Few weeks later Colonel Demeke, (who had a shootout encounter with security forces on July 12/2016), along with countless others, including activist Nigist Yirga (see picture) and five others with her; as well as Father Gebre Eyesus Kidane Mariam & Father Gebre Sellasie Wolde Hayimanot, two monks from the famous Waldba Monstary and 33 others with them, have all ended up jailed and charged with terrorism, further escalating the tension.While these were notable detainees, activists says many more were held and tortured in Gonder and Bahir Dar. Tensions between the Amhara regional state and its neighbor Tigray regional state have also become visible on various occasions. But the Tigray regional state and Tigrayan activists and bloggers have maintained their objections against the prospect of revisiting both the boundary and identity questions of Welqait using both the region’s communication affairs office and pro-government websites.
“Insensitive and disingenuous”
Alemayehu Manyibel, a third year engineering student from Gonder studying here in the capital Addis Abeba, told Addis Standard that the Prime Minister’s remarks were both “insensitive and disingenuous.” “I am not sure if that is because [PM Abiy] is not aware of the issue or because he wanted to please his hosts in Mekelle and members of TPLF ,” said Alemayehu, “either way it was not a smart move, in fact it was a bad move in which his comments can be taken as partisan comments regarding such unresolved issue.”
Alemayehu was one of the countless people who have been detained in Bahir Dar following the massive anti-government protests in which more than a dozen civilians were gunned down by security forces. He was in Bahir Dar during the summer break from his university studies in Addis Abeba. “I stayed in prison without charges for six months and missed one academic year because of that, not to mention the inhuman conditions and torture my cellmates and I were subjected to during our detention without trial. All this is because we went out to support the Amhara people’s demand for Wolqait,” Alemayehu said.
Dr. Wond Wossen T., an Ethiopian who comments on political issues on social media, took to his Facebook page to call out the Prime Minister’s remarks as “thoughtless and blatant reduction of the Wolqait issue to a mere demand for infrastructure.” “This is a terrible mistake to commit this early in his reign.”
Dr. Wond Wossen further said that the Wolqaite issue was “extremely sensitive and deserves utmost caution, especially during public addresses,” he wrote, adding “hundreds have sacrificed their lives,” for the cause. “If he [PM Abiy Ahmed] can, he should push to get the issue resolved using the mechanisms laid out in the constitution.”
So far, however, there is no end in sight for any form of constitutional settlement; nor are there signs to indicate the position within the ANDM, the party governing the Amhara regional state, on whether or not it will work to bring lasting solutions to the Welqait question.
But for the time being, the more than three dozen individuals detained in connection to the anti government protests triggered by the Welqait issue and charged with terrorism, including Col. Demeke Zewdu; Father Gebre Eyesus Kidane Mariam & Father Gebre Sellasie Wolde Hayimanot and the 33 detained with them; as well as Nigist Yirga and the five others detained and charged with her have their charges discontinued by the attorney general and were released from prison.
“The release of these individuals is a positive step, but it does not indicate whether the authorities have acknowledged the issue and are ready to find solutions within the constitutional limits,” said Alemayehu. AS