Welkait has always been one of the most strategic geopolitical hotspots in Ethiopia. More recently, it has become the defining point for the Amhara people, whose identity was erased from the area, and with it, Ethiopia’s territorial integrity. Welkait is the generic name commonly used to refer to a large area in the north-western corner of Ethiopia, which includes the territories of Welkait, Tegede, Telemt, and Humera, which borders Sudan in the west. Welkait, which has been part of the Gondar province historically, is separated from Tigray province by a geographic boundary, the Tekeze river.
The Welkait story was not different from the story of the rest of Ethiopia, until the onset of civil war in the 1970’s, and the coming to power of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1991. In the early stage of the resistance against the socialist Derg government, many warring parties raised arms to challenge the military dictatorship, as well as each other. The Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) party that controlled the Welkait area fought valiantly against multiple adversaries—the Derg, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), and others, but it was eventually defeated by the TPLF, which had long coveted the area for smuggling weapons and supplies from Sudan. Even though the TPLF claimed to be more communist than the Derg, it somehow managed to garner support from Western powers and the Arabs, especially the Egyptians. It was during this time that TPLF started plotting to annex Welkait. Although sparsely populated, this region was recognized by investors from the Amhara province of Gondar as being conducive to large-scale, mechanized agriculture, and many of these investors had thriving large-scale farms before the outbreak of civil war in the late 1970s. Migrant workers would come from Tigray and other adjacent areas every harvest season and benefit from working on these farms. Over time, some chose to settle among the Amhara.
Welkait’s Demographic Engineering
Ethiopia had only three national censuses in the past half-century, and the first and most complete one was conducted in 1984. Ethiopia also did two national sample surveys in 1967 and 1971 and rural demographic surveys in 1981 and 1982. It should be noted that TPLF made no effort to publish the regional census of 1984 and buried it with its fourteen-volume census and only reissued the national summary in 1991. The census for 1994 and 2007 are widely distributed and available from the Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia for downloading.
In the 1984 census, the country’s administrative structure was based on geographic criteria, which was changed to the one based on ethnic and linguistic after TPLF introduced ethnic federalism in 1995. However, what is noteworthy about this restructuring of administrative structures is that TPLF had already drawn its new map of Tigray, in which it had incorporated Welkait well before TPLF formally assumed power and the ethnic federalism was constituted. Below, we present data which shows how the groundwork was laid and aggressively implemented by way of demographic engineering, to give a constitutional cover for the bogus Tigrayan ethnic claim over Welakit, and to propose a favorable referendum, if a strong contest were to arise.
Exhibit 1: Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia, 1984: Analytical report on Gondar region (P.33)
Upon studying this report, one cannot help being struck by how the population of the area could have changed so drastically in just a decade, that the population of northern Gondar alone could have become 97% Tigrayan, when the Tigrayan population in the entire province was only 6% in 1984? In our search for a plausible explanation to account for such an unprecedented demographic change, we presume that one or all of the following three actions must have been taken between 1991 and 1994:
The first reason for this drastic change is the ethnic-based emigration of Tigrayans back from Sudan, which TPLF undertook as soon as it took power in Addis Ababa in 1991. In this regard, TPLF did settle hundreds of thousands ‘refugees’ in Welkait which TPLF coordinated to exile them in Sudan in the 1980’s. The key point to bear in mind here is that only a few of these settlers were former refugees actually returning from Sudan, whereas a significant portion of this number is from an internal resettlement scheme which was carried out under the guise of settlement from Sudan. A former UNHCR expert in Addis Ababa described the scheme as “if a bus full of refugees comes from Sudan, five times that number arrives from Tigray at the same time.” In addition, TPLF settled more than 30,000 of its ex-combatants in Humera, as part of GTZ funded demobilization program. Basically, there is nothing wrong with this, but it should be noted that the number is three times the population of the town used to be a decade earlier. This is clearly demographic engineering, intended to settle more people than the number of residents at the time of the wars. The purpose was not to resettle refugees as had been the case elsewhere in Ethiopia, but to change the very identity of the area and claim ownership by unnaturally pushing out the original Amhara inhabitants and replacing them with Tigrayans, most of whom had never had any association with the area before.
The second cause of this demographic shift is the intentional displacement of Amhara people who were native to the area, by employing various measures, including intimidation, disappearances of targeted individuals, and forcing some of them to flee for their lives. Mass graves of those who stood up for their rights and identity have been surfacing on a regular basis over the past few months. The reason for such cruel and inhumane measures was the need to buttress the bogus Tigrayan claim of long-time residence in the area, for which reason the medium of instruction was suddenly changed to Tigrigna.
The third is that the TPLF forced the Amhara people who were bilingual to accept Tigrean identity and counted them as such. It banished the elders who knew the history and would pass important knowledge to children about their heritage. Children have been denied the right to learn in their mother tongue, Amharic, as the medium of instruction was suddenly changed to Tigrigna.
As a result of this demographic engineering, at least fifty thousand of Amharas were forced into exile, both internally and abroad, while hundreds of thousands of Tigreans were moved from Tigray proper and settled in Welkait. Since the current conflict started in Tigray, while many stayed in their places , more than 70,000 people crossed the Sudan border and an unknown number displaced internally. The authors, however, believe that peaceful residents irrespective of their ethnicity should resettle, including those who were recently displaced as well as those pushed out during the TPLF reign.
One may ask, what would have happened if no forceful, unnatural and coercive measures had not been taken? Most of Welkait would still be a region with an Amhara majority, based on the projection of the 1984 census.
Tigray Territorial Expansion to the West
In 1991, TPLF annexed the Welkait territory to the Tigray Regional State, and called it West Tigray. Later, in 1995, it tried to legitimize the annexation by introducing Ethiopia’s current constitution, which divided the country into ethnic regions. The opposition from the Amhara inhabitants of Welkait was swift and fierce. They challenged the unjust annexation of their ancestral lands, and they expressed it through an armed struggle called ‘Keffagn’. They also formed a ‘Welkait-Tegede Identity Committee,’ and petitioned to regain their rights through constitutional means. However, TPLF managed to delay having to take action on the legitimate claim of these long-time residents of the area by arresting and killing the committee leaders, while stalling the just claims by assigning the task of overseeing such tasks to officials it controlled. The legal case is still pending in the Upper House of the Ethiopian Parliament.
For centuries, Welkait has been an integral part of the Gondar (Begemeder) province, now part of the Amhara Regional State, and is separated from the Tigray province, in the east by the mighty river, Tekeze. The Tekeze river is a natural demarcation line, and this fact had never been contested before TPLF came to power in 1991. In successive regimes prior to the coming of the TPLF, all official maps of Ethiopia showed Tigray to be located northeast of the Tekeze river. TPLF, however, legalized the annexation of Welkait under the cover of the language and ethnic-identity based determination of residency introduced by the 1995 constitution. Although the annexation was carried out through political maneuvering that took place much earlier than when the new constitution was adopted, TPLF rationalizes the action as a logical flow of the new demarcation methodology. The paragraphs below will attempt to refute the TPLF claim.
First, we should address the claim that, since Gondar was inhabited by Amhara and Tigrinya speakers pre-1991, the new identity-based administration split the two administrative provinces in the same way that the Afar region was created out of Wollo and Tigray provinces. Based on the 1984 census, Gondar is 84% Amhara, and the people of Welkait identify themselves as Amhara. The citizens living there were never consulted, and they learned about the new mapping arrangement by turning to the international media. The citizens asserted their claim of Amhara-identity even before the ratification of the constitution, but their preference was intentionally ignored. The distressed inhabitants of the area wrote letter after letter to the late Meles Zenawi, who was then the leader of TPLF, and President of the transitional government of Ethiopia, appealing to him to rectify the unjust annexation, and forewarning him that failure to do so would lead to endless conflict; however, this warning was not heeded.
The second argument is that, since the Tigray region retains its pre- and post-1991 regional name, the new Tigray region has nothing in common with the old Tigray province other than its name. The author’s analysis is not based on naming, but on whether the logic of assigning Welkait to Tigray is applied consistently and coherently throughout the rest of the country. Based on the logic of using the language spoken as a mother-tongue by the majority of people in an area as the metric for assigning regions that TPLF used to annex territories, TPLF should have granted the Welkait area to the Amhara Regional state; however, TPLF settled more people than the locals in an otherwise sparsely populated area. Moreover, by the same logic, it should have ceded Metekel to Gojjam, where the mother-tongue spoken in the majority of homes is Amharic, and the area is contiguous with the rest of the Amharic speakers in Gojjam. There is a twist, however, in that the Amhara people were not represented in a formal capacity when the ethnic mapping was produced. The country would also have had a different map had the rule not been applied selectively.
The third argument is the historical claim of Welkait, and which ethnic group administered the area. Daniel Kendie addressed this issue in an article entitled, “Which Way is the Horn of Africa: Disintegration or Confederation,” published in 1994
Gondar has a total population of 3,500,000 of which 185,000 – a mere 5 percent – speak Tigrigna. But if the map is to be redrawn on linguistic grounds, it stands to reason that the boundary between Tigrai and Eritrea, for instance, is an imaginary boundary. The Tigreans, Afars, and Sahos never believe that they are moving into a different culture and society when they cross these borders. Hence, if the map is to be redrawn on linguistic basis, it would make more sense to incorporate the Eritrean provinces of Hamassien, Seraie, and Akele Guzaie with Tigrai than Wolkait and Humera which have never been part of Tigrai. It would also make more sense to incorporate the Sahos and Afars of Eritrea with those in Tigrai because they are the same people and speak the same language.
But as far as Humera and Wolkait are concerned, the Tekezie river, historically, has provided the boundary between Gondar and Tigrai. In fact, as late as 1847, Mansfield Parkyns observed that while Gondar extends from the river Tekezie to the frontiers of Sennar in the Sudan, the name Tigre is now applied to the whole country east of the Tekezie.17 Parkyns also identifies Semien, Wogera, Wolkait, and Tegede as having been governed by Ras Gebre, Chief of Semien,18 and subsequently by his son, Haile Mariam, who died in 1826, and his famous grandson, Ras Woube (c. 1800-1 867), 19 who extended his rule in 1832 into Tigrai, Hamassien, Seraie, Keren, and the Semhar province of Massawa.
Similarly, writing in 1868, T. C. Plowden confirms Parkyn’s assertion. Plowden maintains that the principal sub-divisions of Tigrai consisted of Hamassien, Seraie, Akele Guzaie, Agame, Shire, Adi Abo, Tembien, En- derta, Waggirat, and Shilawa.20 Nowhere does he mention Wolkait or Humera as part of Tigrai. On the contrary, he confirms that Semien, Wogera, Wolkait, Kola Wogera, etc. were all administered by Ras Woube of Semien.21 He also observes that before Woube, Wolkait was governed by Haile Mariam Gebre.
Under Emperors Theodore, Yohannes, and Menilik, the provinces have always remained parts of Gondar. Under Haile Sellassie, such promi- nent individuals as Ayalew Birru (Semien) , Ayane Chekol (Armacheiho) , Birre Zegeye (Armachiho), Amoraw Woubneh Tesema (Armachiho), Adane Makonnen (Tegede), and Mesfin Redda (Wolkait) governed these places.
Even in the 1937 Italian map of Africa Orientale Italiana, provinces like Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, Simen, and Wogera all remained part the Amhara region in which Gondar.
In an article, titled “Ethiopia: A Quest for Identity and Geographic Restoration of Welkait-Tegede”, Achamyeleh Tamiru summarized historical accounts of Welkait from 1434 to 1991 as part of the Gondar province of Amhara. In both articles, there is zero evidence for the historical claim of Welkait by Tigray.
Why TPLF Needs Welkait
TPLF needs Welkait for two reasons: Strategically, controlling it would offer TPLF access to the outside world through Sudan. This is essential for the flow of arms and finance for TPLF to prevail in a sustained conflict with the government and declare an independent Tigray with an international border. Economically, Welkait is rich in fertile land, where mechanized agriculture can produce surplus consumables and export items, including sesame seeds, incense, cotton, and valuable minerals. On the other hand, the historic Tigray has limited arable land due to its rugged terrain. Therefore, surrounded by Eritrea in the north, and by the Amhara and Afar regions in all other directions, and unable to produce enough for self-sufficiency, Tigray-proper could not conceivably become an independent state along the lines dreamt up by TPLF. Hence, TPLF is desperately trying to regain the fertile lands of Welkait it illegally snatched in 1991, and lost to the Amharas when it was removed from power in 2020.
Knowing the vital lifeline that Sudan afforded it in the past, TPLF considers gaining a corridor to this country as more urgent than ever before. If TPLF were to come back to power in Addis Ababa or fulfill its long sought-after plan of establishing an independent ‘Greater Tigray’, it would have to reconquer Welkait. On the other hand, the Amharas, who resented TPLF’s brutal domination for the past three decades, have now developed a strong sense of identity. This is mainly consolidated by the cruel treatment, suppression of their identity and dispossession of their lands they endured under the TPLF rule. As a result, the Amharas have the resolve to defend their regained identity and territory at any cost, if TPLF were to take steps to move into Welkait. Moreover, PM Abiy Ahmed’s government has a crucial strategic interest in preventing the age-old enemies of Ethiopia from gaining access through Welkait to funnel arms to TPLF. Such posturing among the various parties indeed makes it inevitable that the battle for Welkait will be a make-or-break struggle for the TPLF, the Amharas and the Ethiopian government. Also, Eritrea’s interest in the security developments in this area cannot be underestimated.
The November 2020 insurrection
TPLF attacked the Northern Command Base of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) stationed in Tigray, on November 4, 2020. Tigrean commanders in the national army turned against their unsuspecting fellow soldiers from other ethnic groups. A TPLF operative, Seku Ture Getachew, lauded the attack on live TV as a blitzkrieg strike against what he claimed was a gathering threat. He further added that it was a preemptive strike, likening it to that of the Israeli attack against the Arab armies during the Six-Day War. TPLF was able to loot the heavy equipment of the ENDF’s Mechanized Brigade, including missiles, which it later fired, targeting cities in the neighboring Amhara region and Asmara, Eritrea. However, TPLF was forced to abandon major cities in Tigray, and it dissolved into the mountains and valleys of the region to wage guerilla warfare, when the ENDF and allied forces took over its strongholds within 3 weeks of the campaign, which the government called a law enforcement operation.
This conflict has been marred by atrocities and human rights abuses. More than 700 Amharas (the number has risen to over 1600 per a study by Gondar University) in the town of Mai Kadera were massacred by TPLF-affiliated forces. After committing such acts of unspeakable barbarity, the perpetrators fled west-wards, mingling with the flood of refugees streaming into the Sudan. For their part, TPLF and its supporters have alleged that atrocities and human rights abuses had been committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers in Tigray proper. On June 28, 2021, PM Abiy announced a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire and pulled his army out of Tigray. Putting its spin on the situation, TPLF claimed victory and dismissed the ceasefire as a defeat for the government, rather than a humanitarian gesture. Emboldened by this sense of triumph, albeit not based on reality, TPLF has threatened to march further into neighboring Amhara regional state “to settle accounts with the Amhara”, to Addis Ababa to topple PM Abiy Ahmad, and into Eritrea to oust President Isayas Afewerki. This indicates that the conflict has yet to get into its worst phase. Specifically, all indications are that a decisive battle, which will lead to the worst bloodshed in the conflict, has yet to be fought over the strategic territory of Welkait!
Immediately after TPLF instigated the conflict in November 2020, the disaffected Amharas in TPLF-occupied Welkait helped the national army to roll back TPLF’s offensive, leading to the return of Welkait to their control. The jubilation of Amharas in Welkait over their long-awaited freedom was overwhelming. This essentially denies TPLF not only the strategic and economic advantage it exploited for 30 years. but it also thwarts its long-rumored plan of establishing the “Greater Tigray Republic” that borders Sudan. Sudan hosted, provided support, and served as a conduit for the flow of arms and finances to TPLF during its guerilla years, until it took power in Addis Ababa in 1991.
The Competing Claims for Welkait by Amharas and Tigrayans
For the Amhara people, Welkait is their ancestral land, which is supported by historical evidence. They assert that they speak multiple languages (Amharic, Tigrigna, Arabic) necessitated by commerce, given their location. However, they have no confusion about their Amhara identity. They say they are not Tigreans, in much the same way that they are not Sudanese. They resent the suppression of their identity and the fact that their demographic-makeup was manipulated by Tigray for the purpose of legitimizing its annexation of their land. If language was a legitimate basis for demarcation, then other areas where Amharic is spoken widely would have been under the control of the Amhara region. Also, the Tigray regional state’s constitution gives ownership of the state to Tigreans, denying ownership to Amharas. Tigray region does not allow Amharas to use their language, Amharic, for school, services, social events, worship, etc. On the other hand, the Amhara regional state’s constitution gives ownership of the region to all its inhabitants, and allows minority ethnicities to use their languages, develop their cultures and govern themselves. Therefore, unlike the Amharas in Welkait under Tigray, the Tigreans should not have any concern about their identity being denied with Welkait being administered as part of Gondar, under the Amhara region. Amharas in Welkait further argue that TPLF’s latest genocidal action in Mai Kadera is evidence that they cannot imagine living under the Tigray region again.
TPLF’s claim over Welkait has evolved over time. Earlier, backed by its strength, it boldly claimed that Welkait had been part of Tigray but was taken from it and given as a favor to the governor of Gondar province by Emperor Haile Selassie. However, this is refuted by historical evidence and testimonials, including from notable Tigreans. For example, Ras Mengesha Seyoum, the grandson of Emperor Yohannes IV, who was a governor, stated in a VOA interview, that the border on the west was the Tekeze during his reign, as well as during the time of his ancestors. Aregawi Berhe, the first chairman of TPLF, and Gebremedhin Araya, one of the early leaders of TPLF, both stated Welkait was annexed from Gondar into Tigray for the strategic reasons of gaining fertile land and access to Sudan. Having lost the historical claim, TPLF’s new argument is now based on language. It asserts that, according to the ethnic federalism it implemented, the people in Welkait speak Tigrinya; therefore, the territory should belong to Tigray. This argument is refuted by the demographic engineering data described earlier.
Debunking the Commonly Used TPLF Claims
TPLF pushed screenshots from non-authoritative sources taken out of context to justify a historical claim over Welkait. For example, in the book “Abyssinia and Nubia,” a TPLF supporter claims that the author classified Welkait under Tigray, but upon closer examination, the same author contradicted the message in the book by 1) admitting the content could be “extremely uncouth” (p.79) in the paragraph right below 2) the same book put the demarcation between Amhara and Tigray as Tekeze river (p.74) 3) the map published along with the book clearly separates Welkait from Tigray as two distinct areas 4) the traveler wrote it with little to no understanding of Ethiopia’s geography ( E.g. Wojjerat and Wogera are two different locations, the former in Tigray and the later in Gondar) but listed as the same (p.79), and 5) it also contradicts all other claims of numerous authors preceding or following the book, including the works of scholars the author advised the reader to consult for clarity.
Exhibit 2:Nubia and Abyssinia: Comprehending Their Civil History, Antiquities, Arts, Religion, Literature, and Natural History(published March ,1833)
The second one TPLF presents is an ethnic map in the appendix of a book published during the Derg era called “Class struggle and the problem in Eritrea”. The book holds a map attached with no context or source labeled “Nationalities in Northern Ethiopia” and , it claims the sketch on the map puts Northern Gondar as Tigrigna speaking. Based on the 1984 census, Gondar was 84% Amhara, and thus the sketch cannot be used as a reliable source and was not published through official channels. It should also be noted that people in those areas are bilingual, which means language is not necessarily indicative of ethnicity. Another authoritative book, titled ‘National Atlas of Ethiopia,’ published by the Derg in the same period, contradicts the map showing the relative percentage of various language speakers, and puts Northern Gondar as majority Amharic-speaking.
Exhibit 3: Official National atlas of Ethiopia (published 1988) and map of unknown source from the appendix of the book titled ‘Class struggle and the problem in Eritrea’.
The third argument TPLF made is a simple out of context misrepresentation of data from a book titled Assault on Rural Poverty by Haileleul Getahun on page 76, in which the author argued contrary to TPLF’s assertion. The Table 8 in the book referenced was not a 1991 data but rather from the 1994 census after TPLF completed the first phase of the demographic engineering and was intended by the author to show the same.
The author as quoted below, accurately warned that if the unjust annexation is not reversed with the return of Welkait to Gondar, a conflict that threatens the Horn of Africa would ensue.
Another issue is the incorporation of fertile territory from other regions namely Gondar and Wollo, into Region 1 (Tigray) to fulfill the TPLF dream of a “Greater Tigray” -without a mandate to do so from the Ethiopian people. In 1992, seven districts from northern Gondar and Wollo that are inhabited by the Amhara ethnic group were forcefully added to Region 1. Prior to this annexation, the population of Wollo and Gondar were not consulted, nor was the Ethiopian nation. There is no historical or other basis for this action, except that these districts are the most fertile lands in the region.
Considering the gravity of this situation and its future implications, the two prominent Ethiopians from Region 3, the late Dagnew W. Silassie, and Fitaye Assegu wrote a joint memorandum to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, asking him to annul or declare invalid the redrawing of boundaries along ethnic lines. To date, Meles Zenwai has not reacted one way or the other. Although information is scanty, it is now understood that the Ethiopian Patriotic Front (Keffagne), an underground movement for the liberation of Humera,Tselemt, Welkait and Tsegede is now operating in the region. The TPLF, the EPLF, and others started their movements in the same way as has keffagne. These districts must be returned to their original killils , otherwise a bloody civil war possibly affecting the entire horn of Africa could erupt.
In all, none of the arguments TPLF presented so far is coherent, consistent, and, more importantly, authoritative.
The Atrocities on the Welkait People during TPLF’s Reign
No story of Welkait is complete without noting the atrocities committed under TPLF’s leadership. Unsupported by the fulcrum of history or the will of the people, TPLF stretched the reaches of Tigray region beyond its historic and natural boundary, by annexing Welkait and calling it West Tigray. Under the regional constitution of Tigray, the owners of the Tigray region are Tigreans. The Amharas find themselves in the tragic situation of not only losing ownership of what had been their ancestral land, but also having their identities erased. This grievance set off fierce opposition, first by the Amharas mainly in Welkait, but it was subsequently picked up as the rallying cause by the entire Amhara people. Most Ethiopians of other ethnic identities also sympathize with the plight of the Welkait Amharas.
On July 12, 2016, TPLF sent its militia from Tigray to Gondar to kidnap Col. Demeke Zewudu, the leader of the ‘Welkait-Tegede Amhara Identity Committee’. The militia fired shots and threw grenades on the colonel’s house, but Zewdu successfully defended himself. This event became the turning point in the popular uprising against TPLF. The entire Amhara people identified Welkait as the rallying issue. The youth boldly marched in major cities, despite dozens being killed by TPLF snipers firing from roof-tops.
During its 27 years of rule which ended in 2018, TPLF employed cruel and divisive tactics to subdue the Amhara people and consolidate its hold on Welkait. Mass displacement of Amharas and their replacement by Tigreans was accomplished. Amharas were often punished for speaking the Amharic language. Children were not allowed to speak or learn in their own language. Disappearances and mass killings of men who showed resistance were commonplace. “We need the land and the women” was a statement that TPLF agents often told Amharas in Welkait.
The Way forward: Harmonious Coexistence between the two People in Amhara Administration
TPLF blames all the ills of Tigray on Amharas. However, linked by common roots, religion, culture and history, the Amharas have always welcomed Tigreans to live among them, deep inside their territories, let alone in border areas like Welkait. Currently, about half a million Tigreans live in the Amhara region. This harmonious coexistence is severely threatened, and could be broken by the misguided hatred TPLF promotes, and the atrocities it commits against Amharas. The greedy annexation of Welkait to Tigray and the suppression of Amhara identity has intensified the level of resentment. The current conflict and the impending bloodshed over Welkait had already been predicted by dignitaries and authors at the time of the annexation. The only win-win solution is for Welkait to stay part of Gondar, where it belongs historically, and for the Amharas and Tigreans to live in harmony, as they have always done. Any other alternative will lead to unending conflict that puts not only Ethiopia, but the whole Horn of Africa, in serious jeopardy. TPLF should abandon its claim on Welkait, and instead, work on normalizing the relationship between the two people.
Wosenyelew Tedla, MD, MSC. is a well-experienced physician and Assistant professor of clinical medicine.
Moges Kelklie, BSc.,MBA is a technology executive in the Education industry.4