Marginalization of the Amhara people
By Worku Aberra
In the context of Ethiopia’s recent tumultuous history, the Fano movement has emerged as a symbol of courage, defiance, and commitment to justice. Despite efforts by supporters of the Abiy government to diminish its significance, the Fano movement is poised to bring about fundamental changes to Ethiopia. It has triggered a profound wave of political transformation that has the potential to reshape the country’s future. The Amhara region and the entire nation are experiencing an irreversible change.
Just as the regime mischaracterized the TPLF as ‘junta’, it has described of the Fanos as ‘bandits,’ ‘criminals,’ ‘power-hungry misfits,’ and ‘Jewassa,’ whatever the term means, but its mischaracterization misses the essence of the Fanos. The Fano movement embodies a civil rights struggle that incorporates armed resistance; it is the voice of the voiceless Amhara community. It embodies a powerful political determination deeply rooted in the collective yearning for justice, equality, and freedom of the Amhara people.
Marginalization of the Amharas
The cause of the Fano movement is rooted in the Amhara people’s enduring experience of 32 years of economic marginalization, political subjugation, and social humiliation. This prolonged injustice has given rise to the Amhara community’s demand for dignity, equity, and fairness. Certain opportunistic politicians, including individuals within the Ethiopian state, have unfairly stigmatized the Amhara community as ‘chauvinists’ and ‘armed settlers’. This labeling has created a hostile atmosphere, engendering political persecution, discriminatory measures, and even outright violence against the Amharas. The state-sanctioned insult of the Amharas, disguised as political discourse, has legitimized the attack on Amharas by biased reporters, deranged individuals, frustrated academics, and warped politicians.
For the past three decades, the practice of vilifying the Amhara community has been adopted as a state policy. Meles Zenawi consistently denigrated the Amharas as ‘chauvinists’ in his political statements. Haile Mariam Desalegn continued the use of this term in his major speeches, even in his resignation speech. While Abiy Ahmed initially refrained from anti-Amhara rhetoric, his officials have later employed the term ‘Neftegnas’ to attack the Amharas. More distressingly, his government has implemented discriminatory policies targeting the Amhara population. A war criminal, he is currently killing Amhara civilians with drones.
To this day, the TPLF’s stance towards the Amhara people remains unaltered. The TPLF has framed the Amhara people’s pursuit of justice as a power-driven endeavor by Amhara ‘extremists and expansionists’. Getachew Redda, representing the Transitional government in Tigray, issued a statement on August 13 endorsing the Abiy Ahmed’s military offensive against the Amhara people and claimed that the Fanos have been defeated. Neither time nor reality seems to change the TPLF’s anti-Amhara stand.
The present government has tolerated, orchestrated, or has been accused of being directly involved in armed attacks against the Amhara people. The Amharas have been subject to ethnic cleansing in Oromia over the last 30 years, a process that has escalated under the current regime. Consequently, the Amhara region has the highest concentration of internally displaced persons in the country. The OLA’s atrocities against Amharas in Oromia, many suspect with the collaboration of the regional and federal government officials, are met with minimal acknowledgement by the federal government.
The government’s discriminatory measures against Amharas are conspicuous, spanning from restricting their entry into Addis Ababa to demolishing their homes, freezing their bank accounts, and imprisoning numerous Amhara activists, professors, journalists, and bloggers. These enduring injustices have driven the Amhara people to resort to armed resistance in their pursuit of justice.
The inadequacy of the Ethiopian constitution in safeguarding minority rights has particularly affected the Amhara population, which is spread throughout Ethiopia. This reality is strikingly evident in Oromia, home to approximately 10 to 15 million Amharas. The Amharas in Oromia lack constitutionally protected minority rights. Some regional constitutions contain discriminatory clauses, as exemplified by the constitution of Benishangul Gumuz, where both Amharas and Oromos are denied certain democratic rights despite constituting a majority.
The Amhara people are driven by the aspiration to exercise their right to self-governance, a fundamental right that has been consistently withheld from them. Under the TPLF-controlled government, they were ruled by surrogates appointed by the TPLF, and now they are administered by appointees of the Prosperity Party. For the Amharas, these experiences have cultivated a strong determination for direct self-administration. They would like to establish authentic self-rule in a democratic system that allows them to elect their representatives.
Certain Oromo and Tigray extremists have sought to undermine the legitimacy of the Amhara people’s struggle for their democratic rights. They have portrayed the struggle as an effort rooted in ‘expansionism’ and the desire to impose a unitary state in Ethiopia, to revive a past era of Amhara supremacy, but this narrative is false, even if it may have been articulated by some misguided individuals.
These extremist elements have also depicted the Amharas as a ‘privileged,’ ethnic group, a portrayal that carries little substantive weight. Their assertion hinges upon the claim that the ruling elite during the Haile Selassie era and the subsequent military regime primarily consisted of Amharas. However, even if the claim is conceded, there is no evidence to support the contention that these governments deliberately enacted policies that favored the Amhara populace, unlike the EPRDF and the Prosperity Party that have pursued discriminatory policies against the Amhara people. The policies of the previous governments produced underdevelopment that was ethnically impartial, a sharp departure from the explicit ethnic-focused strategies of the subsequent two administrations.
When we examine crucial socioeconomic indicators to assess economic advancement in Ethiopia over the past 32 years, namely per capita income, literacy rates, child mortality data, and access to basic healthcare and educational services, it becomes evident that the Amhara community has suffered considerably. The enduring repercussions of underdevelopment sustained during the tenure of preceding administrations, compounded by the discriminatory policies directives of the TPLF, have culminated in dismal outcomes for the Amhara populace.
False statistics as a weapon to impoverish the Amharas
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told parliament on March 28, 2023 that ‘the Oromo people want no more or no less than their fair share’, appearing to invoke the egalitarian principle of resource distribution. Ethiopia’s ethnic-based political economy purportedly allocates resources, employment, and other opportunities based on ethnicity. The problem is the authenticity of the population statistics. It is often said that numbers don’t lie. Liars, however, can fabricate numbers to further their goals. It appears that under the TPLF and Prosperity Party-controlled governments the reported share of Amharas’ population within Ethiopia has steadily diminished, as the table below shows.
The decreasing share of the Amhara population
Year Amhara Oromo
1984 28% 29%
2007 23% 37%
2017 23% 37%
2019 20% 40%
Sources: Central Statistical Authority (1991). The 1984 Population and Housing Census
Of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa.
Central Statistical Agency (2008). Summary and Statistical Report of the 2007 Population and Housing Census. Addis Ababa
Central Statistical Agency (2013). Population Projection of Ethiopia for All Regions at Wereda Level from 2014 – 2017. Addis Ababa
USAID. (2021). Mini Demographic and Health Survey 2019. Rockville.
The figures are drawn from multiple reports provided by the Ethiopian Statistical Service (ESS). Although the last census was conducted in 2007, the ESS has continually reduced the Amharas’ share of Ethiopia population in subsequent years. The revised proportions for the Amhara and Oromo share of Ethiopia’s population in 2019 were reported by the ESS during the surveys it conducted on behalf of third-party entities, particularly the World Bank, USAID, and other international institutions. I have taken the USAID survey.
The reported share of the Amhara population within Ethiopia has declined from 28% in 1984 to 20% in 2019. The decline in the relative share of the Amhara population within Ethiopia cannot be solely attributed to demographic changes arising from changes in fertility, mortality, and emigration rates. The reduction in fertility rates in the Amhara region has not exceeded the declines observed in other regions of Ethiopia by much. Although health services may be insufficient in the Amhara region, mortality rates alone do not adequately account for the reported decline in the share of the Amhara population. It is evident that the population statistics have been generated with political motivations: to deprive the Amhara population of resources and opportunities.
It could be argued that the share of the Amhara population during the Derg years may have been inflated, but there is no compelling evidence to believe that the number has been exaggerated. First, the Derg, despite the crimes it committed against the Ethiopian people, didn’t perceive itself as an ethnic government, unlike the EPRDF and the Prosperity Party governments. Its self-identity, self-awareness, and self-presentation was not ethnic. It identified itself as a national government of all ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Second, the Derg, unlike the EPRDF and the Prosperity Party governments, didn’t focus on a particular ethnic group, either for its suppression or in its economic policy. The centers of economic development were Addis Ababa and Asmara, before the worsening of the civil war in Eritrea. Wollo was as underdeveloped as Tigray.
The manipulation of population data, driven by political motives, has far-reaching implications that extend beyond mere statistical inaccuracies. Egalitarian principles, ostensibly grounded on these false numbers, have been wielded as a potent instrument to impoverish the Amhara community. This distortion bears significant repercussions across various domains.
The artificially skewed population figures have resulted in the inequitable allocation of resources, depriving the Amhara region of its rightful share of budgetary provisions for essential services, development projects, and infrastructure. False numbers can distort the distribution of employment opportunities within state-owned enterprises, ministries, and public institutions, preventing equitable representation of the Amhara population.
The manipulated population data can also affect access to bank credit, land, and permits, impeding the Amhara community’s ability to undertake ventures that contribute to the region’s economic growth and self-sufficiency. Egalitarianism, built upon erroneous population figures, may influence policies and resource allocation in the education sector. This can lead to inadequate educational opportunities for Amhara youth, hindering their intellectual growth, prospects, and employment. The use of false numbers can perpetuate systemic disadvantages in accessing a spectrum of opportunities, ranging from admissions to higher education institutions, access to scholarship, and teaching and administrative positions. Many Amhara professors have been forced to leave Oromia.
The combined effect of the previous government’s policy that undermined economic development throughout Ethiopia, under the reign of Haile Selassie and the Derg, along with the deliberate curtailment of development funds from the Amhara region during the TPLF era, has resulted in the Amhara region’s relatively high level of underdevelopment. This is particularly evident when compared to other regions, except for the Afar and Somali regions, as I will show in the next installment.
(This is part 1 of a three-part instalment)
Worku Aberra is a professor of economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada