To begin with less controversial fact, today’s Amhara is not exactly what it is referred in old historical scripts of the country (Ethiopia). It has mostly been used to refer to the Christians, and also, to mean ‘good people’. It is also used seldom to mean Amharic speaking people. But, all of these are when the Amharic speaking people use it; for example, Oromos used to say ‘Sidama’ to refer to the Amhara. There are many people who still use the phrase ‘Afaan Sidama’ to say ‘Afaan Amhara’. EPRDF’s ethnic federalism definded Amhara as the people who are residing in Northern Shoa, Gojjam, Gondar, Wollo, and also people currently residing in other regions whose parents are originally from these places.
To know how Amharic language evolved would help us learn how the people, who are currently considered as ‘Amhara’, have reached here. Even though it is second largest “ethnic group” (population wise), Amharic is most spoken in Ethiopia. Yet, it is not oldest langauge in the country. Legend has it that it was in Shoa, in the 13th Century, that the language was first born. Others say it was first spoken by ‘Amahara Sayint’ people as early as seventh century. Either way, the language is younger than Cushitic languages that include Afaan Oromo and Somali and also than most Omotic and Nilo-Saharan languages.
How does it grow larger and faster? Who are the people who are speaking it now? There are many possible answers for the first question. One of the possible and not controversial answers is that its adoption by the ruling elites has contributed to its quick growth. For the second question, we can certainly speak about the fact that the first people who started to speak Amharic used to have other languages as well. So, we can deduct a conclusion that may not please people who define ethnicity based on only language. This is because the birth and expansion of Amharic language proves the fore fathers of the current Amharic language speakers will happen to have another ethnicity according to language-based definition of ethnicity.
Scholars say Amharic is a child of Ge’ez, currently dying Semitic language; but, also say its syntax has similarity with Cushitic languages such as Afaan Oromo. The likes of Donald Levin suspect, while trying to explain how the Semitic language could have Cushitic syntax, ‘Amharic maybe created when the Oromo try to speak Ge’ez’. It maybe true. Bahru Zewdie has also written that ‘Amharic has more words derived from the Cushitic Afaan Oromo instead of its presumed parent language Ge’ez’.
Amharic language became official language of Ethiopia’s rulers since the 19th century, during the reign of Emperor Theodros II. Before that, Ge’ez used to be the official language of the rulers even to have their stories recorded. The adaptation of Amharic language as an official language of state has advantantaged the language’s expansion. In the Imperial Ethiopia, the central source of legitimacy was Orthodox Christianity. Added to that, to speak Amharic language became a necessity as Amharic was promoted to be the official language.
So, people – whatever their ethnic background is – have to be Christians and speak Amharic to have the maximum chance of taking over leadership. (The exceptions won’t count here. In the Yejju era (also called as ‘Era of the Princes’) Afaan Oromo is said to have become language of the palace; and before that, Gondar royalities had adopted Catholic Christianity. Both lived short. During Emperor Menelik II’s reign, King of Jimma, Abba Jifar, could keep his faith of Islam and submitted to the King of Kings. But, no similar diversity has ever been experienced before and after.)
But, since Orthodox Christianity is the main factor to seek royality (and also maybe because the current Tigray region is where the state was founded), Tigrians have shares in leadership regardless of their language difference. This makes Christianization a factor of eligibility to rule. To communicate effectively with the central ruling elite, it also needs one Amharanize oneself. Thus Amharanization often involved both Orthodox Christianization as well as Amharic language skills. Accordingly, people of any ethnic background Amharanize themselves as they get close to the ruling elites’ inner circle.
Amhara people speak of their birth place (saying I’m Gojjamé, Gondarré, Showayé or Wolloyé) when they are asked about their identity; other ethnic groups such as Oromo and Somali speak of their tribal family roots (AKA gossa) or that they are Oromo or Somali to tell their identity. This is an implication that the Amhara do not have direct familial (tribal) line but mixed background.
Now, there is a society (or, an ethnic group) that is identified as Amhara. And, this Amhara have a common psychological make up that keep them together. This common psychological make up is usually pride. The source of this pride is the long standing narration of heroism and leadership opportunity they had. They do have strong sense of ownership to the state. They make proud of the fact that they had central role in forming the Ethiopian state. And, therefore, they don’t like critics of the way Ethiopia is formed. They hate anyone who hates the Imperial rulers and dislike who doesn’t like the state.
The Amhara Privilege
Because Amharic is official for at least the past 200 years, the Amhara are advantaged by getting the ultimate chance to determine (participate in determining) the fate of the country. Currently, in this ethnically federalized republic, Amharic is spoken in almost every corner of the country. Amharic speaking people are privileged to easily communicate in all towns existed in Ethiopia better than any other language speakers. In fact, many Amharas reject this privilege as non existent only because all Amharic speaking people are not Amharas.
The Amhara Challenge
As privileged as Amharas are in the past historical events and its legacies, they are also victims of its short falls. All Amhara people were not members to the royal members. Many were just ordinary people who tilled the land of the the lords. However, the revolution of 1974 which has thrown away the Imperial system has also came up with a narration that blames the Amhara for almost everything. Amhara became the antagonist of the new narration. Given the history of the people, Amhara people are most dispersed of all. They have communities in every other ethnically categorized new regiones. They are often victims of displacement and are viewed as settlers. The history they make pride made them victims in a contrary interpretation.
The Amhara Psychology – the pride in the way the republic was founded and in the role they had to – kept many of Amharas rejecting the Amhara nationalism in an ethnonationalist federation. But, the Amhara challenge made it a necessity to forge a nationalism. In addition, Ethiopian nationalism claims of the Amhara is criticized to be a camouflage to keep the interests of the ethnic group. However, the challenge is the way the ethnic group is created. It has no straight familial (tribal) line which can make members associated with and protective of. So, it needs different approach to convince the Amhara take its part in the federal members competitio and limit affairs in regional issues when necessary.
Amhara people are said to be extremely individualist than collectivist which ethnonationals need to survive. Newly growing Amhara nationalists so far failed to define the social psychology, history and demands of Amhara people. There is no single book so far published with the title ‘History of Amhara’. And no pragmatic Amhara nationalism is formulated so far. This has posed a challenge in identifying the very way Amahara nationalism, without destroying the social tendency of individualism, should be established to keep the benefits of the people while helping it live with others in harmony.
“An exercise in Yugoslavia’s Federal system of government collapsed because a single ethnic/ religious group (the Serbs) dominated and excluded the rest. The Soviet federation disintegrated through prevalence of authoritarianism and absence of democracy” commented Abay Tsehaye at recent conference organized to discuss Ethiopia’s federal experiment.
He was right except that he is repeating the same thing in Ethiopia. He is right that multinational federalism and authoritarianism are combustive mixture. That is because adoption of federalism under authoritarian government sets off multiple contradictory developments.
On the one hand, federalism codifies and legitimizes multitude of identities making national identity congruent with its territorial border (perceived or real] short of full sovereignty. In other words, ethnic groups are allowed if not encouraged to showcase their distinct identity and also promised full self-governance over their homeland and share of power and wealth. They learn, work, worship in their language, pledge allegiance to flag of their homeland and so on. This leads to heightened consciousness. On the other hand, the persistence of authoritarian system means although the state is formally decentralized political power remains centralized.
Despite the promise of autonomous self-rule, in reality, nations do not possess power over their territory and do not necessarily get fair share from the federation. Moreover, in theory federalism assumes states of the federation horizontally compete and collaborate over their shared power and wealth. Yet, centralized power of authoritarian system means decisions on resource allocation are made centrally and passed down vertically. There is little to no horizontal bargaining.
In replacing unitary state with federalism the system assumes that nation building would be achieved through gradual voluntary integration driven the market place of politics. Yet lack of horizontal competition, compromise and interaction among regions means the market place is closed and there is little chance for integration. The interaction of these two contradictory developments would pave way for further contradictions.
First, codification of identity heightens nationalism. Second ethno-national groups are ‘given’ their own homeland, but denied the real power to govern or utilize resources. It is like telling someone “this bread belongs to you. You can hold it. But I am going to eat and give you the leftover, if there would be any” . This makes the person not just hungry but also angry. Third, consolidating and maintaining dictatorship usually requires the ruling clique using a given group (economic class, social group or military faction) within the country as its support base.
In multinational state ,the social base of support for the authoritarian system is almost always an ethnic group. To maintain loyalty and cohesion of the base, the authoritarianism system exercises favoritism. The resulting inequality further intensifies misgivings by the excluded groups. The longer the authoritarian system stays, the broader the disparity and the more intense the grievance.
Combination of all these developments leads to rapid erosion of identification and loyalty to the state and the political center. With its legitimacy and support among other nationalities depleting, the center gradually but surely weakens.
Interestingly, the regions gain strength by tapping into grievances of their group and exploiting the nom. But more importantly, although authoritarianism denies them real power, federalism give them governing structure and bureaucracy. Sure the regional administrative/bureaucratic structure serves as vehicle for centralized rule by center. But as the center weakens, regional political entrepreneurs begin to utilize these structures to assert themselves. The center could respond to such erosion in two possible ways; suppress or tolerate.
In tolerating it hopes it can tame and contain. But as the center is unwilling to concede real power fully, the concession do not satisfy the regions. Instead it makes them salivate for more. They utilize the increased power and resources gained through the center’s concession to build their capacity and flex their muscle to win further concession. Unable or unwilling to give further concession, the center would attempt to suppress. However, its capabilities have depleted and unlikely to regain the level of control it once had.
Unless an equilibrium where enough concession to the regions without killing the center is achieved , tension will continue to raise. Eventually, the center would likely collapse. Since regions have little to no horizontal structural relation as the center is what was holding them together, collapse of the center leaves regions and their political entrepreneurs gaining separate statehood by default or plunge into war in cases of contested territories and enclaves.
Studies show that regions with higher level of consciousness and stronger bureaucratic and military capabilities have better chance of emerging as an independent state while others might fail into the hands of a neighboring new republic.
Generally speaking this was what happened in Yugoslavia and Soviet Union. Are we witnessing somewhat similar developments in Ethiopia over the last 26 years? I leave the answer to you. Abay Tsehaye subconsciously admits we are, of course he should be as he and his team has been at the center of it. My advise to all stakeholders is; hope for the best yet prepare for any and all possible outcomes.
“The State is always, whatever be its form- primitive, ancient, medieval, modern- an invitation issued by one group of men to other human groups to carry out some enterprise in common. State and plan of existence, programme of human activity or conduct, these are inseparable terms. The different kinds of State arise from the different ways in which the promoting group enters into collaboration with the others.” The Revolt of the Masses, Ch. XIV: Who Rules the World?, Page 97.