Ethiopia says disputed territories between Tigray and Amhara regions will be settled in a referendum

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Ethiopia’s federal government says disputed territories generally referred to as Welkait, between Tigray and Amhara regions will be resolved through a referendum. This announcement, made on Monday, marking the one-year anniversary since the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement(CoHA) brought an end to a devastating civil war in the region.

Referred to as “western Tigray” by the regional authorities of Tigray, the agriculturally fertile and strategically important area bordering Sudan was formerly part of north Gonder, which became part of the Amhara region when Ethiopia’s current constitution was ratified in 1994, under the tutelage of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The area remained a significant point of contention ever since, with underground activism seeking to reestablish Amhara identity of the region. In 2018, when TPLF lost control of the central government in Ethiopia, following mass protests, Amhara claims to “West Tigray” became louder.

In November 2020, at the outset war between the TPLF and the federal government, the area came under the control of Amhara regional forces. It currently remains under de-facto Amhara administration.

The present on the ground status of contested regions. Source: Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong by Rasmus Sonderris

Constitutional arguments for the return of these lands back to Tigray have been raised, however Ethiopia’s constitution does not explicitly refer to “West Tigray.” The constitution does not demarcate regional boundaries in Ethiopia. The issue is therefore complex, and not readily addressed by the constitution, which primarily outlines the structure of the federal system, the rights of regions, and other fundamental principles of governance.

The Amhara largely view the area as having been forcibly annexed by the TPLF dominated government in the early 1990s.  Accordingly, the nearly 30 years of occupation led to the expulsion and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Amhara, resulting in allegations of ethnic cleansing. “This was an involuntary demographic reengineering by the TPLF to eliminate us from in the region”, says Dejene Maru, a senior security official under the present Amhara administration of Welkait.

Authorities in Tigray complain the current Amhara governors have expelled hundreds of thousands identifying with Tigray. Human Right Watch has made similar allegations. The Tigray interim regional government also claims the CoHA guarantees their return and the reconstitution of “West Tigray”. In May of this year, protests in Tigray demanded the withdrawal of Amhara forces from “West Tigray”. In response demonstration affirming Amhara identity of the region were held in Amhara, including in the contested areas.

Ethiopia’s constitution, which as mentioned above, does not demarcate territorial boundaries, nonetheless provides referendum as a means of resting territorial disagreements between regions and populations.

On occasion of the CoHA’s anniversary, a federal government statement said, “a final determination of the fate of these areas will be made via a referendum”. However, continued disagreements and clashes in Ethiopia have overshadowed legal proceedings. The statement highlighted the forthcoming referendum as the means to make a decisive resolution concerning these regions. However, given the intricacies of the issue, a referendum will not take place any time soon.

In a statement released on Friday, the TPLF expressed that the CoHA had not been fully put into practice, primarily due to the large number of people who are still displaced from “West Tigray” and the presence of Amhara forces in the region.

In August 2023 widespread clashes erupted in Amhara in connection with a plan to integrate regional paramilitary groups into the federal military and police. Local militias, known as Fano, briefly took control of towns and cities in the region. Perception that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed might consider returning disputed territories to Tigray played a role in intensifying the violence, which has now evolved into a rural insurgency.

According to the United Nations, at least 183 individuals lost their lives in the first month of the conflict in Amhara. That number has since grown. Ethiopia’s human rights commission reported that numerous civilians had been killed in airstrikes and extrajudicial actions. Ethiopia’s government denied these accusations, asserting that it does not target civilians and is working to reinstate law and order in the region.

Given the layered and complex set of contentions in Ethiopia, the government has proposed National Dialogue to address grievances. Currently the Commission for National Dialogue is working towards this goal. This process however is slow and methodical, one that is not headline grabbing. It is also fraught with many challenges, particularly given continued clashes. Yet, if successful it could be a paradigm shift for the entire federal and constitutional system of governance in Ethiopia.

1991 to present disputed territories of northern Ethiopia, have fueled regional wars. This included regions of Amhara, Tigray and the State of Eritrea. The Eritrean territorial claims vis-a-vis Ethiopia were legally resolved by the Algiers agreement. But internally, territorial disputes between Amhara and Tigray remain.

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