Agaw-Kemant of Ethiopia, Gondar Quests for Recognition

By Worku Berihu
Oct. 02 2010

1. Coping with Challenges

The Kemant people are a sub-group of the Agaw people. Like other Agaw groups, they experienced prejudice and stereotype for centuries. A mechanism adopted by community members to adjust in the harsh social environment was self-denial or bogus identity pronouncement. It was not unusual for a Kemant woman not reveal her real identity even to her husband. It was also normal not to talk the Kemant language not to expose one’s actual self. The life of secrecy went on one generation to another to deal with the situation. The mechanism had been in practice for centuries. The cost is unimaginable; it has endangered their existence as the community. In 1991, at the time of ethnic self-determination was declared in Ethiopia, the presence of Kemant in Ethiopia was little notable. There were several factors contributed this to happen:

a) Their educated children’s interest in socialist ideology and strong affiliation with parties promoting socialist ideas.
b) Reluctance to come out publicly as the Kemant because of stigma attached to the Kemant community.
c) Linguistic and cultural weakness.
d) EPDF’s preoccupation with language aspects ignoring other characteristics that make up group identity, and
e) Other related social factors.

Their existence was disclosed in 1994 census statistics; 172,327 people registered as members of the Kemant ethnic group. Some observers estimate this figure just 17% of actual Kemant population in Gondar. Unfortunately, the Kemant’s independence was scrapped in 2006 population census entirely and not counted as a distinct ethnic group, exceptions of a little data obtained from individuals. According to close observers, the situation created disappointment in the Kemant community, including ANDM/EPRDF members. Then, both EPRDF members and non-members moved together forming a committee to investigate the incident such as who discarded it and why. However, after discussion at a meeting, they decided not waste time in the inquiry of the incident rather agreed to push ahead with quest for recognition based on the constitution and historical facts. At this point, the recognition demand which has started in 1994 seemingly revived and secured support virtually all sectors of the society. A council of 120 representatives was formed and installed its headquarter in Gondar City to oversee the process. Subsequent to consultation with rural community, the recognition request was formally submitted to Mr. Ayalew Gobeze, Governor of Amhara Region. He was reportedly positive on the issue and sought a time to consult with his advisors, then consensus was reached to discuss the matter at Regional State Council. The council’s then House Speaker failed to present the agenda to the council and pushed the matter to the Federation Council. As report submitted to the same, some standing committee members in the federation wanted the issue to be appraised at the regional level, before it brought to the federal level. The back and forth bureaucratic process created extra delay in resolution and consequently created frustration in the community members, rural population in particular. There was report that Kemant activists raised the issue at the ANDM conference in Bahir Dar seeking reasons for delay. Mr. Addisu Legese who was chairing the conference replied it was still intact confirming his support for the principle of self-administration. He further added, his sympathy for delay pointing the accountability to the Regional body. The issue is expected to be addressed when the next new government assumes responsibility as a result of 2010 election.

2.Public Support

While dealing with regional and federal authorities, the committees every level and the council were consulting with public to secure support on the issue. In this aspect, the result was unimaginably successful. Let me give you two examples occurred in Aykel about 40 kms away from Gondar City and Lay (upper) Armachiho, Tikledengay. In Aykel, more than 4,000 participated a meeting in September just in an hour announcement on microphone. In Lay Armachiho, rural woreda, about 8,000 people attended the meeting arranged by the committee. The next consultative public meeting was expected in Metema Yohannes city. On both occasions, chatting and screaming was observed to express their joys and painful memories of the past. In the meantime, many of them were anxious to hear the status of the case. They asked frequently questions to find out reason for delay. Some rural people tried to blame the government for delay. On contrary, the committee members advised the people to be patient by saying “the government is capable of addressing the Kemant people’ plea fairly.” Public gathering was held in other woredas, and reportedly there was overwhelming support for quest for recognition and self-administration. The entire population who has declared itself Kemant is about 1-million. The population is adjacently settled and biologically, psychologically and historically Kemant, except majority of them lost their traditional language under the centuries of repressive systems. Desired for self-administration appears to regain what is lost in the past. Quarans want to revive an Old Testament system, but majority Kemants like to maintain Christianity while rehabilitating the culture and language, which in the process of extinction. Language endangerment is also concerns of Awi whose speakers are shrinking day-to-day and other Agaw groups. Chekole (2010) proposed English the medium of instruction for primary schools in Awi Zone, to revive Awi’s language using English as an intermediary.

The Kemant homeland surrounds Gondar City and then extends south-west and west. In western, border area with Sudan are mixed with new settlers, a considerable number of people are resettled in Metema and Quara. Currently counties (woredas) characterized themselves Kemant are Quara, Chilga, Lay Armachiho and Metema in full and the two third of Gondar Zuriya, partially Gondar City, portions of Wogra and Dembya.

Feeling in Gondar City seems mixed regard to the Kemant community demand; I heard two individuals saying, creating an additional third administrative zone will weaken Gondar’s strength. However, an elderly person told me that “whatever Gondaris are called Amharas or Agews or Kemants, that doesn’t matter, as far as they share common goals to develop and strengthen Gondar as the historical place.” He added, “if God created us as Kemants we have to accept the Creator’s decision since He is above all creations. “

However, there was some sort of misunderstanding by individuals in Tach (lower) Armachiho Woreda following Wags, Awis, Kemants and Lalibelans, a reunion conference in Seqota in August. As a result, public prayer was held in Tach Armachiho for peace in Orthodox churches. However, when they saw the phrase, “we love you” written on goats donated by the Wag Agaws, the concerned was dropped and turned to fun. The participants of the reunion conference were not only Agaws/Agews, there were guests, like Oromo Zone Nationality House Speaker, Governor Mr. Ayelew Gobeze with cabinet members, guest scholars, including historian Professor Lapiso Dilebo, who reported to the audience the presence of 23 million Agaws in Ethiopia today. News about the reunion conference seems disseminated in rural areas in northern Ethiopia more than coverage given by radio and television programs. Consequently, in the beginning of September, Agaws from Semen Gondar Woredas sent a five person delegate to Gondar City to make an inquiry for their exclusion from the Sekota’s reunion conference. These Agaws are not part of the present Kemant community freedom movement, but they just interested to take part at the reunion conference.

3. Peaceful Resolution Possible

It is highly expected that the Kemant community’s recognition request will be approved and Gondar will enjoy three-zone administrative structure, which is unity with natural diversity, as civilized society based on democratic principles and values. The outcome will guarantee durable stability, peace and development in Gondar, as well as, in Amara Region and at large in the country. This seems the interests of the Ethiopian people, friends of Ethiopia and all civilized societies.

In contrary, there may be a remote option to react negatively under influence of an old “wuqabe” (spirit) against democratic norms and human dignity. In the past, the characteristics of the old wuqabe were associated with stigmatization, demonetization, hatred and domination against fellow citizens. Indeed, this was backward ideology, which kept Ethiopia on poverty of island. At this point it will be a wrong choice and; no force can stop the rural community population any more by any coercion. If this path is chosen, Gondar can plunge into irresoluble crisis. Any body familiar with social history and geographical landscape Gondar, especially these areas knows certainly what that mean. Finally, let us hope the government of Ethiopia, regional government and all concern body in Gondar will ply a constructive role for the resolution of the crisis in a democratic and civilized manner.