Changing Urban Place Names in Post 2018 Amhara National Regional State: The View from Bahir Dar City

Yilkal Ayalew Workneh, Centre for Federalism and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University

Relevance of the Practice

Following the Amhara protests of 2016 and the subsequent party fragmentation within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the local political dynamics have changed in Amhara National Regional State. This somehow began to affect the institutions of both the regional and local governments. The endorsement of questions rallying behind the Amhara protests and afterward by the regional party led to some manifestations witnessed in the formal governmental institutions. The development of Amhara ethnonationalism has pushed the regular local government councils to pass identity-motivated decisions such as changing the name of local governments themselves (name of woredas, sub-cities, and kebeles), and erecting monuments of presumed heroes of the local population. These persons were disgraced by the EPRDF government as members of the oppressive ruling class. Some of the decisions have been sent to the regional state council to inform about changes.[1] Considering the Amhara Regional State Constitution does not give detailed provisions on local government functions; the renaming of streets and local areas is a kind of emerging issue that might broaden the competencies of regular local governments to exercise such competencies largely related to identity matters.

In this report entry, the practice of renaming since the 2018 political ‘reform’ over toponyms in Bahir Dar City has been assessed. Even though there is a lack of clear criteria and guidelines in the legal constitutional regime of the regional state regarding the competencies of urban local governments in (re)naming places, one can learn from other federations or devolved systems like South Africa, that the power lies under the jurisdictions of municipality councils. In Bahir Dar city, renaming practice has been pushed through by both the lowest level of urban local government and the regional executive office while the city council remained idle. Hence besides being curious about whose competence and policy, guideline, and criteria to be followed, public participation in the renaming practice is also crucial in assessing such a local government practice.

Description of the Practice

The ethnicity of other ethnic groups has centered on the discourse of Amhara domination with roots going back to the students’ movement of the 1960s/70s, and ultimately to the territorial expansions of Menelik II and the birth of modern Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century. The issue of Amhara ethnicity emerged in Ethiopian political discourse since the 1990s among the Amhara elites. Since this time the subject of Amhara continued to be sensitive and debatable among both the political and academic elites. Currently, the Amhara ethnonationalism has emerged in the sense of reactive ethnicity as a result of othering. This emanated from the ‘national oppression thesis’ of the 1960s which created deep-seated insecurity who have been vulnerable to attacks by other ethnic groups. Acquiring a similar ideology, the regional party, Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (EPDM) which later changed its name to Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), had followed a political ideology that demonizes the former rulers of Ethiopia and their deeds and turns its back to those showing empathy towards them as labeled as timkihtagna (chauvinist). This was clearly seen in the land redistribution campaign arguably held only in the Amhara region after Dergue’s proclamation for land distribution in March 1975. Ege rightly points out the character of the governance system from the view of land redistribution practice. He writes that ‘[t]he basic feature of the redistribution was its peculiar class analysis, which stigmatized the officials of the preceding regimes as oppressors but ironically enough lumped the current officials together with the oppressed peasants, without further criteria needed’.[2] The class analysis of political mobilization of the regional government accompanied by EPRDF’s narrative of an Amhara oppressive ruling class has led to an engagement in disgracing and destructing the legacies of the pre-1991 regimes.

The names ‘Ginbot 20’ and ‘Hidar 11’ are notoriously coined as names of sub-cities, schools, an airport, health centers, greeneries, and recreational places in urban centers of Amhara Regional State in the last three decades. The names are signifying just a month and date. Ginbot 20 refers to the day on which EPRDF seized Addis Ababa defeating the Dergue regime and Hidar 11is the month and date on which the EPDM was established.[3]The Amhara activists strongly argued that the Amhara people have not benefited from the Ginbot 20 victory. Rather it should be considered as the day on which the suffering of the people just began, accompanied by a state system that was instituted on the basis of narratives of an oppressive Amhara nation and other oppressed nationalities. Most people of the regional state have perceived ANDM as a trusteeship governor of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on the Amhara people and it was shy in struggling against TPLF’s motives which were costly to Amhara. Hence the date the party was established is not worthy to celebrate by the Amhara people.

This was accentuated by the Amhara protests and the unfolding Amhara activism forced the regional government to embark upon changing names hated by such public mobilization. In Bahir Dar City, two sub-cities names were immediately changed by the same council. The first sub-city was formerly known as Hidar 11 and then changed into Atse Tweodros, the name of an Ethiopian emperor (1855-1868) with whom the modern history of Ethiopia is associated. The second sub-city’s name Ginbot 20was replaced by Menelik II, an emperor of Ethiopia (1889-1913). The present shape and size of Ethiopia were crystallized by emperor Menelik II. The renaming was not made by the city council. Rather it was decided by the council of the sub-city structurally found beneath the city council. Information obtained from Bahir Dar city council indicates that the sub-cities merely notify them by letter about the renaming. The fact is that there are no clearly defined functions provided to the city council regarding the (re)naming of institutions, streets, and other physical features. Hence, the issue of renaming does not seem a planned and well-initiated measure of the sub-city. It was made for the sake of calming down the protest of the people by avoiding the EPRDF memoirs from the sight of them.[4] Glorifying the former rulers of Ethiopia has become the center of Amhara activism. Hence, the local councils have been replacing those names imposed by EPRDF by the two renowned kings of Ethiopia: Atse Tewodros and Menelik II.  

Besides the sub-cities, renaming has occurred in two further places in Bahir Dar City: the airport and one main street. Formerly the airport was named Dejasmach Belay Zeleke, a heroic patriot in the resistance against Italian occupation (1936-1941) until it was replaced by the name Ginbot 20 by the ANDM-led regional government. After three names for the change had been proposed, discussed and ‘voted’ by the public via social media and popular consultation, the former name was restored. The main street, starting from the bridge of Blue Nile, commonly known in Amharic Abay river to the eastward way out of the city, was named Nehassie 1 Martyrs Road for the commemoration of youths massacred in gunshots by security forces during the Amhara protests on August 8, 2016. The renaming practice was not  decided by the city council but by the regional executive office.[5]In addition to the practice of renaming the sub-cities themselves, the names of kebeles have been changed by the residents themselves. Two kebeles under the Atse Twodrossub-city changed their names and their decisions were endorsed by the council of the sub-city. The sub-cities seem to have no plan to embark on the naming of places on their own initiative. They only act on specific issues raised by the residents. They do not consider the issue of naming and renaming as one of the functions of the local councils and they are reluctant to plan further activities based on clear guidelines and procedures.[6] The city council also found itself in the same disposition as the sub-cities. And it has been looking idly at the acts of both levels of government, the regional executive and the sub-cities, without any reactions regarding the renaming of places. 

Assessment of the Practice

Place naming is usually understood as one element of a broader political project concerned with governmentality, state formation and nation-building.[7] The act of (re)naming places by EPRDF in commemoration of its two historic days can be seen as a means to entrench its political aspirations and project in the minds of the public and to thereby achieve ideological legitimation. Urban place naming is also instrumental to substantiate a particular set of political values and the ruling socio-political order in the urban climate. Place names in urban centers are formed in particular political contexts so that they are subject to change along with political dynamics. When new regimes with different political aspirations and values take power, names are no longer compatible with the new political order.[8] Accordingly, it was not only the local populations that questioned the names of their local area because they do not express their history and values, but it was also due to the regional government dropping the EPRDF ideology of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ that the renaming practice was pushed through despite the absence of related laws and guidelines. According to data obtained from the sub-city council, after renaming there was no complaining from the people and the authorities believed their decisions were not only in line with the new political direction but also in the interest of the local population. Given the renaming practice was largely considered as a restoration of the past memory denigrated by the EPRDF regime, it can also be said that it satisfied the identity question of the local population. This move might be justifiable since ‘place names are outward manifestation of how people perceive themselves, both their history and value system’.[9]

Post-apartheid South Africa has experienced numerous place name changes. The unfolding renaming process was initiated by the African National Congress (ANC)-ruled government and backed by an institution called South Africa Geographical Names Council (SAGNC).[10] The institution issued guidelines aiming to ‘eliminate duplication; rectify orthographic errors; accord official recognition to place names commonly used by residents; and to sensitize toponyms to South Africa’s democratic values and diverse history’.[11] However, no place (re)naming can be made without the municipal council’s approval in South Africa.[12] The intention of coordinating the local councils with SAGNC is to standardize, transform, and correct toponyms.

In Ethiopia, practices of (re)naming toponyms have been registered since 1991. Most of them are identity-motivated actions that replace the existing names with new ones which were supposedly used by the ‘endogenous’ local population in the past, until they were changed by the expanding modern state system. However, unlike the experience in South Africa, there are no regulatory mechanisms to identify which kind of names are supposed to be renamed; how the standardizations are maintained; who should decide the renaming, and in what ways the public interest and participation are ensured. The practice of renaming in Bahir Dar City is not the exception. It has been pursued in response to the new political dynamics pushed by Amhara ethnonationalism that emerged in reaction to EPRDF’s political values that were perceived to oppose Amhara interests. There are neither policies or guidelines for renaming urban toponyms nor a plan of action towards that. As a result, the renaming practice has been made by government bodies having relatively less consent from the people and the city council has failed to reclaim its mandate. The city council should therefore set a comprehensive policy with guidelines, rules, and procedures for the (re)naming of places under its territorial jurisdictions.  

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Street and Place Making Policy no 4810 of Ingquza Hill Local Municipality, <>

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Ege S, ‘Peasant Participation in Land Reform: The Amhara Land Redistribution of 1997’ in Siegfried Pausewang and Bahru Zewde (eds), Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below (Forum of Social Studies 2002)

Light D and Young C, ‘The Politics of Toponymic Continuity: The Limits of Change and the ongoing Lives of Street Names’ in Reuben Rose-Redwood, Derek Alderman and Maoz Azaryahu (eds), The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes: Naming, Politics and Place(Routledge 2018)

Ndletyana M, ‘Changing Place Names in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Accounting for the Unevenness’ (2012) 38 Social Dynamics87

[1] Interview with Worksemu Mamo, Amhara Regional Council’s Speaker (Bahir Dar, 23 December, 2020).

[2] Svein Ege, ‘Peasant Participation in Land Reform: The Amhara Land Redistribution of 1997’ in Siegfried Pausewang and Bahru Zewde (eds), Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below (Forum of Social Studies 2002).

[3] The names Ginbot 20 and Hidar 11 are just Amharic terms within Ethiopian calendar which stand for 28 May and 20 November respectively. The EPDM, which was renamed ANDM in 1994, was a coalition member of the EPRDF which has administered the Amhara region. In late 2018 it rebranded itself and acquired a short-lived name called Amhara Democratic Party (APP) until it merged into a party replacing the EPRDF, Prosperity Party (PP).

[4] Interview with Yitbarek Tesfaye, Speaker of Atse Tewodros sub city council (Bahir Dar, 14 April 2021).

[5] Interview with a legal expert of the Bahir Dar City council (Bahir Dar, 9 April 2021).

[6] Interview with Yitbarek Tesfaye Speaker of Atse Tewodros sub-city council (Bahir Dar, 14 April 2021).

[7] Duncan Light and Craig Young, ‘The Politics of Toponymic Continuity: The Limits of Change and the ongoing Lives of Street Names’ in Reuben Rose-Redwood, Derek Alderman and Maoz Azaryahu (eds), The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes: Naming, Politics and Place (Routledge 2018).

[8] ibid.

[9] Mcebisi Ndletyana, ‘Changing Place Names in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Accounting for the Unevenness’ (2012) 38 Social Dynamics 87.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] Art 5 of the Street and Place Making Policy no 4810 of Ingquza Hill Local Municipality,   <>.