News analysis

Benishangul conflict spurred by investment, land titling, rumors

The recent conflict mainly between Gumuz and Oromo people in Benishangul-Gumuz occurred after years of tensions over land issues

On September 27, two vehicles transporting Benishangul-Gumuz local administrators were ambushed by gunmen in Hena in West Wollega Zone of Oromia.

The Kamashi Woreda chairman, his deputy, and the Kamashi Zone police commissioner were killed at the junction of the main Assosa-Addis Abeba road and the non-asphalt route to Kamashi town. They were returning from a meeting about security issues with Oromia officials, as part of a committee created nine months earlier to try and settle land disputes in their district.

In the following days, dozens were killed in Kamashi town, which was part of events leading to the displacement of more than 150,000 people to neighboring Wollega. Most of the displaced were Oromo, while almost all Gumuz people stopped venturing into Oromia.

There, as elsewhere in the killil, tensions over land ownership and investment had reached an unprecedented scale in the early 2010s. These tensions, which were arguably exacerbated by a donor-funded land registration program, contributed to the devastating conflict. But fighting was also triggered by a series of rumors about the intentions and actions of various political factions and other actors. This cocktail of disagreements over administrative power, land, ethnicity, resettlement, investment, development, federalism, and borders, all fueled by gossip and conjecture, makes the situation a microcosm of Ethiopia’s overall volatile predicament.

This contradicted Gumuz land-use patterns

Since the end of the 2000s, federal authorities identified the lowlands of Benishangul-Gumuz as one of the suitable areas for large-scale agricultural investment. Largely ignoring historical land-use arrangements, an Agriculture Ministry agency set a target of transferring 691,900 hectares to investors, without specifying a timeframe.

Figures from the regional land administration show that 330,000 hectares had been leased by 2018, with 40,000 located in Kamashi. But in the zone, land administration experts lamented that only 11,500 hectares were actually under cultivation.

Investment in Kamashi was mainly in Belo-Jiganfoy Woreda, which hosted more than 15,000 hectares. There, one entire kebele was rented to a single Ethiopian investor, including “the churches, the houses, the people, the kids,” as one land administration expert put it. Authorities tended to consider any non-farmed land as “free land”. This contradicted the land-use patterns of the Gumuz, who often practice a kind of slash-and-burn shifting agriculture that better fits the lowland ecology.

According to land-administration experts, many investors quickly sub-rented plots to others, contravening their business plans. An official report showed that more than one billion birr was loaned by public banks to in excess of 100 Ethiopian investors, mostly by the Development Bank of Ethiopia, but also by the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. Bureaucrats lamented that only 37 percent of the leased land was farmed, but most often not to the extent stated in the business plan. Civil servants suspect that chunks of the loans were used for non-agricultural purposes, such as building the five new hotels that now tower over Assosa.

Titling tensions

Kamashi Zone has a history of medium-scale conflicts, erupting occasionally, killing dozens, and leading to the displacement of thousands. In 2007, 2009, and 2011, there were conflicts between Gumuz and highland populations, mainly Oromo. They usually started with the allocation of large estates to investors, sometimes at the initiative of zonal and woreda administrators from both sides of the regional border.

Gumuz officials accuse their Oromo counterparts of presenting them with a fait accompli. In the early 2000s, Oromo from Haraghe in the predominantly semi-arid east of Oromia were resettled on what was traditionally known as Gumuz lands. Similarly, exploiting a poorly demarcated border, the Oromia authorities managed to make investors pay them land tax, even though their plots were technically across the regional boundary. The payments strengthened Oromo claims on ‘Gumuz land’, and roused local opposition.

When facing difficulties to evict people living on the plots they leased, investors resorted to legal strategies. A Gumuz elder who was part of conflict resolution committees told me: “[The investors] come, they pay the land tax and then they sue. And what the court looks at is the proofs, the papers, the receipt! And the natives go away… But the one who goes away like that doesn’t leaves healthy! If he has nothing to live on he will come back for revenge, and personal conflicts lead to group conflicts, group conflicts lead to ethnic conflicts.”

In 2013, the registration of landholdings started in Belo-Jiganfoy. It was part of a 13 million Euros project funded by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that was aimed at the formalization of land rights in the region. The Responsible and Innovative Land Administration (REILA) program, which started in 2011, is in support of the government’s Ethiopia Sustainable Land Management Investment Framework. The World Bank’s Sustainable Land Management Program is also involved in land titling in the region.

A display about land registration in Metekel Zone, Benishangul-Gumuz; 2016; Mehdi Labzaé

In 2016, REILA was extended for a further five years, although the budget was halved. It follows the classic liberal property rights theory, assuming that distributing land titles would make farmers more productive by securing their tenure, fostering their attachment to property and so dedication to agricultural work, and opening credit opportunities by allowing them to present the titles as collateral.

But land registration raised the question of who were the rightful occupiers under the ethno-federal constitutional framework. In 2013, regional authorities first started to displace Amharas from woredas like Yasso and Belo-Jiganfoy, arguing that since the land proclamation was now implemented and land registered, they should “go back” to their region. This was a rather extreme interpretation of ethnic federalism, which the central government addressed after complaints by REILA and the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the ruling party in that region.

Although the federal constitution protects resident communities’ political rights, it does not mandate discrimination in land allocation, and nor do regional constitutions. However, Benishangul-Gumuz’s constitution does promise support for the five “indigenous” groups, by describing them as “owners” (“balebet”) of the region, while recognizing the presence of others.

Likewise, the 2010 regional land proclamation states that any “peasant residing in the region” has the right to land. But it also stipulates that any farmer occupying land illegally should be evicted. By considering “non-natives” who did not move to Benishangul-Gumuz through official resettlement programs as essentially illegal, regional officials have used these provisions to justify the evictions of Amhara and other Ethiopians.

Unsettling resettlement

The Amhara farmers were allowed to return to their properties in Benishangul-Gumuz, but the episode presaged years of land tensions. Some officials believe the 2013 eviction attempt was motivated by the need to hit federal land-lease targets, offering further evidence of some of the harmful unintended downstream impacts of development policies. It would indeed have been much harder to clear the land of inhabitants once they had been granted land titles.

In practice, registration allowed people who settled recently to get their holdings registered. At that time, the regional land proclamation allowed “peasants” to hold a maximum of 10 hectares—but it was common for Gumuz elders to claim several dozen hectares. Although expropriation did not immediately occur, civil servants informed clan elders that they would have to give excess land to the government.

A few months earlier, a villagization program had been carried out among the Gumuz. They were told to move to new “village centers” where they would get access to basic development services: water, electricity, schools, and roads. But even if dry-weather roads were ready to welcome the displaced Gumuz, they had to build their new houses. Electricity seldom reached their new plots, and women still had to walk long distances to get water. Moreover, displaced households had seen their land taken away, and sometimes granted to investors. As in neighboring Gambella, the program largely failed.

It appears that all investors have left

The conjunction of investment and villagization led many Gumuz to think that the government was more interested in their land than their wellbeing. It was in this context that the land-registration drive backed by Finnish aid and the World Bank occurred.

Land certificates were distributed in 2017, and tensions deepened over the following months. Young Gumuz realized newcomers had got their land registered, either by bribing the kebele administration, by registering in their name plots held under sharecropping arrangements, known as Ekul in Amharic, or by basing a claim on their past land tax payments. Many Gumuz fiercely rejected the whole process, setting the stage for renewed violence.

Clashes started before the summer, each time curtailed by local police. Afraid for their lives, land-administration experts left the area in June, and none of them have returned. In the summer of 2018, evictions took place in Belo Didessa, the kebele where land registration had first started in 2013. Dozens of Amhara and Oromo households had their properties burned. Foreign-funded land-registration programs are now suspended in Kamashi zone, and it appears that all investors have left.

New front

Kamashi’s murdered police commissioner was known for his strong stance on boundary issues, and had already faced threats from young Oromos from the town. This is where national politics met local land conflicts. It is not known who carried out the attack, but Gumuz officials blamed the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Whether true or not, it shows OLF functions well as a scapegoat for the government, and also as a convenient brand for any Oromo movement wishing to attract attention. While the last OLF bases in Kellem Wellega and Benishangul-Gumuz’s Mao-Komo Special Woreda were crushed by the army in the early 2000s, there is little doubt the movement is again a force in Ethiopian politics.

Land tensions are also high around Assosa. In kebeles surrounding the town, people resettled from Wollo four decades ago have seen their land encroached on by infrastructures built for the growing town over the last ten years. The agricultural research center, the airport, the university, and the overall extension of the town’s jurisdiction all led to pressures. As often, the compensation was paltry. In some instances, it consisted of offering 0.02-hectare pieces of urban land for the loss of several 0.25- to 0.5-hectare rural plots.

Recently, young Amharas fiercely opposed surveys for the building of a 1,000-hectare industrial park. The local branch of the newly created National Movement of Amhara (known by its Amhara acronym Aben) is using these grievances to mobilize Benishangul’s Amharas. A cadre from ANDM shared their views on the volatile situation: “This will lead to conflict. Young people are ready”. Demonstrating the potential scale of this challenge, Aben has other grander claims in the region. Considering it “a historical part of Gojjam”, they want Benishangul’s Metekel Zone, which hosts the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, to be transferred to Amhara.

Viral attack

Frequently in Ethiopia, conflicts over power and land between various communities, groups, or classes are laced with often-unsubstantiated allegations of Tigrayan skullduggery. This is primarily because of TPLF officials’ previous dominance of the federal security apparatus and the party’s historically outsized influence in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front—and the alleged privileges that then accrued through patronage networks to Tigrayan businesspeople. This very much applies to the complex conflict in Benishangul-Gumuz, where Tigrayan investors have indeed been fairly major players in the agricultural sector.

In June, a demonstration in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, organized by young Oromo a week after the grenade attack in Meskel Square, was met with opposition from Berta, who had their own complaints about alleged OLF attacks. Some Berta argued that Benishangul-Gumuz was distinct from Oromia, reigniting quarrels about the alleged OLF demand for its neighbors to be called “Black Oromos”.

The rumor also spread that TPLF veteran Abay Tsehaye, a frequent subject of such unsupported allegations, had recently visited the city and handed over two bags full of banknotes to young Bertas in order to “make trouble”. As that dubious claim went viral, the protest descended into fighting.

There are still people who are TPLF inside

Young Oromo accused the Berta of being TPLF-backed. The regional government ordered an inquiry into the stories about Abay, but police concluded that there was no substance to them and that he had not visited the city. By then, the clashes had left 20 people dead in downtown Assosa. The following day, the army took control, disarming the mainly Berta regional police, who had shot dead two highlanders.

In the following week, hundreds of Tigrayans fled Assosa. Clashes that broke out between Amhara and Oromo at Assosa University in late November were attributed to the scheming of a well-known investor, a member of the TPLF, whose photograph with Abay has been published on social media.

The man was arrested before an angry crowd broke into his Internet café. There, police officers reportedly discovered dozens of fake Assosa University identification cards, which were taken as a proof of his involvement in “bringing troublemakers in”—although some suggested he may simply have been innocently providing a business service for students. The outcome of the investigation into the businessman is not yet known. Generally, it is common in Benishangul-Gumuz to attribute violence to an incomplete purge of the old guard. A civil servant concludes: “There are still people who are TPLF inside.”

All in all, these explanations of the situation credit the TPLF and associated individuals with a lot more influence than they ever actually ever had in the area. Local conflicts in Benishangul-Gumuz are rooted in power politics and land disputes, and may well continue unless all parties agree on processes for fairly assigning ownership and allocating resources, and rumors are replaced by facts.

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Main photo: Farming in Benishangul-Gumuz; 2015; Mehdi Labzaé

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Mehdi Labzaé

Mehdi is a researcher at the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies and PhD candidate at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University. His research is on land administration in Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella

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