Viewpoint

The spiraling situation in Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region

The dust of the violence in Metekel has not yet settled and threatens to spread into neighboring zones, raising fears of escalating conflict.

Ethiopia is now at a crossroads. The hazardous intersection of thrice-rescheduled elections, the issue of a second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and emerging conflicts with regional neighbors make the country’s future increasingly unpredictable. At the epicenter of these complex crossroads is Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State: site of the dam, bordering with Sudan, and cloaked in chaos that will prevent many of its constituents from participating in the upcoming national election.

With national and international attention being pulled in many directions—most notably towards war in Tigray—the problems of Benishangul-Gumuz are being eclipsed. People are not receiving the humanitarian support they need and the attention they deserve.

The worsening security situation and twist

It has been over six months since more than 207 people were massacred in a single day on 24 December 2020 in Bakuji, a small kebele in Bullen Wereda. This was followed by the killing of over 80 people in a place called Daleti in Metekel Zone. Since then, death from violence been rampant in the whole region.

Over 100,000 people, mainly a large proportion of Amhara and Agaw people, have been displaced, the majority fleeing into Chagni, Ranch camp. This figure does not include the uncounted and unreported displacement of Gumuz and Shinasha people that took place within Metekel Zone. The mob killing of a Gumuz man in Chagni, on 12 April, in the heart of the town in front of government authorities, is one of many signs of uncontained chaos.

Meanwhile, the security response in Benishangul-Gumuz is not showing any capability of de-escalation. Major roads are still closed. Even heavily guarded transport vehicles traveling to the GERD site, escorted by troops of armed personnel, are not safe from militia attacks.  As time passes, the Gumuz militias are strengthening their holdings and capacity, expanding and imposing their presence into Kamashi and Assosa zones. Indeed, on 10 June, there was a report of an attack by militias in Oda Bulidigilu Wereda which is located in Assosa Zone. 

On 2 April, unnamed Gumuz militias claimed control of the administrative center of Sedal Wereda in Kamashi, very close to the construction site of the GERD. Days later, the national army regained control of the town, but the event laid bare a deteriorated security apparatus, leaving many civilians with the impression that they have little hope for proper protection. People from neighboring weredas of Agalo Meti and Yaso, primarily those representing non-Gumuz ethnic groups, have left their villages in fear of a similar scenario.

Rebel negotiations

The regional government announced the signing of an agreement with the militia group on 18 May in Gilgel Beles town. Terms of the agreement that seemingly aimed at appeasing the militias included, among others, sharing power with militia members at the wereda, zonal and regional levels, creating job opportunities, offering access to financial support services, and giving urban and rural land to the members of the militias.

This has received mixed reactions among residents and watchers of the region.

For many, the agreement is an indication that positive gains can come from unsanctioned violence and may tempt others to achieve their wants through violence. Those who supported the agreement argued that negotiation and compromise are positive by their nature and should be appreciated.

Before picking a side, it is important to put the agreement between the militias and the regional government into perspective. To do so, it’s necessary to assess the success and failure of the previous strategies attempted by the command post in an effort to end fighting.

Firstly, government-sponsored reconciliation efforts were made since the eruption of the violence which, unfortunately, failed to produce the expected outcome. High-ranking officials including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the area and discussed with representatives of the people in December 2020. Abiy’s visit to the area was, unfortunately, followed by an escalation of the conflict and mass killings.

Secondly, taking military measures against the militias was not also effective in resolving or even minimizing the violence. The area has been under the stewardship of the command post since September 2020. The command post set a deadline for the militias to lay down their arms and surrender on 8 December 2020. No one surrendered per the deadline.

The command post also tried to deter the militias by declaring that it would make door-to-door hunts and take all necessary measures to apprehend militia members. However, all these measures were followed by an elevated conflict which resulted in dreadful consequences where civilians were brutally killed based on their skin color, their homes and farms were destroyed by fire. Killings were committed by representatives of different ethnic groups, each seeking revenge for violence suffered.

With mounting grievances against the regime, on 12 October 2020, the then chairman of the command post and deputy prime minister, Demeke Mekonnon, strangely and officially called people in Metekel to organize and arm themselves for defense. This indicated an inability of the government to provide security and maintain law and order in the region. The proposition of arming civilians to curb the violence divided opinions. Many considered Demeke’s speech to be emotion-led and forwarded under the pressure of Amhara nationalists.

Despite this fact, the regional government immediately incorporated the strategy of civilian defense as part of conflict prevention and peace-building. Over 10,000 militia members were recruited and received government-sponsored military training in all weredas of the Metekel Zone. Disarming the armed group could have been a better solution than arming the unarmed group which will likely fuel further conflict, putting the area into a vicious cycle of conflict.

Regardless, some efforts were tried and they all failed. Finally, the regional government felt obliged to engage in a dialogue and negotiation with the Gumuz militia.

Justice versus peace

The problem is not against the principles of a peace dialogue; rather, it is with the points missed and incorporated into the agreement. In particular, the proposed power-sharing arrangements with the militias has raised many eyebrows. By foregoing action to investigate crimes and ensure accountability, the signed agreement has also neglected the issue of justice—a foundation of sustainable peace.

Opposition political parties, like the  Boro Democratic Party (BDP), rejected the 18 May agreement between the regional government and the leaders of the militias, which included power-sharing elements, as illegitimate—recalling that the only way to assume power should be through an election. BDP also expressed frustration over the regional government’s willingness to share power with militias while imprisoning and persecuting legally organized political parties in the region.

The reconciliatory act has also aggrieved those who have suffered in the process of the conflict and who have been waiting for justice. Ethiopians know that state institutions are weak and can easily imagine how the justice system in a place like Benishangul-Gumuz would be ill-equipped to investigate mass killings and bring perpetrators of atrocities to full account. Still, the killings should have been condemned in the strongest terms possible, and the agreement should have included an attempt to do so.

In the absence of effective responses and with such a weak negotiation, popular trust in regional authorities, the command post, and government institutions has been diminished. As a result, the militias are strengthening their holdings and bargaining power. Currently, the regional government has some control in towns where administrative offices are located, but not much beyond that.

It’s not hard to see how the situation could spiral, now that a violent and chaotic organization has been officially empowered through a package of incentives. By drawing a bad lesson, other groups may also end up emulating similar measures.

Food insecurity

With its vast and fertile land, Benishangul-Gumuz was once looked at as a crucial development corridor of the country. Several investors previously engaged in commercial farming where a variety of cash crops—like seasame and groundnuts—were produced for export. Even small-scale farm holders used to produce surpluses each year. Government safety-net programs were essentially unknown by the residents.

Unfortunately, in the last two years, the people in Metekel are enduring terrible shortages, and famine looms ahead due to a manmade crisis.

Insecurity has prevented people from accessing their land for next year’s farming. Gumuz who have had to flee their villages due to targeted violence from communities who cast blame en masse are not getting needed support. With widespread instability and difficulty reaching IDPs, victims of violence are out of arms reach from humanitarian assistance—whether from the regional government or from national and international non-governmental organizations.

Unreasonable election in the region

The unfolding conflict in different parts of the country and the withdrawal of popular political parties from the election has overshadowed the stalled national election. On 21 May, the National Election Board of Ethiopia confirmed that the election, which will take place on 21 June, will not take place in both Metekel and Kamashi zones, indicating that registration of voters did not occur due to security reasons. That means the election will only take place in Benishangul-Gumuz’s Assosa Zone.  Although the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) confirmed that elections in Kamashi and Metekel zone will be conducted on 6 September, it is not clear if that is possible in light of continuing security crisis, mounting fear escalation in neighboring zones, and several people displaced. 

According to the region’s constitution, the Benishangul-Gumuz State Council should have less than 100 seats. The incumbent parliament has 99 seats. Out of this, the Assosa Zone has 42 seats while Metekel and Kamashi zones have 33 and 20 seats respectively. The remaining four seats belong to the Mao Komo Special Wereda.

In other words, the upcoming election will be conducted in 46 regional constituencies, and will not take place in 53 constituencies due to security reasons.

As such, one could go so far as to argue that even bothering to conduct an election in Assosa while postponing elections in Metekel and Kamashi is effectively pointless. Assosa Zone makes less than half of constituencies, which does not guarantee the establishment of a regional government.

The solution

At the same time as Ashadli Hassan, the regional president, and the command post were signing agreements with unnamed leaders of the Gumuz militia in Gilgel Beles and the administrative center of Metekel Zone, militia members were attacking the Almahal town in Guba Wereda.

In the absence of justice, peace cannot prevail. Hence, the regional and the federal government should collaboratively work to investigate the situation and bring the perpetrators to account. Part of this work requires addressing the underlying factors that have fuelled the crisis.

Control of the area must be regained. Putting an immediate and lasting end to violence is the first step towards assessing and addressing the heavy impact of unconstrained fighting. The government and its intelligence sector should reassess the routes and ways through which the militias are getting logistical support.

Communal trauma should not be underestimated. There are several people, including children, who have lost their whole family due to the conflict. Communities have been torn apart. Villages have been razed to the ground. Material support, which has thus far been in short supply, should be accompanied by psychosocial support.

Returning the displaced people into their villages will bring durable solutions but should be carefully handled. First, an area needs to be effectively controlled, ensuring the availability of appropriate levels of security, social services, and economic opportunities for returnees. As many social institutions and homes are destroyed, things like infrastructure building and support for reconstructing homes need to be considered.

Returning people to their previous villages without ensuring these preconditions may result in renewed rounds of displacement and devastation. Of course, fulfilling the preconditions requires coordinated and concerted action among humanitarian organizations and government entities.

Consideration must be given to minority rights in order to reconcile important democratic principles with realities on the ground. It is becoming unsafe to present identity cards that show the holders’ ethnicity, even at security checkpoints, as this may result in persecution.

Ethnic targeting means minorities are not able to move freely in the region, nor in neighboring towns in the Amhara region. The national government should safeguard the rights of the indigenous and minority groups who are endangered by mob-minded community members desperate for revenge.

Minorities also deserve protection from tyrannical forms of majority rule—including forms that do not consider equal protection of minorities as essential, or which go so far as to engage in the forced assimilation and active annihilation of minority groups.

With the stalled negotiations on the filing and operation of the GERD, discontented youth might be attracted to seek support from either Sudan or Egypt. Already, reports indicate the presence of training operations for militias in the Ethiopia-Sudan border. There have been reports that the Ethiopian National Defense Forces took measure on up to 500 youths reportedly coming from Sudan with training and armament.

In a statement on 1 May, the government of Sudan claimed Benishangul-Gumuz as potentially its territory—a  provocation which the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly condemned.

It is worrying indeed that the attention of national and international actors is turned almost exclusively to the war in Tigray. Unless the government and concerned parties give their attention to Benishangul-Gumuz, the country and the Horn of Africa as a whole is likely to soon feel the awful effects of an out-of-control conflict.

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This is the viewpoint of the author. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: PM Abiy Ahmed and Benishangul Gumuz region’s president Ashadli Hassan at a public conference in Benishangul on peace and security situation in Metekel; 22 December 2020; Office of the Prime Minister

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About the author

Tsegaye Birhanu

Tsegaye is studying for a Peace and Development Work Masters degree at Linnaeus University in Sweden and is a political science lecturer at Assosa University. He was born in Metekel and worked in Benishangul-Gumuz for almost a decade.

3 Comments

  • Thank you author and Ethiopia Insight. This is a good article.

    There are a few questions that I wish the author addressed.

    What is the rationale behind having an ethnic identity card? It seems a terrible idea. Isn’t your residence enough for identity and language service purposes?

    I do not think the article addressed why the Gumuz rebel. What are their hopes and their fears? What are the historical and social contexts? The Gumuz were hunted as slaves in the era of the emperors. They are looked down on and insulted as shankila. Do any of these explain the rebellion?

    What is the impact of the expected great economic benefits of the GERD on peoples behavior now? Are there fears of exclusion? What are the policies of neigbouring states toward the BSG region? Do their policies help peace or exacerbate conflict?

    Ethiopia may not have control over the behavior of Egypt and Sudan. But it has lots of control over its internal problems through understanding and negotiations. But hitherto the default position of both the Ethiopian state and opposition forces is violence. It needs to change.

    • I think Marx has correctly identified the weakness of this article. I have no confidence in the proposed solution. I suspect justice means something different to the rebel group than to this author and government.

  • Time is not on Ethiopia’s side;it is on the side of Egypt and Sudan.I suspect that they may have hands in almost all conflict areas in the country. Besides the country is on the verge of being labeled as a pariah state, due to the conflict it has been ignited with western powers.It could be wise of the government, to step down from its rigid and jingoistic stance and try to accommodate to a certain degree, the interest of these three entities. The choice may be clear : it may be a bitter pill to swallow: do we want to see one Ethiopia, living in a relative peace ,by changing some agreement on the dam or sticking to our current position and face the eternal infighting and the disintegration of the country?

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