Elections 2021 In-depth

EIEP: Marginalization and persecution in Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz

Maladministration is fueling violence between groups that the regional constitution considers indigenous and those who historically held more sway nationally.

This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP) series.

19 April 2019, a member of the Federal Police was called to resolve a dispute over a ten-birr tariff between a passenger and bus driver in Dangur Wereda, near the border of where Benishangul-Gumuz’s Metekel Zone meets Amhara Regional State. 

In an exchange over fare prices, the police officer shot and killed a Gumuz passenger.

Gumuz residents of Dangur reacted by murdering four Amhara locals in Ayicika Kebele, where the killing took place.

Amhara’s residents then committed similar levels of violence in towns across the zone, and in neighboring areas beyond Metekel.

On 30 April, Amhara Regional Special Forces massacred Gumuz residents in two kebeles in Jawi Wereda, located in Amhara, and then across the border in Dangur Wereda’s Dilbanji Kebele on 24 June.

Around the same time, Amhara youth in Dungur Manbuk town, western Metekel, mobilized for multiple mob killings of Gumuz residents. 

Many blamed Gumuz elites, like Mr. Gawo Jania, a member of Parliament known for posting on social media. His son was attacked at school by a mob as retaliation and died on his way to the hospital.

Alliances were formed between the Amhara and the Agew, who also became targets of the attacks. Shinasha people were displaced and killed—in spite of not taking a side in the conflict initially.

Today, when residents in Dangur look back on these events in 2019, many reflect on the painful fact that, more than two years later, perpetrators of the violence have not still been held accountable and some have even secured immunity.

Tragically, hundreds, likely thousands, of lives have been lost to violence in Benishangul-Gumuz over the last two and a half years. 

The story is a shatteringly sad and spiralingly complex one: armed conflict with ethnic overtones, mass dislocation and the psychological effects of marginalization, maladministration and bungled investments, and contemporary responses to conflicting historical experiences in Benishangul-Gumuz. 

It could center on any wereda, launch off from any time, and be told from the perspective of any one of the numerous ethnic groups in the region. 

The situation displays Ethiopia’s many challenges—including a resurgence of assimilating nationalism, the elevation of ethnicity as a source of conflict, economic and resource scarcity affected by conditions of inequality, and the threat of powerful actors, including neighbors, who take advantage of weaknesses—as they intersect with excruciating effect. 

Making matters worse, these challenges have overcome one of Ethiopia’s farthest-flung and least-considered peripheral regions, where untold suffering occurs almost without an account. 

Ethiopians, most especially those in power, might conclude that radical peace-making action must be taken as a response to the trauma in Benishangul Gumuz—and in order to avoid the kind of destruction that has occurred here from happening elsewhere in the country. 

Disowned home

Benishangul-Gumuz hosts five indigenous ethnic groups, as codified in its constitution. The Berta (also called Benishangul) and Gumuz people together make up approximately half of the region’s population. 

The other three are the Shinasha, Komo, and Mao. Before the federal era, the area was governed as part of the predominantly Amhara Gojjam province and, to the south, the mostly Oromo Wellega administrative territory.

A key overarching problem is a political struggle between, on the one hand, Gumuz and Berta actors that consider themselves historically marginalized and, on the other, those that believe the measures instituted to correct past injustice are in themselves discriminatory, a group that includes many Amhara people.

As Amhara nationalists have asserted themselves in recent years—after decades of chafing at the ethnofederal system that they perceive as anti-Amhara by design of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Gumuz militia have hit back, violently and often indiscriminately. 

That, in turn, fuels even greater Amhara assertiveness, creating a well-lubricated cycle of violence.

Separately or combined, the “indigenous” people have minimal influence in national political, economic, and social affairs. Their migratory patterns are localized, and their representation in the federal government is negligible. In short, their sphere of influence is almost entirely limited to the areas where they reside and have survived through the ages.

Living alongside them are large numbers of Amhara and Oromo, who, taken together, are nearly proportional in population to the total of indigenous people in Benishangul-Gumuz. These are powerful groups in all regions where they live—which is related to the fact that they have significant influence in the national government. 

Some of them have resided in the area for centuries, some came as part of Ethiopia’s resettlement program during the Derg regime in the 1980s, and others have come more recently as migrants often seeking land in a less densely populated area.

Relations have been sticky between so-called indigenous and non-indigenous communities in Benishangul-Gumuz for a long time. Disagreements around rights to land, resources, and power have abounded since well before its constitutional founding as a region. After the PP came to power in late 2019, those disagreements have expressed themselves in full-blown conflicts. 

Metekel and Kamashi zones are hotbeds where recent violence peaked, although Assosa Zone has also been troubled. The most serious incident in recent years was on 23 December 2020, in a small kebele called Bakuji in Bulen Wereda in Metekel where 207 civilians, including children and pregnant women, were slaughtered. Reportedly, the victims were mostly Shinasha and the killers were Gumuz militia. Deadly violence between mostly Oromo and Gumuz groups in Kamashi flared in late 2018 and has sporadically continued ever since.

Reporting for Ethiopia Insight on issues going into the rescheduled 6 September election, I traveled to Bambasi Wereda in Assosa Zone and spoke to residents in Assosa city in May and June to assess the sources of violence, the extent of damage, its impact on the upcoming vote, and solutions an incoming government must consider. 

These are not necessarily the most violent parts of Benishangul-Gumuz, but the same types of disagreements express themselves in different ways; through inter-communal tensions in mixed urban areas, small-scale conflicts in more rural regions like Bambasi, and carnage in the more remote areas of the region, such as rural Metekel and Kamashi.

Indigenous rights

While Ethiopia struggles under the weights of a derailed transition, civil war in Tigray, international alienation, and economic strife, all amid wide-ranging ethno-political violence, there is no region quite so strained—and quite so little understood—as Benishangul-Gumuz.

The area comprising Benishangul-Gumuz formally became part of Ethiopia under the terms of a Nile-focused 1902 treaty signed by Emperor Menelik II with Great Britain, which ruled Sudan.

Since its establishment under the 1995 constitution, questions about who has rights in the region have been contested. Its constitution, adopted in 1996 and amended in 2002, begins with a familiar preamble: “We, the nationalities and peoples of the region”. 

Unlike any other constitution, however, Benishangul’s states: “While other ethnic groups living in the region are recognized, the owners of the region are the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Berta, Gumuz, Shinasha, Mao, and Komo.” The constitution considers these five communities to be “indigenous” to the region.

The five indigenous groups receive privileges mainly through informal practices guided by ethnic-based local governments and an indigenous-led regional administration.

The indigenous elite exercises self-rule at the local level, which includes dominance over the political affairs of the region, without significant interference from opposing non-indigenous communities. They resist the demand of non-indigenous people to dominate the area’s social and economic affairs, and they raise additional apprehensions regarding the presence and ongoing settlement of other non-indigenous peoples in their localities.

On the other hand, non-indigenous residents of the region express dissatisfaction regarding their representation and the fulfillment of their constitutional rights. They make claims for proportional representation in the region’s government and demand treatment at least approaching that of their indigenous counterparts in social and economic affairs. Many are defensive about the very idea of indigenous rights in the region, citing their own long-standing connections to territories within the region. 

These grievances exist alongside tit-for-tat violence that has involved the massacre of Amhara, Shinasha, and other civilians in the region. As a result, Demeke Mekonnen, the Deputy Prime Minister and, since November 2020, Foreign Minister, traveled to the region in October to call for Amhara civilians to be trained as community defense forces. 

While there is genuine cause for Amhara politicians to be concerned about the killings of Amhara civilians, these types of approaches arguably stoke the historical tensions that underlie the violence. 

Moreover, there is a perception that well-connected Amhara agricultural investors are looking to capitalize on plots freed up by the loss of Tigrayan political-economic power over the last few years. As well as being the focal point of competing political claims, the region’s relatively under-developed land is also highly contested.

On the political front, opposing perspectives have taken different forms over the course of almost three decades of ethno-federalist rule.

After the new national administration came in 2018, promising freedom to voice longstanding political grievances, the divisions in Benishangul-Gumuz demanded immediate attention. Political leaders and local regional residents alike raised old questions, with hopes that the ‘reformist’ government would finally deal with them.

Through his transitional governing period, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has, however, proved mostly unsuccessful in responding to conflict in Benishangul-Gumuz. In some cases, PP leaders have gone so far as to suppress debates using improper methods. Some see interpretations of the party’s Medemer ideology as being to blame.

Meaning ‘synergy’—or the idea of all people coming together for the sake of strength and in service of a common end—Abiy’s philosophy promotes a melting pot state. A noble idea, but one which has also reignited fears in minority peoples across the region that their existence is under threat by assimilating majority forces. Populations on the other side seem to be taking advantage of the concept of unification in order to promote ethno-majority rule.

Since PP leaders have failed to respond adequately to underlying issues, Benishangul-Gumuz has buckled under the strains of deep-seated disagreements, most notably in Metekel Zone.

Metekel maelstrom

Metekel is the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has been under construction for the last ten years. It is rich in some important natural resources, including gold, fertile land, and water. It is also rich in people. Across centuries, diverse ethnic communities have lived heterogeneously together without major conflict, bonded by strong social, religious, and marital ties.

According to eyewitness testimonies from Metekel, the conflict there first erupted in April 2019. In the beginning stages, the fight was primarily between Gumuz and Amahara. Violence was concentrated mainly among farming communities in rural areas, while larger towns in all weredas were relatively safe. It was disorganized. Perpetrators mostly used traditional close-contact weapons like arrows and knives.

Developing disagreements over territory between indigenous people and non-indigenous people set a tense scene in 2019. Indigenous elites who spoke with Ethiopia Insight in May shared that their major cause for concern was increasing claims amid growing Amhara nationalism by Amhara politicians and their supporters—especially those representing the National Amhara Movement (NaMA) party—that Metekel Zone is part of historical Amhara territory. 

The creation of the Prosperity Party (PP) in late 2019 added another dimension, with many defenders of the multinational order casting PP as sanctioning assimilating ideologies.

At a workshop discussing the validation of minorities’ rights organized by Boro Shinasha Development Association on 8 April in Assosa, Birhanu Ayehu, the region’s Vice Attorney General stated: “If you ask any Gumuz elite or by-passer about the cause of conflict in Metekel, they will respond that Amhara elites are claiming their land as part of their historic territory. That is why they are engaging in conflict—to maintain their homeland before they are evicted by this group.”

In an Ethiopia Insight interview, a supporter of the opposition Gumuz People Democratic Movement (GPDM) corroborated Birhanu’s statement. He asserted that the ideology of Amhara domination in Metekel was manifested plainly in the Amhara party platform. NaMA leaders began making demands that the zone—which was historically part of Gojjam—be incorporated into Amhara region.

Their position could be seen publicly in signs and slogans shared at various demonstrations in the region, which alleged that Metekel, along with some places in Tigray and Oromia, belong to Amhara.

In 2018, massacres against Gumuz peoples in Metekel, alleged to be perpetrated by Amhara gunmen, claimed hundreds of lives. On the other side, Amhara residents of Metekel were alleging genocide as residents were being killed and violently driven from the land by Gumuz. 

The April police killing of a Gumuz bus passenger, and the chaotic violence which followed, shows how far tensions had been stretched by 2019. They also show the limits of the law and accountability in a region where impunity has become the norm. 

A water service officer, a Shinasha man, told Ethiopia Insight that he was targeted for his ethnicity and was attacked by a group of Agew youth on 24 June 2019. He said that the assailants were chanting and celebrating as they beat him. While receiving treatment at the hospital for multiple broken bones, including many teeth, and severe damage to his left eye, his house was looted. 

“I have to thank God that I am alive,” he said, “[But] It’s really sad that no-one has been brought before justice, despite reporting my case to every concerned body in the zone.”

Evolving violence

The evolving nature of the conflict is an indication that justice remains far from sight. Instability has spread across Metekel and shows no sign of stopping. Around August 2020, the conflict entered a new phase, marked by more organized violence with a wider reach.

A police officer in Dangur Wereda, who requested anonymity, told Ethiopia Insight on 3 May that the tragedies in the district have been ceaseless. There and in every wereda across Metekel, he said, a shift has taken place. Violence has moved from being perpetrated by disorganized civilian groups, using mostly close-contact weapons, to large-scale, organized violence—especially when it comes from the Gumuz, who have formed a powerful rebel militia force with some cross-border links with Sudan.

The alleged leader of Metekel’s Gumuz rebel group, Shava, is said to be from Guba Wereda, though details about his background and character are still largely unknown. A document found by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) shows that the Gumuz rebels have ganta leaders; the paper lists names of militia members who are tasked to lead units of up to 100 members and are responsible for organizing rebels in weredas assigned to them.

Whereas in 2019, the targets of attacks were Amhara people and violence was in many ways defensive, organized Gumuz militia are now engaged in large-scale violence targeting all people in Metekel who are seen as having relatively light skin, known as “k’ei” (red) in Amharic.

As a result, members of the indigenous Shinasha community have again become open targets of brutal violence. In some high-conflict areas, attacks are indiscriminate.

Residents working in weredas across Metekel told Ethiopia Insight that rebel groups have attacked and infiltrated every wereda in the zone—including Pawi Wereda, where there are very few Gumuz people. They have succeeded in taking control of Metekel’s rural areas, which the regional PP government had failed to administer. 

The rebel militia is now engaged in an active struggle to displace people from urban areas, which has been more difficult. They have also attempted to attack kebeles in Amhara’s Guangua Wereda.

People displaced from Metekel in Guangwa Wereda; 22 December 2020; Guangua Woreda Communication.

As the rebels wage war, there is also untold suffering of Gumuz people in Metekel.

In Guba Wereda, Hassen Endiras, a farming investor who was forced to leave due to conflict, told Ethiopia Insight that innocent Gumuz people suffer attacks from two sides: from rebels, and from aggrieved members of other communities. 

Rebels use Gumuz civilians as human shields and also force them to join arms in the war. Gumuz community members who call for peace or protest the conflict are in danger of having their property looted, livelihood destroyed, or of being killed by the rebels.

Hassen shared a story about community elders who approached rebels asking for a resolution to the conflict. Leading elders, including Antenneh Shawi, were subsequently killed; Antenneh shot dead in his house by rebels at midnight on the same day that he appealed for peace.

Gumuz youths are kidnapped by rebels, and given short-term militia training against the will of their families. Local leaders and civilians who provide information to the government regarding rebel activities, or who refuse to let their children join the rebel forces, have been killed.

At the same time, Gumuz civilians are being brutally attacked by Amhara people and light-skinned victims who rage in mobs against the rebellion.

Eyewitnesses told Ethiopia Insight that Gumuz people living in Dangur Wereda, near Ayi Papuwa, Gitsi, Kitelye, and Adis Sefer, have had their houses and properties totally destroyed. They have been forced to leave their homes to save their lives and have retreated into forests, where they endure heavy rains and intense discomfort.

Entire predominantly Gumuz areas remain out of reach of government services, and displaced people are not receiving any support from governmental or non-governmental organizations. Gumuz who come to town for services are sometimes subjected to mob violence and attacks by town residents. 

For example, when a Gumuz man came across the Amhara border to Chagni town on 12 April, in order to access banking services, he was beaten to death in front of government authorities.

Out of fear, many Gumuz shelter in forests, even during sickness and emergencies.

Nefarious neighbors

Some people claim that Gumuz rebels are given logistical and intelligence support by local officials, who inform them of defense force activities. 

In some areas, regional special forces and police force members have allegedly joined the rebel groups and contributed their weaponry, while alleging that they have been kidnapped and that their guns were taken forcefully.

One interviewee Ethiopia Insight spoke with made allegations that rebel groups were initially guided by members of the TPLF, aiming to take advantage of the territorial dispute between Amhara and Gumuz people. They alleged that the TPLF created rebel groups linked with foreign powers, notably Sudan and Egypt.

While TPLF’s connection remains speculative, ties with Sudan are more apparent. Gumuz militia have been seen entering the country via the Sudanese border, in areas where there is already intense fighting. Witnesses told Ethiopia Insight that rebels receive training, technical assistance, and monetary support from Sudan.

The advanced weaponry being used provides some evidence of external involvement. Rebels have been seen carrying powerful weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which are capable of destroying large vehicles. 

They employ advanced war tactics, which push ill-equipped defense forces into retreat. In a relatively poor and underdeveloped region, the sophistication being employed in a rebel-led conflict, and the levels of destruction inflicted, are unprecedented. 

The possible involvement of foreign actors ahead of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) controversial second filing indicated a cross-border war that Ethiopia’s government is failing to contain.

One key strategy employed by Gumuz rebels has been denying the movement of both governmental and non-governmental vehicles on the main roads to the GERD site.

Police officers in Metekel confirmed to Ethiopia Insight that building materials are transported to the dam with military escorts. Rebels open fire on drivers and the national defense forces, and block the road to stop the transportation of materials to the dam.

For example, on 25 April, an attack killed ten people in a convoy delivering GERD materials at Mango village, 20 kilometers from the dam site in Guba Wereda. Four days later, rebels killed 18 civilians and six members of the Special Police in Orished kebele, located between the GERD site and Guba.

Interviewees told Ethiopia Insight that even though a federal command post has been established in the conflict areas, and though top officials have visited repeatedly, there is still no peace in sight in Metekel. Government forces are not willing to take serious measures against the rebels. Allegedly, this is partially in fear of being blamed for killing civilians, whom rebels use as shields, and who level terms like “ethnic genocide” against forces who kill Gumuz people.

Some members of the army have been disappointed at the lack of effective response, and have deserted the national force as a result. Civilians have been left to fend for themselves. 

After successfully seizing government offices in six weredas in Metekel Zone (Guba, Dangur, Mandura, Dibati, Bulen, and Wobera), representatives of the rebel group who attended negotiations with the government gave conditions which included administrative power-sharing with Gumuz militia across the zone, and that land being given to the militia members, along with employment and financial support. 

These expressed goals indicate a willingness to engage in a prolonged war.

Indeed, soon after negotiations were finished, Gumuz rebels abducted Lieutenant General Asrat Denero, the coordinator of the Metekel Zone Command Post, in Dangur Wereda. The Lieutenant General is well-known for his efforts at peace-making—and, in fact, many have criticized him for showing too much sympathy towards the rebels.

The insurgency has advanced into Kamashi Zone and into all Gumuz-inhabited districts there, including Sedal, Agalo Mite, and Yaso weredas.

Conflict is also ongoing in the region’s capital, Assosa, though it is of a less violent nature—so far.

Conflicting demands

In Assosa Zone, it is chiefly the indigenous Berta versus Amhara as well as Oromo settlers who are engaged in the most intense push and pull over power, land, and resources.

Tensions are high in four of Assosa’s seven weredas bordering Sudan: Homosha, Menge, Sherkole, and Kumurk. These areas are particularly fertile and rich in minerals, and disagreement between indigenous and non-indigenous residents over land rights and resources is threatening to lead to serious violence in the near future.

In Bambasi, the floodgates have opened already.

Like elsewhere in the region, indigenous elites in Assosa, led by the Berta, express increasing concern over the recent intensifying incursion of Amhara and Oromo settlers, including, reportedly, Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) fighters. 

They fear the political, social, and economic domination of Amhara and Oromo, which have strong influence at the national level, and they question the right of these non-indigenous communities, who each control their own large regional states, to encroach on the territory of others.

These fears have existential import. 

As leaders in Assosa town expressed in June, cultural extinction is impending. One Prosperity Party leader told Ethiopia Insight on 8 June that the indigenous population (specifically the Berta) is at risk of losing its base in the near future due to the pressures being exerted upon it by more influential groups. He described the looting of land and money, which puts political power into Oromo and Amhara hands, and allows them to overpower and oppress less powerful groups in the region.

The politician went on to lament the effects of such an unbalanced regime. He explained that the Berta people, like other indigenous groups in the region, have a sphere of influence limited only to their local land and community—they have no influence elsewhere. If their rights are lost here, they will be sent back into a historical period where formal marginalization was the status quo.

On the other side, non-indigenous people in Assosa—and in particular a large number of Amhara there—feel themselves to be marginalized, and claim they are treated as second-class citizens. Many resent the status quo, which they say excludes non-minorities from participating fairly in the regions where they live rightfully and pay their dues.

An Amhara owner of a hotel and restaurant, who requested anonymity while speaking with Ethiopia Insight on 11 June, articulated such a stance.

A proud NaMA party member, he asserted that Amhara people are the highest taxpayers in the region. In spite of that, he said, minorities who pay less in taxes receive more favors in the form of land benefits and economic opportunities. He resented that Amhara people are forced to lease land in areas where, according to him, they lead economic activity.

Moreover, the hotel owner argued, affirmative action which elevates indigenous people is a form of discrimination, and which keeps out qualified Amhara residents from regional government positions. He claimed that favoring indigenous people in the civil service sector gives positions to people who are inexperienced and, therefore, underperform. 

In four weredas—Homosha, Menge, Sherkole, and Kumuruk—land is, effectively, reserved for Berta people. Others are excluded, even from leasing land via short-term contracts.

A civil servant who has worked in the land administration office in Homosha town for seven years told Ethiopia Insight: “Land is not given to non-Berta peoples, not for farming or residential housing, and not for investment, unless they have some special relations with local officials or pay money [as a bribe]”.

It’s a matter, he said, of defending Berta against the “assimilating efforts” of culturally dominant people. He said, “settlers drive [us] out…To prevent that history from happening here, we have to resist the permanent residence of newcomers.”

While many in Assosa agree with the principles of protecting indigenous rights, residents have also expressed concern over the lack of transparency and absence of legality when preferences for indigenous ownership of land is enacted. 

In Menge Wereda, for example, a teacher that Ethiopia Insight interviewed on 12 June claimed that he witnessed wereda administrators demolish houses built by community members. Officials alleged that the houses had been covertly sold to non-indigenous people—an act which the administration de facto prohibits.

The teacher, like others, expressed ambivalence about the closed-door policies of local administrators, who often make decisions without discussion.

It is practices like these, some believe, that limit the economic growth of rural weredas in Benishangul-Gumuz, compared with elsewhere in the country. Tiny towns lack infrastructure and basic access to services, which makes them undesirable for private sector investment. Wereda administrators collect revenues from their residents but they are unable to cover even a quarter of their annual budget from such meager sources of income.

In May, a lawyer in Assosa town told Ethiopia Insight that the revised rural land administration of the region has been written in order to provide legal backing to land laws that formerly were enacted arbitrarily. For example, the revised laws include a provision explicitly forbidding land-lease contracts between residents. Such dealings may be subject to punitive measures, including confiscation of the land, by the government. 

Still, in spite of clear laws, there have been controversies over the repossession of land by Assosa’s governing bodies. Residents have expressed concern over conflicting compensation schemes for rural and urban land. Again, the issue of ethnicity has been elevated as a focal point, as urban dwellers and rural farmers have been forcibly relocated from their lands in the name of public interest projects. 

The building of Assosa’s stadium at the heart of Assosa town in 2015 provides one example of this trend. 

When the project commenced, officials from the Town Development Bureau demanded that residents on the site who owned houses and property, mostly Berta people, leave and submit their land to the contractor, GAD Construction PLC. In addition to cash compensation, evicted residents were given comparable plots of urban land to relocate on. 

Some Amhara residents accused the government of purposefully profiting Berta people—which also included government officials, who themselves had houses in the stadium’s area. In an interview on 9 June, an Amhara activist and NaMA supporter in Assosa, who requested anonymity, alleged that the government over-assessed the value of the land, and gave excessive compensation to property owners there, who were almost all Berta. 

One year later, the government’s construction of Assosa University supposedly provides a contrasting example. 

A large number of Amhara settlers were concentrated in the rural district, about five kilometers out of town. Their land was distributed to the university and for the building of residential houses, a project which began in 2016 and is ongoing.

According to the former kebele administrator of Amba 8, who spoke with Ethiopia Insight on 22 June in his office, “The Assosa University building project was set by the government, who promised residents whose lands they took that they would provide land in the town and money compensation to make up for [farming] lands and livelihoods which were lost.”

Unfortunately, after the evictions were completed, the Amba 8 administrator alleged, “the government not only broke its promises but denied making them.” He elaborated, saying that “regarding [money] compensation and other things, benefits were entirely denied.”

Compared to the compensation and relocation scheme for the stadium in Assosa town, the Amba 8 process was more complex. This is because different standards are applied to assess rural and urban lands, and is likely also because Amba 8 is not under the jurisdiction of Assosa’s municipal administration.

While 400 hectares of land were seized, only 200 hectares of urban land were given. Even though the majority of dispossessed farmers actually preferred the urban land granted to them for relocation, many also felt that they needed more than land to make up for a loss of work and income from farming. 

The issue of compensation is complicated by the fact that the area seized includes largely uninhabited land, including thick forests, and grazing land for animals—land that would not be assessed for compensation. According to the land administration proclamation, compensation is only made for houses and for productive trees on a given property, such as fruit species. 

Still, evicted farmers felt slighted and sought justice. According to the administrator, “They tried to bring their case to court, but the government detained their advocate [Belete Abate] for 14 days, and people became so frustrated that they gave up the case.”

Set against each other, the two eviction events are perceived by some as evidence of a discriminatory administration, which appears to show more concern for indigenous people. In a system that should be impartial, non-indigenous residents are left reeling from their losses, in spite of long-term cohabitation.

The controversy over housing and land rights in Assosa does not end there. Under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the federal government initiated a policy of giving land to civil servants who have formed residential house-building associations. This policy was pursued in an effort to alleviate housing problems for civil servants,especially for teachers.

In line with the strategy, land has been distributed to associations of civil servants across the country, including in Assosa town. However, the regional and Assosa municipal cabinets decided not to give land to the teachers’ association formed in Assosa, which is made up mostly by university-level lecturers, most of whom are non-indigenous. 

In an interview with Ethiopia Insight, the leader of the association said that, after frequent complaints from teachers, he and others went to the Assosa mayor and the municipality to ask why teachers had been prohibited from forming associations in order to claim residential houses, and why houses have not been given to teachers in existing housing associations.

He stated: “The office could not give a response and simply stated that they were following the directive issued by the government. We asked them again and again to show the directive which prohibits teachers, but they were unable to produce the document. The same response was given by the regional government, and the issue remains unsolved.”

University teachers in Assosa feel snubbed and question the legality of the decision to leave them out of housing benefits they had been promised—it is a decision which, they believe, is disputable at the very least. Still, they have not even been given a chance to represent and defend themselves legally, and are left entirely unsatisfied with their treatment by officials.

While housing disputes in Assosa may seem somewhat petty, the intercommunal tension over land rights is pronounced. Open conflict in Bambasi Wereda was set off by relocation schemes gone wrong, and this should serve as a warning sign that intensified violence might easily spread if underlying issues are left unaddressed.

Minority privilege

The Bambasi Wereda of Assosa Zone officially has at least 38 kebeles. The wereda is undergoing restructuring so the exact number of kebeles is currently unclear. Indigenous people, especially Berta, and non-indigenous people, especially Amhara, share some kebeles, while some kebeles are more predominantly occupied by one group over the other.

Unlike the indigenous Berta, who have resided in the area for centuries, most Amhara settled in Bambasi, along with many Oromos, during the Derg’s resettlement program in the 1980s. For a long time, Berta accepted the settlers and they have lived together relatively peacefully.

When the country adopted ethno-federalism under the EPRDF, the indigenous Berta of Bambasi, like other minorities across the region, were given special privileges to exercise self-rule.

In Bambasi, this developed a strong sense of injustice among non-indigenous people that, in spite of equal contributions, perceived benefits were being shared unevenly.

In many ways, such beliefs are overblown. The investment, service, trade, and even agricultural sector is, in fact, largely dominated by non-indigenous people in Assosa. Still, real or imagined, dissatisfaction took hold.  

On top of that, residents in Bambasi were frustrated by long-standing maladministration in the wereda.  

Interviews conducted this May and June with Amba 48 Kebele officials in Bambasi by Ethiopia Insight, indicated that a rapidly growing youth population put increased pressure on the kebele administration as they demanded work opportunities, especially in farming. Responding to their complaints, kebele administrators have been submitting letters to the wereda administration for four years, asking for a redistribution of land in their locality.

Disregarding all of the kebele’s letters, in early June 2020, the wereda administration gave the land to Jematse Kebele residents, mostly Berta, who moved into Amhara-dominated Amba 48 to invest. 

The decision, residents told Ethiopia Insight, was undertaken without consultation or consent between local residents and officials.

Upset by the wereda administration’s treatment and decision, groups of Amhara youth reacted by setting fire to structures built by the new arrivals. Regional Special Forces arrived late and responded by indiscriminately arresting youth without proof of their participation in the protests. In subsequent clashes, they opened fire into an angry crowd, killing three. 

This level of violence deterred people from rallying against the Special Forces, and, instead, civilians turned against each other.

In the days which followed, residents told Ethiopia Insight that at least nine people from the Amhara and Berta community were killed, and 81 Amhara were arrested. Some of those who were detained include the kebele head and other officials, and community members who were not at the site of the violence. More than 40 people are currently detained without charge. Relations in the community have soured as a result of such bitter fighting.

There are, of course, competing views about why inter-communal violence has intensified in a district that had been relatively peaceful.

Amhara informants told Ethiopia Insight that for years the wereda administration benefitted themselves and gave one-sided favors to indigenous community members while disregarding others. 

One Berta supporter of the Prosperity Party in Bambasi told Ethiopia Insight that leaders in the Amhara nationalist party NaMA took advantage of youth discontent by spreading victimization ideologies and magnifying frustrations there. He said that NaMA party members were “irresponsible,” and “wrongly directed the younger generation,” by encouraging aggression against non-Amharas and fueling resentment against the indigenous-led administration.

The death and destruction in Bambasi, powered by leaders on either side, should serve as a warning sign that similar dynamics and divisions across the zone may erupt in comparable levels of violence.

Delayed elections

Spiraling conflict in Benishangul-Gumuz led the National Election Board of Ethiopia to declare that elections would not take place in Metekel and Kamashi zones, or in Oda Buldiglu Wereda in Assosa Zone, due to security reasons. 

It remains to be seen whether these two zones and the wereda will be able to participate, now that the region’s election has been rescheduled for 6 September—though the current situation certainly seems far from approaching any peaceful end.

Assosa Zone represents the region’s largest constituency, with 42 of Benishangul-Gumuz State Council’s 100 seats, according to the region’s constitution. The larger but more sparsely populated Metekel and Kamashi zones make up just over half the remaining seats (33 and 20 seats respectively); and Mao Komo Special Wereda takes the final four seats. 

A focus on peace-building in Metekel and Kamashi is essential in order to even establish a regional government, as, without those seats in play on 6 September, less than half the constituencies will have a vote.

At the same time, reducing the conflict in Assosa is equally essential, as it remains the only viable zone currently functioning in the region.

Thus, the need for a solution that will ease growing tensions in Assosa is vital. Strains between cohabiting indigenous and non-indigenous people should be the focus of leaders, who should consider competing concerns around the legality of ownership rights as a central feature fueling inter-communal conflict.

One solution proposed by a PP leader who spoke with Ethiopia Insight in Assosa on 8 June is to establish an organized system of control over land and minerals at the administrative level. Political power-sharing arrangements need to be defined clearly, and formal policies for land ownership must be codified so that the struggle over resource management can be fought fairly, guided by the rule of law, and in the light of day.

Politicians and leaders need to practice more restraint and show greater foresight. They must recognize the damage they do by fueling mob mentalities and radicalizing ethnic violence. Leaders in PP and NaMA across different indigenous-led administrations should work together to find constructive solutions that respond to the residents’ needs for land and housing, safety and protection by the law, and employment and economic opportunity. 

It is also important for leaders to be more transparent in their policies so that rumors and speculations are curbed. Too often, actions are taken without explanation or discussion, leading many to reach their own conclusions. 

Given the mutual animosity and ambivalence prevailing in the region, it should come as no one’s surprise that ethnic divisions are amplified in circumstances where uncertainty, imbalance, and extra-legality abound.

Balancing the interests of the indigenous and non-indigenous residents will be tricky—but it is vital.

Politicians should work with organizations in civil society, community leaders, and activists in order to understand and fairly assess the needs and interests of the disagreeing communities. They must reconcile social divisions and rebuild peace. Here, the need for all-inclusive dialogue is essential.

A solution that allows indigenous groups their constitutional right to self-rule, while also making space for the region’s non-indigenous residents to adequately exercise their social, economic, and political aspirations would mutually benefit both groups. 

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This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP), a series of in-depth reported pieces from across Ethiopia in our ‘Elections 2021’ section that analyzes issues related to this year’s polls.

Main photo: People displaced from Metekel zone in Amhara region’s Chagni town; 2020; BBC.

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About the author

Mistir Sew

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1 Comment

  • Yet another killel created by the fake ethno federalist TPLF. The Benishangul-Gumuz ethnic killel or enclosure is a fake region demarcated and created by TPLF from land stolen from previous provinces and forced up on the Ethiopian people just like “West Tigray” region stolen from Gonder province to make the dreams of Marxist Leninist die hard ideologues pipe dream of making Great Tigray via secession from Mother Ethiopia proper. This ludicrous visions are not even the creation of TPLF feeble minds but the original vision of Mussolini era fascists.

    TPLF is a curse that has befallen Ethiopia. Even the first woyane movement of the 1940s was anti Ethiopian movement by bandas against the government of Ethiopia, through the help of defeated fascists that were being kicked out of Ethiopia. The first woyane movement was refusal to pay taxes to federal government and sabotaging of new reforms for the development of Ethiopia. Everywhere there was and to this day there is a case for the prosperity and advancement of Ethiopia, the badas have always opposed progress, unity and advancement. The bandas vision is always no larger and wider than their tiny village and ethnic group.

    Even in 27 years of rule, while being the judges and executors, with hegemony of all sectors of the economy, the bandas never came to love Ethiopia and Ethiopians even for a second. They do not like even their own common Tigrean kin, keeping them in poverty and food safety one for 30 years plus to this day.

    This is a mental disease, an anomaly and abnormality that must be analyzed, discussed and addresses in the open.

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