The de facto criminalization of identity in the zone is a challenge to lasting peace.
The Aari people, as the most populous group in South Omo, have been leading an agenda for the zone to become a regional state for some time now. As this was essentially opposed by the federal and regional governments, making it politically impractical despite unrestricted constitutional self-determination rights, they instead made a demand for the four Aari weredas to become a zone.
Although the demand is contentious, the Aari leaders at the forefront of this movement believe that the proposed restructuring is a partial answer to the community’s socio-economic and developmental challenges, as it will give them control over the budget received from the Southern Nations regional government.
The advantage of regional status for South Omo would have been receiving a budget directly from the federal government, managing resources locally, and delivering administrative services in South Omo rather than requiring a trip to Hawassa.
On 10 April, political unrest related to the self-rule request led to a tragic loss of life and property. Over 150 homes were destroyed by fire, while around 1,000 people were displaced, including women, children, and the elderly. While this initial violence caused no deaths, security forces later reportedly killed five Aari youth.
The conflict has impacted various towns in South Omo, including Gazer, Metser, Shishire, and Tolta. The concerted efforts of local, regional, and federal security forces brought the unrest under control, with no further communal violence occurring since. Stakeholders, including the zonal administration, are working to restore lasting peace while raising funds to support victims.
The vast majority of Aari people, including influential elders, traditional figures, community leaders, and intellectuals, condemned the violence, which was perpetrated by segments of the Aari youth who twisted a legitimate political cause to commit arson, loot, and disturb the peace. Since, the Aari community has mostly been collaborating with security forces to bring the offenders to justice.
Yet rather than focusing on administering justice and fostering reconciliation, members of the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Southern Nations Special Police have also been perpetrating grave human rights violations.
The scale of the abuses and the continued presence of a military command post in South Omo—where no further communal violence is expected due to the widespread condemnation by the community—raises questions about the intentions of the security forces and their backers.
The crimes perpetrated by a segment of Aari youth do not represent who the Aari people are. The Aari generally live in harmony with the more than sixteen other ethnic groups living in South Omo, due in part to the Aari people’s commitment to diversity, peace, and stability.
But, it seems that certain elements who identify as non-Aari are using the unrest as a pretext to subjugate and disenfranchise the Aari people and so prevent them from organizing political institutions of their choice in a constitutional manner.
Media platforms that stir up artificial divisions between urban and rural residents are serving as a tool to tarnish the image of Aari community leaders and intellectuals, while peace-loving and hardworking individuals are harassed at the workplace due to their identity.
There is a widespread campaign involving accusations of crimes without evidence against any Aari who is widely perceived to be an important member of the society. Hundreds of Aari youth, including business owners, school teachers, university students, and lecturers, have been arrested for no justifiable reason based on the suggestion they were directly or indirectly involved in the violence.
These arrests usually came after social media outlets focused on South Omo published photos of individuals considered to be important in the Aari community and recommended that they be arrested. Some on social media seem to consider wearing traditional Aari dress and advocating peacefully for an Aari Zone as evidence of criminality.
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Prominent Aari personalities, including former President of Jinka University, Professor Gebre Yntiso Deko, who has made immeasurable contributions to development in South Omo, have been subjected to concerted defamation campaigns by platforms such as Ethio Mereja, Ethio Omo, and others that have a large local following.
The renowned Aari singer Tariku Gankisi, commonly known as Dishta Gina, has also been torn apart by attacks against his reputation as he was labelled an organiser of the violence. Dishta Gina is a song about the Aari New Year festival that has a message of unity, peace, love, and tolerance.
It was remixed by Senegalese-American singer Akon, including the powerful line, “let’s fight together, and not each other”. Tariku is also famous for speaking against the war in Tigray in a concert organised by the Ethiopian government on 7 November to rally support for the military.
Such platforms sometimes publish fabricated information that seems designed to persecute the Aari and undermine their political struggle. The peaceful majority is then unjustly assessed as being guilty by association. The strategy appears designed to disenfranchise over 400,000 people by silencing their leaders.
Despite the absence of any violence or threat of violence since the incident first occurred, security forces from the command post continue to arbitrarily detain Aari youth, subjecting them to beatings and torture.
Over 800 people have been arrested so far in relation to the unrest, most having no direct or even indirect links to the crimes. Several Aari youth have been killed under circumstances where the use of lethal force was unjustified and unnecessary.
On 28 April, representatives from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission visited some of those under police custody and hospitalized due to injuries from gunshots and beatings by security forces. The commission is expected to release a report in due course.
A staggering number of individuals have been tortured through beatings and being stabbed by sharp ended guns. I verified that some have suffered permanent injuries to vital organs, such as their kidneys and bladder, and cannot urinate without medically administered tubes. Others have suffered serious head trauma and have been bleeding from their ears for days.
Security forces neutralized the political unrest, violence, and any threat in a few days with the support of Aari community leaders. The fact that they are still engaging in horrific violation of human rights indicates a concerted effort to disenfranchise and subdue the Aari.
Besides being unconstitutional and unacceptable, this will create further tensions between communities in the zone.
Shockingly, those visibly injured in hospitals are only part of the story. Others have been tortured in police stations and transferred to prisons, where information about their condition is unattainable. Many youths who have nothing to do with the violence are hunted down, beaten, and tortured, as I verified during a recent visit to the zone.
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As an Aari, I have condemned the arson, looting, and breach of the peace. I have visited victims in my hometown, Metser, who are temporarily sheltered in a church. In addition to providing material support, it is also my moral obligation to condemn the human rights abuses inflicted against people by federal and regional security forces.
The level of brutality and the continued use of force against peaceful citizens suggests that those backing the security forces are committed to taking vengeance against the population at large and are sending the message that even raising political questions in a peaceful manner will have severe consequences.
Peace and stability
Ethiopia is known for its diversity of ethnicity, language, and culture. While this diversity has posed a significant challenge to the country’s peace and stability due to repeated identity-based conflicts, there are a few areas—such as South Omo Zone—where diverse peoples co-exist peacefully.
Over the years, while many parts of Ethiopia have witnessed identity-based political conflict, South Omo has been largely immune to them, although it does experine resource-driven violence. The Aari people, being the ethnic majority in the zone, play a significant role in maintaining this tranquillity.
Those who come from the zone live by the motto, “wherever you are born, be raised in South Omo.” This self-praising phrase reflects a cultural exceptionalism in the zone that allows anyone to quickly mingle and live in harmony with others.
The incident that took place on 10 April is therefore at odds with the longstanding culture and tradition of the Aari people and those of South Omo. Recognizing this, many influential figures—such as the head of the zonal administration, Nigatu Dansa—appealed to various stakeholders, including the federal and regional governments, local communities, and diaspora, to do their part in providing support to the victims and restoring calm.
Reconciliation and peace processes should be all-inclusive. Equally important, the current tactics of radical divisive groups who use social media to exclude and silence the Aari must cease.
Lasting harmony cannot be delivered only by bringing perpetrators to justice and upholding the rule of law. Post-conflict law-enforcement activities by the government and any actions taken by individuals or communities should focus on ensuring continued co-existence.
Besides prosecutions, it is important to address the root causes and focus on ways to live together and prosper. If reconciliation and dialogue efforts are not genuine, transparent, fair, and inclusive, the socio-political tensions in society will only be suppressed temporarily.
Currently, the situation in South Omo is set to create more injustice and strife rather than pave the way for reconciliation. The horrific human rights abuses by security forces, the arbitrary arrest of Aaris, defamation campaigns against prominent community members depicting the Aari as extremist and racist, and the intimidation of people who have peacefully exercised their constitutional rights serve no purpose.
Appeal to authority
Violence begets violence and breeds hatred. The solution to the challenges in South Omo is all-inclusive dialogue and reconciliation. To achieve sustainable peace and stability, the following six essential measures should be adopted. The federal government, including the Office of the Prime Minister, should play an active role in coordinating these measures.
- First, the military command post must be terminated, as it has achieved its purpose and is no longer needed. The command post played a vital role in suppressing violence and protecting the community. Having completed its mission, it has been engaging in human rights abuses that have a detrimental effect on peace and social cohesion.
- Second, all stakeholders should refrain from stirring hate and division. Those who have good intentions for the people of South Omo should build bridges between various communities rather than destroying them. The deliberate online tarnishing of the reputation of individuals who have made a significant contribution to community development should be condemned and rejected by society because, as it currently stands, individuals who could play a constructive role in reconciliation are being excluded.
- Third, ethnic-based hate speech and provocation must be rejected by society and the government should organize an awareness campaign to this end. The government should get involved to ensure that toxic actors are revealed and their campaign of disinformation and defamation is exposed.
- Fourth, the tendency to exclude the Aari community from the peace process by systematically arresting their educated and influential leaders should end immediately.
- Fifth, the government should create a platform for urgent all-inclusive, transparent, and genuine dialogue.
- Sixth, all perpetrators of the crimes still at large should be brought to justice in a collaborative effort by the community and all of the stakeholders.
Worryingly, the challenges in South Omo are relatively insignificant compared to those in many other parts of Ethiopia. Perpetual violence is unlikely as the community has stood together, both now and in the past, to reject inter-communal conflict. But if the federal and regional governments do not make the right decisions swiftly, taking into consideration the realities in the zone, South Omo may prove to be yet another hotspot for unrest and instability in Ethiopia.
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Main photo: Image of South Omo homes destroyed by arson and victims at a school in Tolta.
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