Despite the ongoing mass ethnic-related killings in Metekel zone by an armed group of Gumuz men and army of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF Shene), the Gumuz trace their origin to a common ancestor with the fair skinned highlanders. A study by Wondim Tiruneh entitled “The Socio-Cultural History, the Economic and Political Development of the Minority Society: The Case of Benishangul Gumuz (1991-2018)” narrates the following tale by Gumuz elders:
Once up on a time, twin sons were said to have been born from a mother. One of the twin sons was black skinned (Gumuz) and the other was fair colored (non-Gumuz High Lander). They both grew up and matured, and then contested for power in the absence of a local assembly. At first; they both were given a horse for galloping. But the Gumuz fell down, while the highlander galloped well. Then they were offered to choose from bow and arrow on the one hand and spear and shield on the other. Then the Gumuz took the former and the non-Gumuz took the latter. Gradually, they were also made to choose from Inga (the Gumuz term for porridge) and Injera, where the Gumuz favored the former while the highlander favored the latter. Later they were asked to settle either to the right (in the Central highlands of Ethiopia) or to the left (towards the low lands of the periphery). From these two alternatives, the non-Gumuz chose to settle to the right in the central highlands and the Gumuz chose to settle to the left towards the periphery.
This Gumuz tale is a clear indication of the fact that they consider other ethnic groups living beside them as their brothers, whom they had bumpy relations with. The study also indicates that the Gumuz have developed ‘wonderful conflict management strategies and institutions’ that help patch up squabbles with other ethnic groups such as the Agew, Amhara, Oromo and Shinasha.
Even when the Derge regime resettled people from Wollo, Shoa and Tigray in Pawe and Beles in 1984-85 in areas that were originally settled by the Gumuz, indicates a research by Bogale Aligaiz, the impending clashes between the two groups were settled through a conflict resolution scheme known as Wodaje.
However, the situation has changed for worse ever since the new administration led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power. There were sustained reports of ‘clashes’ between the Gumuz and the fair skinned highlanders throughout the nearly three years of Abiy’s tenure. Especially over the past six months, a strong armed group of Gumuz rebels has roamed Metekel killing people, setting their houses on fire and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. These killings have grown to claim the lives of over a hundred people in just one attack and their frequency has also become a national concern.
The stories coming out of Metekel have become too gruesome for people to even understand and believe. M, an informant represented by their initial, is resident of Bulen city. M has been involved in the mass burials of victims of the deadly attacks by the Gumuz attackers. M told The Reporter about the inhumane nature of the attacks and the inconceivable acts being committed in the zone. Dirirsa Mekonnen’s fate can be used to capture the unearthly conditions residents of the zone have been forced to live in.
Dirirsa Mekonnen, a father, lived in Aygali kebele of Metekel zone. On November 17, 2020, a group of Gumuz armed men barged into his house while he was with five members of his family and killed him in front of them. Then the armed men took his liver out and instructed his eldest adolescent son, Asmamaw Dirirsa, to eat it. He bit the armed man’s hand in refusal and was immediately stabbed to death in retaliation by the armed man. The armed men took the rest of the members of Girirsa’s family.
In Bekuji, other accounts of M indicate, the body of a priest named Tadesse was found with his tongue and liver missing. In addition, he went on, the bodies of two women in Komanj were found with their liver and kidney missing.
Such attacks are not isolated incidents targeting a single person or family but a mass killing of people based on their ethnic identities, M explains. Media reports also indicate that a number of such attacks have taken place in different areas of Metekel zone. Although it may not be exhaustive, some of the major attacks over the past five months as reported by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council include:
Sept 4-7, 2020
Reports by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council indicate that an armed group had committed a heinous human rights violation using bow, knives and weapons against innocent civilians during the specified time in Guba, Debati, Bulen and Wenbera districts of Metekel zone. A group of armed Gumuz men killed reportedly 111 people in Apar, according to our informant M on Sept 7, 2020.
Sept 24, 2020
On Sept 24, 2020, EHRCO reported another attack claimed the lives of many innocent civilians and inflicted injury in Dangur district, Bengez kebele of Metekel zone. Addis Standard reported that more than 20 people lost their lives.
Nov 14, 2020
EHRCO reported a gruesome attack on a passenger bus heading from Wonbera to Chagni had claimed the lives of more than 38 civilians. M stated that the attack happened at a place called Qido and put the total number of the deceased at 59.
Dec 22, 2020
EHRCO reported that the attacks in Bulen woreda, Bekuji kebele of Metekel zone resulted in the deaths of more than 100 innocent civilians, including women and children. The attacks came a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) visited the area and deliberated on ways of addressing the issue with local officials.
Jan 3, 2021
EHRCO reported that a bus traveling from Chagni to Gilgel Beles was stopped by an armed group and at least one man was killed while two others were injured.
Jan 10-11, 2021
EHRCO reported the killing of more than 50 people and burning down of homes by the attack of an armed group in Bulen and Guba districts, Omedla and Ainshems kebeles of Metekel zone.
Jan 12, 2021
In another attack reported by EHRCO, more than 100 civilians were killed and more than 80 thousand were displaced in Galisa town.
As the above facts indicate, the current situation has rendered the ages old traditional conflict management strategies and institutions between the Gumuz and other ethnic groups in Metekel zone useless. In explaining the causes that led to such disastrous effect, Dagnachew Ayenew explains in his research entitled “Relative deprivation: An explanation to inter-ethnic conflict in Metekel Zone, North Western Ethiopia, since 1991” that the patron-client relations between the Gumuz and the highlanders might have something to do with it. He argues that the dichotomization rather than integration of the two groups that are comparable with the Tutsi-Hutu relations can be taken as the cause of inter-ethnic conflicts.
Dagnachew further explains that local Agew chiefs were empowered during the imperial regime citing Agew governor Zeleke Liqu (1905-35) was assigned by Ras Hailu of Gojjam (son of Tekle Haymanot) to monitor areas of Tumha, Balaya and Dangur until the Italian invasion. The research further asserts that the role of local Agew chiefs was unchanged until the ascendance to power of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Through the EPRDF’s ethnic federalism model, the research goes on to state, the Gumuz have been empowered to assume political power although that has not attained economic dimensions.
The Reporter’s informant, M, remarked that Gumuz elite spread a propaganda message that led other members of the ethnic group believe that Abiy’s administration would strip them off the political power they gained during the EPRDF. According to M, the Gumuz rebels are alarmed that they are going to lose their power, land and benefits.
Article 2 of the revised constitution of the Benishangul Gumuz region of 2003 clearly recognizing Berta, Gumuz, Shinasha, Mao and Komo as the ‘owners’ of the region, effectively marginalizing other ethnic groups such as the Agew, Amhara and Oromo that make up the majority of the region’s population. After seventeen years of life under such legal grounds, chants calling for other ethnic groups to move out of the region show how far the provisions have been internalized by the Gumuz rebels.
As Dagnachew’s research argues, “The federal restructuring of Ethiopia, even if it was aimed at finding a resolution to ethnic conflicts, led to the changing arenas of conflicts by decentralising them and also generated new localised interethnic conflicts.”
M raises the interests of the neighboring Amhara and Oromia regions as a contributing factor to the ongoing onslaught of innocent civilians in the region. The informant pointed out that the sparsely populated, fertile and mineral rich lands of Benishangul Gumuz region are covertly contested by the Amhara and Oromia regions.
Eliab Tilahun, Program Officer at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), raised internal and external factors as contributing to the intensification of the attacks in recent months. Internally, he raised support from the recently dismantled Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a major factor along with issues related with the formation of the region. Externally, he pointed out the interests of Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Eliab further noted that the transformation of weapons used in the attacks from traditional weaponry such as bow and arrow to small arms indicates the presence of internal groups that work in coordination with external actors to arm the attacking group.
Towards controlling the ongoing onslaught, Eliab called for improved border control to manage the trafficking of small arms and light weapons, money laundering controlling schemes to be on top of illegal financing of such efforts and better commitment from the government to resolve the issue. He questioned whether it would be plausible for a government that dismantled TPLF’s military prowess in a short time to have a hard time putting a significantly weaker armed group under control.
As the killings and displacement of innocent civilians continues, the government has recently declared a state of emergency and deployed the armed forces to control the region. The killings have lingered despite the measure as people are still under the threat of attack in the region. The Reporter’s informant, M, stated that the threat is still there.
M is, however, adamant that military measures against the armed group are the only immediate hope for the ethnic groups under attack. Citing a recent military operation conducted by the national defense forces that saw the killing of over 27 members of the armed group, M notes that targets of such attacks have taken a sigh of relief as the armed groups have retreated to a place called Guch Dukri that is 20kms away from Bekuji kebele. M called for such measures to be sustained in other places as well.
Although it may take quite a long time before the conflict management strategies and institutions that were in place could be reused once again in Metekel zone, the government needs to take bold measures to stop the killing and displacement of innocent civilians.