The political developments in Ethiopia over the past three years, since PM Abiy Ahmed came to power, have descended the country into an all-out war in the North. Another case in point set to pose such a challenge is the Benshangul Gumuz regional state’s security situation which is claiming civilian lives every day.
Two zones of the Benshangul Gumuz region, Kamashi and Metekel, did not hold elections on July 21, 2021, when the majority of constituencies in the country went to the polls to elect their representatives. While security problems and pending court cases forced other regions to postpone the elections, the two zones did not elect their representatives solely because of the recurrent conflicts and attacks on civilians who fled their villages in hundreds of thousands.
Now, when the rest of the constituencies that did not vote on July 21, 2021 go to the polls on September 30, 2021, these two regions will once again not have the chance to vote. However, the regional government and the command post in the region insist on their capability to conduct the elections.
Opposition political parties in the region are demanding an overhaul of the regional administration so that a transitional government is set to address the “political inefficiencies of the regional administration.”
Mebratu Alemu (PhD), Public Relations Head of the Boro Democratic Party, argues the regional government does not have any constitutional and legal grounds to rule after October 4, 2021. Reminding that the constitutional amendment in 2020 extended the elections by one year and the rest of the constituencies in the country have voted their representatives, administrators in Benshangul would not have any legal mandate to extend their power beyond this period as stipulated by the House of the Federation and the House of Peoples’ Representatives.
Leading to this constitutional crisis is a recurrent attack by armed insurgents in the country both the regional and federal government failed to subdue. It was in June 2020 that the government set up a command post headed by Asrat Denero (Maj. Gen.), then head of Defense Intelligence and now in charge of infantry, and Tesfaye Beljige, Coordinating Minister for Democratic Building, in the region. But residents still cry foul play and complain about the ineffectiveness of the operations under the command post.
A resident of Assosa town, the regional seat, who spoke to The Reporter on condition of anonymity, says every week, sometimes every day, there is news of people dying from attacks by armed insurgents, especially in Kamashi and Metekel zones. The informant stated that the attacks most of the time claim lives of forces deployed to protect the civilians. Thousands displaced as a result have not yet returned to their residents.
“There was an attack on Tuesday against civilians and special forces newly deployed in the region sustained injuries,” he said.
In a recent move to reinforce the regional security forces, special forces from the Amhara, Sidama and South regions have joined the National Defense Forces, the Federal Police, and the regional security forces to fight against insurgents.
This decision comes months after the late Commissioner of the Amhara Police Commission Abere Adamu’s denouncement of the federal government’s failure to defend the lives of civilians in the Benshangul Gumuz region. He said the attacks targeted Amharas residing in the region. He even offered to send in regional forces to decimate these insurgents.
These insurgents that go by the name Gumuz Armed Forces have been fighting against government forces for political and economic reasons. But the regional government has repeatedly been characterizing these armed forces as trojan horses used by other political interests such as the TPLF.
In his New Year wishes, for instance, the regional President Ashadli Hassan, said “In the Benshangul Gumuz region, especially in the Kamashi and Metekel zones, because of ill intentioned acts by forces allied with the terrorist TPLF, many people have lost their lives, sustained injuries, lost properties and were displaced from their villages,” he said.
Although the regional government partnered with the federal government to resolve the security challenges of the region, the problem was complicated because “the forces of destruction work to attain the agenda of foreign forces.”
Nonetheless, the regional Prosperity Party officials had taken responsibility for the prolonged attacks on civilians that disrupted the whole life of residents in two of the three zones of the region. Some regional officials suspected of having roles in the attacks were also detained for investigation. However, the attacks have never stopped; neither have the captured insurgents been brought to justice.
Apart from the armed insurgents reportedly killed by government force operations, many were also said to have been captured, go through rehabilitation programs and get released.
The government also signed an agreement with forces in the region, gave them leadership positions at the woreda and zonal levels, and provided urban land and farm land for members of the armed group in a bid to convince them lay down their arms and pursue peaceful life. This also included credit facilities for these members of the insurgencies. However, these efforts never bore fruit and could not stop the killing of civilians.
“This agreement and reconciliation was not made with the main forces of insurgency but with people with no relevance to the peace process,” argues the Public Relations Head of Boro Democratic Party, Mebratu (PhD). “Those who went through rehabilitation were released with their arms and they returned to the insurgency.”
In December 2020, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that 207 civilians had been killed in the Metekel Zone, Bulen Woreda of the region. According to the EHRC report, 133 of these victims were adult men, and 35 adult women.
“Seventeen children, one of whom a six-month-old baby, and 20 elderly persons were killed,” the Commission highlighted.
This led to the displacement of more than 500 people at the time from Bulen woreda, and more than 10,000 fled the attack sites on foot.
“The attack in Bulen Woreda’s Bekuji Kebele is a sign of a severe decline of human rights protections in the region,” characterized the EHRC.
On another instance, the Commission reported attacks in the Sedal Wereda, in Kamashi zone of Benishangul Gumuz regional state, where around 25, 000 people were estimated to reside. But the regional government denounced and denied these reports saying they were not balanced without providing its side of the facts.
The command post that was set up for just one month has been there for more than a year now and the existing as well as new deployments to the region are not showing results. Hence, the government needs to assess the drawbacks and provide lasting solutions, says Mebratu (PhD).
“We are preparing to request the Prime Minister’s Office, the House of the Federation and the Ministry of Peace for the establishment of an interim administration,” Mebratu stated.
According to him, the political leadership marred with corruption and inefficiency could not resolve the worsening political and security crises the region is witnessing. He wonders when the region would gain control over eight woredas in Dibate, and seven woredas in Metekel where the insurgents have taken control months ago. In addition, he is concerned of the internally displaced people in thousands which the regional government claims to have restored to their residents. However, he observes these IDPs were moved from one camp to another.
“Unless there is a total reform in the region, the crisis and suffering will continue. The region shares more than 900 km border with Sudan, most of which is an open passage allowing easy movement for insurgents. We have informed this to the Ministry of Peace, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the National Election Board of Ethiopia, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Joint Council of Political Parties,” he said.
He is of the view that the deployment of the special forces would not bring any solution to the security chokehold the insurgents inflicted in the region as the forces deployed were stationed in urban areas.
In addition, because of reported inflow of forces from Sudan to the country to join the Tigray war, the security situation in the Benshangul Gumuz region is getting complicated from time to time. Although the newly deployed regional special forces from Sidama, South and Amhara regions were intended to fend of these forces entering the country to join the TPLF forces, the existing security threats will prove to be hindrances to their activities.
Although the government deployed more forces to the region and the command post in the region promised a more stable region than the previous Ethiopian year, hopes are low that the security situation would improve given the unruly insurgents roaming across the region. This, linked with the war in Tigray as well as the Oromo Liberation Army’s expansions in many parts of Oromia, is stretching the country’s security forces making it difficult to arrest the growing security challenges exploding here and there.
The Reporter’s efforts to get responses from the regional government as well as the command post did not succeed as the officials contacted said they are in a meeting.