Parents of children from Menji primary school help in carrying construction wood for classroom buildings.

Conflict and displacement in Ethiopia: the case of Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State and Konso Zone, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region

Fekadu Adugna, Ketema Debale

Since 2017, Ethiopia has been experiencing internal displacement as a result of violent conflict and natural disasters. The magnitude of these internal displacements is unprecedented in the country’s history. The aim of this study is to investigate the causes of the current conflict in Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State (BGRS) and the Konso Zone, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS) and thereby to examine the short- and long-term humanitarian responses, as well as durable solutions to these crises. The two areas were selected based on the continuing conflict-induced displacement there. The study drew on existing literature, including academic, journalistic, grey literature, and other sources. It also relied on a short period of fieldwork in the two purposively selected study areas – Assosa Zone in BGRS and Konso Zone in SNNPR. In both study sites, in-depth interviews with internally displaced people (IDPs), host community members and experts, focus group discussions (FGDs), informal discussions and observations were used. IDPs and the host community were interviewed in and around camps, urban centres and villages where the two live together. The experts comprised government officials, civil servants, local and international NGOs and UN organisations.

The study found that, while the politicisation of ethnic identity and competition over territory are common in all the regions, there are also features that vary across regions. Territorial claims and counterclaims against a background of intensive politicisation of ethnicity have been the major problems in the conflicts. The magnitude of the contestations, the historical depth of the problem and the kinds of actor involved are crucial. In SNNPRS, the claims and counterclaims have taken the form of demands for ethnic identity recognition and self- administration. This has caused a regional emphasis on the making and unmaking of administrative units. As a result, controversies over administrative units have become essential features of the conflicts in the SNNPRS in general and Konso in particular.

The political factors causing displacement in Konso are of two types. The first is the claim for a separate administrative unit named Gumayde special district by a particular, multi-ethnic group of people. This group was not only disappointed by the sudden decision to dissolve the Segen Area Peoples’ Zone (SAPZ) but also rejected incorporation into Konso Zone. In this cause, claimants for Gumayde have organised their own armed group to attack Konso Zone and those who oppose their demands for an administrative unit. In this way, regardless of their number, the Gumaydes have managed to attack and displace the majority Konso, who oppose their demands. The second factor is the contestation over territory around administrative borders, and displacement of those who are considered ‘outsiders’. Thus the Alle displaced the Konso, whom they accuse of encroaching on their territory. By destroying the latter’s assets, the Alle farmers want to discourage the displaced Konso from returning to their villages. The displacement factors therefore involve not just those in the conflict hotspots, but the political intentions behind the displacement of the minority from the contested territory.

In BGRS, territorial claims have multiple dimensions, ranging from disputes over regional boundaries with neighbouring regional states; competition over land and natural resources within the region; and historical and symbolic contestations over territory and power between

‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ inhabitants of the region. Differences in land use between the Gumuz and non-Gumuz, issues of demography and political representation, memories of historical and structural exclusion of the Gumuz by the non-Gumuz, and the involvement of multiple actors, including groups from Amhara, Oromia and Tigray, have complicated the problem. The conflict in BGRS may also have attracted ‘hidden’ foreign actors thanks to controversy over the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile. These foreign actors are allegedly supporting the primary actors (indigenous inhabitants) in the conflict.

As a result of these multiple conflicts, the past five years have seen the highest ever number of internal displacements, in a magnitude unprecedented in the history of each region and the country at large. In BGRS, for example, close to half a million people – about half the region’s population – have been displaced. Geographically, all three zones of the region and 17 out of 23 districts (comprising 71% of the region’s districts), have been affected by conflict and displacement. Beyond the figure for IDPs, the displacement situation in BGRS is complex and requires a very focused response. The complexity primarily lies in the diversity of the IDPs in terms of their ethnic identity and their place of origin. They come from many different backgrounds – most are from Amhara, Gumuz and Oromia. While the majority have been displaced from and hosted within the region, a significant number have fled to the neighbouring Amhara and Oromia regional states. In Konso Zone, where three out of four woredas (districts) have been affected by displacement, a third of its population has been displaced in the past two years. In contrast to BGRS, the IDPs and the host community in Konso Zone share ethnic, clan and linguistic commonality. They also share a belief that the conflict that displaced the IDPs was between the Konso and ethnic ‘Others’. In fact, regardless of the practical difficulty they face, the host communities have not only been sympathetic to the IDPs but also very emotional about the problems they are facing.

The conflicts and displacements have caused the loss of many lives, disruption to livelihoods for millions of IDPs and host community members, and tremendous infrastructural damage; many IDPs complain that they do not get sufficient food from humanitarian organisations. They live in a situation of limbo – livelihood insecurity and uncertainty about the next steps in their lives, including where and whether to return, as they are considered ‘outsiders’ in the places from which they have been displaced. The resources of the host communities have been exhausted in the process of supporting the IDPs. In BGRS the host community complained that competition over scarce resources, including daily wage labour, has been affecting their lives and the relationship between the IDPs and host community is deteriorating.

In BGRS, the non-Gumuz displaced population fled to towns and communal spaces such as schools, kebele (ward) offices, clinics and so on, while many IDPs belonging to the Gumuz community fled to the bush and are staying in remote, inaccessible rural areas,1 demonstrating the difference between the historically marginalised Gumuz and the ‘settlers’ in terms of their relationship with the state. For the Gumuz, regardless of the political changes in the post-1991 era, the towns and communal places are still dominated by ‘non-indigenous’ groups who enjoy better access to media. This has caused an imbalance in the coverage of the displacement situation in the region, with the displacement of the Gumuz far less covered. In the case of Konso, however, the population is facing the interlinked, trifurcated problems of conflict, displacement and drought. Most of the IDPs have lost all their assets: their houses were burnt down and their livestock either stolen, dead from drought and starvation or sold as the households struggled for survival.

Ethiopia formulated a national policy and strategy for disaster risk management in 2013 and the Ethiopian Disaster Risk Management Commission (DRMC) is now entrusted with the responsibility for coordinating issues of risk and emergency response to disasters and recovery. This does not cover matters related to conflict, however. The Commission has been working as a focal point to coordinate protection and assistance at the national level with other government bodies and international donors of humanitarian assistance and with regional focal points. Ethiopia ratified the African Union (AU) Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (also called the Kampala Convention, KC), in 2020 amid the ongoing massive internal displacement in the country. This has been widely acknowledged as a significant achievement for Ethiopia. However, there are two interrelated problems. The first is that no specific legal framework explicitly governing all types of IDPs has been formulated as a result of and following the ratification of the KC. Ethiopia follows a federal system of governance, with multilevel authorities responsible for handling IDP issues. However, there is no clear legal framework imposing a responsibility to protect and assist IDPs on the Regional States and local governments: the latter two being situated closer to the IDPs, they would be able to provide better service. Second, Ethiopia’s existing policy and strategy documents focus on disaster risk management, which tends to cover the natural-disaster factors of displacement rather than human-made or conflict-induced displacements. Hence, an intervention is needed to urge the Ethiopian government to formulate comprehensive policy and strategy documents indicating how the multilevel government structures should work with the concerned national and international organisations.

Moreover, Ethiopia has also established an Inter-Ministerial Taskforce (IMTF), part of the Ministry of Justice, led by the Ministry of Peace. The Taskforce is comprised of different ministries, including those of Peace, Health, Water, Energy & Irrigation, Education, Agriculture and Transport, and of the Attorney General and the Disaster Risk Management Commission (DRMC). The Taskforce has a mandate not only to evaluate the situation of IDPs and to find ways to return displaced people to their places of origin but also to ensure sustainable peace for returnees with the relevant regional states, and with other national and international humanitarian assistance agencies. The regional DRMC both in BGRS and the SNNPRS has created councils, and technical and working groups for dealing with IDP issues in the regions. The councils run meetings with high-level executives and partners, chaired by the presidents of the regions. In Konso, the zonal DRM office based in the Bureau of Agriculture is more engaged than the regional one in actively working with different government sectors and humanitarian organisations.

Currently, there are several UN bodies, international NGOs (INGOs) and local NGOs based in Assosa, the capital of BGRS, and Karat, the capital of Konso Zone, engaging in emergency humanitarian activities. Nonetheless, the response to IDPs in both states i]has not been enough for two reasons: 1) resource constraints, since the IDP problems are spread across the country and resources are over–stretched; and 2) access constraints, ie even with the resources available, insecurity causes problems in accessing certain areas. A good example in this regard is Kamashi Zone in BGRS, which has been inaccessible to humanitarian organisations.

The study found that the overwhelming majority of IDPs would opt for safe and voluntary return to their place of origin. However, returning IDPs and measures for durable solutions are contingent upon several other factors, the most important being an end to the violent conflict that displaced them. So far, in both BGRS and Konso Zone, the return of IDPs has produced a terrible outcome. In Konso, for example, two rounds have been tried, with big investments in rebuilding people’s livelihoods. The return was voluntary, and both the government and humanitarian organisations had supported the process through rebuilding individual households and public infrastructure. However, on both occasions, the return took place without ensuring peace and security in the areas whence people had been displaced; each time, they were entirely displaced following the outbreak of another round of conflict, causing another round of life and economic costs. Something similar happened in Sedal woreda in Kamashi Zone. In Metekel, since July 2022 progress has been reported, with the return of many thousands of IDPs following local reconciliation processes between the Gumuz and the settler communities. However, this reconciliation has not included the armed groups operating in the region and, with the resumption of the war in Tigray towards the end of August 2022, there were reports of frustration among the returnees. In other words, pursuant to Article 11 of the Kampala Convention on satisfactory conditions for voluntary return, the state organs have barely supported IDPs in making a free and informed choice on whether to return or not, based on a sufficient assessment of the situation.

Thus, taking account of these findings, this small study recommends a retargeting or designing of displacement impact-oriented multi-sectoral programmes and projects in both IDP hosting areas and people’s places of origin. These should include reconciliation, livelihood support, reconstruction of shelters and public infrastructure, rehabilitation, psychosocial support, continuous dialogue, and peace education, as well as the development of clear legal and institutional frameworks for finding durable solutions to internal displacement. The areas of intervention for the relevant bodies in general and the EU in particular are summarised as follows.

  • Support the development of clear policy, law and institutional frameworks at the national and local levels for bringing durable solutions to conflict and displacement.
  • Support conflict resolution and peace-building efforts.
  • Provide mental health and psychosocial support to IDPs and IDP hosting/return areas.
  • Extend livelihood support to restore productivity.
  • Reconstruct shelters, public services and basic infrastructure.
  • Give priority to women, children, disabled persons and other vulnerable groups in emergency and rehabilitation.
  • Target young people in peace building and reconstruction of regions affected by conflict and displacement.

You will need a PDF reader such as Adobe Acrobat (downloadable from Adobe) to view PDF file(s).

Image source: (C) UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Tadesse

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *