A campaign of dehumanisation in Ethiopia

Two weeks ago I wrote about the sad events of the past month in Ethiopia – the violence convulsing some of the cities, and the killing of members of ethnic minority communities in the far southwest of the country, where I have carried out research for several years.

The recent events in South Omo, detailed in a memo by Concerned Scholars for Ethiopia, deserve to be considered in the context of other assaults on local people over the past two decades. For the Bodi (the group that has experienced the majority of killings by state forces) this includes reallocation of land to settlers from outside South Omo, and annexation of land for commercial agriculture projects.

The reallocation of land to settlers began in 2005 when families from the southern highlands were given land in Bodi country by the government as part of a resettlement drive. [1] The annexation of some of the most valuable parts of their territory by state-backed plantations began in 2012. As roads have been built to serve the new plantations and workers’ camps, the Bodi have also experienced an increasing number of injuries and deaths from fast-driving cars and trucks. [2]

On top of this, the damming of the Omo River has prevented the Bodi and their neighbours from practicing flood-retreat farming, their most dependable means of producing staple foods in a semi-arid environment. In 2016, when the reservoir behind the Gibe III dam was filled, the annual flood they depended on ceased. As a result they are now hungrier and more desperate than ever.

It is at this moment that the government has embarked upon a disarmament campaign, accompanied by abuses and killings by the military.

Who is responsible?

Primary responsibility for the cluster of assaults leveled at the people of the Lower Omo rests with the Ethiopian government; that much is clear. Yet to the locals, the government is a remote institution, and how to petition for redress is not clear. From the beginning, the official line was that this was ‘development’; the end of the flood and the establishment of plantations was part of a larger package which locals should accept and to which they must adapt – for their own good.

This self-justifying rhetoric is shared by a broader set of actors – including the Italian engineering firm Salini, which built the dam; the Chinese state bank that provided a critical loan; and Western consultants and donors who gave advice and provided an enabling environment.

All share responsibility.

These institutions are, however, even more remote and hard to influence than the government. So the Bodi and their neighbours have struck out against the most visible and accessible representatives of these projects – the drivers who ply the roads to the plantations, and the migrant workers from the highlands who work there. For example, after a Bodi man was killed by a truck in December 2017, others retaliated by shooting at the vehicle and its passengers, killing at least a dozen people. [3]

A dehumanisation campaign

The response of the local government has been to wage a campaign of retribution, under which soldiers have permission to beat, kill, rape, and plunder. The government has also demanded that communities relinquish their arms en masse. Following the massacres carried out by soldiers in Bodi, multiple, indepenent reports attest that soldiers are forcibly detaining scores of people from the Bodi, Mursi and Suri ethnic groups, subjecting them to beatings and other acts of degradation, and intimidating them into serving as agents in their disarmament campaign.

The policy of forcibly disarming the people of the Lower Omo ignores the fact that firearms are crucial assets. Predation of livestock by hyenas and other wild animals is a constant risk for families who are herding livestock for a living, as is raiding by neighbouring groups, especially at the border with South Sudan. Without firearms, these already vulnerable communities will be less able to defend themselves. As the authors of the memo suggest, “in the absence of proper security provided by the state,” their only recourse will be to seek arms from elsewhere. [4]

When former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced the plans for the sugar plantations in the Lower Omo in 2011, he said, “Even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.”

The goal of development may be desirable, but the means by which it is being pursued – through dispossession and violence – are surely the wrong ones.


[1] Ayke Asfaw, 2005. ‘Challenges and opportunities of ‘Salamago resettlement’. Forum for Social Studies, Addis Ababa.

[2] The Oakland Institute reports that at least 14 people were killed by vehicles in Bodiland since 2012, and many more injured. See ‘How they tricked us’: Living with the Gibe III dam and sugarcane plantations in southwest Ethiopia, 2019: p. 16.

[3] Oakland Institute, 2019: op cit. p. 16.

[4] Concerned Scholars for Ethiopia. Memo on violence in South Omo areas, SNNPRS, Ethiopia: A call for preventive action and rule of law. October 29, 2019: p. 4.

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