The murky politics behind the Metekel massacres

The murky politics behind the Metekel massacres

By Tsegaye Birhanu, December 29, 2020
Metekel massacres
People fleeing the conflict traveled 42 kilometers from Bakuji to Bulen on foot; social media.

Problems caused by underdevelopment and governance failures are being exacerbated by expansionist ideologies and a creaking federal system.

(Ethiopia Insight) — The chaos in Metekel Zone in Benishangul-Gumuz region seems to be spinning out of control. High-ranking officials, including Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed, have visited to assess the chronic violence.

The problems represent a microcosm of national political dynamics and the crisis Ethiopia’s federation has faced in the last few years.

It involves local, regional, national and, possibly, foreign interests, including armed groups using modern firearms. Given that it is a symptom of a broader malaise, blaming the Benishangul-Gumuz government is unfair and misleading—though it must take its share of the responsibility.

Working towards a lasting solution will require dialogue and political attention at the national level. A properly functioning federal system needs democracy and healthy institutions, which barely exist in Ethiopia, and definitely not in Benishangul-Gumuz. Therefore, the process should be handled with appropriate concern for the law and for the constitutional order.

Even with all its defects, the multinational federal system has protected minority rights. This should be built upon, not discarded. Solving the problem in Metekel needs to foreground the protection of group rights, and the federal government should condemn any attempts to forcefully alter the constitutional order.

Any boundary changes or territorial claims—whether by Amhara factions or any other groups—should be made through formal channels with due respect to law and order.

Regional instability

It is tragic to hear about the ethnically targeted killing of innocent people day in and day out in Metekel. Still, the whole region has seen ethnic-based violence since 2018. Previously, Kamashi and Assosa zones also suffered violence.

Conflict in Assosa town between light-skinned people—in this instance, Amhara, Oromo and other highlanders—and the Berta people erupted on 25 June 2018, killing 19. During the Benishangul-Gumuz-Oromia conflict, people were frequently kidnapped and killed. In violence that broke out in September 2018 in Kamashi, more than 100,000 were displaced.

The conflict occurred after the Oromo Liberation Army was accused of kidnapping and killing Gumuz and Berta officials. Retaliatory measures taken by Gumuz people exacerbated the situation. As a result, government offices in the area were closed and Kamashi Zone and Mao-Komo Special Wereda were cut off from Assosa for over six months.

But the current crisis in Metekel is different.

Since September, the zone has been under the stewardship of a federal command post. Still, this could not prevent the death of hundreds of civilians. Military operations can minimize casualties but cannot bring lasting solutions to political disputes. That can only come through dialogue and compromise.

Ethnic cleansing

On 23 December, in a small kebele called Bakuji in Bulen Wereda in Metekel, 207 civilians, including children and pregnant women, were slaughtered. People were burned in their homes, attacked based on their skin colour.

A Gumuz armed group reportedly did the killing, which arguably amounted to ethnic cleansing. It was reported that the victims mostly from the Shinasha ethnicity, one of five so-called “indigenous” groups according to the regional constitution.

Sadly, however, some activists told another story, claiming the victims were Amhara, one of the region’s most-populous groups, albeit categorized as “non-indigenous”.

Many factors cause and exacerbate the multi-faceted violence.

The first is the low level of education and poor infrastructure in the area. The villagization program over the last decade, aimed at grouping scattered populations in order to improve socio-economic services, has not been successful. In theory, the strategy would serve to streamline access to services—including schooling and health care—and would also reduce support for armed militants.

In reality, many people live in very small settlements, in remote rural areas where militia continue to exert substantial influence. Here, armed groups are able to hide and get training out of sight of the government. The regional government should take greater responsibility to provide infrastructure and public services; without fulfilling these basic needs, communities will continue to look elsewhere for a sense of security and control.

Unfortunately, the regional government has also proved to be unprepared to handle the security problems. And the regional administration is, itself, split along ethnic lines, while its police force has proved woefully ineffective.

Political practice

Abiy called regional leaders to Addis Ababa as they failed to agree. This was before the merger with Prosperity Party. The regional government, instead of preventing the violence and opening political space, has engaged in harassing its opponents and externalizing problems, often blaming the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) or local opposition groups, to justify its inaction or incapability.

At this juncture, however, neither the TPLF nor local opposition voices have power. The TPLF was ousted from government in Mekelle last month, while the local opposition in Benishangul-Gumuz has been weakened through intimidation and arrests.

Some senior politicians were forced into exile or to retire at an early age by the regional government’s strategy of tacitly persecuting people with dissenting opinions, even those within the ruling party. For instance, the speaker of the regional council, Muleta Wenber, was forced into exile due to opposing President Ashadli Hassen. Many other leaders, for instance, the former head of the politburo of the regional ruling party, Taye Bule, were made to retire early.

After forming a coalition and gaining support, many leaders and members of Boro-Democratic Party, the Gumuz People Democratic Movement and the Berta People’s Liberation Movement for Peace and Democracy, have been in jail since the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa at the end of June. In keeping with their political practice, regional officials pointed fingers at others rather than making the right reforms, such as releasing those arrested for political reasons.

Land grab

The other important factor is the geopolitical significance and resources of Metekel, which include gold deposits. Had Metekel’s natural resources and fertile land been effectively managed it could have contributed to the wealth of the whole of Ethiopia. The nominally nostalgic move of the Amhara regional government and its social media warriors arguably is driven, in part, by economic considerations.

Metekel Zone was part of Gojjam Kifle Hager before the adoption of multinational federalism in the early 1990s. But this does not mean that Metekel was part of Amhara, as Amhara did not exist. The call to ‘bring back’ Metekel into the Amhara state was propagated in the last three years with the establishment of the Yemetekel Asmelash Committee. It is important to note that this committee was supported by a wide array of Amhara-dominated media outlets, political parties, and social media activists.

Amhara politicians have, unfortunately, been using the cause of Metekel as a unifying factor to galvanize support for their parties at the local level. Whenever their politicians come in front of the media, they have argued for ‘bringing Metekel back’ to their region. Such moves may have contributed to hundreds of Gumuz people in Jawi and Dangur weredas being killed in an ethnically motivated attack by armed groups from Amhara in 2019.

But irredentist beliefs from some Amhara elements should not be viewed as stemming from discrimination and an idea of historic ownership alone; there are strong economic incentives which have also spurred them. Indeed, the resources of the area have not only attracted Amhara nationalist interests, but Sudanese interests as well.

The zone’s long border with Sudan, its fertile land, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and the big rivers flowing in the zone throughout the year increase its political importance.

Federal vacuum

The involvement of Amhara region in the politics of Benishangul-Gumuz has been straining previously cordial relations, replacing them with inter-ethnic rivalry and mistrust among different ethnic groups in the zone. Particularly, the Gumuz, who need special support and minority protection, feel threatened by the Amhara designs on Metekel.

These insecurities have contributed to the Gumuz—the second-most populous “indigenous” group in the region after the Berta—going back to the bush to fight back against all light-skinned people. As a result, the Shinashas, Amhara, Agew, and Oromos, who lived peacefully together for years in the area with Gumuz, have been brutally targeted.

The potential political consequences of this are that disillusioned Shinasha elements try and join Amhara region, which is already being discussed in some quarters. For Benishangul-Gumuz PP, the Shinasha-Gumuz conflict strains the coalition two of their parties formed with a Berta Party, so weakening the ruling party’s competitors in the upcoming delayed elections.

Another factor that contributed to increasing Gumuz militancy has been the failure of the federal government to maintain law and constitutional order at the national level. Questioning Benishangul-Gumuz’s territorial integrity is not only a violation of the regional constitution but also of the federation’s founding document.

The people in the area have therefore been calling for the support of the federal government, while Amhara region threatens to invade the area, nominally to protect Amhara civilians.

Political failure

Sadly, this was the backdrop to the 24 December massacre. This failure of the federal government to respond to the calls of threatened civilians seems to have led Gumuz militants to lose hope and attack civilians.

The conflict is now beyond the scope of the regional government. The upcoming election will not help as many opposition leaders and senior members are in jail. The situation is not conducive for bringing people to the polls and voting. The problem needs another type of political solution.

The regional states should stop their arms race and moves that transgress the jurisdiction of others. Prosperity Party at the national level should bring concerned actors around the table so that they can discuss and collaborate with each other. These talks should openly address the real interests and concerns of all factions—with a focus on defending minority rights within an asymmetrical ethnic environment.

Ethiopia’s federalism is symmetrical. All regional states have equal rights and responsibilities. Thus, their relationship with one another should be based on equality and mutual respect of administrative jurisdiction.

All political claims, including for constitutional reform, should be formal and peaceful. More failures to do this will put Ethiopia’s federal system at risk, further endangering the solidarity of Ethiopia’s communities—and, ultimately, the very survival of the Ethiopian state.


About the author

Tsegaye Birhanu is studying for a Peace and Development Work Masters degree at Linnaeus University in Sweden and is a political science lecturer at Assosa University. He was born in Metekel and worked in Benishangul-Gumuz for almost a decade.

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