Ethiopia: marginalization, anger and protest in South Omo Zone: what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should know

Addis Ababa – Why South Omo Zone is still not in 2018

When journalists, activists and political analysts in the past spoke that the Ethiopian political environment under the leadership of the late Prime Minister Melese Zenwi and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn, fed anger and frustration that bubbled from the bottom up and in a form of violence labeled the government and its hardcore supporters often make such calls as calls for violence. But what started in April-May 2014 and ended in the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on April 2, 2018, is now a defeated story. This season of four years of stubborn protest did not end with Hailemariam's resignation, but rather with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Those who insisted that the regime's oppressive rules and merciless action against critics would not allow protests to force the regime into reform was found to be wrong. In defense of no-sayers it is easy to regard EPRDF as a non-reforming collective; in more than a few times it turned out not to be reformed. And there are many questions about whether the reformed EPRDF is a palace affair or one that has seeped into the smallest units of the administration.

Today, political leaders in the South Omo Zone are following the same old-fashioned way of approaching the decades-old political crisis, the modus operandi that existed before Prime Minister Abiy came to power. Those who warn that protests can get out of hand are accused of inciting violence while ignoring the real demand for basic infrastructures and services. The incumbent leaders have not learned the lesson that when people get frustrated and take over anger, violent protests are inevitable, as the memory of recent history reminds us. Thinking of a party line, labeling dissenting opinions as opposition and giving political appointment on the basis of affiliation rather than merit, and unbridled corruption are still the orders of the day in South Omo.

South Omo Zone is an exciting multi-ethnic zone in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region in Ethiopia with the capital Jinka, located about 750 kilometers from Addis Ababa. Among other things, the zone is known for the peaceful coexistence of 16 different ethnic groups with different cultures and languages. It is also a home for two national parks, the national parks Omo and Mago, which attract tourists from different parts of the world. The mix of agricultural and pastoral economics of South Omo Zone contributes significantly to the national economy of Ethiopia. South Omo is also known for its own brand of coffee that competes nationally with coffee from other parts of the country.

For decades, people in South Omo Zone have had a love-hate relationship with the Ethiopian government or the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF). The EPRDF is perhaps more praised in South Omo than in other parts of Ethiopia for promoting ethnic and cultural egalitarianism and carrying out a number of development projects, including the construction of an asphalt road from Arbaminch to Jinka with a length of about 250 kilometers and recently the construction of Jinka University and Jinka Airport. Although the population of South Omo largely sees a good in the ruling party, there are also times when the relationship has taken a different turn by various actions of the government that have a negative influence on the citizens.

Controversial development projects

A remarkably turbulent relationship between the government and the people in South Omo began with the construction of the Omo river of two dams: Gibe II and Gibe III were completed in 2009 and 2016 respectively. The dams were intended to support large-scale commercial plantations but their effect on the local population was devastating. Pastoralists were forcibly expelled from their land and their livelihood threatened by the leakage of the river water that they massively use for grazing cattle. While the people who rightly felt they were under an existential threat, the projects tried to resist, environmental and human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Watch, joined and condemned, made recommendations and called for immediate action, all without result. Although states, even in Western democracies, are boosting economic growth and environmental problems and the well-being of the local community and tend to tend to be the first, the problem remains the way the local community in South Omo was treated.

The latest development project that remained at the epicenter of the controversy is the continued construction of the infamous Omo-Kuraz Sugar factories. The project required the construction of an asphalt road running from Jinka through vast agricultural areas to the Omo sugar factories (approximately 110-125 kilometers), resulting in expropriation of rural and urban areas without sufficient compensation. It is this series of development projects that are being implemented in complete contempt of the constitutional rights of the people on consultation and compensation that caused the eruption of multiple protests in different parts of South Omo Zone in recent times.

While previous development projects were carried out before the four-year national protests that were largely led by the Oromo and the Amhara peoples, the construction of the sugar factories and the asphalt road takes place after the national protest and coincides with the premiership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is the result of public pressure, and whose four months in power is marked by Ethiopians' feelings more empowered and vocal about their rights. The natural consequence of this is the increased pressure from the people, especially from the periphery of Ethiopia and often outside the media's attention, on the government to pursue more constitutional rights and access to infrastructures. Nevertheless, the improved democratic environment did not improve the acute situation of citizens who lost their property, homes and agricultural land with little or no compensation. It is indeed too early to assess the impact of the reform agenda of the new prime minister not only in peripheral areas, but also in central Ethiopia. But with little or no attention so far to challenge the status quo South Omo Zone, the future does not look reassuring.

Unrivaled urbanization and expropriation without compensation

South Omo Zone is characterized by random implementation of urban development and expropriation. In 2013 South Ari Woreda, one of the huge agricultural Woredas, executed an urbanization plan in the city of Metser, about 27 kilometers from Jinka. The plan led to the forced displacement of residents, mainly farmers, of their land and a massive destruction of property without compensation.

Means indispensable to the livelihood of people such as Avocado, Enset (false banana), banana, korrorima (cardamom), papaya and coffee were tragically destroyed. The event showed not only residents, but also outside, literally in tears. It transformed a pristine green area into a desert until the city is reforested according to the new urban plan. Then land was taken from the farmers and offered for rent at an auction and illegally traded by those charged with the implementation of the urbanization plan at the expense of the citizens. Disappointingly, those involved in the illegal trade in land had no legal consequences and were only transferred to another government office when they were caught committing their crimes.

I took this picture from Metser. It shows the dense mixtures of plants, including coffee, false banana and yam and others. In the area affected by urbanization, everything in the picture was haphazardly cut by a group of people who claimed that they had been assigned by the local government to do the work. Not only are places needed for the road, but the whole city was also subjected to massive deforestation as if someone had decided that the city should start from scratch again.

Citizens who tried to fight back urbanization and expropriation through self-help mechanisms of physical resistance or judicial actions were threatened by the force of the police, some were beaten and imprisoned. Today, due to the construction of the asphalt road, which aims to connect Jinka city to the sugar factories of Omo-Kuraz, the inhabitants of Metser and other affected cities and rural areas who have been displaced from their land and lost their property have recourse to local authorities to compensate for their losses, but the authorities have reluctantly rejected their professions. Those who have their financial means to resort to court actions lose their case on the basis of the technical state of the constitution.

Because the Ethiopian constitution only gives landowners the right to compensation for the country on the land, the government has refused to compensate those whose houses or farms were not affected by the construction of the roads in the strict sense. Government advisers in many cases left a very short distance between the road and houses of citizens. This had exposed some homes to floods and forces homeowners to leave while others live in homes without adequate space between their homes and the way to enable them to live a meaningful life. Consequently, the values ​​of such houses have fallen significantly.

In a society that has been marginalized by the government for the last 27 years and is struggling to get out of poverty, the literal reading of the constitution can easily be abandoned and a more sympathetic interpretation given to the people whose properties are rendered useless due to development projects that have to be compensated for their properties, can be approved. The constitution does not determine the details of the compensation for expropriation. Nor do the expropriation laws provide a precise formula for determining the value of real estate.

Farmers have consistently traveled for miles to file a complaint with the relevant South Ari Woreda administration about the deterioration of their agricultural land adjacent to road construction due to debris caused by heavy digging and the exposure of their land to flooding and soil erosion.

In a typical irony, the government has for years voiced its commitment to work on ensuring food independence and supporting farmers directly the food safety of the people who have supported it unconditionally for about three decades. The affected farmers have neither the technology nor the finances to control floods, erosion and landslides (see images above) that result from the non-methodical and reckless digging of the land adjacent to their agricultural lands, usually located in semi-hilly areas. It is only fair to expect the government to introduce compensatory mechanisms to support the affected farmers.

The demand for infrastructure and the outburst of protests

In most parts of South Omo there is a feeling that the government is marginalizing people with regard to the provision of important infrastructures, mainly electricity, health, education, clean water, telecommunications networks, asphalt roads and banking services. In many cases citizens travel far away to Jinka to gain access to telecommunications, including telephone calls, fax and internet services and especially a hospital. Electricity is absent in many parts of South Ari Woreda.

Cities such as Wubhamer, Maleter, Shamamer, Aydamer, Tembel and others who essentially supply a not insignificant part of the South Omo coffee, cardamom and ginger, have no roads to transport their products to Jinka and have until recently predominantly horses used when the government built a barely operational gravel road that is easily interrupted by rain and without regular transportation service. They also have no electricity or telecommunication services.

In Metser, another city that is crucial to the economy of South Ari Woreda, the people who have been the victims of forced displacement and expropriation in 2013 have asked for clean water, telecommunications and banking services. Recently, they organized peaceful demonstrations to express their frustrations. In essence people in this area drink polluted rivers or spring water, travel kilometers to get access to the most basic services.

On August 15, 2018, the residents of the city of Wubhamer organized a protest that got out of hand and led to the incineration of the municipal office and a police station and several offices of the Kebele administration. The demonstrators also burned two vehicles and a bulldozer. The next day (August 16, 2018), after the arrival of the federal police and national defense forces, as a result of a clash between demonstrators and members of the local security forces serving, a young man named Manalew Yemish was shot and wounded. He was admitted to the hospital of Jinka. An attempt to organize a dialogue between the leaders of the protest and the Zone Administration reportedly failed due to the failure of the head of the Zone Administration, Alemayehu Bawdi, to stand up for the dialogue. The protest originally organized by the youth of the town of Wubhamer is now expanding to other towns and villages, and no meaningful step has been taken by the government to contain it without resorting to violence. and all this happens outside the radar of both regular and social media.

It is unlikely that the situation will diminish in the long run unless people secure government concessions. But there are no media that report these events that threaten the stability of the entire Zone that is considered one of the stable areas. It is understandable that people express their disappointment that the media do not report them and that the challenges they face do not draw the attention of both the regional and federal authorities.

What should Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed do?

The imminent power of Prime Minister Abiy is considered a new beginning for all Ethiopians and South Omo Zone is no exception. His reform agenda and rhetoric of respect for the constitutionally recognized ethical and democratic rights of Ethiopians is a music to the ears of the people of South Omo. For the first time people give their opinion on all policy matters, both online and offline, without the fear of state coercion. But the demand for infrastructure can not be replaced by the exercise of constitutional rights to freedom of expression, assembly and demonstration. The latter are only the means to secure economic benefits and development projects that improve the well-being of citizens.

Prime Minister Abiy should tackle the problem in South Omo as early as possible. Recently, he was quoted as saying that his government will work on the completion of all delayed sugar projects after the next six months. But this can not only be said without taking into account the damage caused by the Omo Kuraz sugar factory to the people of South Omo, who have embraced him with open arms and hope for him. They do not do everything to demand what they earn legitimately. In order for the new Ethiopia to work for everyone, including those who have been marginalized and ignored for several decades, Prime Minister Abiy must take appropriate measures.

Firstly, he must appeal to regional governance for reforms specifically tailored to the South Omo Zone by aligning the policy direction and focus of existing leadership within the zone on his agenda. People openly reject politicians who have been in key positions in the zone, but who are unable to respond to their needs and negotiate with regional and federal authorities on their behalf. They insist on a change of leadership in key positions, as demanding as the government wants to forge a new alliance between the zonal administration and the people. Young people with the required level of education and ability are relegated on the basis of small differences they have with legacy politicians on the direction of the zone and the country. The Prime Minister has a chance for him to bring these useful powers to the table and enable them to work with regular politicians by setting aside their differences.

Secondly, the prime minister should have a detailed policy with regard to land administration in rural areas. In particular, the law on the expropriation of agricultural lands should be reconsidered in order to introduce compensation mechanisms that take into account the local context and the financial capacity of farmers to take into account not only the direct effects of expropriations, but also the incidental effect on their economic life. put.

If the ongoing political crisis in the South Omo Zone is not managed cautiously and quickly, this could lead to more volatility that further destabilizes the region. The time when early warnings can simply be discarded because agitation and instigation have survived their goals through years of protests that have made it possible for us to experience today's changes in Ethiopia. If history is a lesson, the call of the people of South Omo should not remain unheard of. ALS

Asress Adimi Gikay (PhD) is currently a PhD researcher in the field of consumer law, finance and technology at the Sant Anna School of Advanced Studies, Department of Law, Politics and Development, Pisa (Italy).

He tweets @RealAsressGikay. Facebook at

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