‘Killing without any reason’: Deaths in rural Ethiopia spark outcry

 

 

For decades, herders in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley have relied on guns to fend off rivals as well as hyenas and lions roaming the forests and plains.

But over the past month, security forces have embarked on a campaign of forced disarmament that pastoralist leaders say has been accompanied by shooting of civilians, mass detentions and beatings.

Witness accounts from the Lower Omo Valley bolster critics who contend that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — named the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize — is presiding over a deteriorating security situation, worsened by the actions of the military and police.

The violence is unfolding ahead of elections next year in one of the country’s most volatile and ethnically diverse areas: the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region.

Elders from the Bodi community, the main group earmarked for disarmament in the Lower Omo Valley, told AFP nearly 40 people had been killed as of mid-October but the toll could be far higher.


Officials deny this account and defend the disarmament campaign as crucial for peace in this sensitive region.

“They are killing without any reason,” said Shegedin, a Bodi elder who was detained for several days and asked that his full name not be used because he feared reprisals.

“They just go to the villages, and if you run they start shooting.”

Government and security officials in Jinka, the administrative centre for the South Omo zone, said the disarmament campaign was necessary to secure state development projects including sugar plantations in the area.

But as reports of abuses multiply, human rights groups and researchers who work in the region are calling for investigations.

“The accounts I have seen are sufficiently shocking and come from sufficiently reliable sources to make it imperative that they are investigated by an internationally respected human rights organisation,” said David Turton, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford who has worked in the region for 50 years.

Failure to investigate “will only add to suspicions that the accounts we’ve heard are in fact accurate”, he said.

A major escalation

Tensions between the Bodi and the government are long-running, fuelled by Bodi anger at what they describe as the loss of their land to Ethiopians resettled from other regions and to development projects like the Gibe III dam and sugar plantations.

But the elders said the latest violence represents a major escalation.

They said Bodi men and women detained in the town of Hana had been deprived of food and forced to stand for hours in the sun.

They accused security forces of digging up the buried remains of a Bodi spiritual leader and shooting them.

And they said security forces shaved off the hair of one man who had grown it long following the death of his brother — a traditional Bodi mourning custom — and forced him to eat it.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Shegedin, one of three Bodi elders who spoke with AFP.

Southern unrest

Federal security forces assumed control of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region back in July.

The move followed weeks of unrest resulting from a bid by the Sidama ethnic group to form a new regional state.

Ten other groups are pursuing similar statehood bids, and it is unclear how the government plans to respond to them.

Security in the ethnic patchwork of the Lower Omo Valley is crucial to the government in light of plans to install 100 000 hectares (250 000 acres) of sugar plantations there along with processing factories.

Troops and federal police are among those participating in the disarmament operation, said Lore Kakuta, an adviser to the chief administrator in Jinka.

Seized weapons include AK-47s assault rifles bought from traders shifting arms from conflict-ridden South Sudan.

Lore said disarmament was the only option following unprovoked shootings by the Bodi targeting sugar plant workers — allegations that the Bodi elders denied.

Lore said he could not comment on reports of human rights abuses.

“We don’t know what the security forces are doing,” he said. “Actually, that’s not our job.”

A senior police official in Jinka, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss disarmament, disputed claims that Bodi people had been killed.

“The allegations that dozens of Bodi have been killed is false,” he said.

Other groups on edge

As of early October, the disarmament of the Bodi was “90% finished”, Lore said.

He added that the operation could be expanded to include the Mursi, another agro-pastoralist community based in the area.

A Mursi leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said he was concerned that tactics used against the Bodi would be repeated against his people.

“Now the Mursi are all worried because maybe the police will come and kill us,” he said.

Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch said the Ethiopian government had a history of using violence and intimidation to force vulnerable communities from their land.

“The federal government should take measures to ensure that any disarmament efforts are not perceived as a continuation of this heavy-handed approach,” she said.

The authorities should also consult with local communities and ensure that alleged abuses by its forces “are immediately investigated,” Bader said.

© Agence France-Presse

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Women are entitled to own land

Too many laws and customs in too many African countries still treat women as minors

Disaster as climate crisis, tectonic shift swell Rift Valley lakes

The current tectonic cycle squeezes out water from the Earth’s aquifers; the previous cycle caused water to drain out of thelakes into the Earth’s aquifers

US foreign policy may be creating instability in Africa

Sometimes, the best foreign policy might be not to get involved at all

Abandoned in Lebanon, African domestic workers just want to go home

Dumped by their employers, and then stranded by their governments, African workers in Lebanon just want to go home. But it’s not that simple

‘Pro-family’ campaigners ignore pregnant women dying during Covid lockdowns

Conservative groups are fighting efforts to expand African women’s access to healthcare. Do they care about women all the time, or only when they’re procreating?

Polls in Ethiopia’s Tigray set to escalate standoff with Abiy

In recent days Abiy's office has instructed the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority to call journalists working for foreign media outlets to pressure them not to cover the vote
Advertising

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

The threat of legal action from ITB chairperson Jerome Ngwenya fails to halt forensic audit ordered by the land reform minister

Ailing Far East Rand hospital purchases ‘vanity’ furniture

Dr Zacharia Mathaba, who purchased the furniture, is a suspected overtime fraudster and was appointed as Gauteng hospital chief executive despite facing serious disciplinary charges

Eusebius McKaiser: Reject the dichotomy of political horrors

Senekal shows us that we must make a stand against the loud voice of the populist EFF and racist rightwingers

Seals abort pups in mass die-off

There are a number of factors — a pollutant, virus or bacteria or malnutrition — may have caused the 12 000 deaths on Namibia’s coast
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday