Commentary: Marginalization, anger and protest in South Omo Zone: What Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Should Know

Caption: Karo Children playing above the Omo River, Karo, South Omo Zone, SNNPR. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2005/Getachew

Why South Omo Zone is still not in 2018

Asress Adimi Gikay (PhD), For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, Aug. 23/2018 – When journalists, activists and political analysts spoke in the past that the Ethiopian political environment under the ruling EPRDF led by the late Prime Minister Melese Zenwi and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn, was nurturing anger and frustration that was bubbling from under and would burst out in a form of violence, the government and its hardcore supporters often labeled such calls as calls for violence. But what began in April-May 2014 and ended in the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on April 2, 2018 is, by now, a beaten narrative.  This season of four years persistent protest, however, did not end at the resignation of Hailemariam, rather it ushered in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Those who insisted that the regime’s suppressive rules and merciless actions against critics would not allow protests to compel the regime to submit to a reform were proven wrong. In the defense of naysayers, it is easy to consider EPRDF as non-reforming collective; on more occasions than few, it proved itself beyond reform. And there are a lot of questions on whether the reformed EPRDF is a palace affair or one that trickled down to smallest units of the administration.

Today, the political leaders in South Omo Zone follow the same old-fashioned way of approaching the decades old political crisis, the modus operandi that existed before PM Abiy came to power. Those who caution that protests could get out of control are accused of calling for violence while the genuine demand for basic infrastructures and services are contemptuously ignored. The incumbent leaders have not learned the lesson that when the people get frustrated and anger takes over, violent protests are inevitable as recent memory reminds us. Thinking along party line, tagging dissent as opposition and giving political appointment based on affiliation than merit, and rampant 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 its capital Jinka, located approximately750 Kilometers away from Addis Abeba. Among others, the zone is known for the peaceful co-existence of 16 different ethnic groups with diverse cultures and languages. It is also a home for two national parks, the Omo and Mago National Parks that attract tourists from different parts of the world. The mixture of agrarian and pastoral economy 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 with coffee from other parts of the country at national level.

For decades, the people of South Omo Zone have had love-hate relationship with government of Ethiopia or the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF).  The EPRDF is praised in South Omo perhaps more than in other parts of Ethiopia for fostering ethnic and cultural egalitarianism as well as implementing a number of development projects including the construction of an asphalt road running from Arbaminch to Jinka covering about 250 Kilometers and recently the construction of Jinka University and Jinka Airport. While the people of South Omo largely see a good in the ruling party, there are also times where the relationship has taken a different turn due to several government actions adversely impacting the citizens.

Controversial development projects

A notably turbulent relationship between the government and the people in South Omo began with the construction on Omo river of two dams: Gibe II and Gibe  III completed in 2009 and 2016 respectively.  The dams were meant to support large scale commercial plantations but their effect on the local people have been devastating. Pastoralists were forcibly displaced from their lands and their livelihood endangered due to the draining of the river water that they massively utilize for cattle grazing. While the people who rightfully felt that they were under existential threat attempted to resist the projects, environmentalist and human rights groups including the Human Rights Watch have joined in and expressed condemnations, made recommendations and called for immediate actions, all to no avail. Though states, even in western democracies, do put economic growth and environmental concerns and welfare of the local community on the scale and tend to lean towards pursuing the former, the problem remains the manner in which the local community was treated in South Omo.

The latest development project that remained at the epicenter of controversy is the ongoing construction of the infamous Omo-Kuraz Sugar factories. The project required a construction of an asphalt road running from Jinka through vast agrarian areas to the Omo sugar factories (approximately 110-125 Kilometers) resulting in expropriation of rural and urban lands with no adequate compensation.  It is these series of development projects that are implemented in total disregard of the people’s constitutional rights to consultation and compensation that caused the eruption of multiple protests in different parts of South Omo Zone in recent times.

While earlier development projects were implemented before the four years nationwide protests largely led by the Oromo and the Amhara peoples, the construction of the sugar factories and the asphalt road is taking place post-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 has been intensified pressures from the people, mostly from Ethiopia’s periphery and often off the media’s attention, on the government in pursuit of more constitutional rights and access to infrastructures. Nevertheless, the improved democratic environment did not ameliorate the dire situation of citizens who have lost their properties, homes, and farm lands with little or no compensation. Indeed, it is too early to judge 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.

Thoughtless urbanization and expropriation with no compensation

South Omo Zone is characterized by arbitrary implementation of urban development and expropriation. In 2013, South Ari Woreda, one of the vastly agrarian Woredas, implemented an urbanization plan in Metser town, located about 27 Kilometers from Jinka. The plan led to the forcible displacement of residents, predominately farmers, from their lands and a mass scale destruction of properties without compensation.

Resources that are indispensable for the livelihood of the people such as Avocado, Enset (false banana), banana, korrorima (cardamom), papaya, and coffee were tragically destroyed.  The event left not only residents but also outside observes literally in tears. It turned a pristine green area into a desert until the town is reforested according to the new urban plan. Subsequently, land was taken from farmers and was put on auction for lease and has been traded illegally by those in charge of implementing the urbanization plan at the expense of the citizens. Disappointingly, those who engaged in the illegal trading of land suffered no legal consequences and were merely transferred to a different government offices when they were caught committing their crimes.

I took this photo from Metser. It shows the dense mixtures of plants including coffee, false banana and yam and others. In the area affected by the urbanization everything in the picture above was indiscriminately cut by a group of people who claimed they were assigned by the local administration to do the job. Not only are spots needed for road but the entire town was subjected to mass deforestation as if someone has decided the town needs to start over again from zero.

Citizens who attempted to fight back against the urbanization and expropriation through self-help mechanism of physical resistance or through judicial actions were threatened by the coercive force of the police, some being beaten and jailed.  Today, due to the construction of the asphalt road, which is aimed at connecting Jinka city with the Omo-Kuraz sugar factories, the people of Metser and other affected towns and rural areas who are displaced from their lands and lost their properties have appealed to the relevant local authority to compensate for their loses but the authorities cold-heartedly rejected their appeals. Those whose financial capacity allowed them to resort to judicial actions are losing their cases based on constitutional law technicality.

Because the constitution Ethiopia entitles landholders to compensation only for the property located on the land, the government has refused to compensate those whose homes or farms were not affected by the road construction in strict sense. Government consultants in many cases left very short distance between the road and homes of citizens. This had exposed some homes to flooding and is compelling home owners to vacate while others live in homes with no sufficient space between their homes and the road to allow them to live meaningful lives. Consequently, the values of such homes have dropped substantially.

In a society that has genuinely been marginalized for the past 27 years by the government and struggling to get out of poverty, the literal reading of the constitution could easily be abandoned and a more sympathetic interpretation that allows the people whose properties are rendered useless due to development projects to be compensated for their properties could be adopted. After all, the constitution does not determine details of compensation for expropriation. Neither do the expropriation laws give precise formula on determining property values.

Farmers have been consistently traveling for Kilometers to complain to the relevant South Ari Woreda Administration of the deterioration of their farm lands located adjacent to the road construction due to debris from heavy digging as well as the exposure of their lands to flooding and soil erosion.

In a typical irony, the government that has for years expressed its commitment to working towards ensuring food self-sufficiency and supporting farmers directly threatens the food security of the very people that have unconditionally supported it for about three decades. The impacted farmers have neither the technology, nor the finance to control flooding, erosion and landslide (see pictures above) that ensue from the unmethodical and reckless digging of the land adjacent to their farm lands mostly located in semi-hilly areas.  It is only fair to expect the government to put in place compensatory mechanism to support impacted farmers.

The demand for infrastructure and the eruption of protests

In most parts of South Omo, there is a feeling that the government is marginalizing the people with respect to the provision of key infrastructures, chiefly electricity, health, education, clean water, telecommunication network, asphalt road, and banking services. In many cases, citizens travel long distance to Jinka to access telecommunication, including telephone calls, fax, and internet services and most importantly a hospital. Electricity is absent in many parts of South Ari Woreda.

Towns such as Wubhamer, Maleter, Shamamer, Aydamer, Tembel and others that essentially supply a non-negligible share of the South Omo coffee, cardamom and ginger have no roads to transport their produces to Jinka and have been using predominantly horses up until recently when the government constructed a barely operational gravel road which is easily interrupted by rain and with no regular transportation service. They have neither electricity, nor telecommunication services too.

In Metser, another town that is crucial for the economy of South Ari Woreda, the people who have been victimized by forced displacement and expropriation  in 2013 have been asking for clean water, telecommunication and banking services. Recently, they are organizing peaceful demonstrations to express their frustrations.  Essentially, the people in these area are drinking polluted river or spring waters, travel kilometers to access most basic services.

On August 15, 2018, the people of Wubhamer town organized a protest which got out of control leading to the burning of the office of the Municipal administration and a Police Station and various Kebele Administration offices.  The protesters also burned down two vehicles and a bulldozer. On the following day (August 16, 2018), subsequent to the arrival of the Federal Police and the National Defense Forces, due to a clash between protesters and the members of the local security forces on duty, a young man named Manalew Yemish was shot and wounded. He has been hospitalized in Jinka general Hospital. An attempt to organize a dialogue between the leaders of the protest and the Zone Administration failed reportedly due to the failure of the Head of the Zone Administration, Alemayehu Bawdi, to turn up for the dialogue. The protest which was originally organized by the youth of Wubhamer town is now spreading to other towns and villages and there is no meaningful step being taken by the government to contain it without resorting to violence. and all this is happening off the radar of both mainstream and social media.

The situation is unlikely to calm down in the long run unless the people secure concessions from the government.  But there is no media that reports these events that are threatening the stability of the entire Zone which is considered to be one of the stable areas. Understandably, the people express their disappointment that the media does not give them coverage and does not expose the challenges they are facing that need the attention of both the regional and federal government.

What should Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed do?

The coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy  is considered as a new beginning for all Ethiopians and South Omo Zone is not an exception. His reform agenda and rhetoric of respect Ethiopians’ constitutionally recognized human and democratic rights is a music to the ears of the people of South Omo. For the first time, people are expressing their opinion on all policy matters both online and offline without the fear of state coercion. But the demand for infrastructure cannot be replaced by the exercising of constitutional rights of freedom of expression, assembly, and demonstration. The latter are only the means to an end of securing economic benefits and developmental projects that enhance the welfare of citizens.

Prime Minister Abiy should address the problem in South Omo as early as possible. Recently, he was quoted as saying his government will work to finalize all the delayed sugar projects after the coming six months. But this cannot just be said without taking into considerations the damages the Omo Kuraz sugar factory has done to the people of South Omo, who have embraced him with open arms and have hopes in him. They are not backing down from demanding what they rightfully deserve. To make the new Ethiopia work for all, including those who have been marginalized and ignored for several decades, Prime Minister Abiy should take appropriate course of action.

First, he should call on the regional administration for reforms specifically tailored to South Omo Zone by realigning the policy direction and focus of the existing leadership within the zone with his agenda. The people are blatantly rejecting politicians that have been in office in the zone in key positions but who are unable to respond to their needs and negotiate with the regional and federal governments on their behalf. They are pushing for change of leadership in key positions as exigent if the government wants to forge a new alliance between the zonal administration and the people. Young people who have the required level of education and capability are relegated to the side based on slight differences they have with legacy politicians on the direction of the zone and the country.  The Prime Minister has an opportunity in front of him to bring those useful forces to the table and allow them to work with mainstream politicians by setting aside their differences.

Second, the Prime Minister should put in place detailed policies with regard to rural land administration. In particular, the law of expropriation of rural lands should be rethought to incorporate compensation mechanisms that take into account the local context and the financial capacity of farmers to rectify not only the direct effect of expropriations but also the incidental effect on their economic lives.

If the ongoing political crisis in South Omo Zone is not managed cautiously and promptly, it could bring in more volatility which would further destabilize the region. The days when early warnings can be simply brushed aside as agitation and instigation have outlived their purposes due to years of protests that have made it possible for us to experience today’s changes in Ethiopia. If history is a lesson, the call from the people of South Omo should not be left unheard.  AS

Editor’s note: Asress Adimi Gikay (PhD), is Currently PhD Researcher in Consumer Law, Finance, and Technology at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Department of Law, Politics and Development, Pisa (Italy).

He tweets @RealAsressGikay . Facebook at

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