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 forced disarmament campaign 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 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 said 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
“We don’t know what the security forces are doing,” he added.
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. – AFP