Explaining Metekel Syndrome: Revisiting the Prolonged Ethnic Violence

Dagnachew Ayenew Yeshiwas* (for CARD**)

In the last few days, almost the whole mainstream and social media discourses have been predominantly overwhelmed by reports and analysis on violence in Metekel, following the recent attack on September 4 and 5 against members of Agew and Amhara ethnic groups. Reports revealed that the attack was carried out by yet undisclosed, heavily armed Gumuz militiamen and targeted civilians, particularly in Epara, Moji and Koshebonji Kebeles of Bullen district. Although there are clashes of reports from different sources and authorities, social media posts revealed that about 80-100 were massacred, while thousands were displaced. In this regard, in his interview with Addis Standard, Nemera Maru, Chief Administrator of the district, refrained from mentioning victims’ identity background and only admitted that an estimated number of 70-100 militants have attacked civilians.

In recent years, attacks by armed militiamen have become common occurrences of Metekel which involve killing and kidnapping civilians and civil servants. For instance, the statement from Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) reveled the release of 27 civilians who were kidnapped by armed men from different districts of Metekel. Causalities also included members of ENDF who have been patrolling the area. On August 13, as cited in Addis Standard, the administrator of Metekel Zone, Atinkut Shitu, told Deutsche Welle Amharic that eight members of security forces were killed and 5 were injured as a result of an ambush on a military vehicle on August 09 in Guba district with 20 civilians killed. Similarly, on September 08, five members of ENDF and three members of the Benishangul Gumuz special police force were attacked by armed men in two districts of Metekel zone. The regional government claimed that this militiamen have also tried to kidnap healthcare and agricultural extension workers and have tried to take down the whole administrative structures.

In fact, including this violence, people in Metekel, the North-Western frontier of Ethiopia, have long been interlocked in protracted violent conflict since a long time ago. Particularly, soon after the institutionalization of Ethiopian federalism, the magnitude and frequency of conflicts which runs between indigenous and non-indigenous ethnic groups have become more intense than ever (Asnake, 2013). The violence has been often instigated by the Gumuz and led to death and displacement of a large number of people from non-indigenous ethnic groups, particularly Agew and Amhara. This piece of analysis is, hence, designed to provide a brief explanation of historical and immediate causes of the great divisions and the dominating sources of frequent violence in light of the prolonged crisis in the area.

Historical Factors  

Protracted social conflicts, like the violence in Metekel, are more likely shaped by memories of the violent state-formation process, the history of inter-group interactions, and historically embedded contradictions. In this regard, Metekel and its indigenous people have been targets of frequent and violent imperial expeditions, since the medieval period of Ethiopia (Woldesellassie, 2004). In the past, therefore, conflict was apparent in Metekel which was often stemmed from violent campaigns and local resistance against it (Taddesse, 1988).

At the same time, highlanders, the Gumuz were despised groups of people named as Gagry/shanqila, meaning black people only capable of slavery. They were hardly considered as human beings, once a time, Zeleke (r. 1905-1935), local Agew chief, has reported for a Britain official, “… though there were men (Agew) living in Belaya mountain, all the low country between the plateau and the Sudan frontier was inhabited by his slaves” (Abdussammed 1995:59-60). Therefore, apart from the violent imperial expedition, the Gumuz people were also subjects to aggressive slave raiding which makes them hostile to highlander strangers in their territory, as strangers had only visited them for the purpose of slave raiding (Abdussamad, 1995:60). In their culture, killing highlanders become a source of honor and privilege. The killer is called gunza which means ‘male’; he would have his own separate drinking vessel and seat. Women also initiate their men to kill, because the privilege extends up to them as the wife of gunza would get priority and honor while fetching water and attending social ceremonies.

Moreover, since 1950s, Metekel has also been an alluring place that has received self-initiated migrants as well as massive state-sponsored resettlement from highland areas of the country. For instance, in 1984/5, Dergue has launched an emergency national resettlement program as a result of the horrific famine and drought in Northern Ethiopia and relocated about 82,000 settlers into Metekel (Woldesellassie, 2004). Such long-established encroachment by highlanders and the state ultimately led to forced displacement and retreat of the Gumuz towards the then time inaccessible, malaria-infected, and inhospitable lowlands (Ruibial et al, 2006).

In general, beginning from the first half of the 18th century, Metekel has been the destination to a large number of people for several reasons; such as slave raiding, collecting lucrative trade items, wild gaming, investment, searching job, and to settle permanently (Tsega, 2006). All of these took place through marginalizing, dispossessing, and depriving of the Gumuz based on the long held frontier imaginations that consider Metekel as ‘empty of people, but full of resource’ (Gebre, 2003 and Tsega, 2006). In this regard, it can be argued that such deprivation and marginalization is still fresh memory among the Gumuz.

Ethnic Federalism: Constitutional Dichotomization and Territorial Arrangement

Following the institutionalization of ethnic federalism, people of Metekel in BGRS are categorized into members of indigenous (Gumuz and Shinasha) and non-indigenous ethnic groups (Amhara, Oromo, Agew, and others) (BGRS, 2002). This dichotomization has implicated political participation and access right to economic resources. Dimensions of human and constitutional rights exercised by non-indigenous ethnic groups are very limited. The regional state lacks institutional and political arrangements to accommodate the political claim of non-indigenous groups at any level of government. The electoral law of FDRE also excludes them on the pretext of ‘not eligible’ to the local language of electoral districts. Thus, in Metekel, non-indigenous ethnic groups “could vote but not run the office” (Asnake, 2013:169).

Apart from political marginalization, grievances of non-indigenous people are also related to exclusion from access to means of production and job opportunities. This category of people in Metekel remained with the land size what they had before 1991, regardless of increment in their family size. So, the new political arrangement has got polarized responses from ethnic groups of the area (Asnake, 2013). Indigenous ethnic groups warmly welcomed it with additional claims (for the further exclusion of non-indigenous people). On the other hand, non-indigenous people are deeply dissatisfied due to the relative economic and political deprivation in contrast to the indigenous people.

Territorial restructuring put in place have also divided ethnic groups of Metekel, particularly non-indigenous, into different administrative units –Agews and Amharas have divided into ANRS and BGRS, at the same time Oromos are divided between ONRS and BGRS. So, members of these groups are deeply dissatisfied with the new arrangement and felt that they are dominated by others on ‘their own land’ and separated from their fellow ethnic members. Their ethnic fellows (Amhara and Agew in ANRS and Oromo in ONRS) are exercising their right of self-administration, while they become subordinate to others. The new territorial arrangement has also forced previously dominant and dominated ethnic groups to adjust new forms of inter-ethnic relations.

Policies Guided by Frontier Imaginings

Despite the apparent differences, state policies regarding Metekel throughout different regimes have been guided by common perception which considered the area as underdeveloped territory to be colonized and civilized. Central to this representation was the frontier imagination of ‘terra nullius’ or ‘herrenloses Land.’ The terra nullius claim considers the given space as underutilized and space is considered herrenlos (abandoned) to claim that its inhabitants are not being governed by a legitimate ruler, or that no legitimate ruler would hold effective authority over these territories.

Based on such an assumption, particularly, following the triple global crisis of food, energy, and finance in the period 2007–2008 which boosted investors’ interest in agriculture and agricultural commodities, Metekel become among the frontier territories of Ethiopia targeted for large scale land acquisitions. This policy was further consolidated in the Ethiopian government’s ambitious national Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) of 2010. Through GTP, Ethiopia has proposed and started to implement large-scale development schemes such as mega-dams (including GERD), irrigation systems, sugarcane plantations (part of Beles Sugar Project), and agribusinesses in Metekel.

However, the land allocated to such large scale development schemes were previously being used by Gumuz for shifting cultivation, whose land-use system is contested by the state as essentially ‘unsustainable’ or inefficient and their nomadic lifestyle as ‘backward’ and obstacle to development and modernization. Hence, the current trend of land acquisitions for commercial agricultural investment and state projects accompanied by the sedentarization of the Gumuz with a mass influx of highlanders have also exerting intensified pressures. As the result, the Gumuz are forced to abandon their customary laws, means of livelihood, and land use, displaced from their land and households and subjected to growing insecurity.

In the past, avoidance protest which involves a flight to inaccessible, remote areas had been a form of local resistance against frequent expeditions and encroachment. However, even these remote areas appear to have been reached by the current large scale land acquisitions. Therefore, violent and destructive measures such as sabotaging properties of investment and projects, damaging field crops, and outright conflict with investors have appeared as emerging forms of resistance among the Gumuz (Tsegaye, 2017). As a strategy to undermine land acquisitions, local communities also attempt to resist the immigration of wage laborers. The attack against highlanders often escalated and took the form of ethnic conflict between indigenous and non-indigenous ethnic groups. Hence, it can be argued that ethnic violence in Metekel can be partly explained as the local resistance of Gumuz to frontier imaginations of their homeland.

At least, in rhetoric, these development endeavors and interventions are taken to mark a new departure; they articulate a desire to transform peripheries marginalized in history, more than just to control and contain the resources. From the state’s point of view, therefore, large scale development schemes will make this wasteland productive, while providing additional income for the state’s coffers and employment, infrastructure, and public services for local people, who will thereby no longer have to wander from place to place. However, the supposed benefits did not always materialize, if they did, Tsegaye (2017: 703) notes, “they may not necessarily benefit the same people who have lost their land resources or livelihoods as a result of the land acquisition.” It is evident that such anticipated benefits from the recent development schemes are consumed by highlanders than the Gumuz as the schemes are either owned or run by highlanders and are employing a large number of highlanders. In this regard, a closer look into the issue reveals that the hostilities of the Gumuz towards the land acquisitions are not only because they face threats of dispossession and displacement but also because they feel marginalized from opportunities and benefits brought by development schemes.

Moreover, not only do these migrant workers work as laborers, but they also introduce a new form of encroachment on the available land resources. As agricultural jobs are mostly seasonal, many of the laborers stay in the area after the completion of their contracts. They tend to encroach into the forest to acquire land so that after a year or so of cultivating it, they can bring their families and hence established new settlements. The mass influx of highlanders has also been overrunning the indigenous people numerically to have long-term political implications in the area. Moreover, the Gumuz refused to work in investments and projects as part of their resistance through depriving investors’ labor force to run their company. However, the influx of highlanders is filling that vacuum and making such efforts meaningless. So, for the indigenous community, the highlanders are legitimizing their deprivation and eviction. Hence, frequent attacks targeting highlanders that often extended to ethnic conflict is directly linked to the relative deprivation among the Gumuz emanated from policies guided by frontier imaginings.

Competing Claims and Political Squabbling

Due to the diversity of people it hosts, the abundant resource, and contested history, Metekel is subject to competing claims of ownership from diverse ethnic groups including Gumuz, Agew, Amhara, and Oromo. Such competing claims of ownership are also becoming more apparent recently, particularly, Amhara protestors and activists are vividly claiming the integration of Metekel to Amhara National Regional State (ANRS). Apart from this, the recent political dynamics in Ethiopia which have been followed by discursive shifts on state-/nation-building, ideology, economic policy, and structural and nomenclature changes of the ruling party are more likely to affect the local social/political process.

Against this backdrop, following the recent reform, the political squabbling and competing claims on Metekel have been ethnicized to easily touch the wounds of history during which the Gumuz had subjected to slave raiding, displacement, and dispossession. When violence started, actors from the Gumuz were reminded of these historical narratives and reacted with the pain of those memories/narrations in mind and heart partly due to avenging of past actions, as they read the situation as being yet another chapter in the exploitation of resources and indigenous people of Metekel.   

Concluding Remarks and Recommendations

Although the above-discussed issues are underlying factors, the emerging Hybrid Political Order and the subsequent weak security system, following the recent reform have also partly associated with the transformation of grievances in frontier territories such as Metekel into frequent violence. It is reported that since the reform, entities which are competing the central government and having considerable legitimacy from the local people have been raising on frontier territories. Their competing legitimacy plus local interests and incentives would allow such entities to mobilize the mass for violence. In this regard, the reoccurring violence in these territories also implies a weak security system of the country, particularly, Conflict Early Warning and Rapid Response Network (CEWARN).

In general, based on the discussion and analysis so far, in order to transform the prolonged conflict into sustainable peace and to successfully intervene into the frequent violence, stakeholders, particularly government and NGOs shall embark on the following;


  • Policies and endeavors carried out in Metekel should be integrated with indigenous knowledge and perspectives, their de facto customary land rights and sources of livelihood have to be respected and formally registered;
  • Policy interventions in Metekel should be participatory which involve the consent of the local community, recognition to their customary land use rights, and representation in the decision-making process;
  • Ensuring political participation and representation of ethnic groups and fair distribution of burdens and benefits of development endeavors;
  • To attain the participation and representation of highlanders, the constitutional dichotomization of people into indigenous and non-indigenous shall be reconsidered.


  • Empirical research should be carried out on the dynamics, profile, causes, interests, incentives, and actors of the conflict;
  • Training material and programs should be designed for stakeholders of conflict management in Metekel on CEWARM and conflict transformation/peace-building;
  • Media discourses, seminars, and meetings or other suitable communication channels shall be organized on ways to bring sustainable peace;
  • Strengthen the education of young people in the values of peace and peaceful coexistence;
  • Designing programs and implementing actions to integrate indigenous people into the mainstream economy;


Taddesse T (1988 b). Nilo-Saharan Interaction with Neighboring Highlanders: The Case of Gumuz of Gojjam and Wallega”, Proceedings of the Workshop on Famine Experience and Resettlement in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Addis Ababa University.

Abdussamed Ahmed (1995). The Gumuz of the Lowlands of Western Gojjam: The Frontier
in History 1900-1935. Africa Rivita Trimestrale di Studie documentazionedell’Instituto Africa ei’Oriente, Anno.50, No.1, Instituto Italiano per I’ Africa eI’
Oriante (ISIAO), 1995.

Asnake Kefale (2013). Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Ethiopia: A Comparative Regional Study. Newyork: Routledge.

BGRS (2002). The Constitution of Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State. Asossa

Tsegaye Moreda (2017). Large-scale land acquisitions, state authority and indigenous local communities: insights from Ethiopia, Third World Quarterly, 38:3, 698-716, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2016.1191941

Woldesellassie Abute (2004). Gumuz and Highland Resettlers: Differing Strategiesof Livelihood and Ethnic Relations in Metekkel, North Western Ethiopia. PhD Dissertation, Gottingen, University of Gottingen.

Tsega E (2006). Inter-ethnic interaction on Frontier: Mettekel (Ethiopia), 1898-1991.Germanny: Otto harasowitiz and Co.KG. wiesebadin.


*Dagnachew Ayenew Yeshiwas is a Lecturer and PhD candidate of Peace and Development Studies at Wollo University. He can be reached via email: dagnualem@gmail.com

** This article was developed by a request of CARD to the author.

Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD)

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