Addressing pastoralist conflict in Ethiopia

The case of the Kuraz and Hamer sub-districts of South Omo zone

South Omo in Ethiopia, is a diverse zone in terms of people and natural resources. It comprises large populations of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists and a diverse landscape. The climate is erratic with frequent droughts and rivers that periodically flood and dry out completely. Economic opportunities are limited in an environment of poor infrastructure, no or few opportunities for trade and in some cases, poor terms of trade. As the livelihoods of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists depend on key resources such as land, water, forests, minerals, wildlife, livestock and pasture, the environment poses particular challenges to their survival. These resources are diminishing from year to year, intensifying competition over resources and causing violent conflict between the ethnic groups in the case study areas of the Kuraz and Hamer districts of South Omo.

Cattle rustling is an important cause of violent conflict. Access to material and social assets such as livestock is central to pastoral society, for instance, to be able to pay dowry for getting married. In most of these communities, possession of livestock is the main way of socio-economic advancement, without which a young man cannot become independent. In addition, traditional beliefs and practices, such as the high cultural reward provided to cattle rustlers and warriors, encourage young generations to engage in violent conflict in order to acquire assets.

The causes of the conflicts in the areas are multiple, relating to sharing of natural resources, cattle rustling, revenge attacks and a culture of glorifying conflict acts. Most of the groups highly value their communal identity, partly as a survival strategy. This includes communal responses to individual grievances, such as the loss of cattle or a personal attack. A history of mutual suspicion and communal retaliation has meant that distrust among many of these groups is very high, complicating efforts at peaceful resolution of disputes.

Another characteristic of these conflicts is their cross-border nature. Groups on the Kenyan side of the border are often related to the Ethiopian ones, live similar lifestyles and both sides engage in cross-border trade. Shifting alliances between related groups and between minority and majority groups are typical of conflict dynamics in this area.

The easy availability of small arms and the fact that arms possession is regarded as a necessary measure for community and livelihood protection, greatly contributes to the levels of death and destruction wrought by these conflicts. Some merchants play a role in the conflict by trading weapons, ammunition, commodities and information.

Conflict negatively impacts on these communities, not only through the loss of human lives and livestock, but also by limiting freedom of movement, contributing to the ineffective use of existing water points and pasture and by aggravating land degradation. This often aggravates food shortages and increases dependency on food assistance. The social impacts of conflict include decreasing school attendance, particular targeting of women as the future mothers of 'enemy' group warriors, internal displacement and the abandonment of the pastoralist lifestyle in search of other economic opportunities.

Although some potential conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms exist, these have many constraints. Sub-groups exist within each ethnic group who specialise in peace-making within and between ethnic groups. In some cases, bordering sub-groups with similar languages and cultures also facilitate conflict resolution. However, the challenge with such institutions is that the divides between the new and older generations, as well as between traditional and modern institutions, have been increasing so that it has become difficult to apply traditional rules. The example of the Arbore ethnic group, widely regarded as peace-loving, may offer some principles for peaceful co-existence.

The formal conflict resolution processes - in particular responses from regional or district governmental structures - tend to be activated late, once violent conflict has already broken out. There is no functioning conflict early warning system, which could detect possible conflicts in a timely manner and enable preventive responses before violence erupts. Furthermore, once formal conflict resolution processes are activated, they often only result in an unsustainable cessation of hostilities. The underlying causes of conflict are not dealt with so that 'peace' remains fragile.

Communities involved in the study were able to identify many mechanisms for resolving conflict, including intermarriage, economic diversification, trade and good governance. The challenge is to identify these mechanisms and to involve a wide range of actors, including government officials at all levels (eg federal, regional, district), local communities and traditional leaders, international actors and donor agencies, in developing comprehensive strategies for conflict prevention and resolution. Recommendations for addressing these issues more effectively are provided at the end of the report.