Cablegate: Tension and Poor Development Torment

DE RUEHDS #2765/01 2801451
R 061451Z OCT 08



E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (SBU) In an early September visit to Asosa, capital of the
Benishangul-Gumuz region, PolOff examined reports of recent
escalations in internal conflict and observed broader
political and economic issues in one of Ethiopia,s most
underdeveloped regions. Many officials highlighted mounting
tension between native "lowlanders" and incoming
"highlanders," whom they perceive to have greater economic
prosperity. Investigations into the May 2008 Oromo-Gumuz
conflict (reftel) continue but its underlying causes,
resource tension and border demarcation, remain unresolved.
In August, the Benishangul Liberation Front (Beni),
reportedly backed by Eritrea, skirmished repeatedly with the
Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), heavily damaging
two towns. Regarding economic development, the region braces
itself for expected further cuts in its federal budget
allocation while highlighting deficits in agricultural
development and the regional government's management
capacity. End Summary.

2. (SBU) PolOff and a British embassy counterpart visited
Asosa from August 31 to September 2. PolOff held meetings
with the Regional President,s Chief of Cabinet, Senior
Advisor to the Head of Regional Security and Administration
Bureau, Deputy Police Commissioner, Head of Militia, Speaker
and Deputy Speaker of the Regional Parliament, and
representatives from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR), International Rescue Committee (IRC), and VSO.
PolOff also visited a regional Management Institute (MI), a
regional prison, and a bridge construction project
implemented through the Ambassador,s Special Self Help fund.

Increased Tensions in Benishangul

3. (SBU) Officials and locals repeatedly stressed that
Benishangul, an historically peaceful region, is experiencing
increased tension and conflict on many fronts, particularly
between native "lowlanders" of the Berta, Gumuz, Shinasha,
and Como ethnic groups and incoming "highlanders" from
Oromiya and Amhara. Highlanders are perceived to own most
businesses and encroach on native agricultural lands, and
live in more affluent areas of Asosa. UNHCR highlander staff
experience explicit face-to-face threats to leave and some
rural highlanders are reportedly flocking to Asosa for
refuge. Beni rebels and low intensity ethnic conflict also
threaten the region's stability.

Massacre Investigation Ongoing

4. (SBU) The Government of Ethiopia (GoE) continues to
investigate the May 2008 Gumuz-Oromo massacres (reftel) and a
mobile court has apparently begun trials of some of the 120
suspects in custody. The MI serves as an unofficial jail for
many of these suspects (including the regional Vice
President). The massacres drove the Benishangul parliament
to pass a resolution allowing only police and militia to
carry arms. The underlying causes of ethnic conflict in the
region, including migrations in pursuit of scarce resources
and a disputed border demarcation between Benishangul and
Oromiya regions, remain unaddressed and Benishangul
authorities lament that they have little leverage in
negotiations with officials from neighboring Oromiya when
they attempt to resolve some of these disputes through
negotiation. Currently, Oromiya officials claim to have
jurisdiction over land on the Sudan border lying between
Benishangul and Gambella regions. Oromiya is apparently
pushing the federal House of Federation hard for a
demarcation referendum, which Beninshangul opposes.
Benishangul officials say they desperately need a conflict
resolution mechanism.

Benishangul Liberation Front (Beni)

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5. (SBU) In recent weeks, Beni rebels created instability and
conflict in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. The Beni are a
small, localized insurgent movement claiming to represent the
agricultural, lowland Berta people who have taken up arms
against the GoE for their region's relative underdevelopment
and against encroaching highlanders who have migrated into
the region in recent years. The Deputy Police Commissioner
estimates that Beni has 300 fighters. The Militia Head and
Regional President's Chief of Cabinet said the Eritrean
government supports the Beni, citing captured Beni rebels who
admit being trained in Eritrea. The Chief of Cabinet cited
Asmara-based radio programs which highlight Beni support from
a former Ethiopian Ambassador to Yemen, Yusuf (NFI), who now
lives in Asmara. He also said Sudan is arming Beni. The
Militia Head claimed Beni does not target lowland ethnic
groups or the militia (i.e. Beni's own kind) but instead
engages the ENDF. ENDF and Beni reportedly skirmished on
August 12, 15, and 30, particularly in Gizen and Mengi towns,
where infrastructure was apparently heavily damaged. Such
attacks may increase as the rainy season wanes in
November/December. The community reaction is mixed but
generally tolerant; however, decreasing food resources could
strain community support for Beni. There are also reports
that the ENDF are disarming militias suspected of arming the
rebels but the Militia Head denies this. The militia number
2,200 and suffer from poor training, little equipment, and
sporadic salaries. (Note: Throughout Ethiopia, communities
form militias as the local-level security forces, as the
reach of the federal police does not extend to the rural
community level. End note.) Specific Beni motives are
opaque but sources believe they seek greater resources and
development for the Berta, blaming economic stagnation on
highlanders. The regional government's approach is to cast
the Beni leadership in a pejorative light while promising
Beni members a better future if they defect.

The Regional Parliament

6. (SBU) The regional parliament has 99 seats, including
eleven held by opposition members. Ethnic representation
generally reflects the most recent census, with the Berta (46
seats) and Gumuz (36 seats) making up the majority. The
Speaker and Deputy Speaker said that the April 2008 local
elections were "almost transparent," and more participatory
than ever, with local populations generally electing
home-grown representatives. The majority Benishangul-Gumuz
Democratic Unity Front (BGDUF), which consists of four
parties (Boroshanasha, Gumuz Democratic Movement, Berta, and
Mowocom), previously sought integration into the ruling
Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Although the EPRDF denied their application, insisting that
the BGDUF become stronger before integration, BGDUF is a de
facto EPRDF-affiliated party which votes in step with the
EPRDF in the national parliament.

Development and Capacity

7. (SBU) Benishangul-Gumuz is one of Ethiopia's "emerging
regions," but some officials claim it is "totally neglected"
by the federal government and are bracing for a further
reduction of their portion of the federal budget allotment.
Benishangul signed development agreements with Oromiya and
Amhara regions two years ago but they remain unimplemented.
The regional government's development priorities are not
uncommon (education, economic development, conflict
resolution) but have a strong focus on the need to modernize
the region's rudimentary agricultural system for its 90
percent rural population. PolOff visited a regional MI
designed to build government management capacity through
training, research, and consulting while also acting as a
public "knowledge center" with internet and a modest library.
MI's distance from Asosa center precludes meaningful public
visits, though, and trainings are sparse after donors
requested a better long-term strategy before adding more
funds. As mentioned above, MI now serves primarily as a
jail. VSO refuses to assign any further volunteers to the MI
until the jail closes. Regional government officials openly
pleaded for the USG to help focus the GoE on developing the

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region and expressed an eagerness to accept USG advice on
development issues.

Sherkole Refugee Camp

8. (SBU) UNHCR reports Sherkole camp currently hosts 4,800
refugees, mostly Southern Sudanese, Darfurians, and members
of the Great Lakes community. Despite a trend of population
reduction (5,000 since June 2007), repatriated refugees are
now returning to the camp at a rate of roughly twenty per
week as they decide their homeland offers greater economic
hardship then the camp. Further population increases are
likely at Sherkole if UNHCR consolidates remaining refugees
from camps that are closing elsewhere. UNHCR reports no
intra-camp tensions but IRC says there are isolated incidents
among Darfurians, including some that are gender-based.

© Scoop Media

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