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Ethiopia: The GERD dam, the Gumuz community and the escalation of conflict in Metekel

20 June 2023

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is one of the largest hydropower mega-projects ever conducted in Africa. The project, which will have a total capacity of 15.3 million cubic metres of water, is expected to reduce the risks of flooding of the Blue Nile for downstream countries. Among the expected benefits is electricity generation by hydroelectric power stations installed at the foot of the dam, through which Ethiopia is aiming to generate 15,700 GWh per year to expand its energy-dependent industries and address urban demands. The project, hailed as a national regeneration or ‘renaissance’, was funded by bonds sold to Ethiopian citizens. Thus, the project has led to a national mobilization campaign steered by the Ethiopian government and galvanized by a political ideal of unity in the midst of deep divisions running along ethnic lines.  

Little has been said in local and international media circles about the lack of transparency behind this project and the way it has impacted indigenous people. This case study will shed light on various issues that are inconsistent with the renaissance narrative and state ideology that this dam symbolizes, in particular the lack of participation by local Gumuz communities, their lack of prior consent, and their forced displacement – the latter having had a direct impact on the escalation of armed conflict in the region. 

Gumuz – A marginalized people The Gumuz community has a long history of marginalization in Ethiopia. Some accounts have labelled them ‘the least defensible and resilient population group’ of the Kusa (as the Beles River, a tributary of the Blue Nile, is known in the Gumuz language) basin. Gumuz are made up of 10 clans, who speak a distinctive Nilo-Saharan language. In 2008, there were 179,348 Gumuz in Ethiopia according to the official census, of whom 20,000 were situated along the Kusa River. Gumuz people have traditionally practised hoe cultivation, fishing, livestock herding and gold panning for a living. Raided for slavery since the fifth century, the collective memory of their enslavement and domination lives on in the modern period, particularly as unofficial forms of slavery continue to this day. Relocation programmes in the Gumuz area of Metekel steered by the Ethiopian government in the 1950s, and subsequently in the 1980s, have led to claims by the community that the area is being annexed by other ethnic groups, especially Amhara people, in an effort to control land and natural resources. Conflict between Gumuz people and neighbouring communities, including Amhara people living north of the Blue Nile, has intensified with the shift in power among these groups. Inter-ethnic and political conflict is directly exacerbated by the building of the GERD, not least given the unrest and social pressures caused by the resettlement process.

A Gumuz woman sieving a bucket of Ethiopian Mustard to separate the straw from the seeds. Oda Godere District, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia. Credit: Michael Metaferia.

The construction of the GERD has added to the historical fear that many Gumuz have of annexation. More than 20,000 Gumuz farmers have been displaced as a result of the construction of the dam, as houses are expected to be submerged by water after completion. While Ethiopian workers from different regions (and about 350 foreign workers) have been brought in to build the dam, the relocation process has been marred by non-participatory and elite-centred decision-making. The resettlement plan, which started back in 2013, was coordinated by the Federal GERD Project Office along with the Ethiopian Electric Power investment authority. The project requires the resettlement of all people living below 645 metres, amounting to 5,391 households or 20,000 inhabitants, who are currently being rehoused in 17 new villages or resettlement centres. 

Access to basic services has been negatively impacted. The right to education and to health have also been seriously affected, as the newly built clinics and schools in the resettlement centres lack trained staff, teaching materials and other resources. The right to adequate housing has also been affected, since the new buildings lack electricity as well as running water. While power lines run along the main road, sometimes close to the resettlement areas, especially Guba, resettlement centres in many woredas (local districts) are not connected to the electricity grid.

Rather than unifying and mobilizing the country, the dam has become a linchpin in the dynamics of conflict caused by the various groups vying for power in the region.

The GERD’s impact on the Tigray conflict

As part of the recent conflict in Tigray, the Ethiopian government has been relying on ethnic militias in coalition with government forces, to fight against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). When the Benishangul-Gumuz region requested the assistance of federal troops in September 2020 following attacks by militiamen, the intervention of state forces compounded ethnic tensions and violence. Old fears that Gumuz were being displaced by Amhara were reignited, which led to the deepening of inter-ethnic conflict in the region. The federal authorities fuelled the conflict further in November 2020 after federal police produced a documentary, broadcast on state-owned channels, claiming that a Tigrayan businessman in Metekel was paid by the TPLF to organize Gumuz militias and attack Amharas in the region. This led to more warfare rather than any strengthening of social cohesion. 

In the context of an increasingly complex and layered series of political, military, regional and international conflicts, the dam has become a target for many groups. The Benishangul-Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement led an attack near the GERD in 2017; 10 of its members were subsequently sentenced to lengthy prison terms following the deaths of nine people in the incident. In 2021, Tigrayan fighters reportedly tried to attack the dam but were thwarted by federal forces, who killed 50 and wounded 70 others. Amharan militias, on the other hand, who have mobilized troops in coalition with federal forces, are also reportedly seeking to gain a stronger foothold in Metekel.

Conclusion

Rather than unifying and mobilizing the country, the dam has become a linchpin in the dynamics of conflict caused by the various groups vying for power in the region. By allowing a major hydropower project to go ahead in a region affected by the marginalization of minority and indigenous communities, insecurity, environmental degradation and inter-ethnic violence, the historical tendency to oppress Gumuz farmers and dispossess local communities has escalated to the point of serious human rights violations, including denial of water access, lack of services, violence and mass killings. Furthermore, as the brutal war in Tigray has been conflated with ethnic conflicts already raging in the region, so various ethnic groups have turned their attention to the GERD – a symbol of national progress and unity through hydropower development – as a potential war target.

Rather than unifying and mobilizing the country, the dam has become a linchpin in the dynamics of conflict caused by the various groups vying for power in the region. By allowing a major hydropower project to go ahead in a region affected by the marginalization of minority and indigenous communities, insecurity, environmental degradation and inter-ethnic violence, the historical tendency to oppress Gumuz farmers and dispossess local communities has escalated to the point of serious human rights violations, including denial of water access, lack of services, violence and mass killings. Furthermore, as the brutal war in Tigray has been conflated with ethnic conflicts already raging in the region, so various ethnic groups have turned their attention to the GERD – a symbol of national progress and unity through hydropower development – as a legitimate war target.

It is vital that the structural weaknesses that contribute to the ethnic fragmentation and collapse of social cohesion in the region should be addressed by the Ethiopian state. Importantly, the state should ensure that it upholds the rights of the indigenous peoples and minority groups whose ancestral homes will be flooded by the mega-dam. State development efforts must go hand in hand with a stronger participatory element from the different indigenous peoples in the country, particularly those who will be most affected by these projects. Immediate efforts are needed to assess and address the full range of rights that have been affected as a result of the dam’s construction. A more participatory approach must also take into consideration the needs of the resettled communities in the new villages and resettlement centres. The Ethiopian state must be able to guarantee security, livelihoods and cultural rights. A truly meaningful participatory discussion on the impacts of the dam on affected communities can only be envisioned in the context of a full-fledged national dialogue, where the needs and concerns of minorities and indigenous peoples are put on the table and agreed upon so as to find a way forward.

Gumuz people returning home from market day, carrying their supplies over their shoulders. Oda Godere District, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia. Credit: Michael Metaferia.

Photo: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Bameza, Ethiopia. Credit: Yirga Mengistu/Adwa Pictures Plc/dpa/Alamy Live News.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Yosra Elgendi