21/05/09 (B 499) IRIN (ONU) Ethiopie : donner une chance à la paix dans le Sud OMO. // ETHIOPIA: Giving peace a chance in South Omo (En Anglais)

Zuga Sherdo grew up in a community that was constantly fighting its neighbours in southern Ethiopia.

As a young Malee man, he lived through conflict between his community and the Bena, Tsemai and Ari, in which his uncle’s family killed his brother and his father’s clan killed his mother’s relatives.

"My community was always in bloody [conflict] with neighbours," he said. "I was born from a Bena mother, but was fighting members of that community."

This year, all that changed when he decided to represent the pastoralist Malee community, one of 16 such groups in South Omo, at a peace conference.

The meeting, in Turmi town on 8-9 May, brought together government officials, NGOs and community leaders. It was organised by the Ethiopian Research and Development Association.

"I am now rewriting my life story," he told IRIN.

About half the 577,000 people in South Omo are pastoralists living in a relatively less developed region of the country. They are part of the nine to ten million (12-13 percent) of Ethiopia’s population whose livelihoods depend heavily on livestock.

According to Oxfam UK, marginalisation, harsh climatic conditions, poor basic services, conflict over pasture and water resources and recurrent droughts have made these communities particularly vulnerable.

Resource questions

Local leaders in South Omo said the arid climate had depleted resources, especially pasture and water, leading to clashes between pastoralists. Cattle rustling was also rampant.

"The generic cause of the conflict is related to problems of development," Nigatu Dansa, chief administrator of South Omo zone, told IRIN. Official statistics, he added, showed that the zone faired worse than others in terms of education, health and potable water coverage.

Education coverage in the pastoralist areas of the zone, for example, was 15 percent four years ago. While this had improved to 45 percent, it was still far below the 78 percent average in other areas.

As a result, Nigatu said, misconceptions, old traditions and harmful practices had flourished. For example, people who stole cattle from another ethnic group were regarded heroes.

"One of the reasons for cattle theft is the amount of dowry needed for a marriage," he added. "A person who does not have the required amount is forced to steal cattle from other areas."

Positive impact

The peace meeting, which was also attended by communities from neighbouring Kenya, delved into the main causes of the conflict and possible solutions. The use of a third party to organise the meeting helped to ease tensions.

Such meetings, participants said, were having a positive impact. "Conflicts are not [increasing] these days," Abashare Jilo, an elder from the neighbouring Borena community, told IRIN.

The Borena from Oromia region were often involved in recurring conflicts. Whenever someone from their community was killed, they often responded violently – a situation that is now changing.

"A year ago, members of the Hamer [community] killed six of our men," Abashare said. "We did not rush to counteract. Instead we went through government bodies and the perpetrators are now in custody."

Without giving figures to illustrate the decline in inter-communal violence, Nigatu said the communities now discussed issues and solved their problems.

Kenyan officials at the meeting agreed the situation was improving.

"Now we can see [the] Dasenech from Ethiopia and Gabra from Kenya willing to surrender what they raided from each other," Charles Njinjy, the Kenyan police commander at Illeret station, Lake Turkana, said.

"We have tackled the bigger things," he told IRIN. "When we have peace, security forces do not have a problem. [Without] peace, we are always chasing criminals and law-breakers."

Illegal arms

Skirmishes between Kenyan Turkana and Ethiopian Nyangtom or Sassenach communities are frequent, mainly because of cattle rustling. The large number of small arms owned by these populations fuels the skirmishes.

According to the International Action Network on Small Arms, Ethiopia’s 80 or so ethnic groups have different customs relating to possession and use of firearms.

Many are strongly attached to their firearms. Despite government strategies on gun control, illegal firearms pose a major threat to public safety in the country, as is the case throughout Central and East Africa.

Nigatu said Ethiopia was now lobbying for a regional approach to control arms trafficking. "We [have] tried to control illegal arm trafficking," Nigatu told IRIN. "However, the pastoralists have linked arms to their survival.

"The [issue] should be seen in a regional perspective," the South Omo administrator added.