Building state institutions, providing services, and promoting economic development in conflict-affected regions are usually considered integral to peacebuilding. This essay interrogates that position by drawing on empirical evidence from fieldwork conducted in Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley—a  marginalized region inhabited by agro-pastoralist groups such as the Mursi and Mela (Bodi) of Salamago district. There are several ongoing government-led development projects in the region,  including large-scale industrial sugar production, road construction, hydro-electric dams, and villagization (the resettlement of people in villages, as opposed to scattered settlements). It appears that rather than contributing to peacebuilding, these large-scale development projects have led to new forms of violence and increased insecurity.

Developing a marginalized region

Past Ethiopian governments have been more concerned with suppressing pastoral conflicts than developing the Lower Omo Valley. This seemed to change with the construction of a series of hydro-power dams on the Omo River in the 2000s, with Gibe III dam being the most consequential to the valley. By regulating the river’s flow, the dam will allow for the irrigation of agriculture, but it will also preclude “flood-retreat agriculture,” the annual flooding cycle that makes the land in the valley productive, and on which agro-pastoralist communities traditionally depend. In the government’s view, this is a necessary sacrifice for the developmental state project, which requires that all resources be mobilized towards the shared objective of ‘making poverty history.’ Such adverse consequences are glossed over as ‘birth pangs’ of development: inevitable, tolerable, and justifiable in light of the long-term fruits of development.

Sugar industrialization in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley

News of the development of large sugarcane plantations in the Omo Valley came in January 2011, during celebrations marking the 13th National Pastoralist Day. The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced his government’s intention to create a “stable” and “secure” source of livelihood for pastoralists through sugar industrialization, entrusting the state-run Ethiopian Sugar Corporation with the responsibility of establishing plantations and factories in the area.

The plantations in the valley are expected to cover 175,000 hectares of land: 50,000 hectares on the eastern side of the river in Salamago district, and the remaining 125,000 hectares on the western side. In Salamago, land clearing and construction of irrigation facilities for the plantations began in 2013. Simultaneously, a villagization scheme was initiated with the aim of congregating households in clusters so that the government could easily provide basic services and help agro-pastoralists benefit from industrialization through an outgrower scheme. Sugar development and villagization also necessitated the firmer integration of Salamago district into the central government through increased security presence and infrastructural integration, thereby extending state authority to the valley. More importantly, the government was convinced that these development schemes would eradicate the root causes of (pastoral) conflict, provide employment, and help build peace. 1 2 The government thought that the number of pastoral conflicts would decline if the agro-pastoralists adopted new modes of subsistence and reduced their dependence on cattle (economically and culturally). That expectation proved misguided as Salamago has become more insecure and conflict-prone due to the large-scale state interventions. 3

Development at the expense of peace?

Development and statebuilding are not neutral, apolitical, or merely technical; rather, these policies and processes are manifestations of state power in economic, organizational, social, and knowledge spheres. By damming the river, establishing vast sugar plantations, building a town from scratch for tens of thousands of workers, and constructing canals over 150 kilometers long, the state has clearly demonstrated its power and its capacity to impose its will on the people. In doing so it has laid bare the relative powerlessness of the local agro-pastoralist communities. In spite of this, the government’s actions have led to local contestation of government policies and violent resistance.

There is a view that since Ethiopia’s officials and experts mainly originate from the highlands—where settled farming is the norm—they tend to look down on pastoralism, both as a mode of production and culture. These cultural biases are reflected in policy documents and implementation processes in which pastoralist groups in the valley are regarded as backward and in need of ‘civilizing’ state interventions. Such attitudes have contributed towards making service delivery conditional on joining officially-designated villages, abandoning traditional practices, and adopting a sedentary lifestyle. However, the villagization scheme was not successful—mainly due to the community’s attachment to cattle and the imperative of herd mobility. In an attempt to completely re-engineer local social, economic, and political life the state has engaged in acts of ‘cultural violence.’ This has contributed to conflict and resistance, which has at times turned violent.

For example, the increase in vehicular traffic in the valley has led to several car accidents which have injured and killed people and cattle. These accidents have been viewed by the local community as a deliberate attempt by the central government to ‘finish them off’ and take their land. Such suspicions have resulted in hostility towards labor migrants, and have reportedly led to the killings of employees of the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation, and those residing in nearby towns.

The socio-economic dynamics in the Omo Valley cannot be properly understood outside of Ethiopia’s political economy, which is animated by an agenda of resource mobilization, technological modernization, and foreign currency generation. Whatever happens in the valley is done mainly to serve the interests and demands of the center. In cases of contestation, the interests of the center prevail, at the expense of demands from below.

Concluding Remarks

Peace does not intrinsically follow from top-down development and statebuilding initiatives. 4 Officials and experts who have imposed their values and interests on local communities, have mistakenly perceived these groups as lacking agency, often assuming that they can be easily managed without significant pushback. In marginalized areas such as the Lower Omo River Valley, the differences in culture and values will not be easily reconciled—increasing the likelihood of resistance and conflict.

If development and statebuilding are to contribute to peacebuilding, then interventions—in this case state directed development projects—should be in line with, or at least cognizant of local values, interests, participation, and cultures. Interventions should also be inclusive of views from ‘below,’ and cannot remain an exclusive, top-down process. If the central government  prioritizes its own interests and values in the name of development and statebuilding, and continues to marginalize the local population, the promise of long-term, ‘trickle-down’ benefits from these large-scale economic projects will not be enough to prevent conflict.

  1. If pastoral conflicts are mainly about cattle, pasture and water, a decline in dependence on cattle rearing, the government thought, would lead to reduced incidence/severity of conflict.
  2. Interviews: Experts, Administration Office and Security Administration Office, Jinka; and Security Administration Office, Salamago.
  3. Ibid. For example, road ambushes (unknown to Salamago in the past) became common, sometimes leading to the killing of labor migrants along the only road linking Hana town (the closest town to the plantations) and Jinka (the Zone’s administrative capital). District police now enforce a 10:00 p.m curfew in Hana town.
  4. see for example Autesserre, S. (2012). Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences. African Affairs, 111/443: 202-222.