Bench Sheko Zone is one of the 14 zones in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR). The Zone is bordered on the south by Ilemi Triangle, on the southwest by South Sudan, on the northwest by Gambela Region, on the north by Sheka Zone of SNNPR, on the northeast by Keffa Zone, and on the southeast by South Omo. Ethnic groups like Dizi, Suri, Sheko, Kefa, Sheka, Mezhenger, Bench, and Me’enit are considered indigenous to the Zone. People who settled in Bench Sheko Zone as part of the resettlement programs of the mid-1980s and from 2003 to 2004 are considered ‘settlers.’ Besides government-induced migration, Bench Sheko Zone has long been an area attractive to economic migrants who travel to work on commercial farms and artisanal gold mines. The conflict between these indigenous and settler groups occurs at regular intervals.
Violent conflict has occurred most recently in Maji and Guraferda Woredas of the Zone. In Maji Woreda, ethnic Suri often clashes with authorities over access to water from the Koki river, which has been diverted to the Koka plantation owned by Malaysian investors (The Oakland Institute, 2014). In 2011, the government started its villagization program which was designed to settle the pastoral and agro-pastoral population of the Suri and the Me’enit within the Bench Sheko Zone. This program has been heavily criticized as causing conflict as it “displaces land users to make way for commercial agricultural investments” (Tagel Wondimu & Fana Gebresenbet, 2018, p.155).
In Guraferda, the indigenous ethnic groups Sheko and Mezheniger blame settler populations for cutting trees and the reduction of bee populations. As the livelihoods of the locals depend on honey and cattle, competition over land is a key source of conflict between these two groups. After the opening of the political space in 2018, there have been frequent attacks on settler civilians, who are mostly ethnic Amharas, by unidentified armed groups.