To whom does Ethiopia’s Gambella oil belong

By Idris Shaankkore*
Posted 3/10/06

"... history amply illustrates that the once oppressed will eventually be emancipated from the grips of the oppressors and become antagonists of those who empowered the oppressors."

Mar 9, 2006 --- In the late 19th Century, whenever the Abyssinian colonizers from Northern Ethiopia, extended their territory, Abyssinian settlers took Oromo and Southern lands by force, the crops, livelihoods and very existence of indigenous populations were endangered. Like the Oromos and the other Southern Peoples of Ethiopia, during the periods of conquest and colonization, the indigenous people of Gambella were dispossessed of their entire livelihoods by the Abyssinian colonizers, especially their indigenous lands, murdered, and sold into slavery. The dire poverty of the Gambella peoples, formerly pejoratively referred to as "Shankella" is a legacy of Abyssinian colonial history and exploitation, and sinister schemes under the Feudal, the Mengistu Haile Mariam and the present EPRDF Governments to settle Northern Ethiopians in the fertile ancestral lands of the indigenous population. Many of the indigenous Peoples of Gambella are internally displaced people and many indeed reside in refugee camps in their own land and in neighboring Eastern Sudan.

The crimes suffered on the Gambella by the Abyssinian colonizers and the and subsequent Ethiopian regimes is nothing short of acts genocide and dispossession of these peoples for the benefit of Abyssinian settlers, who received protection and assistance from the Ethiopian State. The indigenous people of Gambella have often sought, since the birth of the Ethiopian State, to preserve their identity and their land. In Gambella, the agriculturist Anuak minority (also known as Anywaa or Anywak) number over 100,000 people in Ethiopia and Sudan. Anuaks are the predominant landholders in the region of southwest Ethiopia. Anuaks have a long history of sharing the land with the pastoralist Nuer people, even though their relationship has been intermittently problematic.

Multinational corporations have now set their sights on the natural resources of the Gambella region. Petroleum (oil & gas), water, tungsten, platinum and gold are the principal resources in the Gambella region that are of interest to international financial and extraction corporations. Ethiopian government authorities thus have powerful economic incentives to seek control of these resources.

The Anuak situation has grown markedly worse since oil was discovered under Anuak lands by the Gambella Petroleum Corp, a subsidiary of Pinewood Resources Ltd. of Canada, which signed a concession agreement with the Ethiopian government in 2001. In May 2001, however, Pinewood relinquished all rights to the Gambella oil concession and pulled out of Ethiopia and on June 13, 2003, Malaysia’s state-owned petroleum corporation, Petronas, which has been exploring and developing oil fields in Sudan announced the signing of an exclusive 25-year oil exploration and production sharing agreement with the EPRDF Government to exploit the Ogaden Basin and the "Gambella Block".

The Gambella concession, which stretches across a 19,600 sq. km of land is an extension of the Melut basin, located in south Sudan, and is known for its huge amount of oil reserve. On February 17, 2004, the Ethiopian Minister of Mines announced that the Malaysian company will launch a natural gas exploration project in the Gambella region. On March 7, 2006, a Chinese petroleum company, Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB), which was contracted by Petronas, to undertake drilling works started drilling the first exploration well in the Gambella basin, to be finalized within three months.

The Malaysian company seeks to profit at the expense of the indigenous population without regard for power disparities of indigenous communities, the high stakes revenue sharing/distribution issues, and environmental impacts, potentially igniting "vertical" and "horizontal conflicts" in the Region (among and within communities, between communities and the local or national government and at times leading to cross-border conflicts). In addition, disaffected groups will "challenge" the governments in hopes of winning a share of the lucrative oil revenues. Environmental damage by oil extraction sparks protest movements and deadly violence, which are frequently met by government repression. Boundary disputes between states over oil reserves represent yet another link between oil and violence.

To this writer’s knowledge, the indigenous people of Gambella were neither consulted nor informed about these resource extractions nor were the distributions or sharing of revenues negotiated with the indigenous population by Petronas or the EPRDF Government. Yet, the array of burdens, ranging from the expropriation of land, displacement and resettlements, environmental and economic refugees, disruption of traditional ways of life, environmental devastation, increased food insecurity and social maladies, will be borne by the local populations.

"The notion that the oil-bearing areas provide the revenue of the country, and yet be denied a proper share of that revenue ... is unjust, immoral, unnatural and ungodly. Why should the people on oil-bearing land be tortured?" - Ken Saro-Wiwa. The fundamental question "to whom does the resource belong" raises a very intricate question, which involved many years of study and deliberation and debate by philosophers, political scientists, historians, and international lawyers. Deliberations and writings eventually culminated in the development and acceptance of certain doctrines and principles to serve as the foundation for the present international norms. The premise in support of or against self-determination is no longer open to argument or persuasion on philosophical or political grounds and is firmly rooted in international law. The right of self-determination of the Gambella people is a right accruing to the claimant independent of the rights, wishes, concerns, or strategic and political interests of others. The right of self-determination or the right of self-determination of "peoples" is not a claim under the constitution of a country, rather, it is a fundamental principle and right under international law. This right is embodied in the Charter of the United Nations plus the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Common Article 1 of these Covenants provides that:

"1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefits, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.

3. The States Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations."

The right of self-determination has also been recognized in many other international and regional human rights instruments, such as Part VII of the Helsinki Final Act 1975 and Article 20 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Territories and Peoples1. It has been endorsed by the International Court of Justice. Furthermore, the scope and content of the right of self- determination has been elaborated upon by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Secondly, in addition to being a right under international law, peoples’ right of self-determination is regarded by some international law scholars as Jus cogens - a peremptory norm of general international law from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law of the same nature.

The economic or resource dimension of the right of self-determination is emphasized in common paragraph 2 of Article 1 of the Covenants: "All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic cooperation,

Land is central to the life of indigenous people and is the core of their heritage and their existence. The relationship between indigenous peoples and their land embodies fundamental rights that are simultaneously legal, economic and social in nature and form part and parcel of their identity. The issue of land and resource rights is the most important question for the majority of the world’s indigenous peoples. Just like Oromos, the Gambella people regard their land and resources rights as being an integral part of their right of self-determination.

In fact, the dispute over natural resources is at the heart of some of the most intractable conflicts around the world, including in Africa today, from Sudan to Congo to Nigeria. Even amid international efforts to bring greater transparency to the continent’s resource exploration, the recent strife in Sudan, Nigeria, and Congo is a microcosm of conflict, widespread theft and mismanagement, which observers attribute to a combination of colonial-era intervention, corrupt governments, and cynical behavior by Western policymakers and multinationals.

Numerous investigations and studies have also demonstrated that "Black gold" uniquely often brings hardship and misery to the indigenous societies where it is found and petroleum-producing countries are plagued by corrupt and authoritarian governments, and unsustainable economic development and violent conflict. Studies have documented how foreign powers and their huge multinational oil companies often maneuver for control of indigenous lands through clandestine operations, bribery, or outright military intervention.

If the fundamental right to self-determination of all peoples and the right to their indigenous economic resources is firmly established in international law, should these rights not be honored, applied, and enforced equally and universally by all nations, particularly, by the Western framers and advocates of the covenants? It is this writers contention that nations which perpetuate the violations of international norms by oppressive regimes in order to promote their self interest, will in the long term suffer the resentment and anger of the oppressed who will manifest their hostility by means which will be characterized as terrorism. Furthermore, history amply illustrates that the once oppressed will eventually be emancipated from the grips of the oppressors and become antagonists of those rogue regimes like Malaysia and China who empowered the oppressors.

Petronas and the China National Petroleum Corporation are currently operating in Sudan, where, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, the two Asian oil giants have allegedly provided cover for their respective governments to ship arms and military equipment to Sudan in exchange for oil concessions granted by Khartoum.

* Idris Shaankkore is a resident of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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