Armed Conflict in Southwestern Ethiopia, Gambella, and Its impact on the Development in the Region

By Gugo O. Kwot*
June 18, 2006


As it is always stated in Ethiopian Tourism’s brochures, Gambella is one of the breathtaking and “Pearl” regions in the country. Unlike other parts of Ethiopia, Gambella has unique features, which include landscape, vegetation, and climate that make the region attractive to whole Ethiopians. In addition to that, it is inhabited by people who are relatively different in their color of skin and cultures from their counterpart in the Ethiopian highland. Although Gambella remains one of the most beautiful regions in the country with its most graceful fertile land and kindhearted people, Gambella’s road to modern development has been marked by extended periods of turbulences, brutalities and human made disaster in the last twenty years. Thus, the aim of this article is to point out the impact of armed conflicts on economic, education, health services, and social live; to have a say to the development of a more coherent conflict prevention and peace building policy; finally to serve as sensitizing tool for stakeholders, both Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling party and opposition parties in the Gambella region. In order to have a discussion about the serious social, economic, education, health and political challenges that Gambella and its inhabitants confront today, it might be useful to begin with some short of history, more recent perspective, and even some predictable prospective problems that the region may face in the near future.

Gambella has a history dating back 2,000 years. Even though Ethiopia own historical records concluded in the 17th century, there was no dispute over Gambella as an independent state or history different from both Ethiopia and Sudan history. The existence of Gambella as an independent state during this period is historic and cannot be denied. Gambella was well known because of its location on the Baro/Openo River, a tributary of the Nile, which was seen by both the British and Ethiopia as an excellent port for exporting coffee and other goods from the fertile Ethiopia highlands to Sudan and Egypt. Emperor Menelike II of Ethiopia granted Britain of this part of Ethiopia as a free port in 1902 and Gambella became a prosperous trade center as ships from Khartoum sailed in regularly during the rainy season. Gambella became a part of Italian East Africa in 1936, but was returned to British rule after a bloody battle in 1941. Now a day, most Sudanese misunderstood or intentionally misinterpreted this part of Gambella’s history. They think that Gambella was then a part of Sudan, but it was incorporated in Ethiopia territories later. It was actually Emperor Menelike II of Ethiopia [under “Anglo-Egyptian Condominium’s Article IV of 1902”] who allowed Britain to use Gambella as a free port to transport goods to Sudan. Since British were ruling Sudan during this period, Gambella was said to be part of Sudan in 1951. As it was known that Gambella was part of Ethiopia in the euphoria of Sudan’s independence in 1956, Sudanese delegations to Addis Ababa agreed to officially hand over Gambella to the Imperial Ethiopian government in 1956. The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium’s Article IV of 1902 that guaranteed British Sudanese administration of Gambella had now come to a peaceful end. Although the Condominium ended, Baro/Openo River Gambella’s port would be still accessible to Sudan government steamers during high water months to transport coffee and other goods from the Ethiopian highlands to the markets of the Northern Sudan until the Derg Era (Ethiopian Military government). However, the port was closed during the Derg Era, and it remains closed due to tension between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), Derg allied, and the Sudan government.

Sudan Civil War:

As a result of civil war in Sudan, which erupted in 1983, Southern Sudanese refugees entered into Ethiopia through Gambella region. Beginning in June 1987, there was a great influx of Sudanese refugees until their numbers reached several thousands. They entered into Gambella through Jikow district, and they were resettled in many locations through out Gambella region. In Itang refugees camp alone there were more than 200,000 refugees whereas Bonga was designated for the SPLA major field training camp. Like Anya-Anya One, prior Southern Sudanese liberation movement, SPLA had monopolized economic and some political aspects in the region. The Derg regime was one of the best friends of Dr. John Garang, SPLA leader during the course of the struggle for they both share common political interest. The SPLA effectively administrated this part of the country, and could directly extract parts of the foreign aid channeled through Ethiopian governmental aid organizations. The 21-year-old civil war in Sudan was one of the sources of massive Gambella development destruction and it has affected the region from the economic, social and cultural points of view. Although the negative impact of this war has mainly been felt in the parts of Gambella where refugees were settled, still the whole Gambella region was affected. They severely destructed infrastructure of Gambella region including lost of dozens human and wild animals lives as well as environmental resources. Gambella has been a safe haven for Sudanese refugees and politicians during the two civil wars in Sudan, and of course wars residues have had negative impact on the Gambella’s social lives. The areas of Gambella region where refugees settled or entered became under the auspices of the SPLA. They embarked on massive destruction of village homesteads and infrastructure. These are followed by reprisal attacks on the civilian population, looting of cattle and foodstuffs and burning down villages. The civilians have been deliberately targeted or some times they have fallen into indiscriminate gunfire and are often stripped of their belongings. The worse ever was in Pinyudo which SPLA members killed about 75 - 100 Anyuak civilians in a single day in 1990. This number doesn’t include Anyuak men, women and young teens that were shot and killed in the forest through out the region. The actual number was not correctly reported because the leaders of Gambella region were very closely tied to the SPLA leaders. Even Gamelans, the Anyuaks, perceive that the regional leaders, particularly, Mr. Thuat Pal and Mr. Joshua (Opal) De Lual, both are from the Nuer tribe, might have planned the attack in Pinyudo.

Gambella was well known for its tourism attractions as the region was known for many different kind of animals, and birds, but now a day, it is almost impossible to see a single animal even the most populated herd of animal such as Elephant, Lion, Tigers, Buffalos, Crocodiles and others. Don’t mention Rhinos, which was very rear in Gambella region. The impacts on natural resources include: deforestation, devegetation, erosion destruction, degradation and pollution, and overgrazing. These negative impacts were felt severely in the period preceding 1987 due to the rapid, heavy refugee influx. These impacts, actually, would have been redressed by the international and Ethiopia government agencies by creating environmental programs, which implement environmental awareness.  The heavy influx of refugees in the early 1987 and the subsequent roll-in of international humanitarian agencies took its toll on local social and physical infrastructure. Bridges and school buildings were run down or destroyed while social services such as education, health and water were severely strained. It is important to appreciate that the preexisting social and physical infrastructure was constrained financially and materially and that increased demand and utilization only depreciated these further.

Emerge of New Ethiopian Government:

After Derg regime was over through by Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991, for the first time in history Gambella-Central government in Addis Ababa relationship had gone beyond traditional threshold. The new Ethiopia Constitution ratified in 1994 breaks away from the constitutions implemented during the imperial reign and the military dictatorship by incorporating the marginalized regions in the country such as Gambella, and Benashigul. EPRDF government establishes Ethiopia as a federal State with a parliamentary form of government based on a democratic “multi-party system.”  Moreover, the new Ethiopian Constitution gives a relative wide-range individual and collective human rights protection guaranteeing the implementation of the international covenants and instruments Ethiopia had ever ratified. The main constitutional control on governmental hegemony and authoritarianism is embedded in the federal provisions and the right to self-determination for ethnic groups. Minority rights are also emphasized in many sectors of the Constitution such as this: every ethnic group and minority has the right to “speak, to write and to develop its own language; to express, to develop and to promote its culture; and to preserve its history.”  “Has the right to a full measure of self-government that includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and to equitable representation in state and Federal governments.”

This new Ethiopia government gave full hope to Gambellians for the first time ever to engage in real cultural development and their so-called self-control regional government. During recent Ethiopia-Eritrea boundary conflict, many Gambella nationalities voluntarily lined up to fight for their country, as they would do previously. After the resolution of this conflict, many soldiers were discharged with one time settlement pay. This is one of the grave mistakes the EPRDF Government had done. After these soldiers run out of money, they became jobless which led them to carry out their robbery or ambush activities to get daily foods. These kind of barbaric acts were seen through out Ethiopian, mostly the regions with high unemployment population like Gambella. Like other parts of Ethiopian, Gambella region involved in a serious unknown armed conflicts. The periodical attacks by unknown armed groups still in progress. Unlike other parts of Ethiopia, Gambella is one of the best strategies in Ethiopia. Thus, the region today is surrounded by armed groups like Ethiopian Patriotic Army, led by Thuat Pal, Oromo Liberation Army (OLF), and small local armed opposition groups. All these groups operate in Gambella region, and the victims of their attacks are always the civilians both the Anyuaks and their highland counterparts.  Even though the Anyuaks, the majority tribe in the region, are most likely to be killed by both EPRDF army and the rebel groups in the region, the majority of the attacks are usually blammed on the Anyuaks.  The December 13, 2003 incident in an apparent reprisal for a series of ambushes of government officials from Ethiopian highland is one of the best examples of skirmish in the region.  The Ethiopia soldiers incorporated with highlander civilians had launched a brutal attack on Gambela's Anuak population. According to the Human Rights Watch, about 424 innocent civilians were killed at daylight on this sigle day. The number of civilians killed in the incident could be much higher than reported. The ambushes and indiscriminate killing of the civilians are still going on.  As from that day, Gambella social, economic, education, health and political were seriously crippled and believed to stay like that unless an appropriate resolution is pursued.
Even though before Dec. 13, 2003 opposition operating in Jikaw, Gambella region causes negative impact on infrastructure and lost of lives in Itang and Jikaw districts, the worse ever insecurity situation was after Dec.13, 2003 conflict. This has led to massive and persistent disruption, hardship, dislocation and suffering for the people within that region and far beyond. Even in addition to previously formed oppositions operating in Gambella region, the conflict created new other oppositions which even contributed to a lost of innocent civilians lives. After Dec. 13, 2003, the struggle of oppositions in Gambella has reached a new historical turning point. They involved in immense destruction of social infrastructure and killing of innocent civilians. For instance, in Abobo town, water tang and public radio station have been deliberately destroyed. Most of the schools, clinics and tertiary institutions that were in the far parts Abobo, Gog and Jor districts have been completely out of use. Many of the civil society organizations formerly operating in Gambella region were forced to withdraw since they had become targets of the warring parties. Commercial transactions such as public bus from Gambella town to Pinyudo town have been reduced to two days schedule, Monday and Friday till these days. The roads to rural community have also been infested with government army to prevent civilian transportations from attack as perpetrators frequently target them whether be Amen group, Thuat Pal group, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) or the Anyuak Armed group. The civilians have fallen victim of these armed opposition parties. The most recent example is the attack of public transportation bus on the way from Addis Ababa to Gambella on June 11, 2006, which left about 18 civilians dead; and an evil killing of a elementary student Anyuak boy of Okuna in Abobo district: the abdomen left cut open, and his legs and hands were cut off.

Dec. 13, 2003 conflict has caused major social, economic, health and education disruption on Anyuak populations in particular. In the course of these armed conflicts, fear and disruption make it difficult to create an atmosphere conducive to learning, and the morale of public workers is likely to be low. As conflicts drag on for months or even years, economic and social developments are more likely to suffer. Educational opportunities in Dimma, Jor, Gog, Abobo, Gambella and Itang districts today are limited or even cease to exist in those areas. Most Anyuak villages have been unable to develop their livelihoods because they have been unable to either invest in education or have lost productive members of their households. They have had to divert household expenditure to non-productive expenses such as additional health care, food purchase and replacement of lost assets. The worse ever are in Gog and Okuna schools, Gog and Abobo districts respectively which were completely looted or forced to close down till today.  Another most immediate effect of armed conflict in the region was the disruption of food supplies. Farmers, who are often women, older children and adults, are forced to reduce their plots of land to nearby house or totally relinquish their traditional farming and evacuate the land leave for a safe place for fear of attacks from both rebel and government opposition members in government army. Some reduce the area under cultivation, and their water sources. Sometimes, damage to food system is deliberately done. For example, in the early 2005, in one village of Gambella district, the armed opposition destroyed planted corn acres.

The problem in Gambella is multifaceted which encompass social, political and economical. Thus, it will not be solved through military means. The impact of the conflict on the lives of ordinary people has been devastating and the situation on the ground does not look like is going to improve anytime soon. Large parts of Gambella region are in political, economical, and social turmoil due to the recent escalation of conflict of Dec. 13, 2003. If both Ethiopian government and oppositions operating in Gambella region are serious about trying to help Gambellians, it is about time that they take a serious look at the causes of the political strife and ugly brutalities that have been occurring in the area and propose serious methods for addressing the problem.

To clump down the current conflict, the following may be helpful to be considered:

  1. Ethiopian government needs to build better relations between indigenous Gambellan and EPRDF army operating in Gambella region. The government has to step up with effective economic, health and education development activities. Gambella hospital must be reconstructed to give better health service for the region. Ethiopian government must reevaluate Gambella education system to graduate better students as possible; and give affirmative action to allow Gambellan to go to universities for the professionals they are not getting these days such as medical, pharmacy, law and engineering. Ethiopian government must also improve the operational effectiveness of its military units in Gambella by eliminating recruited opposition members in military services and end the high level military corruption that encourages some military officers to allow the Gambella conflict to drag on. More importantly, the Federal government of Ethiopia has to call for save return of Gambella’s Anyuak refugees in Sudan and Kenya officially with a promise of job return to those who had been working before Dec. 13, 2003.
  2. The political objectives of oppositions operating in Gambella region need to ensure that people of Gambella should live in freedom and dignity in their homeland to overcome the social, economic, health, education and political challenges instead of destructing the minimum development Gambellan have got. They have to plan for engaging in a peaceful ways that lead to resolve the Gambella’s conflict to gain regional development. They have to know, even in situations of armed conflict, it is important to carry on health services and educating children and young people, no matter how difficult the circumstances are.

Finally, all armed parties have to realize that every Ethiopian citizen in Gambella region has to live in freedom and dignity in their own lands, and they must live peaceful in their historically constituted traditional lands without the domination of external forces. They want to protect their national identity pursing the development of their language, culture and economy. They want to live in their homeland under a system of self-rule as stated in Ethiopian Government Constitution.

As a kick off, I would like to let the readers know that I thank those of you who pursue Gambella development and peace in whole Ethiopia in peaceful way rather than violence. To those who will be offended, I would like to remind you that I am neither a partition nor any political party member. I am an Anyuak born and raised in Gambella, so a typical Ethiopian. I have a right to contribute for Gambella development as well as Ethiopia as a whole. Currently, I live in U.S.A and I can be contacted through   








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