1984 – 1985 Ethiopian Resettlement Program and its curse on the Anyuaks Culture
By Gugo O. Kwot
Unlike other Ethiopians cultures, which are integrated with one another, Gambella people’s cultures are conservatively untouched and remain to resist assimilation into “conventional Ethiopians culture.” However, Ethiopian government, particularly, Col. Mengistu Hailimariam Communist regime (Derg government) had tried to implement resettlement program in Gambella to absorb the indigenous culture and occupy the fertile land in the region. The land of Gambella is believed to be vast, fertile, and unoccupied. Thus, it has been a core plan of central government in Addis Ababa to relocate the Northern and Northeastern Ethiopians into what other Ethiopians called abundant lands in Gambella.
During the dark days of the 1984-1985 famine, Ethiopia made plans to relocate virtually its entire rural population by the 1990s. It was one of the largest mass movements of people anywhere in the world. The resettlement program was launched in late 1984. By March 1986, about 800,000 households had been moved without their will; the majority of the settlers were from the Northern highlands to distant areas in the Southwest. The government contends that this relocation was necessary for ecological reasons - to rescue those who were affected by drought again and again and could not be rehabilitated in their own area due to infertility of the lands. The draught was actually not the only major reason, but there were others underlining reasons such as assimilation of indigenous Anyuaks into whole culture and reduction of recruitment power of Tigri People Liberation Front (TPLF) members.
In the eve of the resettlement plan, Derg regime induced a lot of cultural changes. Many cultural values were forced to change without the will of Anyuaks. The government also forced Anyuaks off their lands and out of their houses as well. In 1984, Anuak residents were ordered to evacuate two neighborhoods in Gambella town, “Betoure and Ajumara”. At least 200 huts were bulldozed in order to build new houses for Soviet specialists sent to work on a dam and irrigation scheme. The residences were left unattended; even no reimbursement was made for their goods.
Probably no area in Ethiopia is more affected by resettlement and villagization than Gambella region, which had received more than 80,000 of highland settlers. In the 1987, the resettlement in Gambella had been blurred. Local Anyuak, who were used as unpaid laborers in the construction of the resettlement camps, were integrated into the same camps as a part of the resettlement program. The best example was villagization in 1987 at Okuna-kejung in the Abobo district in an attempt to move Anyuaks into the integrated settlements. The same tactics were also used to induce Anyuaks to move to the state farms at Shubo village, Abobo District. When the Anyuaks refused to leave and continued to sow their own crops in the traditional way, the government brought in tractors and plowed the riverbank crops under in an attempt to starve out the Anyuaks. All of their original villages and surrounding gardens have been destroyed to make way for collective agricultural schemes. Following the expulsion from their lands and destruction of their homes, the Anuaks either moved to resettlement camp or to unoccupied land to start new life. However, the ongoing influx of tens of thousands of settlers into the Gambella region, and the massive clearing of forested land required by this scheme, has undoubtedly made internal movement more difficult. As more settlers moved into the region, the resource base further diminished. The surrounding forests were indiscriminately felled to make way for vast agricultural projects that altered the entire hydrologic cycle of the region; certainly the silt load these rivers carry were increase.
To make sure that Anyuaks were well under control, some of the highland settlers have been organized into armed militias and security forces to control the Anyuak population and squelch resistance. The proposed camp militia's main duty was to prevent settlers from leaving the camp; to guard machine shops and storage areas where food items were kept before being transported out of the camp; and to prevent settlers not to sell the food and non-food items they received for daily use. But the camp militia’s duties were far beyond these activities. The government created checkpoints on all Anyuaks roads, and the militias were assigned on those checkpoints to prevent Anyuaks moving from one village to another. Those who refused for their right were bound and beaten by settler militias raised by the government; these armed government militias had killed many Ayuaks.
The disadvantage of resettlement was not only to Anyuaks but also to the settlers themselves. Thousands of them died from diseases or fled illegally from the resettlement sites. Those who fled crossed the border into Sudan, and took political asylum in the Sudan. Some have either moved to other parts of Ethiopia or returned to their places of origin. The stream of settlers left the sites slowed to a trickle as those who remained adapted to the new life. On the other hand, the fall of the Military government (Derg regime) to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991 created new circumstances. EPRDF government granted settlers the right to return to their places of origin. This benefited both the settlers and the Anyuaks alike. Tens of thousands settlers returned to their original places freely leaving Anyuaks without tension of violence which was created by Derg government. Although few of them remain in region, their presents do not threaten the Anyuaks culture. As a result, Gambella today has restored some sort of calm and its environmental resources are recovering from disastrous.
The author of this article resides in the United States and can be reached at email@example.com.