Conflict & resources management in the Gambella region

By Kong J. Toang

Mar 10, 2006

Eastern Jikany Nuer (Gaat-Gaan-Kiir) advanced to their present location as a result of their migration out of Nuer original homeland, which began in the early 19th Century. That migration came to an end only when natural causes intervened, which killed most of their cattle and leading figures at around Pamlachjak, very close to the present day Gambella Western Ethiopia. However, they continued to acquire more land slowly until they occupied both banks of the Baro/Sobat River. But, the European colonization of the Continent had more direct effects on Nuer and Eastern Jikany in particular. This has something to do with the Berlin Conference organized by Ato Von Bismarck of Germany in 1884-5 to divide the Continent among those powers. That policy had affected every tribe on the Continent due to the fact that boundaries, which were devised by these European often, cut one tribe in half, or many times. That policy is partly to blame for the present chaos on the Continent as the whole, because problems faces by one country often spillover onto another country. As such, the present problems faced by the Gambellian living in the Western Ethiopia, traces their genesis to that era. Although the previous governments in Ethiopia had tried to devised some middle ground policy to settled these issues, its now clear that some tougher and fair policies are needed more then ever before in bringing these conflicts to an end once and for all. This article will try to analyze the root causes of the present conflict in the Gambella region, which is located in the Western Ethiopia. That conflict has too many dimensions, which this author will try to covers. These dimensions are: Nuer vs. Annuak, Annuak vs. Highlanders, Nuer vs. Nuer etc.

These dimensions are important pieces in order to understand the root causes or put together the puzzle of the ongoing ethnic conflicts in that region. Some of these conflicts are cross boundaries in characters while others are local. Therefore, this author wills addresses the genesis of inter-tribal and inter-clans wars and what was and should have been done by the present ruling regime in that country.

Backgrounds of the Gambella inhabitants

According to the Ethiopian Parliament site, the state of the Gambella Peoples is "located in the western tip of Ethiopia bordering with the Sudan in the west, south, and north, the State of Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples in the south and east; and with the State of Oromiya in the north and east." It "is composed of two administrative zones and eight woredas" and "the area of the State is estimated at 25,274 square kilometers (not including a woreda recently integrated in to the region)". So it is a pretty small state at the Ethiopian scale. The capital is Gambella. The Gambella city sit on the bank of the Baro river in the western portion of the old province of Illubabor, only about 20 km to the south of the border with the old province of Welega. Despite being a small state, Gambella is quite diverse, ethnically, and the population estimated in only 181,862 inhabitants (in 1994) includes many ethnic groups. The main nationalities of the State are Nuer, Annuak, Mezhenger, Apana and Komo. Moreover, the Oromo, Amhara, Kembeta, Keffa, Tigray and other nations and nationalities live in the State. Of the total ethnic composition the Nuer consists 40%, the Annuak 27%, Amhara 8%, Oromo 6%, Mezhenger 5.8%, Keffa 4.1%, Mocha 2%, Tigray 1.6% and other ethnic groups predominantly from Southern Ethiopia 5.5%". Jorge Candeias, 15 December 1999.

These different ethnic groups lived in the State for quite sometime without devastating inter-tribal conflicts. In particular, the majority Nuer and their cousin, the Annuak, have lived side-by-side in that region for many years. It’s to be point out here that both Nuer and Annuak are Nilotic whose lands the international boundary cut in half. Some of Annuak ethnic group live in the present State of Jonglei, South Sudan, while majority of Nuer live in the three States (Jonglei, Western Upper Nile/Unity, and Upper Nile) in the Southern Part of the Sudanese Republic. It’s to be emphasis here that the present Gambella State came into being at the high of the European entry into the African commerce. It was made part of the Ethiopia through the 1902 Agreement between Ethiopia and British whose interest in the region was to secure some commercial port in that strategic part of the country to exports/imports its goods in the region. Thus, the Governor of the Upper Nile Province in Sudan established Gambella town in 1904, which later became the State Capital. However, the region later reverted back to Ethiopia at the expiration of the British rule in Sudan. In a way, it saved the purpose the British government intended for, which was to use it as a commercial port for transporting goods through the Baro River.

Genesis of Nuer and Annuak conflict in Gambella region

The present ethnic rivalry between two cousins (Nuer and Annuak) has its origin in the 19th Century Nuer migration when Eastern Jikany Nuer sub-clan left Nuer homeland to settle in the new frontier, which became their present homeland. In the course of their migration, the Jikany advanced to their present location by displacing other ethnic groups, including the Annuak, thereby occupying their lands. Although events stopped Eastern Jikany migration for some time, the migration never came to an end. It slowly gained momentum as other factors such as civil wars in Sudan made it impossible for South Sudanese to live in peaceful condition in their country the Sudan.

At the onset, the Annuak used war as the only option to stop the advancing Nuer. It has to be emphasis here that, the Annuak always had an upper hand in those campaigns because of their early accessibility to firearms, which they acquired from Ethiopian highlanders. In the early to late twentieth Century the Annuak, organized many campaigns to stop the advancing Nuer from taking their lands. One of the memorable campaigns ended in killing the Annuak king by the name, Diiw Majaak, at the present day Jiokow town in the Western tip of Gambella region. These campaigns and many others did not deterred Nuer from advancing and annexing more lands; on the contrary, it encourages Nuer to occupied substantial portion of the Annuak lands. The Annuak also killed some permanent Nuer bodies during those campaigns; among these bodies were those of Nyachay Nuar Thoan, and many others. In deed, they often used Nuer war songs to carry their messages to Nuer audiences, which often highlights their grievances.

It has to be reiterates here that Annuak often left their land before Nuer settled in, which is pretty much the pattern Nuer used to acquires more lands. One of the factors behind why the Annuak often left their lands before Nuer occupy it has something to do with how these two ethnic groups live their lives. Annuak are agricultures whose economic livelihood centers on farming and fishing, their economic backbone. Although few rear cattle and goats, majority prepares farming and fishing instead of cattle herding. Nuer on the other hand, are cattle herders just like their others cousins, the Dinka. Their economic backbone centers on cattle business, which is often true that these two businesses (herding cattle and farming) contradicts each other, especially in situation where they are not regulates. The Annuak always prepares to live very far from Nuer because the cattle are threats to their farming businesses. Cattle don’t respects any boundaries, which often offenses Annuak. This is always the triggering event when these two communities come in close vicinity with each other. The other issue has something to do with how these two communities get along in the Gambella politics.

By now, one probably got the picture of the Gambella politics from the above paragraphs. It should be point out here that Gambella region, which was part of the Illubabor region during the Derge regime, was never governed by a non-Abasha (collective name for all highlander nationalities who came from different part of Ethiopian highland) until 1987, when Thowaath Pal Chay (Nuer by ethnic background) was elected to that seat. He held that seat until the fall of the Derge regime, which was replaced by the present government. When that regime departed and the present government came to power, the governorship went to Agua Alemu (an Annuak by ethnic classification) who held that seat for few years until his own clan men assassinated him.

When the Derge regime and the Sudan People Liberation Movement/Army, departed from Ethiopia, and Gambella in particular, the Annuak blames Nuer for atrocities committed against them by the SPLM/A in 1985-90, arguing that Nuer held the Governorship of the region at the time and that SPLM/A came to Annuak land because of the Nuer. They did not understand that SPLM/A had committed atrocities against Nuer Community as well, specifically, the Gaat-Jaak Nuer who are Annuak’s neighbor in the region. Plus, they did not understand the fact that the civil war in the Sudan was the root cause of the South Sudanese influx to Western Ethiopia. Therefore, when the Derge regime was forced out, which also forced SPLM/A out of that country, the new rulers of Gambella claimed that Gambella is an Annuak land and that Nuer should not be allows to live there. Arming themselves with machine guns left over in different part of the State by SPLM/A, the Annuak went in rampant killing and assassination of Nuer intellectuals who decided to come back after they left for security precautions. The purposes of those campaigns were to prevent Nuer from returning back to reclaims Gambella as their homeland. Permanent among those who lost their lives this way were those of Pastor Gatwech Wuol Machar, (Pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Itang), Deng Dung, Biel Kachlech, Chuol Deng Madieng, Chuol Kuoth and the list could go on. There were also indiscriminate killings of Nuer who lives with Annuak friends in different part of the region. That resulted into an all out war between Nuer and the Annuak in the late 1990s, which had caused devastation on the Annuak land and forced some of the lands to be forfeit by Nuer.

On the political front, Annuak occupied all positions in the region, justifying that they fought side-by-side in the liberation war with the ruling party and that they have earned the rights to rule the State with the Iron fist. They had forgotten the fact that governments are conceived to solves social problems and not made to tortures their own subjects. History teaches that government come and goes because idea displaces idea and vise-visa. These rampant killings and character assassinations of Nuer intellectual in the region by members of Annuak ethnic group with knowledge of the Annuak elites had caused distrust between these two communities. That ethnic rivalry in the region made it tougher for development to take place, which also cripples the State economy because more people from rural areas pure in to live in Gambella town, where services are provided. Indeed, the population of the Gambella town had doubled in few years starting in the early 1990s due to the fact that services are not provides in other areas, especially Nuer areas. A thing that surprises Annuak, seeing the numbers of Nuer reaching unbelievable proportions in the Gambella town, thereby outnumbering all nationalities in the Gambella region. They have forgotten that by not taking development to the rural areas, these rural folks would vote by their feet to live where good services are provides, which was the opposite of what the Gambella rulers perceived.

Background of the Abobo Dam and its implications

The idea of building a Dam in the region for the sole purpose of developing that part of the country was proposed by the central government in 1981 when it became clear that the region contains most of the irrigable land in the whole country. When the central government studied how to improved the conditions of its citizen, it was concluded that Ethiopia have roughly three million acres of irrigable land for agriculture of which Illubabor/Gambella has roughly 1.2 million acres out of that three million acres. It was in that background, which had forced the government of the day to relocates most highlanders, specifically from Wollo Region to Gambella in the early 1980s when that region (Wollo) faced the drought of the century. In order to implements the proposed development, the central government decided that building a dam would be necessary in around Abobo area where there were Coffee plantations. That site was selected initially to start the first phase of the project. Other areas in the region were also surveyed, such as Jiokow District, Akobo, Gog-Jor, as well as some part of Wellega region. The reason behind government selection for these areas had something to do with the fact that the region sat on the marshy land and sometime accessibility is impossible during the rainy season. The water often flooded half of the region during the summer season thereby making it tough for work to go on during summer time. In order to master the flood and to redirects the water flow so they could be uses in the dry season for farming and other things, the central government believed that building Dam would serve these twin purposes.

Believing that the project would bring resources and elevates the living standards of the citizens, the central government put a lot of investments in some other projects such as building a Regional Airport, which is now located 15 Kilometers away from the main town (at Makot). That Airport was started in 1983 and was completed in the early part of 1987. Plans were also made to builds roads that would connects rural areas to the main town, Gambella, so that rural folks could have accesses to the town market. It also needs mentioning here that the region was a home to several hundred of thousands of South Sudanese refugee displaced by the Sudanese civil war. The United Nation had contributed in building important roads in the region in order to reaches refugee Camps.

However, the regime was changed before implementing all the proposals it devised to promote development of the region. The present government went ahead with the plans to finish building a Dam where the previous regime stopped. But, instead of doing it’s own study for the impact the Dam would cause to the lower riverian residences, the present government gave a green light to complete the project sooner. The completion of the Dam came with some of the problems now faces by citizens of Abobo town on one hand, and by those located at the lower end of the river, such as Makuey residents on the other. First, the Dam blocked the flow of water downward and, instead, flooded the Abobo town, thereby displacing the town residents. The town is now inhabitable because the water floods everything, including farms and homes of those who live there for centuries. On the other hand, Makuey, where Nyajaani section of the Gaat-Jaak live for centuries is now abandoned because the river that uses to provides water supply to Makuey residents dried up due to the fact that the Dam blocked the sources of water flows that serves Makuey residents for many years, making it harder for people to live there. Having no other options to survive and the government not listening to the complaints of its citizens, Makuey residents left to settle near the bank of the Baro River. It has to be emphasis here that the river often provided fishes not only to Makuey residents, but also to good numbers of Gaat-Jaak Nuer during the dry season.

Because of the lack of water supply to Makuey, the residents of Makuey had to find ways to settle in. However, because there were no empty lands on the Bank of the Baro River, since other Nuer sections owned all the lands jointly or individually, the Makuey residents resorted to grabs whatever land available by any means necessary. It should be emphasis here that this is a case of survival since no other options were presents to these citizens and the government was not cooperating to come to their aids in solving that problem. It was in that background the Makuey resident invaded Annuak lands closer to the riverbank. That invasion had resulted into Annuak declaring an all out war not only against the Makuey residents, but also against all Nuer living in the region. Instead of solving the problem of its own making, the government blames Makuey residents for causing the instability in the region. The government should blames it’s bad engineering design and poor calculation that had resulted into inter-tribal war in the region. On the other hand, it might be an intentional plan from the government to displaces people so it could do an oil exploration, which is now taking place all over the region. Recently, Chinese Company had signed a ten years contract with the Federal government without the consent of the Regional government to do an exploration in the region. If oil is found, there is no doubt that more problems will emerges as the government seems not to care less about the lives of those who occupies these places. It’s very sad news that Makuey, which had been a home to Nyajaani section of Nuer, is currently empty. And the worst feeling about it is that the government has no plan intact to do something about it. Governments are meant to be solutions to problems and should not be uses to displace people who are taxpayers from their homes they had live in for centuries.

On top of the Nuer war with Annuak in the region, the Gaat-Jaak sections are now fighting and had been fighting with each others starting in the early 1990s to the early 2000s. These feuds and lawlessness in the Nuer areas had their backgrounds from government policies when it chooses not to deploy its Arm forces or police to the region. Although the present Federal system in the country delegates the powers to the State governments to be responsible for their regions, Gambella regions is so weak that it need the assistance of the Federal government to intervenes in order to protects its citizens. The false illusion from the government in justifying its position that “Nuer are warlike people” has no precedents as story shows. They are in the current state of lawlessness due to the government policies, which neglects them and their complaints. No society can live peacefully without laws enforcement. At the same token, government’s policies that favor one community in the expense of another community are inherently unjust. Rulers have to be aware that treating their subject equally is a smart ways in promoting peaceful co-existence among different groups.

The Genesis of Annuak and Highlanders conflict in Gambella

It’s to be point out here that the name highlanders or Abasha is a collective name given to all nationalities that came to Gambella from other regions of Ethiopia. This is in fact a misleading name, although these groups have common interests in the region, they are as different as Nuer and Annuak when it comes to ethnic classification. In any event, these groups have lived in Gambella for quite sometime, although some of them are new comers to the region. Gambella region had more opportunities then other regions in Ethiopia for many things. First, the region is bless with natural resources such as gold and many other minerals the local mine locally. The money obtains from these resources are uses by the locals to buys things from these highlander traders, as such, one could get rich quickly which was the reason why most highlanders became rich in the State. Second, the region is behind educationally. Highlanders often occupied Civil Services jobs until recently. As a result, most highlanders, especially the new graduates from various colleges in the country often run to Gambella region to look for jobs there, which often took them only little time to find. Occupying top jobs in the region gives these highlanders some political power to dominates other ethnic groups in the region, as such, conflicts often arise because of the unmet needs of the so called “Gambella Permanent Ethnic Groups” as opposed to the new comers, specifically, the highlanders. Third, the region was and still is a home to thousand of Sudanese refugees. That mean, more opportunities to those with interest to do business in the Refugees Camps. These opportunities often attract a lot of highlanders to the State and as time passes by these groups became rich overtime. That mean, Gambella became where they do business and at the same time builds their homes in. This creates jealousy to non-highlanders, specifically the Annuak who believes that they own Gambella and carry it with their heads, instead of allowing those who work hard to make their living to live freely in the State.

Initially, these highlanders came to Gambella because of the opportunities that were available in that region. Some of these highlanders had lived in the region for many years, some of them have grand-grand parents who were born in Gambella and considers Gambella their home because they don’t know anywhere else but Gambella.

On the opposite end of that political spectrum, the Annuak found themselves being squeeze in from different directions by two forces. Nuers force them from their lands on one hand, and are being forced from economic and political power by highlanders on the other. This creates resentments from Annuak who believes that these two forces will end the Annuak tribe’s existence, as we know it. They did not understand and appreciates diverse groups living together side-by-side in the region. This is where conflicts between the two groups often originate. There has been countless numbers of wars between the two groups that this author cannot recall all of them. However, the important conflict between the two communities occurred last year when countless numbers of people losses their lives on both sides, although Annuak community was devastated more. That conflict took different turn as the government soldiers involved in the fighting and supported the highlander community, since they happened to be from highland. In deed, it was a massacre as those who were murdered in the bright daylight had no mean to protects themselves against the government soldiers who should have acted as peacemakers instead of joining the other group, or taking side in the conflict between these two communities.

The lesson to be learn here is that all these ethnic groups, whether new comers or old timers are citizens with an equal rights in the state affairs. Discriminating people by where they come from is not a good way to build a homogonous society where all stand on equal footing. Ethiopia is a one country where all its citizens have an equal rights to live where they prepare, provides that the local cultures fit them. This is in fact a contradiction to the ethnic federalism the present ruling party praise. Nations are builds through ideas of promoting equality across the entire political spectrum, which is often where the class warfare or cast system has its background. These ethnic groups that are now calling Gambella region their homes will always be there. What is needed is for them to conceives ways to get along and make that region a habitable place that should accommodates all of them, then and only then will peace rain down in that State like a mighty river.

Gambella Political Parties

Presently, the following Parties exist in the state: (a) Nuer People Democratic Organization (NPDO). Although the Nuer seems to be dominant in that Party as the name imply, another ethnic groups (OPO/Chai) are members of that political party. (b) The other Party, which other two ethnic groups share is the Annuak People Democratic Organization (APDO), which the Annuak ethnic group share with members of the Komo ethnic group. (c) There also exist the Mejenger People Democratic Organization, which Mejenger ethnic group share with members of Sheko tribe, (d) and finally, the highlanders have their own part, which put all these different ethnic groups of the highland origin in one boat. This political classification along the ethnic line is the root causes of all the problems particularly in Gambella region and Ethiopia as a whole. The problem with that is, people tend to be more loyal to their ethnic group as opposed to serving the purpose of the region/country. Tribal hegemony became the substitutes for the political ideology. This makes it tougher for all these ethnic groups to forge an alliance and political culture in the region as well as in the nation. Although the government justifies that ethnic federalism policy as the only way to devolve power from center to grass roots, the opposite is now occurring. When tribal ideology became the substitute for nationalism, things always get messy. This is always where genocide often occurs and we have seen some bad examples on the Continent of Africa, where one group wiped out another ethnic group. This was the case of Rwanda, where one ethnic group smashed out the other, using the power of the State to justify its position. The same is now the case in Darfure, which is the Western Province of the Sudanese Republic, where one ethnic group is using the power of the State to wipe out the other.

We have seen it happened in Gambella, when the highlanders wiped out members of the Annuak ethnic group recently. There is no unifying policy that tight those different groups together to pursue their common goods. Each of these groups is working very hard to beat the other on the political seat of the region, instead of seeing the big picture awaiting them all. Gambella is now behind the entire country partly because of this short sighed vision of its leader. Unity of purpose meant that tribal hats should be abandon and put on one umbrella that would cover all these different ethnic groups, instead of trying to put on three different hats at the same time. Why the region has been unstable lately is a mystery to some of us who had lived there. This is a new thing to Gambellian because the story of the region shows that these ethnic groups have always been living peacefully for quite sometime until now. There is no way that the region will catch up with the rest of the country if its citizens perceive the future of that states using tribal eyes. They should know beforehand that they are Ethiopians first before being Gambellian, and that their purpose of living together should be to appreciates the diversity of the region. After all, politics is all about compromise because all wants one thing. To succeed in securing one’s place, there have to be a give and take here and there. This is the essence of the political skills that separates real politicians from the rest of us. Real politicians are always visionaries with the emphasis of perceiving unity as the only corner stone of building a just society where equality and fairness is a must.


Its obvious from the preceding paragraphs that the region of Gambella has undergone through a lot of changes. Some of these changes are bad and some are good. However, I believe there is one important thing the citizen of that region are missing, and that is, the appreciation of their diverse backgrounds. Like the rest of the country, Gambella State is a home to five or more different nationalities whose lives dependents on their common goal of conceiving a peaceful living in that region where each is allows to pursue his/her God given talent. Not appreciating the diversity of the region is a sure way of missing the big picture of “united we stand kind of things” where each ethnic group believes that it is it’s rightful duty to rule others with Iron Fist. Political compromises are the building blocks of grinding a just society where equality is the perceive goal to be attain at all costs. Gambella belong to all Gambellian regardless of how long they live there. Living longer in the State should not be the measure of citizenship participation in the politics, after all, we all migrated from some where else at one time or another. Each citizen should be measured by the content of his character and not by what ethnic group he/she is from and how long his parents came to Gambella.

It should be the responsibility of the Gambella rulers to see to it that nothing like that massacre should ever happened again to any community. Reconciliation should be the only policy to resolves those ethnic issues in the State because wars beget more wars, which at the end of the day only ordinary folks suffers. I sincerely believe that the Gambella citizens will come to their senses of resolving their ethnic issues through dialogues as opposes to fighting it out on the streets of their town.

* Kong J. Toang : holds a B.S in Agronomy at Iowa State University and a Master of Public Administration at Drake University. The author lives with his family in Des Moines, Iowa. He can be reach at

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