The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

ETHIOPIA: Focus on Gambella violence

ADDIS ABABA, 8 January 2004 (IRIN) - Ethnically diverse, with a porous border with neighbouring war-torn Sudan and a local population competing for land, western Ethiopia has long witnessed violent clashes.

But a spate of killings in the Gambella area last month has now prompted demands for a full independent enquiry and renewed calls for the root causes of the clashes to be resolved.

The fighting left dozens dead - some say hundreds. The United Nations withdrew its staff to safety and several thousand troops have moved into the area to restore order.


The violence was sparked by an attack on a UN-plated vehicle in early December. Eight people in the vehicle were killed, including three government refugee workers who were trying to set up a new refugee camp in the region. Their bodies were badly mutilated.

A radical group from the local Anuak tribe was blamed for the attack, which took place as the government officials drove to Odier - the proposed new camp for Nuer and Dinka refugees from Sudan.

The reprisals that followed against the alleged perpetrators were ferocious. Hundreds of homes were burnt to the ground and the killings continued over several days.

Although up to 5,000 Ethiopian troops have helped restored calm, tensions remain high and the military presence cannot be a long-term solution, say aid organisations.

Gambella, a dank, muggy lowland area some 800 km from the capital Addis Ababa, has abundant natural resources, boasting potentially large oil reserves.

It is rich with diverse ethnic groups: the Anuaks, Nuer, Mezengir, Opio, Komo; highlanders from Tigray, Amhara, Oromiya; and people from Ethiopia's southern regions.

Around 182,000 people live in the region. The Anuak make up some 27 percent with the Nuer representing the majority group with 40 percent of the population.

Complicating the recent violence is an ongoing dispute between the Nuer and the Anuak. Traditionally they have clashed as they compete for scarce lands. Anuaks fear they are losing their land to the nomadic Nuer – whose numbers in recent generations have steadily been increasing as they move into the area.


The government’s political decentralisation programme – whereby power is moved from regional administrations to local offices - has provoked the Anuak.

They believe their political power is gradually being eroded in the region, control they have held since the early 1990s.

Under the reforms, power is distributed along ethnic lines. As Nuer numbers grow, the current programme means they will gain greater representation within local government.

With power based on ethnic composition, numbers count. International aid staff working in Gambella town also cite a current civil service reform which has been criticised by Anuaks as forcing them out of their town-based government office jobs into rural areas.

For the Anuak, the legitimacy of Nuer is further called into question. They say are usurpers who have crossed the border form Sudan.

But the Nuer also argue they have been marginalised by the Anuak. In schools the Nuer language is no longer taught, adding to the resentment.


Further antagonising an already volatile situation is the presence of five refugee camps, dotted along the Sudanese border, which are home to thousands of Nuer, and, say analysts, the cause of the latest attacks.

According to observers, the plan to build the new Odier camp for 24,000 people - including thousands of Nuer - in territory traditionally held by the Anuak has fuelled resentment.

“Odier is in an area that is seen by the international community to be on Nuer land,” said one regional analyst. “But the Anuak see this as land taken over by the Nuer.”

According to sources with knowledge of the Anuak, the attack was a simple message – the new refugee camp is on our territory and we are unwilling to give it up.

“If they had allowed the camp to be built it would have sent a message, a tribal statement, to the Nuer that they can have the land,” the observer said. “It is not a big surprise that this has happened.”

Odier was supposed to be a neutral haven for Nuer and Dinka refugees relocated from another camp, Fugnido, which is 100 km west of Gambella town.

That camp was the scene of extreme violence in 2002, when 41 Dinka refugees were shot dead in a clash inside the compound.

Fernando Protti, the UN refugee agency's (UNHCR) deputy head in Ethiopia, said the UN is now looking at whether to abandon the site at Odier or whether the situation can be salvaged.

He said a “skeleton staff” remains in Gambella town itself, but UNHCR has pulled all its employees out of the surrounding areas including the five refugee camps.

The government has blamed “outside forces” for provoking tensions in the area. “The recent violence in Gambella caused by some anti-peace elements was aimed at the native people of the area and highlanders living there,” it said in a recent statement, adding that calm had been restored.


There are positive signs for Gambella, such as the Sudanese peace process and the potential for tapping oil and creating wealth. But both too are fraught with pitfalls.

Observers hope that the peace process in Sudan between the government and the main rebel group Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) will radiate into the Horn - quelling border violence, encouraging peace talks in Somalia, and warming Ethio-Eritrean relations.

Observers note that both the Anuak and the Nuer were used in the Ethiopian army during the recent border war with Eritrea. “The Anuak and Nuer have a lot of practical experience,” said one observer.

Analysts point out that relative stability and a full-blown peace accord in Sudan could soon mean that the 87,000 Sudanese refugees in Gambella region could be repatriated.

But it could also mean that the ample supply of weapons used during the 20-year civil war in Sudan could flood across a largely porous border to rebel groups bent on violence. Analysts say an explosion of small arms has already fuelled the fighting in Gambella.

Although oil deposits have been found in Gambella it is unlikely that this is further provoking tensions. On the contrary, say observers, potential oil reserves are attracting attention to the region which would otherwise remain largely isolated.

Oil experts however have played down the significance of any major oil finds. “The prospecting hasn’t got that far or come up with much,” one oil analyst told IRIN.

He said the reserves were “economically unviable” as the oil was likely to be light oil used for petrol, but not suitable for industry.

It means the only real market would be the capital Addis Ababa, and transport and security costs would outweigh any potential profits.

But one company, the Malaysian oil giant Petronas, is moving into the region and is expected to start production in four years with exclusive rights to “explore and develop” some 15,000 square kilometres in the region.


Ethiopian opposition leader Dr Beyene Petros says the real hope for peace is an independent, transparent enquiry to investigate the killings and hold those responsible to account.

“This is a massacre as far as we are concerned,” said Dr Beyene, who heads the largest coalition group, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF).

He claims dozens of bodies have been buried in a mass grave on the outskirts of the town and that the underlying cause of the violence has not been resolved.

Both the UN and opposition politicians also believe that traditional elders hold the key to resolving the ongoing conflicts.

Peace talks and reconciliation at a local level could also play a vital role, according to the UN in a recent report on the violence in Gambella. Stronger border controls could also prevent the ready supply of arms.

All groups agree that until a long-term solution is found, the violence is likely to continue. Without it, say analysts, there is great potential for an escalation as Anuaks take revenge for the reprisal killings.

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict



The material contained on this Web site comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post any item on this site, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All graphics and Images on this site may not be re-produced without the express permission of the original owner. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias