Friday, June 14, 2024
In DepthA land torn apart: Gambella's struggle against ethnic violence and neglect

A land torn apart: Gambella’s struggle against ethnic violence and neglect

Conflict frequently erupts in Ethiopia’s Gambella region, pitting ethnic groups against each other and leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. Residents have endured such flare-ups for years, watching helplessly as tribal tensions and political neglect in the volatile region fuel recurrent violence.

Ethnic conflict has once again erupted in the region, resulting in death, destruction and displacement. Clashes on July 18, 2023 left at least 24 people dead and dozens injured, while properties were destroyed and thousands were forced to flee their homes. The violence impacted the Itang, Gog and Gambella woredas as well as an area known as the “nations and nationalities.”

A long-simmering conflict between the Nuer and Anuak tribes that flared up two months ago now risks escalating into full-blown ethnic violence.

For 38-year-old Omod Mutukuye and other residents, the latest clashes have raised fears for their safety and frustration with the government’s inability to prevent such bloodshed.

Omod, a father of two, lives in Gambella city, the capital of Gambella regional state. Ethnic tensions and conflict pose a constant threat to his family’s safety in the volatile region. As the frequency of tribal clashes amplified recently, resulting in loss of life, his frustration has also reached new heights.

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“It’s devastating to witness the killing of innocent people,” says Omod. The conflict, he says, had lingered beneath the surface for years before erupting, sparking unrest in neighborhoods and dividing communities. The region has faced multiple outbreaks of violence in recent years, and the latest ethnic clashes have raised the threat to Omod’s family to a new level.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), initially unable to dispatch experts due to instability, has called for more federal government attention to the region. The Commission also noted the involvement of armed groups in the clashes.

The dust has settled – for now – after federal forces including the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and police were deployed to Gambella city. The local administration also imposed curfews beginning July 19, 2023 as businesses and institutions slowly grind back to life following clashes that brought conflict to the region’s doorstep once more.

“The region is being tested by ethnic and tribal attitudes. The people of the region must detach from such attitudes and work together towards lasting peace,” said Ugetu Ading, communications director of the Gambella regional government while briefing journalists on July 20, 2023 regarding the conflict.

Ugetu says the ethnic conflict in the region “can be avoided if people work on reducing difference, and strengthen common values.”

Despite its natural wealth, Gambella also ranks among Ethiopia’s most forsaken and underdeveloped regions, according to reports. The conflict is multilayered, rooted in historical grievances, competition for resources and political neglect. Yet age-old ethnic fault lines over identity, resources and language continue fueling deadly flare-ups.

Gambela’s precarious position surrounded by unstable neighbors including South Sudan has turned it into a conflict hotspot. Rebel groups like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF-Shene) and Gambella Liberation Front (GLF) swarm the region. In June 2022, both attacked Gambela, cutting down 37 civilians in their wake.

The Anuak and Nuer ethnic groups are at odds in the region. The Nuer tribe lives both in Gambela and South Sudan.

“Both tribes have always struggled for power in the region,” says Birhanu Aseffa, another Gambella city resident.

Some residents believe it is the South Sudanese Nuer that causes problems in the region.

Both Omod and Birhanu agree. The recent conflict, according to them, has worsened due to the arrival of South Sudanese refugees in the area, mostly Nuer who have brought “tensions of war from South Sudan.”

Birhanu acknowledges that the Nuer communities in Ethiopia and South Sudan share a language and culture. However, he notes that those in Ethiopia are Ethiopian citizens while those in South Sudan are South Sudanese.

Gambella hosts over 350,000 South Sudanese refugees in eight camps. There are two camps in Itang known as Hunyundona and Dima that host not just Nuer but also Dinka refugees from South Sudan, including the Anuak. The number of refugees in the region nearly matches Gambella’s population, fueling native fears of being “swallowed by external tribes,” residents say.

Reports indicate that South Sudan’s civil war since 2013 has spilled over into the region, transforming what was once a development corridor into a shelter for refugees fleeing conflict in their country.

Some analysts claim the influx of refugees and armed groups into the region is part of a hidden South Sudanese plan to annex Gambella and create a “great Nuer land.”

“The presence of South Sudanese Nuer migrants has caused tension among the local community,” the residents said. “Whenever conflicts arise, they support their tribal members by attacking the Anuak people.”

Residents claim conflict stems from competition for resources, political marginalization and the influx of refugees from South Sudan. Armed groups and tribes from South Sudan also reportedly kidnap children, steal cattle, mine illegally and spark violence.

Simon Tut, chairman of the Gambella People’s Justice for Peace and Development Democratic Movement, disputes accusations that refugees are causing the conflict. He notes refugee camps were established with Ethiopian government approval under international agreements to shelter refugees in need.

“Just because refugees from South Sudan are said to be Nuer, it does not mean that perpetrators of the conflict are Nuer,” he told The Reporter.

Analysts also claim that Gambella’s security forces back armed groups and are involved in conflicts. The regional government has detained some security officials over deadly conflicts in recent years.

Simon claims those security forces failed to distinguish perpetrators from the innocent.

Despite the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reporting that Anuak people were sometimes attacked by armed Nuer men and forces from South Sudan who allegedly burned homes and looted property, spreading violence to other areas of Itang, Ethiopia still hosts nearly a million refugees and asylum seekers from 26 countries, ranking third highest in Africa.

But refugees also pose risks to Gambella residents.

Omod and Birhanu are concerned the porous border between Ethiopia and South Sudan allows refugees from conflict-ridden areas to stream across and possibly threaten security.

“We face life-threatening dangers due to the uncontrolled open border,” they said.

Yared Hailemariam, managing director of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center sees the Gambella conflict as exposing the fragile nature of Ethiopia’s ethnic fabric. He believes the latest flare-up should prompt the government and the international community to address its root causes and adopt lasting peace and reconciliation initiatives.

“As the conflict persists, all parties must prioritize civilian safety, uphold human rights and strive for justice,” Yared said.

Analysts, residents and activists in Gambella claim that the government is unable to craft lasting solutions beyond deploying federal forces each time violence erupts. They urge the ruling party conduct in-depth dialogue with Gambella’s community and formulate strategies for lasting peace and development.

Despite the widespread call for peace and development, on July 26, 2023, the Gambella People’s Democratic Movement issued a statement attributing the ongoing unrest in the region to the Prosperity Party (PP).

The statement claims that certain members of the PP are deliberately working towards dismantling local government structures. To accomplish this, they are exploiting the three-month-long conflict between the Nuer and Anuak communities as a means to promote their agenda, according to the statement.

The combustible mix of ethnic tensions, political struggles, economic disparities and regional instability ensures conflict remains an ever-present threat in Gambella. Analysts believe resolving these challenges demands clarity, transparency and accountable leadership to stitch the region’s divisions.

While federal forces have restored calm for now, analysts warn that real solutions lie in government initiatives for reconciliation, dialogue and development that can address the region’s deep-rooted ethnic and resource-based grievances. Until such initiatives are implemented, Ethiopia’s most destitute region will remain at the mercy of ethnicity-based violence threatening to tear its social fabric apart.

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