Monday, May 20, 2024
InterviewClandestine forces, not refugees, to blame for Gambella crisis: opposition chairman

Clandestine forces, not refugees, to blame for Gambella crisis: opposition chairman

Not many of Ethiopia’s regional states have been spared from the throes of violent conflict over the last few years, with nearly all of them playing host to varying degrees of turbulence. While some of these conflicts have been interlinked with the federal government, others have their own unique local nature, and most revolve around ethnic tensions.

The latter holds true in Gambella Regional State, where escalating tensions between the Nuer and Anuak tribes are fueling a crisis. The roots of the conflict are complex and stem from various underlying factors such as competition over resources, political marginalization, corruption, and historical ethnic divisions. The crisis has been further exacerbated by the decade-long civil war in South Sudan, which has led to a huge influx of refugees into Gambella, altering the region’s demographics and stirring tensions within the local community.

Simon Tut, chairman of the Gambella People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM), says there are other, more malicious forces at work in the region and advocates for immediate intervention to prevent the situation from escalating into a full-scale ethnic conflict.

In an interview with Abraham Tekle of The Reporter, Simon addresses the pressing issues, including the ongoing crisis in the Gambella, rampant corruption, the involvement of government officials in current conflicts, and other critical matters. EXCERPTS:

The Reporter: What is the current situation in the Gambella region? Could you provide an overview of the ongoing unrest and conflict?

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Simon Tut: The situation in the Gambella region is marked by an ongoing ethnic conflict between the Nuer and Anuak tribes, posing a significant challenge to the area. This conflict has hindered the effective functioning of the government since the previous year due to pervasive fear among the population. Presently, five kebeles within the region have been identified as danger zones, making it perilous for civilians to travel between locations. For instance, Kebeles 01 and 02, predominantly inhabited by the Nuer tribes, are unsafe for Anuak individuals, while Kebeles 03, 04, and 05 present difficulties for Nuer civilians to move freely. Although such tensions have historical roots, the situation has markedly worsened in recent times.

Who bears responsibility for exacerbating the crisis in the region, endangering civilian lives?

As far as we comprehend, the primary catalyst for worsening the situation in the region can be attributed to an unidentified clandestine entity operating within its confines. This extremist elusive force, shrouded in anonymity, exploits both the Nuer and Anuak tribes as pawns, instigating conflicts between them. Moreover, it doesn’t act in isolation but rather collaborates with certain individuals both within and outside the governmental framework to carry out its subversive activities.

During a recent conference with the Prime Minister and opposition party leaders, you stated that there is no inherent conflict between the two tribes, emphasizing their long history of coexistence. Nevertheless, tensions are escalating daily. Could you elaborate on the informal entity you believe is responsible for the conflicts?

Based on our assessment, the rationale behind my statement regarding the involvement of certain individuals, both within and outside the governmental structure, stems from their operational activities. This is evident when examining the initial outbreak of conflict in the rural areas of Itang Woredas and Kebeles, where government officials, despite being aware of the looming danger, either remained inactive or allowed the unrest to escalate intentionally. Witnessing people of all ages, including women, children, and the elderly, being subjected to attacks further supports our conclusion.

Additionally, since the onset of widespread conflict in the region, there was a directive issued by the federal government for the region’s special forces to disarm and integrate into the formal police forces. However, a faction of these special forces resisted disarmament and vanished without a trace, their whereabouts remaining unknown. This serves as the second basis for our conclusion regarding governmental involvement. Unless these forces were complicit in the unrest, the government entity should take responsibility for disclosing these scoundrel elements as designated terrorist groups rather than attributing the conflicts solely to ethnic tensions between the Nuer and Anuak tribes. Hence, to the best of our knowledge as an opposition party, this perpetuates the ongoing problem.

Are you suggesting that these unidentified entities exploit ethnic divisions to incite conflicts between the Nuer and Anuak tribes?

Absolutely, that’s precisely our assertion.

Reports suggest that an armed faction from South Sudan has crossed into Ethiopian territory, allegedly backing the Nuer tribes in the attacks. What is your response to these claims?

In the context of linking the situation to South Sudanese armed groups, it’s important to consider several sporadic incidents. Historically, there have been occasions when the Murle tribes from South Sudan crossed the Ethiopian border, launching attacks on Ethiopians, abducting children, seizing livestock, and plundering property belonging to both Anuak and Nuer people, along with involvement from other tribes due to the open and unguarded nature of the border.

Against this backdrop, the dynamics in the region underwent significant shifts following the escalation of the civil war in South Sudan in 2013, prompting numerous refugees to seek safety in the Gambella region. These refugees have settled in camps located in two areas: the Itang special zone and Anuak’s Puinedo Woreda. However, the assertion linking them to the current unrest in the region is unfounded. These refugees are officially recognized by UNHCR and their safety and well-being are ensured.

Furthermore, refugees are unfairly characterized as supporters whenever tensions escalate in the region due to their shared tribal affiliations with the Ethiopian Nuer population. However, it’s crucial to note that the refugee camps host not only Nuer tribes but also other groups like the Anuak, albeit with Nuer refugees comprising the majority. In this scenario, both Nuer and Anuak communities become victims of the divisive tactics employed by extremist clandestine forces, which unjustly attribute all attacks to the refugees.

What are your thoughts on the reports from both international sources and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) indicating that armed groups from South Sudan, alongside Nuer tribal refugees, are pursuing economic and resource interests, as well as their influence of seeking to reclaim land?

I don’t believe the issue of land ownership arises from the refugees themselves. They continue to reside in camps, indicating their non-involvement in land ownership disputes. However, I do acknowledge longstanding tensions regarding land ownership between indigenous Ethiopian Nuer and Anuak communities spanning from Itang Woreda to Laly Woreda. This issue predates the arrival of refugees and isn’t instigated by them.

To clarify, the refugees are sheltered in specific areas such as the Tarfam region in Itang special Woreda and the Puinedo Woreda in Anuak zone, including the Jawe area of the Gambella region. Given their status as refugees under the full recognition of UNHCR, it’s perplexing to entertain questions about their land ownership. They await peaceful resolution in their home country before contemplating any return.

Furthermore, international conventions stipulate that refugees residing in a host country for a certain duration are eligible for citizenship. Any potential claims to land ownership by refugees seem unfounded and likely stem from speculative fears rather than actual demands. Thus, I maintain that the primary responsibility for the unrest lies with extremist clandestine forces exploiting ethnic differences between the longstanding Nuer and Anuak communities. Therefore, in our assessment, assertions regarding land ownership are politically motivated maneuvers.

Has the government taken any measures to address the ongoing conflict? What role has the Ethiopian National Defense Force played in addressing the situation in the region?   

The escalating issues have become increasingly evident, particularly over the past few years. Nevertheless, it’s important to refrain from attributing any attacks solely to South Sudanese refugees residing in the Gambella region. Regarding your inquiry, both the army and the federal government are diligently striving to manage the dire circumstances in the area. To elaborate, their presence and efforts are indispensable for the region’s survival thus far. The situation may appear manageable, but it poses significant challenges that exceed the capabilities of the regional police force.

Numerous commercial farming centers in the region have reportedly fallen victim to attacks, looting, and destruction by cross-border refugees. Furthermore, these centers are being utilized as habitats by the refugees, posing significant challenges for investors seeking to operate effectively in the area. What is your perspective on this issue?

Indeed, it’s accurate. However, it’s also crucial to acknowledge an incident where humanitarian aid was halted for over six months in the region, leading refugees to face dire circumstances due to a shortage of food aid and support, making survival increasingly difficult. Tragically, there were reports of numerous refugee deaths as a result. Consequently, driven by the imperative to survive amidst hunger and desperation, refugees resorted to looting planted crops and materials from commercial farming centers. While this behavior stemmed from a need to survive, it must be distinguished from opportunistic theft by actual criminals exploiting the situation.

There are also assertions that the refugees receive unwavering support from the regional administration. Could you elaborate on that claim?

Regarding claims of unconditional support from the regional administration, I cannot provide specific details as I lack sufficient information. However, I am inclined to believe that such misdeeds would not receive support from the regional administration, as no responsible government would condone such actions.

Let’s discuss the pervasive corruption in the region, particularly concerning the exploitation of Gambella’s abundant gold resources. Additionally, the region’s borders are utilized as smuggling routes for resources such as gold to reach illegal markets, extending into Uganda. Could you provide insight into the espionage activities occurring in this region?

Concerning gold smuggling, an incident occurred in the region after a Chinese company secured a contract from the federal government to extract gold from Dima Woreda in Gambella. During the process, some individuals from the company were apprehended for their involvement in gold smuggling and subsequently imprisoned. However, I must admit my limited awareness of the full extent of the situation, given the limited information available to me.

Regarding corruption within the regional government and the wider region, it’s evident that corruption has reached alarming levels, making it challenging to address even within the administration itself. Corruption permeates governmental affairs and business transactions, ranging from minor incidents to high-level malfeasance, with government officials extensively implicated. It’s clear that without genuine efforts to curb corruption, those involved lack the true intention of combating it, with low-ranking officials also corrupted up to their necks. Consequently, corruption in Gambella has spiraled out of control, posing a significant challenge.

What about the presence of informal armed groups operating in the region? Reports suggest the existence of various armed groups with operational camps scattered across different parts of the Gambella region. Could you share your insights on this matter?

Certainly, there is a significant prevalence of arms smuggling in the region. Moreover, reports indicate the presence of various informal armed groups operating, including the designated terrorist group ‘Shene’ among others. However, the specific identities of these groups and the extent of their operations in the region fall within the purview of the National Security team’s knowledge and the federal government. Additionally, it’s crucial to emphasize that our opposition party, operating within the region, vehemently opposes such illicit practices without reservation.

Has there been any progress on the government’s proposal to construct a pipeline extending from South Sudan to Kenya?

We’ve been informed about this project, but to our knowledge, no tangible progress has been made thus far. Apart from reports of some construction materials being stationed in South Sudan, there hasn’t been any concrete development on the ground.

Before the political transition in Ethiopia in 2018, concerns about marginalization in economic, resource allocation, democratic, and justice spheres were prevalent. Are these same concerns still evident under the current governmental administration? Can we say the region is in a state of self-governance?

Before establishing our current party, GPDM, we operated under a different party aimed at combating injustices, lack of democracy, and instability in the region. Our primary goals were to bolster the economy and foster development, which had historically posed challenges. However, the concept of self-governance was never a contentious issue in our region, as we were granted unconditional rights in this regard, and marginalization was addressed following the downfall of the Derg regime in 1991.

While self-governance wasn’t a concern, issues such as equitable power distribution and benefiting the people and the region were paramount. Hence, our party was formed to address such disparities. Presently, there’s a trend towards promoting a unified identity that aims to homogenize all ethnic groups. Our party staunchly opposes this trend and will fight against it relentlessly. It’s crucial to emphasize that we are determined not to regress to the oppressive periods of the Derg regime or the feudal era preceding it, as we have begun to experience the dawn of freedom despite the challenges mentioned earlier.

Are you saying that your party supports the federal system currently governing the country?

Absolutely, our party wholeheartedly supports the federal system that is currently in place in Ethiopia.

As an opposition party functioning within the region, do you encounter any forms of suppression that might impede your activities or the dissemination of your party’s political ideology? Is the political landscape free from external influence?

Certainly, we do enjoy a degree of freedom within our party operations. However, it’s crucial to contextualize this freedom as being around 50 percent, particularly considering our operations across the seven party branches situated in various Woredas within the region. Nevertheless, this doesn’t imply a complete absence of challenges encountered while conducting our activities and promoting our political ideology.

For instance, following the acquisition of our legal license as a recognized party entity in 2020, we faced hurdles in establishing branches in the region due to false narratives aimed at tarnishing our party’s reputation. At that time, both regional and Woreda administrations posed resistance to our efforts to advance our interests, and similar resistance continues to hamper our functionality and party representation in the region. However, we manage to enjoy a fair share of political space in the Gambella region.

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