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Understanding the root causes of the crisis in Gambella: challenges and solutions

By Zeray HailemariamEthiopian News, Tigrai Online, February 9, 2015


The region has been plunged in ethnic driven conflicts which claimed and continue doing so thousands of innocent lives during the Haileslase, Derg and EPRDF era since 1955s.

The Gambella regional state of Ethiopia situated in the western part of the country adjustment to South Sudan is home of Nuer, Agnuak, Mejenger, Opo, Komo and other highlanders.

Since the inception of the first Sudanese civil war in the late 1950s and the second civil war in 1983s, the Gambella region of Ethiopia received more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees (82% Nuer and Denka, UNHCR report) out numbering the population of Gambella 306, 961 (2007 census) which the Nuers accounts 46% and Agnuak 21.17%. However, the Agnuak rejects this number saying it was done in favor of Nuer to give the impression that they outnumber them. For example, they complain that the Nuer refugees who came from Sudan during Haileslase and Derg time are included in the number. The Agnuak leads their livelihood by cultivation and the Nuers are pastoralists.  Nuer societies are clan based and decentralized where as Agnuak are hierarchical and agricultural than Nuer.

The historical root of the Agnuak and Nuer conflict emanated from the eastward expansion of the eastern Jikany Nuer groups-Gaajak, Gaajok and Gaagwang who were forced by the Shilluk to abandon the Sobat River shortly before the 1840s. By 1885 the Nuer groups began to settle along the tributaries of Sobat, such as the Pibor. The Gaajak Nuer lived on both sides of the Ethio-sudan border and during the Derg regime many of them were posted in the high positions of local administration in Gambella (Johnson, 2001).  By the 17s century the Agnuak were already settled along the banks of the Baro and the Gilo Rivers draining into the Sobat.

The Mahdist forces (who were fighting against the British colonialists in Sudan) raided the Agnuak territories around the Baro, Nasir and the Nuer seized the opportunity to inhabit some parts of the Baro which marked the foundation of the major Nuer encroachment on the Agnuak land in 1887 (Johnson, 1986). According to Dereje, by the early 20s century the Gaajak Nuer groups occupied parts of the present day Jikow district of Ethiopia. Since then the Nuer expansion strengthened up to today’s Gambella town and finally founded their main settlement in Itang.  This continues expansion process frustrated the Agnuak and produced endless conflicts and violent bloodshed between the Nilotic groups (Dereje 2004). The bothered Agnuak left their villages and moved to far away areas where they could not see Nuer. In this way many Agnuak lost their land to Nuer (Chuol, 2001). The Nuer further expanded eastward because of fighting with the Denka (with whom they are again in bloodshed now in the current South Sudan political crisis) to the west and later to escape British taxation.  Deliberate action of Nuer to leaving their cattle unattended to destroy the Agnuak farms continued after even they crossed to Ethiopia Gambella inhabited by Agnuak then. Cattle raiding, courage and fighting ability and autonomy, however, are valued by both communities which resulted in inter-tribal conflicts (Young, 1999).

Johnson further stressed that the civil wars in the Sudan had extended the battle fields across the border into the Gambella region of Ethiopia and intensified the insecurity and instability of the region (Johnson, 2003). The 1975 Akobo mutiny led by the Anyanya rebels who resisted integration into the national army of Sudan set up their camps in Gambella amd the SPLA Nasir faction invaded Gambella in 1992. There were numerous reports of the local officials to higher authorities of the atrocities committed against the local peoples by the Sudanese rebels based on Gambella.  For example one reports of the then Gambella District police Commander to Ilubabor region in 1964 E.C/72 G.C/ indicates that:

The number of refugees coming from South Sudan to Gambella is increasing which exceeds the total local population. The refugees were granted land for settlement and for cultivation, for cattle grazing. But the armed refugees steal cattle and grain of the people, rape women and kill innocent Ethiopians. More than this, we have discovered that they have set up courts and administer justice, collect taxes from the local people and more painfully they set up checking points which deliberately discriminate the Ethiopians (cited in Estifanos G.) [1]

This clearly shows that how much the presence of the rebels of the Sudan in Gambella played a negative role in deepening the enmity between the two tribes which begun when they were in Sudan before 1940s.  Emperor Haileslase is said to have neglected the degree of the matter or was not well aware of the subject.

To add salt into the wound of Agnuak, the Derg regime gave free lands from the Agnuak territory to the SPLA in Gambella to use it as base for fighting back the then Sudan government as a revenge to the later for supporting Ethiopian rebels fighting the Derg mainly the TPLF, OLF, EPLF which mounted the resentment. Taking this advantage, the Nuer dominated officers of the SPLA collaborated with the local Nuer revenged and ruthlessly oppressed the local Agnuak. It is said the Derg regime and the SPLA (Sudan people’s Liberation Army fighting the Sudan government in Khartum) jointly administered Gambella without treating Agnuak properly.  The SPLA administered the entire refugee camps in Gambella and was in charge of security around the border areas which the Nuer officers within the SPLA tookd the advantage to intentionally mistreat, rob and kill the local Agnuak as revenge. Ironically, SPLA utilized refugees’ food rations and other goods to conduct its military activities. SPLA armies and refugees enjoyed everything while the local people were deprived of everything. Shortly, the SPLA conscripted fighters forcefully from the refugee camps and adversely affected the peaceful coexistence of the local people by treating differently. Itang refugee camp 56 KM of Gambella town, it was the largest refugee camp in the world in the 1980s (Medhane T.2006: cited in Estifanos). Due to this, local people were confused to recognize the refugee and SPLA armies as most of the refugees and SPLA were holding Ethiopian ID. When the local Agnuak ask the SPLA to stop fishing, cutting Mango trees, looting cattle and all forms crime, the armed SPLA retaliated in the form of mass murder which highly created resentment during the Derg regime.

By then these refugees were settled mixing with the then SPLM forces which brought considerable environmental, political and social crisis. According to Estifanos G. (2010 paper.1), the main causes for conflicts among the Nuer and Agnuak include competition and control over resources (43%), for power (32%), value based conflicts (25%).  The nature and cause of the conflicts are old century and interlinked. The nature of the conflict cause between the local communities and Sudanese refugees for the last two decades dwell on cultural diversities, ownership, the use of natural resources and competition for power sharing. However, there are other additional factors which fueled the mistrust developed among the Agnuak and Nuer ethnic groups:

The relation between the local Agnuak and SPLA was full of hostile which penetrated into the local Nuer and Agnuak tribes which would broke out in 1992s (Kurimoto, 2005). One Anuak stated:

Sudanese seeking asylum flooded to our land with huge number which outnumbered and slowly expelled us latter. Every Agnuak was raped, killed, looted and mistreated by the refugees resulting to revenge against them.

Had not been for the support of the Derg, Ethiopia Agnuak would not have been aggressive against any other people. The Derg allowed the ill-disciplined SPLA which outnumbered the total Gambella population combined. The SPLA looted our cattle, cut down our Mango trees and killed and raped our wives. We considered it as a deliberate act of the SPLA and Derg to let the local and refugees Nuer together loot everything of us.

One interviewed Nuer man (2010 at Pugnido refugee camp) stated:

The Anuaks considered themselves as native and Nuers interlopers and Sudanese where as its not; we are both from Sudan except their seniority to Gambella. We had long historic conflicts when we were at Akobo, Naser, Malakal due to the question of land. Agnuaks have strong desire to rule over the Nuers which we never allow them.

Gambella under EPRDF regime:

Following the demise of the Derg regime in May, 1991.almost all the Sudanese refugees and SPLA were repatriated. The tensions were resolved except with highlanders whom they considered them brought by the Derg regime to abuse Agnuak. The EPRDF government wisely repatriated almost all refugees and expelled all SPLM forces who were the main sources of the aggravated conflicts. And more importantly, the refugees who came after the crisis in South Sudan in 2011 are separately settled according their ethnic composition. And they are not allowed to mistreat the local Agnuak or loot their cattle or land unlike in the past. To put it shortly, none but few oppose the federal arrangement which they considered it as their survival assurance system.

 The Agnuak were happy of the action taken by the current government since they started freely moving to fishing, cultivation activities without the fear to be killed, looted and raped by either the SPLA or the gun holding Nuer refugees. However, this action taken by the government was not welcomed by the local Nuers who felt threatened to be easily engulfed by the local Agnuak for revenge. The local Nuers who were sabotaging the local Agnuak in collaborating with their Sudanese tribe Nuer refugee have begun feeling unsecured. Hence the perception to be attacked easily was in mind which further intensified the mistrust.

Though EPRDF attempted to resolve the century old enmity between the two by allocating equitable resources and fair power sharing in the region, the Aknuak still felt they would be easily over controlled by their historical enemies.  The Aknuak complain that the Nuer refugees held Ethiopian ID during the Derg era played decisively in increasing the population of local Nuer. Hence, this led to power competition which resulted in conflicts. The scar left did not heal easily. As scholars agree that memories sometimes millennia old can be revived to fit the contemporary conflicts, the relations between Anuak and Nuer characterized by historical hostility, violence and revenge is active in both minds which can explode with little episode.

For example, a bit private queral has been seen taking the form of tribal conflicts which left hundred lives.


The conflicts between Agnuak and Nuers are ethnic in nature which 98% of the Agnuak and 97% of the Nuers respondents both from the refugees and locals agreed that their enmity is deep rooted and traditional which go back to 1840s when they were living adjacent to each other in Sudan (Estifanos G. 2010). This has been due to territorial claim, power and resource sharing and competition, value based and now a day’s interest to power in the Gambella regional government administration. These psycho-cultural differences accompanied with frustration aggression theories reached to the point of no-return unless managed wisely. Ironically, the conflict between local Nuers and Agnuaks meant a conflict between refugees too. This is because the region’s major tribes (Agnuak and Nuer) live in South Sudan and Ethiopia. This condition continued during EPRDF led government and will remain a precarious until an inclusive conflict solving methods are genuinely applied. Both tribes are caught in a deadly struggle to determine their own future fate. What I would like to underline, however, is that both tribes are happy of the current federal system. Some political traders attempted to portray the crisis a recent incident resulted of the federal system though.



  1. [1] It has been taken from own research works of 2013 and modified to fit the current situation in Gambella.

Zeray Hailemariam is a scholar of International Relations and is researcher in the horn conflict and intra state relations. He can be reached at zazeha@gmail.com

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