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Background and Context

Ethiopia’s Gambella People’s National Regional State (Gambella) is a low-lying region roughly the size of Rwanda that sits along the Sudanese border in the southwest of the country.  It has an ethnically diverse population estimated to approach 220,000 people.2  There are five ethnic groups that consider themselves to be indigenous to the Gambella area—the Anuak (or Anywaa), Nuer, Majangir, Opo and Komo.  The Nuer and the Anuak are the two largest groups in the region.  The third-largest population group consists of people the indigenous groups refer to as “highlanders,” “gaala” or “habasha,” terms which in local parlance group together all migrants from other parts of Ethiopia and their descendants.3

Historically, Gambella has always been treated as a backwater by the central government.  In recent years, however, the region has attracted a higher level of governmental interest, largely because of its relative abundance of natural resources.  Gambella is the best-watered region of Ethiopia and has large tracts of uncultivated land along with deposits of gold and oil.  Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil corporation, has acquired exploration rights in Gambella, and China’s Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB) has begun seismic exploration activities in Gambella under a subcontract from Petronas.4  In addition, Gambella’s long and porous border with Sudan is a source of perennial concern to federal authorities.  The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)5 managed to infiltrate fighters into Ethiopia through Gambella in 2002, reportedly with the help of the Eritrean government; forces led by a former Derg6 official have succeeded in destabilizing some areas along the Sudanese border; and the Anuak-led Gambella People’s Liberation Front (GPLF) has launched raids into Gambella from bases in southern Sudan.

As recently as 1980, Gambella’s Anuak population was by far the largest ethnic group in the region and a majority of the total population.  This began to change very quickly in the mid-1980s. Beginning in 1984, the Derg’s forced resettlement program generated a massive influx of some 60,000 highlanders to the region.7  All of the resettlement villages were located on land that the Anuak claimed as their own.  At almost the same time, refugees from the Sudanese civil war began fleeing into Gambella.8  In addition to these large-scale influxes, long-standing patterns of eastward migration among the Sudanese Nuer have led to a steady increase in Gambella’s Nuer population over the course of the past century.  The pace of Nuer immigration into Gambella has been dramatically accelerated by the civil war in southern Sudan and by the success many Nuer refugees have had in claiming Ethiopian citizenship and settling permanently in Gambella.  The result has been that the Anuak are now a minority in what they regard as their own land, and according to the most recent census figures, they are greatly outnumbered by Gambella’s Nuer population.9

These dramatic demographic changes are, to a large degree, responsible for the persistent ethnic tensions and frequent explosions of ethnic violence that have plagued Gambella since the fall of the Derg in 1991.  The flow of non-Anuak migrants into Gambella has led many Anuak to fear the erosion of their political power, and some believe that the very survival of Anuak culture is at risk.  Additionally, some traditionally Anuak lands are now inhabited almost exclusively by Nuer and Anuak widely regard the continual shrinking of their territory as a threatening development.10  The most frequent outbreaks of ethnic violence in Gambella have pitted the Anuak against the Nuer.  This violence reached a bloody peak in 2002, a year that saw over one hundred people killed in clashes that displaced several thousand people.  Violent Anuak-Nuer conflict subsided by late 2003, but the resulting respite was an extremely brief one, as ethnic conflict between Gambella’s Anuak and highlander communities had also been simmering throughout this period.11  Many Anuak bitterly resented the arrival of the settlers brought to Gambella by the Derg, and in May 1991, groups of Anuak villagers attacked and murdered large numbers of highlander farmers who had been living alongside them near the town of Abobo.12  More recently, in the past several years, a number of ambushes attributed to armed Anuak have left scores of highlander civilians dead.13

For the past few years, the Ethiopian military has undertaken operations aimed at rooting out armed Anuak groups operating in Gambella, some of which are based in southern Sudan.  Military and government officials generally refer to these groups as “shifta,” an Amharic word that can loosely be translated as “bandit.”  These Anuak fighters are not unified under the banner of any one group and do not share a common set of goals.  They include Sudan-based rebels fighting against the Ethiopian government for Anuak “self-determination”; farmers carrying out isolated revenge attacks against ENDF soldiers and highlander civilians; and a small number of radicalized gunmen who seem to target the highlander population as a whole.14  One Anuak insurgent group, the Gambella People’s Liberation Front (GPLF), operates out of southern Sudan and has staged a handful of attacks inside Gambella.15  There is also reportedly at least one other armed Anuak group operating in Gambella, composed of perhaps two dozen fighters led by a small group of former regional police officers.16  A Sudan-based insurgent group led by a former Derg official named Thuwath Pal Chay, the Ethiopian Patriotic United Front (EPUF), has also been active in the region.17  The EPUF has engaged in sporadic but heavy fighting with Ethiopian military forces and has occasionally managed to seize control of villages along the Sudanese border.  It is not known how frequently clashes between the Ethiopian army and EUDF forces have been.  The EPUF’s fighters are predominantly Nuer, as is Thuwath Pal himself, and the group allegedly receives support from the Eritrean government.18  Due to an almost complete lack of reliable information and the impossibility of travel to much of Gambella due to security concerns and travel restrictions, it is unclear how serious a threat these armed groups have posed to the overall security situation in the region or how frequent armed clashes with the military have been.  It is clear however, that there has been some fighting between armed groups of Anuak and military forces.  In addition, highlander civilians continue to be killed in ambushes staged by armed Anuak, although these attacks seem to have become less frequent since the second half of 2004. 

While fighting between insurgent forces and the Ethiopian army may at times have risen to the level of armed conflict as defined under international humanitarian law (the laws of war), the abuses covered in this report, primarily by the army against Anuak civilians, have not been in the context of an armed conflict.  As such, international human rights law, rather than international humanitarian law, is primarily applicable.19

After the Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) government took power in 1991, it handed control over Gambella’s regional government to the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM), an Anuak-dominated group that had allied itself with the EPRDF in its war against the Derg.20  Political power in Gambella remained firmly in Anuak hands until December 2003, but federal officials and many within Gambella, including significant numbers of Anuak community leaders, continually accused Anuak regional authorities of corruption and incompetence.  Most glaringly, regional officials did almost nothing to resolve Anuak-Nuer ethnic tensions or conflict.21  Many within the highlander community reportedly believed that Anuak regional authorities had no interest in putting a stop to the attacks against highlander civilians, and the federal authorities also came to suspect that leading Anuak politicians were actively collaborating with the armed Anuak groups attacking highlander civilians.22  The federal authorities imprisoned many Anuak political leaders, and at least thirty prominent Anuak, including one former regional president, are now in prison in Addis Ababa.23  Indeed, a substantial minority of Gambella’s educated Anuak elite have been imprisoned or forced into exile over the past decade.  Gambella currently has no regional president and no Anuak representative in the House of People’s Representatives, as both have sought asylum abroad.24

The federal government reacted to its deteriorating relations with Gambella’s regional authorities by assuming an increasing degree of control over regional affairs.25  Since Gambella’s regional president fled the country in December 2003, executive power in Gambella has theoretically been wielded by the acting regional president (formerly vice president), Ket Tuach, a Nuer.  But the federal government said that in February 2003, the regional government “requested” direct federal intervention in the region’s affairs and since then, real power in the region has been exercised by the federal government’s Ministry of Federal Affairs.26

In addition to assuming de facto control over the regional government, the federal government has stationed several thousand more ENDF troops in Gambella since December 2003.27  Almost all of those soldiers are highlanders and identify themselves as such in the context of highlander-Anuak ethnic conflict.28  The military has established camps throughout the region and conducts regular patrols throughout most predominantly Anuak areas.  The primary reason for the large military presence in Gambella appears to be an effort to eliminate armed Anuak groups in the region and assure the security of areas under exploration for oil.29

[2] The last census conducted in Gambella, in 1994, determined the region’s population to be 162,397.  The region’s population is estimated to have increased significantly in the intervening years.

[3] Gambella’s “highlander” population is far from homogenous; it is made up of Tigrayans, Oromo, Kembatta, Amhara and other ethnicities from throughout Ethiopia.  The term “highlander” is therefore so imprecise as to be almost meaningless in an objective sense, but in the context of Gambella the division between “highlander” and non-highlander is very real and increasingly important to members of both “groups.”  This report will use the term “highlander” for this reason and for the sake of convenience.

[4] ZPEB is a subsidiary of China National Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec).  Petronas has exclusive exploration rights within a 15,000 km2 concession that stretches across much of Gambella.  See ZPEB Press Release, “Seismic Survey Project in Ethiopia Put into Operation,” December 9, 2004, [online] (retrieved February 4, 2005).

[5] The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) fought against the Derg as allies of the EPRDF.  In 1992, the OLF withdrew from elections that were marred by widespread harassment and intimidation of its candidates and supporters and began waging a guerilla struggle against the new government.  The Ethiopian government labels the OLF a “terrorist organization,” while the OLF claims to be fighting for the Oromo people’s right to self-determination.  Most of the OLF leadership is currently based in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

[6] “The Derg” is the appellation most commonly used to refer to the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia from 1974-1991.  When the military overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, it set up a committee of officers to head the revolutionary government (“Derg” means “committee” in Amharic).  The Derg was overthrown by a coalition of rebel forces led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1991. 

[7] From 1984-1988, the Ethiopian government forced an estimated 600,000 people to abandon their homes and relocate to areas that were supposedly fertile and underpopulated.  The program was justified as an answer to the country’s food security concerns, but was also used to depopulate areas believed to be supportive of the TPLF-led insurgency (“draining the sea to catch the fish”).  See Human Rights Watch, Evil Days: 30 Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1991), pp. 210-229.  A large proportion of the settlers were sent to Gambella, which the central government described as containing huge areas of fertile and uninhabited land. 

[8] In the 1980s, three refugee camps were opened that ultimately became home to at least 150,000 refugees (the official UNHCR figures, which probably overstate the true number of refugees, put their number at over 350,000).  Human Rights Watch, Evil Days pp. 285-286. The vast majority of those refugees returned home to Sudan after the fall of the Derg in 1991, but the camps’ populations have to a large degree been replenished since then by new influxes of Sudanese refugees, many of them Nuer.  As of November 2004, UNHCR estimates that there are 68,000 refugees in three camps in Gambella—31,000 in Fugnido, 19,000 in Dimma and 18,000 in Bonga.  Because security concerns have largely kept UNCHR staff out of the camps in 2004, these numbers have not been recently verified and UNHCR representatives said that these figures may overstate the actual refugee population.  Human Rights Watch interview with Fernando Protti-Alvarado, UNCHR Regional Liaison Office for Africa Deputy Representative, Addis Ababa, late 2004.

[9] According to the 1994 census, Nuer make up 40 percent of Gambella’s population, Anuak 27 percent and “highlanders” 25 percent.  Many in the Anuak community have disputed these figures and claim that logistical difficulties in traveling to remote villages led to a massive undercounting of the Anuak population.

[10] Human Rights Watch interviews, Gambella and Addis Ababa, late 2004; confidential research papers on file with Human Rights Watch.

[11] There have been no reported instances of open conflict between Anuak and Nuer in Gambella since the end of 2003, but none of the underlying tensions have been resolved.

[12] Eisei Kurimoto, “Politicisation of Ethnicity in Gambella,” in Ethiopia in Broader Perspective, Papers of the 13th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, vol. II, 1997, Kyoto, p. 809; Human Rights Watch interviews with Anuak sources, Gambella, late 2004

[13] See infra Abuses by Armed Anuak Groups.

[14] See infra Abuses by Armed Anuak Groups for more details.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview, late 2004, with GPLF leadership, Nairobi.

[16] This group has been blamed for many of the ambushes on highlander civilians and civilian vehicles.  Some reports indicate that there may also be a third, larger group operating around Gok and Dimma.

[17] Thuwath Pal Chay, a Nuer, was the top central government official in Gambella for several years prior to the overthrow of the Derg.  He claims to be fighting a “war of liberation” that seeks to overthrow the EPRDF government and return Ethiopia to socialism.  Human Rights Watch interview with Thuwath Pal Chay, Nairobi, late 2004.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with Thuwath Pal Chay, Nairobi, late 2004; Human Rights Watch interview, Addis Ababa, late 2004.

[19] Although the Geneva Conventions of 1949 do not define “armed conflict,” Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions on non-international armed conflicts states that “situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature,” are not armed conflicts.  Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), 1125 U.N.T.S. 609, entered into force Dec. 7, 1978, article 1(2). (retrieved March 11, 2005)

[20] The Derg had favored the Nuer over the Anuak, and the local administration in Gambella was dominated by Nuer until 1991.  Largely for this reason, the armed struggle in Gambella was carried out mainly by Anuak insurgents fighting alongside the TPLF and OLF.

[21] Confidential research papers on file with Human Rights Watch; Human Rights Watch interviews, Addis Ababa and Gambella, late 2004.

[22] Human Rights Watch interviews with regional officials and Anuak sources, Addis Ababa and Gambella, late 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with federal government official, Addis Ababa, late 2004.

[23] According to a reliable source within the federal government, most of these have been charged with offenses related to alleged collaboration with Anuak insurgents and put on trial, but no one has yet been convicted.

[24] Gambella has had four regional presidents since 1991.  The first was murdered by his own (GPLM) fighters in 1992.  Of the remaining three, one is in prison and the other is in exile.  Gambella’s last regional president, Okello Akway, fled on foot to Pochalla, Sudan, several days after the December 2003 massacre in Gambella town and subsequently sought asylum in Norway.  Gambella’s Anuak representative to the House of People’s Representatives, Peter Opiti, is seeking asylum in Switzerland.

[25] In 1998 the federal government forced the Anuak-dominated GPLM to merge with the mainly Nuer Gambella Peoples Democratic Unity Party (GPDUP) into the Gambella People’s Democratic Front (GPDF).  Disaffected Anuak then formed the opposition Gambella People’s Democratic Congress (GPDC).  When the GPDC seemed poised to make a strong showing in the 2000 elections, regional authorities imprisoned many of its leaders, crippling the party.  In 2003, the Ministry of Federal Affairs forced the GPDF to disband and replaced it with a coalition of three newly-created ethnic parties called the Gambella Peoples Democratic Movement (GPDM).

[26] The Ethiopian Ministry of Federal Affairs has stated that regional authorities “requested” federal intervention in order to “save the people from the chaos [that] ensued” after the December 2003 massacre.  Ethiopian Ministry of Federal Affairs, “Gambella State Government Sought Federal Intervention,” [online] (retrieved January 25, 2005).

[27] The number of ENDF personnel in Gambella is likely to increase dramatically in the near future, as the military reportedly plans to transfer permanently a large part of the garrison currently located near Jimma to a newlyconstructed camp outside of Gambella town with the capacity to house 60,000 soldiers.  Human Rights Watch interview with federal official, Addis Ababa, late 2004.  It is worth mentioning that this number of soldiers would be substantially higher than the entire Anuak population of the region as recorded in the 1994 census.   

[28] Confidential research papers on file with Human Rights Watch.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview with federal government official, Addis Ababa, late 2004.

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