Regional and local tensions intertwine in Gambella, as violence claims hundreds of lives

On 15 April 2016, a cross-border raid from South Sudan into Ethiopia’s Gambella region left more than 200 dead. According to the Ethiopian government, more than 108 women and children were abducted and some 2,000 head of cattle stolen during the attack that targeted Nuer villages in the districts of Jikawo and Lare. Following the attack, the Ethiopian government announced two days of mourning for the victims and, in coordination with the South Sudanese government, sent a military force into South Sudan to rescue the kidnapped children.

After the Jikawo raid, the Ethiopian government was quick to announce that the attackers were not associated with either the South Sudanese government or Dr. Riek Machar’s opposition. The attackers were identified by witnesses as Murle, and it was reported that they came from South Sudan’s Boma state, which was established when South Sudan was divided into 28 states in December 2015. This appears to have been confirmed when on 30 April it was reported that 32 of the kidnapped children were recovered after local chiefs collected them from villages in Likuangole County in northern Boma.

Baba Medan, the governor of the newly created Boma state, has accused forces allied with the former South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army-Cobra Faction (SSDM/A-CF) – a Murle dominated rebel group, of carrying out the attack. However, the group’s former leader, and current Deputy Defence Minister in South Sudan’s new transitional government of national unity, General Yau Yau, stated that his group is not behind the attacks. Yau Yau accused Baba Medan, who comes from Likuangole County, of supplying “his own people” with the weapons that were used for the attacks.

Even if neither of the leaders was directly responsible for the attack, it seems that the recent tensions and lack of governance in Boma state have contributed to it. Yau Yau’s SSDM/A-CF signed a peace agreement with the South Sudanese government in early 2014, in Addis Ababa. Under the agreement, its forces were to be integrated into the SPLA, and General Yau Yau was made the chief administrator of the new Greater Pibor Area Administration (GPAA). The new state of Boma replaced the GPAA, and Yau Yau was replaced with Baba Medan, who was until then the deputy governor of Jonglei state. This transition sparked violence in the area between former members of the SSDM/A-CF and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

However, while it is clear that the attack in Jikawo can only be understood in light of the complex politics of South Sudan’s (former) Jonglei state and its multiple armed political/ethnic groups and their alliances, much remains unclear with regard to the motives for the raid, its timing, and the targeted population.

For example, neither Boma nor Likuangole – where the attackers are believed to have come from – borders the districts of Lare or Jikawo in Ethiopia. These border Latjor – formerly a part of Upper Nile state, and another one of South Sudan’s new states. This means that the attackers either travelled inside South Sudan, through Nuer dominated Ulang, or, more likely, crossed Gambella from the south to the north. As Radio Tamazuj noted: “A good deal of planning and reconnaissance would have been necessary for a large group of attackers to make a journey of this kind.”

The wounded from Lare and Jikawo were taken to Gambella town for medical treatment. Others, who lost relatives or property, were also displaced, with some turning to relatives in Gambella town for support. However, days after the events in Jikawo they were affected by another local conflict that turned violent. That conflict has deep roots in the transnational dynamics of the region as well, but it also draws on growing sentiments of the marginalisation of Gambella’s non-Nuer, and grievances intensified by Ethiopia’s ethnic federal system.

A week after the Jikawo raid, an NGO car with an Ethiopian “highlander” (a term used in Gambella to describe Ethiopians from other parts of the country) driver ran over, and killed, two Nuer children near Jewi refugee camp, located east of Gambella town on the road to Addis Ababa. Refugees “responded” by killing 14 Ethiopian “highlanders” working in the camp. Following the killings, “highlanders” and Anuak – whose long standing conflict with Gambella Nuer has also resulted in killings in recent months – staged demonstrations in Gambella town. The demonstrators attempted to enter the Nuer neighbourhood of New Land, but were blocked by the Ethiopian Federal Police. Vehicles of NGOs working with refugees were also reportedly targeted. Dozens of refugees and locals were arrested following these events in Gambella town and the killings in Jewi.

Some highlighted the fact that while the perpetrators in Jewi were Nuer refugees, the “highlanders” in Gambella turned against local Nuer, who are Ethiopian citizens. However, as pointed out in an earlier blog, after centuries of cross-border movements, the boundaries between Nuer refugees (that are theoretically restricted to camps in Ethiopia) and local Nuer communities are extremely grey, and legal or national status in the region, for many Nuer in particular, is fluid. In terms of national affiliation, for example, not all Nuer holding Ethiopian IDs, and especially not in relatively remote borderland areas such as Jikawo or Lare, necessarily feel more Ethiopians than South Sudanese.

The recent violent events in Jikawo, Gambella town and Jewi refugee camp are a result of different tensions and conflicts that flow in different directions but intertwine in Ethiopia’s western tip. However, these dynamics emphasise the extent to which the functions and consequences of international borders or national status in this region are not pre-determined or dictated from above, but are negotiated and shaped by the political imagination and the everyday practices of the communities and individuals who live there.

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