It’s a wild ride returning from rebel-held territory in South Sudan to the region of Gambella in western Ethiopia. Bush fires dot the plains, with flames from the largest edging dangerously onto the road. A Nile crocodile scuttles between swamps. As our truck clatters towards them, families of antelope freeze before prancing into grasslands.
These are white-eared kob, around half a million of which leave the Sudd wetlands of South Sudan and travel a hundred kilometers across open country to graze in Gambella before seasonal rains come in July.
This year, alongside what is believed to be Africa’s second-largest annual animal migration, humans are also moving east and en masse across these porous borders.
After over half a century of frequent war and displacement, a new conflict has broken out in recently independent South Sudan, leading to a further wave of migration of ethnic Nuer people to Ethiopia. So far, in four months of fighting between the government and the primarily Nuer rebels, over 90,000 people have sought refuge in Gambella at makeshift camps. More than 70,000 refugees were already present after fleeing violence during South Sudan’s war for independence and, more recently, ethnic strife in Jonglei state.
For Gambella − part of Ethiopia’s low-lying hinterland, historically, economically, and ethnically apart from the temperate highlands − the conflict and the influx look likely to prolong its stagnation. Due to the war, plans to construct highways, oil refineries and railways linking South Sudan and Ethiopia will be delayed, and with them Gambella’s chances of becoming more closely integrated into the region’s economy. Instead, as in decades past, the cross-border traffic will continue to be aid workers, essential goods, refugees, and rebels.
The Nuer have been migrating to Gambella for over a century, with the trend accelerated by civil war in southern Sudan. They are mostly members of the Jikany sub-group and have become the Gambella’s most populous ethnic group.
Most of the community seem to support the objective of South Sudan's former vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer, whose rebel forces are currently at war with those of President Salva Kiir, a Dinka.
The two politicians have long been rivals and in December, a power struggle between the two spilled over into clashes between soldiers supporting one or the other. The conflict quickly spread and became deeply polarised as civilians were targeted based on their ethnicities. People in Gambella are furious with Kiir for the killings of Nuer in Juba, while many have relatives now sheltering in the UN's compounds in South Sudan.
“The government here is not happy with what happened in Juba,” says one local close to security issues, referring to the Nuer officials who run Gambella’s regional administration. “They are on the side of the Nuer opposition, but they don’t show it.”
The local politicians hide their views because it would put them at odds with Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa, which is striving to be an impartial mediator in the conflict. The reality, however, is that Gambella is an obvious meeting point for Nuer rebels.
A journey to Nasir, a stronghold of the rebellion just over the border in South Sudan, involves a three-hour drive from Gambella town to the crossing point of Burbiey on the Baro river, which flows into the Sobat, a tributary of the White Nile. The only official that stops our vehicle is a tall, well-spoken Gambella National Park guard asking if our purpose is to view the migrating antelope and other wildlife.
At the entrance to Burbiey, regional police, both Nuer, wave us through a checkpoint with a rope slumped across the road. Minutes after arriving at the collection of huts and souks milling with migrants and traders, we shuffle down a steep muddy bank onto a boat that ferries us across the Baro into South Sudan. Armed men with looted pick-up trucks wait at the bank to take us to Nasir. There are no border officials in sight.
The existence of this passage is no secret. Machar’s delegates at negotiations in Addis Ababa openly invite journalists to visit Nuer territory in Upper Nile and Jonglei states, and friendly Gambella officials are informed to ensure journeys through the region go smoothly.
However, reporters aren’t the only ones travelling. On our way to Nasir, we were accompanied by a former gender officer in the Upper Nile government and an ex-administrator of Juba airport who are looking to take up civilian roles in rebel areas.
Other Nuer with strong Ethiopian ties were already there. For example, flanking the commander of Nasir County’s militia was Nhial Tuach Riek. Riek obtained a biology degree from Gondar University in northern Ethiopia yet returned home to fight for his people. A man whose previous job was in the agriculture office of Gambella’s regional government assists the rebel acting commissioner of Nasir County.
Despite Gambella’s tacit support for the current cause, it is playing a less prominent part in the war across the border than in the 1980s, when the south's Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was fighting a war against the Sudanese government in Khartoum. At this time, Sudan was supporting Eritrean rebels who were fighting Ethiopian troops, and Ethiopia was helping arm the SPLA. Cold War proxy politics also featured: the Soviet Union allied with socialist Ethiopia, while the US, which had interests in Sudan after Chevron struck oil, backed Khartoum.
Part of Ethiopia's support for the SPLA was in allowing it to set up bases in Gambella. Here, the Sudanese rebels recruited and trained tens of thousands of young men from refugee camps. The forces, including many Dinka, stole cattle, looted grain, and fought with Anuak and Nuer. And in Itang, 50 km west of Gambella town, people stopped growing food out of fear of the SPLA, according to Obang Ojud Ogera, a 70-year-old Anuak member of Gambella state council.
Given this past experience, officials more recently had to persuade locals that the new influx from South Sudan wouldn’t pose a similar threat. “The problems caused by the SPLA were in their mind,” says Ogera.
Additionally, this time around, Ethiopia’s neutrality in South Sudan’s conflict and a beefy internal security apparatus make a re-run of Gambella as a rebel base unthinkable, says the security officer who wished to remain anonymous.
Indeed, in the long-term, it seems the immediate security implications of the conflict in South Sudan will not be as damaging as the effect on the region's already stunted development.
Gambella, which had been home to the Anuak people for two centuries, became part of modern Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century. From 1902, the British ran the town as a bustling port for its colony in Sudan. When Sudan achieved independence in 1956, Gambella returned to Ethiopian administration.
In 1969, during the first Sudanese civil war (1955 to 1972), a group of separatists called the Anyanya formed with the aiming of creating a nation out of all Nilotic people, including Anuak and Nuer from Gambella. But according to the historian Dereje Feyissa, there was no local political power over which to battle.
In the next decade, the SPLA dominated the region. Also significant was the arrival of tens of thousands of settlers, some trucked from the north where drought and civil war had led to famine. Many of these highlanders now run restaurants, bars, hotels, taxis and garages in Gambella town to the almost total exclusion of Nuer and Anuak business owners.
After allied rebels overthrew a national socialist regime in 1991, a constitutional system of ethnic-based federalism emerged that protected minorities’ culture and language. Yet, although it granted Anuak and Nuer local political power, the promise of the change remains unfulfilled.
There are no barges full of coffee or ivory flowing to the Nile these days. But below the bridge spanning the Baro, near the remains of the port, aid agencies’ Toyota Land Cruisers are bathed alongside locals. The town is humming as the centre of a major humanitarian operation for South Sudanese refugees. Hotels are block-booked for weeks by United Nations agencies. Street-side noticeboards are full of advertised positions at international NGOs, along with the usual government jobs. Additech, an electrical services firm, is the only private business advertising a vacancy.
Emergency relief, now again dominating aid programmes in Gambella, is the least progressive type of assistance as there is no attempt to tool people to help themselves, says one charity boss. Gambella, tied intimately to volatile South Sudan, is “often considered at a standstill in terms of development,” he says.
The transient boost to the local economy comes as Addis Ababa’s latest attempts to advance Gambella flounder. The region was promoted as a key part of a commercial farming push because its sparse population left masses of fertile bush to be developed. But the 5-year-old attempts of one high-profile Indian investor, Karuturi Global, to farm 100,000 hectares are in disarray after the company discovered four-fifths of its plot was in a floodplain. A 10,000-hectare rice project backed by Ethiopia’s largest foreign investor, billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi, has also slowed. And while Saudi Star was given the right to water from the socialist-era dam on the Alwero river in years ago, it is cultivating on just 250 hectares as it has not completed the irrigation canal begun by engineers from the Soviet Union.
Attempts at social engineering appear similarly unsuccessful. In 2010, the government launched an attempt to cluster scattered settlements in Gambella, arguing that service provision would be more cost-efficient. While bureaucrats claim success in overseeing the voluntary relocation of almost the entire rural population, it seems to have largely failed as settlers returned to their original homes when promised school and clinics weren’t built.
Currently the influx of Nuer into Gambella is being treated as a humanitarian emergency, but it may have longer-term political ramifications for the area. For decades Anuak people have felt marginalised by the influx of Nuer and highlanders, says Feyissa. The current Nuer movement may renew tensions if Anuak believe they’re here to stay, further altering the area’s demographics in their rival’s favour, he suggests.
“The refugee phenomenon has been a central part of regional politics since the 1960s, to the extent it has radically changed regional democracy,” he says. “The Anuak think they’re the main indigenous group but because of the continued influx of Nuer refuges it affects the power balance.”
The masses of white-eared kob dodging our truck on the road to South Sudan are an indicator of Gambella’s rich potential. Elephant and giraffe also live among vast stretches of savannah, forest and swamp, far from any of the state’s few roads. Stability and political support for an integrated development plan could turn Gambella into a thriving region, experts believe. If done properly, local communities could benefit while the potential for tourism and farming is tapped without disrupting the ecosystem.
But the current instability is also a blow to big-ticket regional infrastructure schemes. At the time of South Sudan’s independence in 2011, Harry Verhoeven, a researcher at Oxford University, described the potential for economic integration between the new nation and Ethiopia. He suggested that Gambella could soon be connected by road to South Sudan’s three eastern states. “Over the long term, there is the potential for a deal with Ethiopia which could export cheap power to an electricity-starved South Sudan in exchange for continued oil supplies,” he wrote.
However, the latest crisis is a “disaster” for this potential integration, Verhoeven now says. And Gambella’s appeal to agricultural investors is also likely to wane. “The results so far are not great and the regional instability is certainly not going to lead to an increase of investment and investor attention in Gambella,” he says.
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