Dancing with a Wolf: A Reflection on Gambella Politics

By: Chuol R. Kompuok, PhD

December 5, 2014 (SSNA) — This article tries to shed lights on historical perspective of the two ethnic groups relationship and their landholdings (the Nuer vis-à-vis the Anywaa). The paper also goes on to addresses factors contributing to the deep abyss between different ethnic groups in Gambella. It goes beyond reasonable doubt to examining the contributions of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling party toward fueling problems in the region. It is importance to revisit the dynamics in the Nuer political discourse. The readers of this article will be able to understand how such problems came into being. From there, individual readers will have sufficient information to judge who should take the lion share of blame. Since time immemorial, Nuer and Anywaa live a long history of co-existence and will continue living together for the rest of their life. History tells us both ethnic groups migrated from the original homeland, South Sudan eastward to the present day Gambella, Southwest Ethiopia in 17th and 19th century respectively. The expansion of the ethnic group was fairly peaceful cum minor clashes but suddenly came to abrupt halt, as the conditions were unfavorable in the highlands of Bure part of Illubabur Administrative region and Shebel part of Wolega Administrative region. It is very clear that the two ethnic groups took a U turn to Gambella Administrative region, the lowland area of Ethiopia, which by then was under administration of Upper Nile Province. But not all the explorers came back; some insisted and are now descendants of Oromo people until of recent.

These communities appear not to have economic importance in the eyes of Ethiopian Kings and Arabs of the northern Sudan not until King Haile Selassie realized their strategic importance toward the end of 19th century. Considering the strategic economic significant importance, and resilient manpower, Emperor Haile Selassie involved them into the affairs of the Ethiopians before Arabs could grab them for slavery purposes. By that time preparations were underway as Italia champions to overrun Ethiopian territory before other European countries took over. Not very long enough, King Haile Selassie felt the heat and demand for manpower was on the top list of the agendas. The move made by the emperor put him in strategic position to fight back the Italian invaders with the gallant forces from the lowland areas of Gambella. Italia was by then so anxious to have roots in Ethiopia and declare war against Ethiopian territory from 1935—1936. After the defeat of the Italian invaders, chiefs from Gambella were nominated as tax collectors and recruiters in case the Italian invaders crops up. The emperor administers Gambella in a remote and no such interference into the affairs of Gambellians as of current.

Though provision of social services almost equal to nothing during the reign of the emperor Haile Selassie, peace prevalent has shown tremendous effect that continued until the downfall of the Derg regime. An acknowledgement was made as a result of dear leadership qualities of the emperor by cementing the ties between the Nuer, the Anywaa and other minorities (Majengir, Opo and Komo).

The continuation of unprecedented peace among different ethnic groups in Gambella during and after the reign of the emperor perhaps until the defunct regime was due to undisturbed systems of the governance. None interfered with the affairs of each ethnic group. For instance, in case of Gambella during the era of emperor land belongs to Anywaa Kings according to their setting. Distribution and redistribution of lands to communities vested into kings’ authorities. Nuer in other words, owns land communally but in the event disputes of the lands arise are presiding over by Kuar Kuach (Chief of Leopard Skin). Such arrangements made the relationship between the Nuer on both sides (Ethiopia and South Sudan) and Anywaa on both sides (Ethiopia and South Sudan) unquestionable. The customary laws rank number one in both the Anywaaland and Nuerland.

However, the Mengistu regime came up with its own arrangements after the overthrown of the imperial government of which the kingdoms were abolished. It came to be known that administrative states were established where Gambella became one of them. Within Gambella Administrative state, six administrative districts (Gog & Jor, Abobo, Gambella, Itang, Jiokow and Akobo) were established. As a matter of fact, some cultural barriers to development were discouraged. Social services were made available and living conditions improved. The main departure of Mengistu regime from the emperor Haile Selassie government was that holding of land by the landlords was abandoned. Thus, land belongs to the tillers became the slogan of the defunct regime.

The 1975 Ethiopian Constitution states that land belongs to public and no pieces or parts of it shall be use for commercial purposes. The socialist Derg regime that had overthrown the imperial regime of Haile Selassie profoundly altered the agrarian structure and the mechanism of access to land. The “Public Ownership of Rural Land Proclamation” nationalized all rural land and set out to redistribute it to its tillers and to organize farmers in cooperatives, thereby abolishing exploitative landlord-tenant relations so pertinent under the imperial regime. Even though, with the defeat of the military socialist Derg regime of Mengistu in 1991, the dissolution of farm collectives took place rapidly, there was limited change with regard to property rights to land – to the disappointment of many international donor agencies. In principle, the Transitional Government of Ethiopia did not question state ownership of land. All political regimes in Ethiopia, from imperial, Derg to EPRDF, are ‘control freak’. Perhaps where they differ is in the degree of success in their projects of total control over society (Dereje, 2006).

The clock turned around when the EPRDF took over Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia in May 1991. Ethnic tension grew to its peak and quest for self-rule became inevitable. Different nations and nationalities were said to have democratic rights as stipulated in the Transitional Constitutions; describing the rights to self-determination (Article 39). Article 39 happen to be more contentious ever as EPRDF reneged on its promises and continue to rule by proxies; the establishment of the Federal Affairs Ministry that sends its cadres to the less developed regions (Gambella, Benishangul Gumuz, Somalia and Afar) is a good indication of dancing with the Wolf. The cadres at their own will given the extra-powers vested in them removed and/or reinstated regional presidents up to the lowest echelon of constitutional post holders. Such practice has been there since 1991 when ERDF took over power from the defunct regime until of recent. The credibility of EPRDF in terms of wining the support of the majority as ways of promoting the democratic rights appears to be dwindling. The political rights of the Gambellians in exercising their powers embedded in the national constitution appears to have been grabbed by the federal government; a legitimate claims which had already put to test the credibility of late PM Meles Zenawi’s government policy.

The question one may ask is, where is the democracy in this situation? The presidents and other members of parliament elected through ballot box only to be removed by mere cadres without prior knowledge of the voters or constituencies. If such conditions happened to H.E. the late PM (Meles Zenawi) or his successor PM H/Mariam Desalegn, it would be an act of treasons tantamount to prison to the individual cadres. The below questions remained to be answered by the cadres or other readers around the globe. Did the democracy PM preach about meant giving powers to highland cadres to remove the elected leaders from the lowland area of Ethiopia? Did Meles Zenawi, the PM knew for sure the damage his men inflicted on the masses by removing their leaders without consensus? How sure could he (the PM) be whether his men were (not) bribed for one to retain his/her position as the case of Gambella?

The 2012 evaluation and its subsequent follow up evaluation in Gambella appear to have so many flaws. The corrupt elements in the regional government went unpunished with the tangible evidence. This is an indication that the trusted cadres appear to have received chunk of money either from the Ethiopian highlanders or the then president of Gambella Omod Obang Olom as a way of removing charges labeled against him. Omod Obang in collaboration cum highlanders from the federal government would have remained credible threats to the political development and social liberty in Gambella if he had not exited from the country into exile. The paradigm shifts in Gambella politics embedded in it more economic interest. Experience teaches us that the like of Abay Tsay, the ex-minister of Federal Affairs Ministry and Girma Tsion in the EPRDF head office had done enough damage with the far-reaching implications in the Gambella politics. The two men ripped off Gambella naked without resources left to cater for its poor citizens in the name of advisory group while contributing nothing in efforts to develop the economic ravaged region. Given hard lesson learnt, a fair judgment on how affairs of the region were (are) run, be domestic driven solution rather than federal deal with full packages.  

Such damage never stops at one point. The claims highlanders and Omod Obang fabricated may seemed realistic to an outsiders but the argument does not hold any water at all. The presence of highlanders could be traced back to the time immemorial when Omod Obang was not born or God did not think of creating him either. Ostensibly, highlanders lived and will continue to live in Gambella in the absence of Omod Obang, who is considered the only savior to the highlanders. Believing me or not, Ethiopians from the highland areas are now residing in Gambella with no fear of anything in the absence of him, the former president of Gambella. The truth will still remain the same without fading. Evidently, Seid Negash, who was by then the lead mobilizer and fundraiser among business community made a lot of contribution in maintaining Omod Obang in power during evaluation period credible source revealed. The businessman took lead in convincing the then chief of evaluation team Mr. Alebachew not to remove him and a go home to Addis Ababa with fat pocket of taxpayers’ money became appropriate than exposing the real danger.

Genuinely enough though I am not sure of the necessary and sufficient conditions at which someone could be removed from the office or maintained in power; the corruption charges labeled against Omod Obang qualified him to be out of the office and file case against him to lay ground for his arrest. The following charges labeled against the then president Omod Olom were as follows:

1. Embezzlement of the government funds for his own gains,
2. One-month salaries for all the civil servants in Gambella went missing prior to 2012 evaluation by then,
3. The fertile land of Gambella was sold to briefcase investors from highland areas of Ethiopia and individuals from Saudi Arabia and far East Asia,
4. Always plays double standard between the locals and the highlanders,
5. Deployed and dismissed civil servants without the knowledge of Commission of Public Authority (CPA), which has the mandate of deploying, demoting and dismissing civil servants as their performance require,
6. Instigate inter and intra tribal conflict among different ethnic group inhabiting Gambella and beyond,
7. Master minded the killing of innocent Nuer in 2002, 2003 and 2004 in Ochom along the Baro River when he was head of Police Commission,
8. Participate directly in repatriation of Nuer who resided in Ochom village and other parts of Gambella areas for more than 15 years back to Jiokow and Akobo districts, a violation of the constitutional rights of Ethiopia citizens
9. Constructed villas in Addis Ababa and Gambella with public resources,
10. Initiated the conflict between highlanders and Majengir by giving out the Majengir lands to highlanders (light skin Ethiopians), the only assets Majengir own besides honey production; one of the conditions that force Majengir to write to the Federation Council opting to join Southern Nation and Nationalities rather than Gambella region.
11. The clearing of forest for timbers trade in Majengir land by the highlanders appeared to have a lion share in it.
12.   Participated and collaborated with EPRDF forces in 2003 Massacre of nywaa people in Gambella state.

If the above mentioned corruption charges appears to have been committed by the then president Omod Obang Olom and no proper action was taken against him, then evaluation bound to have lost its authentic meaning in the long-run and others will follow suit. Where is the democracy the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi used to preach about in any international or domestic forum for the last 20 years or so? A sound minded person would judge me right to have Omod Obang, the former president of Gambella removed and locked up for the rest of his life. But instead Omod Obang was rewarded with the position of state minister for Religious Affairs in the Federal Ministry; a position that would have been given to the trustworthy sons and daughters of Gambella. However, the position was used as exit root to Asian countries; a circumstance that surprised many Ethiopian people but not citizens of Gambella. If former president of Gambella region exited without being tried, then the essence of evaluation rendered no meaningful status. The only convincing reasons why EPRDF kept Omod Obang in power and made him to leave the country after the fall out without being arrested was due to the fact that Omod Obang collaborated with the EPRDF on the December 13, 2003 massacre of four hundred and twenty six (426) Anywaa most of whom were educated. Anywaa got butchered in a broad daylight by the highlanders both in uniform and civilian clothes in Gambella town and elsewhere in the region. Omod Obang who by then the Chief Security denied the incident flatly and account only for less than 10 people. The predecessor former president of Gambella Okello Akway who stood tall in defense of the massacre coupled with the lack of political maturity was almost netted out and narrowly escaped into exile. His vice president, Mr. Keat Tuach who tried to moderate between the warring parties was eventually dismissed toward the end of the fiasco. Indeed, Omod Obang shoots up the ladder to the top seat in the region as the president in return. In this scenario EPRDF as the ruling party did not do its homework to settle issues of concern instead fomenting crisis as a way of forging ahead in its poor governance of divide and rule.

Given all the concessions EPRDF received from Omod Obang to continue maintaining the power of the state, nonetheless the EPRDF realized the danger of maintaining him in Gambella rather he was brought to the federal government for close monitoring. Not too long enough Tesfaye Eresso the former minister of Finance and Economic Planning of Gambella state who was by then a strong ally of Omod Obang was brought aboard by the EPRDF cadres, a move that angered Omod Obang and subsequently cost Tesfaye Eresso his dear life. The intention was to get all the necessary information with regards to corruption charges against Omod Obang and by then the mandate was given to the Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (FEACC) of Ethiopia to follow up the case. Surprisingly enough the custodian of the charges labeled against Omod Obang in the person of Tesfaye Eresso who came to Addis Ababa to submit the documents to FEACC mysteriously died in June 2013 in Addis Ababa—the Ethiopian capital city. A day later, his body was taken to Gambella for burial without collecting any forensic evidence surrounding his death. Omod Obang allegedly believed to have a bigger hand in his death to destroy the evidence.

After a long nasty evaluation where good ground for level-playing field is non-existence, the only victims of unorganized January 2012 evaluation happened to be the ex-vice president Goaner Yer, who would always stand tall in favor of maintaining laws and orders. Goaner Yer made a peaceful transfer of power to his successor Gatluak Tut Koat as the vice president who later on succeeded Omod Obang in April 2013 as the current president of Gambella in an extraordinary session held. Goaner Yer had left his office as state manhood for there was no any claim of misappropriation of government funds while in the office for the last six years or so. EPRDF cadres came in heavy-handedly and removed him without proper charges but only overwhelmed by the bribes. I would differ with individual commentators suggesting the VP removal came as a result of lack of political commitment. The political discourse in Gambella has no defined equation where one could be judged to have failed unless one liaises with political Godfather in the federal government. If one is moved by the waves of propagandas of unprofessional cadres from the federal government and some helpless cadres in Gambella, then the credibility of a leader in the eyes of the voters would not stand the test of the day and immediately proven invalid.

The dynamic in Nuer politics lost its authentication as citizens who at one point in time emancipated the large innocent Nuer from the bewildered Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM) administration breast and groomed by EPRDF. The cheap politics of one driving a vehicle of a class increases the vulnerability of the Nuer politicians. But this should not have been the main goal, selling the interest of the people voted you into the office to deliver the most needed services: the health, education and economic empowerment in exchange of a seat one will never enjoys until the master takes it away is the cheap politics of going into bed with a wolf. EPRDF and its cadres maintained the post of the vice president for the Nuer and the president for the Anywaa to widen the gap and planted the seeds of hatred between the Nuer and the Anywaa, a scenario reversed of recent. Previous trends of monopoly of power by the Anywaa in the region for the last 22 years during the reign of late PM Meles Zenawi one would tended to believe that EPRDF had a secret pact with the GPLM while in the bush not to let Nuer into the presidency. If at all there were anything given to Nuer would be the lower position. Such a mathematical equation set by the EPRDF and the GPLM while in the bush would have been easily reversed not until of recent past. The numerical size of the Nuer as compare to Anywaa in the regional parliament on average account for 60 percent and 45 percent, respectively. Indeed, it was a possible chance for exploitations but the way the current president run the affairs of the state would possibly revert back the seat to the Anywaa and Anywaa will never be blame no more.

If we are to go back a little bit further in the history of EPRDF cum GPLM shortly after the downfall of the Derg regime in May 1991, it came to lights that Agwaa Alemu, an Anywaa, became the chief administrator for Gambella until his demise. The few Nuer whom you can count on were those who positioned themselves in the military wings of GPLM; the like of late Pvt. Thuok Lare, Pvt. Puol Ruach, etc…, but have no say in any action taken against their fellow Nuer along the Baro river by the GPLM. Most of the military wings stationed in Abol village, now the current headquarters of Gambella district. Such arrangements never lasted long; a cruel assassination of Agwaa Alemu with his family took place in Gambella town in a broad daylight. Afterward, formation of the new government in Gambella was inevitable and the following posts were allotted exclusively for Anywaa; the president, the vice president and the general secretary were as follows: Okello Oman, Ojulu Akwer and Oguta Adiw, respectively presiding over Gambella affairs without involvement of Nuer and other ethnic minorities. Nuer in this case appear to be at the periphery of the Gambella administration, but were required to pay taxes to GPLM government while in destitution without social services. On the contrary, the GPLM military wing is determined to eliminate Nuer in the entire Gambella by iron fist, an attempt badly contested by the Nuer though most of the Nuer elites lost their dear lives in the process.

As the GPLM nurtured the culture of cold blood murder and killing of the innocent educated Nuer in Gambella through red army stationed around Gambella town and Abol village along Baro river up to Itang district, a radical party called Gambella Peoples Democratic Unity Party (GPDUP) led by Chuol Khor Dak as the chairperson and late Gatkuoth Diw Nguntap as the Secretary emerged. This party was formed in Addis Ababa after EPRDF took control over Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia with the sole objective of defending and protecting the lives of Nuer from mercenary GPLM cadres. In light of this a wind of change blew through Gambella and the post of the vice president was given to late Chuol Pech Bol, the Nuer. Subsequently, the regional secretary general was given to Majengir, the third largest ethnic group next to Anywaa. The post of the vice president and the regional secretary general Anywaa relinquished to Nuer and Majengir was not on a golden plate but through struggle and sacrifices. Should the Nuer of today forget the rich history embedded in the struggle for the change in Gambella politics, it will be a systematic mistake in exchange of seat; a seat that will not recover the losses Nuer incurred in the process of climbing the top leadership in Gambella history and name recognition.

The series of changes in 2001, 2002 and 2003 for the equitable distribution of Gambella resources did not come about without heavy payment in terms of human and material losses. Nuer have made a profound contribution in terms of achieving peace in Gambella and this was extended to the minority groups (Majengir, Opo and Komo). The struggle of Nuer in shaping the Gambella political landscape sprang up inclusions of minority groups into the top leadership of Gambella. While the Nuer maintaining the post of the vice president, the following cabinet bureaus fell under their leadership: the Chief Security, the Bureau of Finance and Economic Development, the Water Resource, Mining and Energy Bureau, the Police Commission, deputy Bureau of Agriculture just to mention a few for the first time. The wind of aspiring for the top seat in the region began to blow throughout Gambella region and moderate Anywaa who saw GPLM as tool of intimidation supported the idea, should the Nuer prepare for it.

However, the political prostitution in Gambella among the self-claims few elites Nuer more or less depends on some keys fundamental principles. The first principle on one hand is going to bed with the former president Omod Obang and EPRDF cadres for one to be given lucrative job on condition of economic security and driving a vehicle of a class. The second principle on the other hand is to form strong ally with the Nuer with no backing from the center but mainly supported by the Nuer majority. The first principle took chunks of them.  The cliques according to different sources, their records indicated that they have gone with resources or their hands full of blood of the innocent Nuer. Most of them deserved to remain behind bars although appeared to be on the short-lived wining side. Those who pay allegiance to Nuer causes apparently are the victims of circumstances but can still move with their head upright straight unlike the traitors.

Political history in modern times can be characterized essentially as the struggle for freedom. Yet it is evident that different thinkers and writers have conceived of such freedom from very different theoretical positions, and have ascribed to freedom some quite different meanings. In this article, I approach the concept of Nuer freedom in Gambella from the perspective of liberalism, the political philosophy, which interprets freedom fundamentally, as individual and societal liberty. In liberalism, human beings are regarded as rational, autonomous agents who are able to decide for themselves what constitutes the good life, and who therefore ought to be granted the maximum freedom possible to pursue their own particular conceptions of the good, subject only to the equal freedom of other ethnic groups in Gambella. It is this understanding of the primacy of Nuer liberty in Gambella region EPRDF violated that forms the basis for universal human rights; for the rule of law and equality before the law; and for the establishment of the institutions of democratic society.

In conclusion, EPRDF as the ruling party in Ethiopia would have sorted out problems befalling Gambella amicably in a manner indiscriminating anyone by creed, race, color or sex. Hopefully the current PM H/Mariam Desalegn would do more to make it a reality. The dynamic in the political discourse in Gambella plunged so many people into ad hoc with the self-claim Godfather, the EPRDF that appears to have lost the direction. The political deadlock in Gambella more or less emanate from exogenous factors. Without exogenous involvement, Gambella has potential leaders to resolves their differences in a fair while maintaining everlasting peace. The traditional methods of problem solving in the past can still be revitalized, appreciated and applied without questions by the Gambella people. Should EPRDF cadres distance themselves from interfering with the Gambella affairs, Gambella would be one of the safest place ever on Ethiopia land for one to live without prejudices of any kind. The presence of highlanders in the affairs of Gambella people will not solve any problem rather widen the gap and fuel more mistrust among leaders of Gambella thereby opening a window of hatred to develop to the fullest capacity. A fair reading of the national constitution is of paramount importance on the eyes of the federal government, which claims to have all the rights to man the region belongs to other ethnic group. Federalism in the eyes of Gambellians bound to have lost its meaning and far from remote. Federal advisors with no domestic background would rather foment the hostilities than narrow down the gap the EPRDF government created after it took over power. Gambella people are equally endowed with traditional methods of problem solving which would be the only way forwards to set in motion everlasting solution with out external forces in question. The gods of Gambella and its ancestors will spearhead the mission of inculcating the wisdom of fixing rift created within the region by the enemy of peace through peaceful coexistence and move the region forwards to the promise land; a land of peace, freedom, equality, liberty and prosperity in cognizant of undisputed harmony bestowed to its offspring to manage its affairs without fears of any kind. Finally, Gambella people applauded the current PM H/Mariam Desalegn for his relentless effort to set his feet into Gambella soil in May 2014 for the first time that culminated into the opening of the long awaited University of Gambella.

Dr. Chuol R. Kompuok holds a PhD (Economics) from the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), Tanzania, and can be reached at [email protected].

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