When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Gambella in late May 2018, he noticed how far behind the region was in its overall development compared to most regions of the country. He later noted these concerns before the Ethiopian Parliament, naming Gambella as one of several regions, also including Benishangul and Afar, that were so marginalized that they would require an additional 30% in their budgets, over and above the funding of other regions, to simply catch up to the level of the others. This significant gap has been the result of years of neglect as well as to high levels of misuse of funds, corruption and exploitation in the region.
If he were to visit again today, he might come away with a similar view on the lack of progress in the implementation of his administration’s new policies to bring change to the country. Again, Gambella is one of the regions where such changes have been strongly resisted by those in power, changes that are bringing new democratic rights and voice to other places. We in the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE) want to bring added attention to this need, believing that the calls for reform coming from the diverse people of Gambella may actually be heard by PM Abiy; and, for first time many years, actually get an action-oriented response.
PM ABIY BRINGS A NEW ERA OF POLITICAL CHANGE IN ETHIOPIA
It has been almost six months since Abiy Ahmed came to the forefront and assumed the top political position in Ethiopia as its prime minister. His ascent to power did not come following an armed conflict; but instead, was the result a peaceful uprising, the sacrifice of countless lives and the ongoing demands of the people for change, particularly coming from the youth.
It led Hailemariam Desalegn to resign from his position as prime minister, a move that opened the door for this new prime minister to step in with something totally new, surprising everyone. What was different? Prime Minister Abiy boldly took the side of the people, leading to many changes that have already taken place in Ethiopia over the months. He assured the people that this will now be a new era, a time when people would not be arrested or killed for simply exercising their political rights. He delivered major reinforcement to his words by releasing all the political prisoners. As a result, he became immensely popular.
PM Abiy spoke to the change wanted by people all over the country and followed up by going to each of the regions to meet with the people where he heard their demands and concerns. In some of these places and within the larger federal system, he made corrections, starting with changes of leadership and beginning with key people in the central government, as well as some in regional leadership. Dismantling a repressive structure, kept in place by the old guard of the EPRDF, brought immediate changes in many areas and locations, especially in Addis Ababa, and in the Oromia, Amhara and Southern Nations regions and finally in the Somali region. However, in other places, like Gambella, Benishangul, and Afar, these same changes have not yet come to their regions.
THE CASE OF GAMBELLA
When PM Abiy visited Gambella on May 22, 2018, he raised the hopes of the young people as he promised inclusive change to their region. Many concerns were voiced by the people, but since that time, no changes have taken place. Instead, the regional government authorities, military leaders and other power holders who have remained in power have strongly resisted change coming to Gambella. It has led to violence, injury, killings, arrests and the imprisonment of leaders of the Gambella youth movement.
Some believe the old guard of the TPLF is especially vigilant in guarding their power and assets in the more remote and marginalized regions, like Gambella, Benishangul and Afar. In fact, some suspect that the current conflicts, violence and displacement in these areas have been purposely incited to undermine PM Abiy’s popularity and other achievements throughout the country. These more remote areas have been neglected for years; however, to continue to do so at this time may only make conditions more dangerous and more intractable, with the potential of undermining or even hijacking broader reforms as well as limiting the success of PM Abiy’s noble initiatives.
After the people of Gambella, especially the youth, failed to see any of the promised changes materialize, they organized themselves as the Gambella youth, under the name, Dhaaldiim, [which means to reject or to defeat the oppression] and so as to join with others in the country to become a more active part of bringing that change. They wanted their voice heard; however, they soon learned that what was possible elsewhere, was not welcome in Gambella. For example, after the grenade went off at the new prime minister’s public rally in Addis on June 23, many of the youth in Gambella wanted to come out in support of PM Abiy, like other youth in Ethiopia; however, when they tried to do so, they were stopped by authorities. The youth had organized in advance and were wearing T-shirts with PM Abiy’s picture on them, like others in Ethiopia, but it did not go over well. Some were arrested and detained. A few days later they were released for an unknown reason.
Such demands for change challenged the entrenched interests of power holders in Gambella, including regional government authorities. Gambella was not alone. Reportedly, similar resistance to change was seen in other marginalized regions. Within the membership of the EPRDF coalition, consisting of representative political parties from only four of the nine regions of the country, there was more opportunity to challenge resistance from authorities; however, the disenfranchisement of the non-members of the EPRDF only exacerbates the marginalization of the excluded regions of Gambella, Benishangul, Afar and Ethiopian Somali.
The history of discriminatory neglect regarding the needs and rights of these regions should soon be corrected by the current administration if they are to be participants in the reforms articulated by PM Abiy. However, it should be acknowledged that it will not be easy to “detangle” these regions from the power interests of some who have had free rein for years. These regions are home to some of the most valued and abundant natural resources in the country, including fertile land, much of which is being exploited by a few, rather than for the benefit of the host communities and people of the regions. The existing system has been in place for years; and now, unless the impetus for change comes equally to these regions, there likely will continue to be deep roots of support for the status quo from those selfishly benefiting from this marginalization, discrimination and robbery of resources. Additionally, these regions border other countries and as such, their land has become subject to land grabs. The Oromia and Amhara region has also experienced this.
THE PROGRESSION OF EVENTS IN GAMBELLA
After some of the youth were jailed for seeking to be part of Abiy’s rally for change, they again re-organized, deciding to hold a clearly peaceful, non-violent protest as a way to demand change in their own region and to ready themselves to greet the delegation from the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE) when we arrived at the Gambella airport in mid-September.
We in the SMNE had heard of the arrest and detention of the youth, following their previous attempt to rally for PM Abiy, and realized that no one was currently allowed to protest in the region, even peacefully. Furthermore, the Gambella authorities had made it clear they would not even allow public meetings for purposes of discussion; yet, upon arrival in the region, we in our delegation were given the full right to carry out our planned program and to meet with the people, only because of the support given to us by PM Abiy, his administration within the central government and because of my position as an international human rights advocate for the entire country.
From the time we arrived at the airport to when we departed Gambella, the young people effectively used every opportunity possible. They organized a greeting for our group when we arrived at the Gambella Airport and then again in Gambella town. In all of this, the regional government and youth worked together. The afternoon of our arrival we held a meeting with the public, in accordance to our plan.
As part of that meeting, I explained the motivating reason why I became involved in human rights advocacy 16 years ago. The reason was the massacre of the Anuak by National defense forces and militia groups. I had known over 300 of the victims of that 3-day massacre. Following the panicked phone calls I received from Gambella at the time of the massacre, I had no choice; I became deeply involved in human rights, not only in Gambella, but throughout Ethiopia. My visit that day marked the first I had been in Gambella since earlier in the year of 2003, prior to the massacre.
In the last 16 years, the horrific deaths of these 424 Anuak and their names had been kept from public acknowledgement and view. As I came back to Gambella, along with others who felt its importance, the most urgent thing on our hearts was to give remembrance to those who had lost their lives. It was the number one reason for going to Gambella.
We brought this up to the federal government before we left Addis and again explained it to the Gambella regional authorities on our arrival. I told them that coming here [Gambella] can be compared to when you lose your loved ones and you feel the great need to visit the place where they died. The very first thing you do when you return is to look for their graves and only then can you move on from there; however, because the bodies were buried in mass graves in multiple, unknown locations and those who know the locations are too afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal, the only thing we could do was to call the public to come to the meeting hall so we could share a time of remembrance with them. Everyone was invited. The Vice President of the region was there with us and gave us an official welcome. The meeting was opened by the mayor of the city.
When I came to speak, the first thing I wanted to say was to tell the public we were there to remember what had happened 16 years ago, on December 13-15, 2003. As part of that, we showed a documentary film, produced by the SMNE, that gave testimony from those who survived the massacre and from its witnesses. This included heartbreaking testimony from a Nuer brother. Secondly, we wanted to make sure the 424 people who died were not simply numbers, but that they were humanized. Each of them had names, stories, lives and families. We read the names of the victims, one by one, and I concluded this part of the program with a speech. Before I started, I also requested that land be given in Gambella to become a memorial site where trees could be planted in memory of each life lost, all 424.
We also all believed it was crucial to open with a clear statement to the people that we were there to remember the people; but we were not there for any revenge or to incite any retribution. Instead, the number one thing we wanted to achieve was to use Gambella and the death of these people in Gambella land as the beginning point of national reconciliation and of restorative justice in Ethiopia. We want Gambella to be remembered as a place where reconciliation began because we chose the path of reconciliation instead of that of revenge after these atrocities took place. We also recognize how inter-connected restorative justice is with reconciliation. We do not want these lost lives to be wasted, but to contribute to a better future for all of us, both in Gambella and beyond.
On the second day of our visit, the youth organized their own meeting and wanted us to listen to them, which we did. Some raised the issue of frustration and of rampant hunger. We sought to calm them down, telling them that we would bring all these concerns and issues to the attention of the PM and the federal government. We also told them we would be willing to work with them on it. Additionally, we also encouraged them to work with the rest of the Ethiopian youth throughout the country, and to base that work on the principles, foundational to the work of the SMNE, starting with “putting humanity before ethnicity” or any other differences because we are all created equal, giving every one of us value.
Such a principle will change the outcome of our struggle from hate-based ethnic politics that have killed people, devastated society and held the country back to a healthier culture where justice, respect, inclusion and compassion can lead to greater peace and prosperity. We then left and returned to Addis.
On September 23, a few days after we left Gambella, the president of the region, Gatluak Tut, returned to Gambella from Addis. Realizing that the Gambella people had come out in such large numbers, he reportedly ordered the police commissioner to arrest six young people from his own ethnic group, the Nuer, who had participated in the SMNE welcome and meeting, along with diverse other youth from the region. They were detained at the police station. In response, when some of the other youth leaders, most of them Anuak, learned of their arrest, they went to the police station to demand that the police commissioner release the six, asserting that they had done nothing wrong and had committed no crime. In response, they were released; yet, peace did not follow.
The evening following their release, an Anuak man, Okello, walking by himself in Gambella, was attacked and killed. He was stabbed with a knife by a Nuer man. The assailant appeared to act alone, although others were with him at the time. Additionally, a number of other people witnessed the crime and reported the man’s murder to the police. The details of the murder were common knowledge as the stabbing had been done in open view. Later, the man implicated, was arrested. This kind of crime appears to be ethnic-based. If that is found to be true, we do believe it is typical of the way ethnicity is abused and exploited to incite revenge and division between ethnic groups. It is widely believed that those not wanting change for reasons of power, self-interest and because they were benefiting from the current power structure in the region, had ordered the killing. Later in the evening, following the first man’s death; sadly, some Anuak took revenge and stabbed and killed two Nuer. Three innocent lives were lost. The next day, September 24, after the burial of the Anuak man, the young people came out to peacefully protest against regional authorities, demanding that ethnicity or violence should not be used to block their plan to bring democratic change to Gambella, change that is happening in other places in Ethiopia.
When they protested, some defense forces opened fire, killing four Anuak and wounding twenty-two, all Anuak. Later it was reported that defense forces involved in the killings had been put in jail and an investigation had been opened, which is still ongoing. From then on, the region has destabilized and become divided. Neither the Nuer nor the Anuak can safely enter the areas of the other in Gambella city due to fear of further violence. For a week or so, life stopped. This included offices being closed due to the threat of violence.
On September 24, the day the defense forces shot the Anuak, I tried to call the regional president, Gatluak Tut, twenty-one times and he did not pick up his phone. I had met with him in Addis before visiting Gambella and had also talked with him on the night the Anuak man was stabbed, urging him to take steps to ensure that the violence did to get out of control. At the time, I also called the Head of Security Forces to ask him to be sure no more lives were lost. I then called Prime Minister Abiy’s office and spoke to his Chief of Staff, asking him to speak with PM Abiy and others to urge the federal government to put pressure on the regional authorities to make sure that the problem in Gambella did not lead to further killing and violence.
I then talked to the Colonel Gena, of the Defense Forces in Gambella, knowing that Gambella youth from various ethnic backgrounds were planning another peaceful protest regarding the prior killings and violence. Yet, the next day, defense forces in Gambella opened up indiscriminate gunfire on some of the people. This included some Anuak who were sitting in a coffee shop having coffee. This violence would not have been carried out had orders and action been taken to prevent it.
The president of the region did not even visit the wounded; instead, the next day he held a meeting for only few members of his own ethnic group who were supporters. Later on he also met with regional government officials where he blamed the youth for protesting and “Obang” [me] for coming there and speaking out, inferring that by doing so, it gave new courage to the people to express their opinions. He also suggested that the documentary and listing of the names of the victims had made the Anuak and Nuer have a problem between each other.
Yet, the December 2003 massacre of the Anuak had nothing to do with the Nuer and the film supported this fact. Instead, it was a Nuer man who gave testimony in the film about how the Anuak were targeted and how the Nuer were the ones who saved many Anuak from being killed. Ironically, at the time when the news first broke following the killing of the Anuak, the TPLF/EPRDF government, under the leadership of the former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, shifted the blame for their own actions onto the Nuer, calling it just another ethnic conflict; but it was not. There are Anuak alive today because of the protection of the Nuer back in 2003.
The easy route in Africa is to use ethnicity to blame others, but in defiance of efforts to divide Gambella youth by tribe, the youth organized themselves for a second demonstration, not by ethnicity, but by a shared desire for lasting change. Those involved were an inclusive mix of people from all the various groups in the area; not just one. Together, they condemned all the killings and the perpetration of gun shot wounds and other injuries on the victims.
Two days after that rally, the president of the region called his own supporters to come out to rally on his behalf, most of whom were members of his own ethnic group, making it more about “tribe” than issues of governance. However, the governor also has the support of some of the Tigray investors, business owners and TPLF supporters in the Gambella region who see PM Abiy’s call for change as a threat to their interests both regionally as well as nationally.
A few days later, on October 7, two Ethiopian Defense Force generals, by the name Berhanu Tilahun and Mahmoud Ahmed arrested 9, Dhaldiim’s leaders; 6 of whom are Anuak and 4 of whom are Nuer. One of those is an American citizen. Here are the names: Obang Oguta Adiw, Okwom Ojwato, Dr. Magn Ochalla Nyang, an American citizen, Cham Ton Ojwato, Ojulu Oman, Ruach Tut, Thuok Moang, Bang Kuon and Jaswa James. No reason was given for the arrests. It was youth who had been killed and the rally that had been called to protest the killings, was peaceful. Those arrested have not yet been released, but have now been moved from detention to a more permanent location.
Currently, conditions in the region are tense. If the situation is neglected or not handled properly it could deteriorate quickly. The “new era” that PM Abiy talked about at his rally, where no one should be arrested for exercising their civil rights, has obviously not reached to Gambella. It now appears that the regional government and other power holders in the region are attempting to actively destroy regional security, becoming the perpetrators of murder, violence and political imprisonment as a way to punish those demanding change.
The people who do not want change, including investors benefiting from the exploitation of the resources of the region, are allegedly using bribery to maintain power and control of the region. The bribery is also an attempt to silence any others who might otherwise help bring the rule of law, accountability, transparency, justice and lasting peace, including those who have been sent from the federal government in Addis to bring calm to the region.
The increasing unity among the diverse people of Gambella has become a highly feared threat to those in power. It has unleashed new efforts to incite division among the people as their shared voice, demanding justice and democratic rights, not only for one group, but for all the people, strengthens exponentially. Measures to counter this groundswell for change may become increasingly difficult to hold back like the floods of the rivers that sweep over the land of Gambella, cleaning and nourishing the land. This is a time for the rule of law to shine through the darkness of these previously neglected regions of the country. We call on the federal government to not ignore this emerging crisis but to recognize the opportunity to reinforce the boundaries of genuine justice. The people of the region do not deserve any less than those in other areas.
As for the SMNE, we have been calling for calm, for people to not inflame the situation with any violence and to not fall into traps meant to provoke tribal divisions. Instead, it is a time to begin genuine reconciliation. There is not a problem with the people; it is a problem originating among the leadership and those having an interest in the region’s resources. According to the youth, what they want is lasting change in Gambella, like is happening in other places. They do not care who leads Gambella as long as that leadership brings freedom, justice, equality, the rule of law and the common good.
Right now, there are some 400,000 refugees from South Sudan in Gambella, some with guns. If Gambella descends into chaos, where would all the people in these refugee camps go, let alone the people of Gambella? Displacement based on inter-ethnic problems in other marginalized regions, like Benishangul, has reached 100,000 according to current reports. Add to this the displacement of people from the Somali region, those from the South, others in parts of Oromia and places too many to mention, all of which reportedly amounts to a total of 1.8 million internally displaced people— the most of any country in the world right now. Some believe if those wanting to hang on to power continue to incite problems, especially in the more marginalized regions, it could destabilize national efforts to bring sustainable change and reconciliation among the people of Ethiopia.
Now is the time for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to act with meaningful reforms as has been done in the Somali region and throughout the country. The first step should be the immediate release of all those unjustly incarcerated, especially these Dhaldiim’s leaders. More security is needed and the rule of law must replace the injustice of the past. If this is truly going to be a “new era”, genuine justice must emerge.
Reports of crimes, corruption and injustice, including bribery and false arrests, must be investigated by an independent and trusted body, and those found guilty or complicit, should be brought to justice. Those in positions of power, including within the military and government, should be newly evaluated to ensure appropriate use of power and influence; and if found guilty, complicit or negligent, replaced. Only when genuine change comes to places like Gambella, Benishangul and Afar, will we know that real change has come to Ethiopia.
For more information, contact Mr. Obang Metho, Executive Director of the SMNE.