By Apee Ojulu *
Dec 13, 2006 — Early in this century, at a university in the U.S, a professor asked all students to introduce themselves to the class. Among students, there were an Anuak seated in one of the first few rows and a Highlander Ethiopian seated in the last row. When introduction reached the Anuak, he introduced himself as an Ethiopian and Ethiopian Highlander introduced herself as an Ethiopian. Instead of letting other students behind her introduce themselves, she added that the Anuak was from Gambella and she was from Ethiopia despite the fact Gambella is a part of Ethiopia in international map.
In disputing the Anuak citizenship status as not Ethiopian, she repeated the usually claims Anuak people and other Gambellans face when travel in other parts of Ethiopia. When Gambella people traveled in other parts of Ethiopia, many ruling Highlander Ethiopian elite label Gambellans as others, foreigners and potentially obstacle to the economic development and this perception played a largest role in the December 13, 2003 massacre against Anuak people.
The purpose of this essay on the third anniversary of the December 13 Anuak Genocide is to discuss its root causes and its aftermath. In discussing the root causes of the December 13 Anuak genocide it is intended neither to gather ammunition against Highlanders nor to fall to the same trap that they are less than human beings in arguing. My aim rather is to understand what is driving ruling Highlanders’ policies toward Gambellans. To understand it not excuse, just as to forgive is not to forget, but without understanding the principles driving the ruling Highlanders perceptions, no way to develop a new relationship that’s based on mutual understanding among respective communities. Yes, telling the truth hurt feelings but ignoring the truth to gain popularity is the most injurious thing one can do to those who fall victims like Anuak people.
The ruling Ethiopian Highlander elites see Gambella state in two faces. Gebrhab Barnabas, the Federal Minister for states affairs under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, told the U.S. based Journalist Doug McGill during a meeting in Addis Ababa that Gambella, if developed properly, could feed the entire country of Ethiopia. But he has hardly any praise for inhabitants of the region. Barnabas labeled people calling for fair administration of justice in the region as scams in the front of McGill. Ethiopian Highlanders elite praise the state rich in resources, land, tree, gold, and oil, but not the inhabitants.
A Gambellan in psychic of the ruling Higlander Ethiopians is an object there nothing more than dealing with at such. The people of Gambella their presence are questioned. In his paper on the December 13, 2003, Dereje Fayssia writes that “the Anywaa are said to have migrated to their present-day settlements since the 18th century.” Many Ethiopians over the debate on issue of genocide have argued using this historical perspective that Anuak people in running to Sudan for their safety have returned to their rightful land. This claim really is totally fault view of the history of Anuak and other Gambellans. Anuaks inhabited Gambella for centuries and true historians have confirmed this view. Even if Gambellans started arriving in 1800s, which they are not, they would still be the owners of the Gambella. Ethiopia extended its control only in 1900s when, by this dating, most Gambellans were already settled in the land. Gambella became part of Ethiopia in 1956 as a result of 1902 Rod Agreement and the demarcation Agreement of 1956.
In major cities such Jimma, Addis Ababa Ethiopian highlanders see Gambellans as “Lomn.” Lomn is an Amharic word equivalent to the word Negro use against blacks in the United States. It is means literally Gambellans are slaves. Other names given to Gambellans are Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sudanese or Kenyans. By labeling Gambellans these names as slaves or as foreigners in their own country, Gambellans are seen potentially as others who are not citizens. Some Gambellans frustrated by being called Lomn or outright slave, often preferred to be called Nigerians or Kenyan in the belief by being given these foreign names they are bit better than being called slaves.
But the extent of erasing the footprints of Gambellans in the land extended far more to their local landmarks that have historical significance. One important example is the renaming of Openo River. In Gambella, there are four major rivers: namely Akobo River, Gilo River, Alworo River, and Openo River. Openo River is the biggest and Alworo River the smallest. With arrival of Ethiopia in the region, Ethiopians renamed Openo River as Baro River. By renaming the river Baro River, Ethiopians disconnected Gambellans to their river and gives the legitimacy to their claims over the river.
The debate over the issue of oil exploration in Jor, Gambella other challenges that have made depicting Gambellans as foreigners important. Oil fields were discovered in the northern part of Gambella in the last half of last century by some foreign oil companies. For some logistic and other reasons, the previous communist regime did not started exploring oil after it was discoursed then. In the recent years, the present regime in Addis Ababa has made exploring as one of its top priorities. But instead of working with regional citizens to develop it for the benefit of the regional development and share with the federal government, the government made missteps that put it on a collusion course with Gambellans. The government announced to take oil from Gambella and refinery it in Jimma. This immediate caused Gambellans to reject the government attempt to explore the oil. Instead of working with Gambellans, some in the government have labeled Gambellans as foreigners who are preventing oil exploration.
Many Ethiopian Highlanders defended the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in reaction to the news of the initial killing of over 425 Anuak people innocent civilians by accusing Anuaks as were the ones who have started the killings after the initial reporting. Dereje Feyssia’s paper is important here because his view represent the pluralist view of Ethiopian Highlanders. In his paper he claims that “what happened on December 13, 2003 was a violent expression of the highlanders’ pent up grievances. It was preceded by a series of indiscriminate killings of the highlanders by army Anywaa groups.”
But in claiming that Anuaks were the ones behind the killings of United Nations’ personnel, Feyissa did not have evident to back him up then his long beliefs about Anuaks that they are others, foreigners and obstacle to the state future. There was no any investigation undertaken by the government to investigate the incident thoroughly and determine the people behind the killings. The government knew had there been an investigation into the killing, the investigation could have up with the true killers. Outside Gambella town where the killing occurred there were three different armed group. The Oromo Liberation Front and remnants of the previous communist regime under Thaut actively operated in the areas with known attacks against the government. No one waits for investigation to find out the killers. Anuak people were hastily selected as the killers, criminals and troublemakers because of their beliefs that all Gambellans are others, foreigners and potentially obstacle to the state future.
Even opposition supporters and their leaders in Washington and in many cities who first came to the Anuaks’ defend held the same views that Anuaks are foreigners and potentially obstacle to their country’s economic development. These opposition leaders and supporters wanted Anuaks to condemn the regime alone. As Chombe, one of the opposition supporters wrote: “Never accuse the Ethiopian people for the crime TPLF regime committed.” It is true that the killing of Anuak people on December 13, 2003 was an operation under the leadership of the Meles regime.
But that operation was not an operation Meles regime took alone without the help and participation of other highlanders. There were many civilian highlanders allied to the regime who assisted the Ethiopian troops by going door to door with them and knocked doors of the victim Anuak people slain them in front of their families with machetes.
* The writer is a citizen of the greater East Africa area and is the Editor of www.gambelatoday.com, a website which is devoted to publishing news and commentaries on issues concerning Sudan Gambella state and Ethiopia. He can be reached at email@example.com