Clashes between different ethnic groups in west Ethiopia left 14 dead this weekend, while UN and MSF offices were targeted by angry protesters. Tensions have been rising these past months in Gambella, the region which has a population of 300,000 but has taken in 270,000 mainly Nuer refugees fleeing the conflict in neighbouring South Sudan.
The most recent violence was sparked by an NGO vehicle with an Ethiopian driver running over and killing two children from the Nuer ethnic group in a camp for South Sudanese refugees last Friday.
Since late January, what began as a dispute over land rights between the Nuer and Anyuak ethnic groups has spread.
The clash is in part a result of the influx of thousands of ethnic Nuer who have been displaced in the civil war in South Sudan and were forced to move into the Gambella region of Ethiopia.
“It’s because of the security vacuum, which is the consequence of the conflict in South Sudan,” Ewan Lawson, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London told RFI. “It’s been a very large part of local culture for a long long time.”
But a proliferation of small arms has meant more and more serious injuries.
“But there’s also growing discontent towards the government and the lack of response from the international community,” Lawson pointed out.
“The government is just putting the bandage over the clashes because they are the root cause of it,” Obang Metho, the executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, a nonprofit organisation promoting change in the country, told RFI. “The ruling government in Ethiopia are using ethnic apartheid to divide and conquer. And now, if you are someone from the highland part of Ethiopia, at this time now, you can kill and no one will hold you accontable.”
The UN is also part of the problem, according to Metho, because they are “dumping” refugees there. The refugees and the local people do not have anything in common, there is no peace between them, he said.
“The refugees can come from South Sudan, with guns, at any time. When you take a closer look, the Ethiopian government is part of the problem, the Gambella region is part of the problem, the international community, they left Ethiopia to survive, so thery’re part of the problem, because they don’t address the real good governing issues. There have been warnings, Ethiopia is heading to the point where it will become a ticking bomb, where ethnic groups will kill each others and by that time it will be too late.”
Would the situation change if peace is finally implemented in South Sudan?
First the rebels have to arrive at the South Sudan talks, which has taken longer than expected.
“Will the peace process in South Sudan solve the Gambella issues?” asks Christopher Clapham, from the African studies at Cambridge University. “Quite probably the opposite. Gambella has its own internal conflicts, notably between the Nuer, that’s to say Riek Machar’s group, whose main population is in South Sudan, and the local people, the Anuyak, whose population is almost entirely within Ethiopia.
“So this massive level of violence is very likely also to intensify the internal conflict within the Gambella region.”
The situation in South Sudan needs to get better so that tensions can die down in Gambella.
But the main question is: will the refugees go back to South Sudan?
“We hope that peace is going to be established in South Sudan. We believe that with the international community’s support of South Sudan, that will resolve the conflict itself,” Angele Djohossou, the Head of the UNHCR Gambella office, told RFI.
“But there’s also the need to have basic social services in place, because conflict is not the only reason of the displacement of thousands, but lack of social and economical opportunities, plus food insecurity; all of that is of concern in South Sudan.”
What the experts all agree on though is the fact that the international community needs to pay more attention to what is going on in this region before it gets out of control, as many on the ground fear.