Reports Emerge of TPLF/ERPDF Efforts to Suppress Testimony in World Bank’s Investigation Regarding the Misuse of WB Funds in the Forced Displacement of Anuak and Related Land Grabs in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region
Press Release (Vancouver, BC, Canada)— The Anuak Justice Council (AJC) has received disturbing reports from on-the-ground sources in refugee camps in the Republic of South Sudan and Kenya as well as from sources in Gambella, Ethiopia that the TPLF/EPRDF Government of Ethiopia is carrying out a high-priority campaign to suppress the truthful testimony of witnesses in a World Bank (WB) investigation regarding the alleged misuse of World Bank funds by their administration.
Sources allege that a federal government spokesperson recently told regional officials in Gambella that they could not afford to lose the $600 million dollars of development monies provided through the World Bank and instructed Gambella regional administrators to do whatever it takes—even if it costs them a few million dollars—to make sure that whoever speaks to investigators, from among the Anuak refugees in the camps, will be in support of the government’s position. Reports of the Ethiopian government’s willingness to bribe or tamper with witnesses or officials so false testimony is given in this investigation should be a call for an immediate response from the World Bank and donor countries.
This investigation was triggered when a complaint[i] was filed with the World Bank by 26 Anuak persons from two villages in the Gambella region. They claimed that WB development funds were funding a program heavily supported by the World Bank, Protection of Basic Services (PBS)[ii], begun in 2006, which was meant to improve services in various regions of the country, but which in fact were used in the Gambella region to partially fund the government’s ‘villagization’ program.
This program involved the forcible eviction of Anuak from their indigenous land.[iii] Although the TPLF/EPRDF said the program was voluntary and that its purpose was to resettle the people in villages with improved access to services, the reverse was true. These Anuak, along with over 70,000 other indigenous people, were moved to inferior locations where they were expected to build their own huts from foraged materials. Many ended up living under trees.
The land they were given was less suitable for agriculture—their main livelihood—further from water sources and with less access to services. When some tried to return to their homes and crops, yet to be harvested, they found their land had been leased to foreign mega-agricultural companies and regime crony for up to 99 years without any consultation with the local people or compensation for their losses.
This is illegal under the Ethiopian Constitution and international human rights laws. Those who resisted were often beaten, tortured, arrested or sometimes killed. Women have been raped. Food insecurity and displacement increased. Under threats or hardship, many fled the country to refugee camps.
After an appeal was made to the World Bank, an independent inspection panel assessed the need for a full investigation and determined there was substantial evidence to call for a full investigation by the bank. In their initial investigation, they sought witnesses within Ethiopia; however, those they spoke to had allegedly been handpicked by the Gambella Regional government, coached and monitored for their responses. These witnesses took the government’s side, denying any wrongdoing by the government and praising their development efforts.
On the other hand, the complainants in the case who were now living in refugee camps in South Sudan and Kenya, each told a completely different story. The inspection panel found sufficient evidence to recommend a full investigation by the WB who then had to decide whether to go forward with the case.
The World Bank approved the full investigation;[iv] however, the TPLF/EPRDF denied the allegations and initially told the World Bank they would not cooperate with an investigation[v]; however after facing the possibility of losing WB funds, they may have changed their approach. The AJC believes this new campaign, “to do whatever it takes,” is a blatant effort to swing the results of any investigation in their favor; appearing to cooperate while secretly sabotaging the investigation in any way possible.
Adding to their difficulties with the WB investigation, an Anuak man, known as ‘Mr. O., has filed a lawsuit in the United Kingdom against the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) based on similar grounds. [vi] Mr. O claims he has suffered human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest, loss of home and property and that some of his family members have been raped, disappeared or have been killed as a result of the same villagization program, funded in part by the DFID; also alleging they have ignored or played down reports of misuse of their funds in these illegal acts. It is evident that the TPLF/EPRDF regime is worried about the outcome of these two cases, which are closely related.
Targeting the Anuak refugees:
The TPLF/EPRDF’s spokesperson allegedly told Gambella regional authorities that the priority was to target the Anuak in refugee camps in the Republic of South Sudan and Kenya; emphasizing that those Anuak who initiated the WB complaint were not from Gambella, but instead, were Anuak in the refugee camps and in the Diaspora.
Thousands of refugees have sought safety in South Sudan and Kenya ever since the large-scale massacre of the Anuak in 2003 by TPLF/EPRDF forces, accompanied by civilian militia groups they had incited and armed. In the years following the massacre, the current regime committed many more human rights violations against the Anuak, causing a constant influx of refugees from the Gambella region into these neighboring countries. Many of these refugees remain in these camps, living under difficult conditions.
In the last several years, many more Anuak have left Gambella due to the large-scale land grabs of Anuak indigenous land, the displacement of the people and the associated human rights abuses. Land-grabbing and its impact on indigenous people has come to the attention of international advocates, human rights organizations, NGO’S and public officials who have gone to the camps to interview those affected.
Within Ethiopia, the government can control what is said and who is to be interviewed, but that same control has not extended to the refugee camps. Up until now, these refugees have been able to speak out more freely than when living inside Ethiopia. With improved access to the “outside world,” they have been able to expose evidence of the brutal human rights abuses and illegal deportation of the people by the TPLF/EPRDF regime. That evidence is now threatening to jeopardize the regime’s access to WB funds.
TPLF/EPRDF delegates sent to refugee camps:
According to our sources, the TPLF/EPRDF has three goals:
1) To send TPLF/EPRDF delegates to refugee camps in South Sudan and Kenya to convince those governments and/or officials to convince, pressure or force the Anuak to return home,
The AJC has learned that the TPLF/EPRDF delegation of Anuak and non-Anuak have already arrived in the refugee camp in Juba, South Sudan and are attempting to gain the help of the host governments in exerting pressure on the Anuak to return to Ethiopia. Part of the plan is also to convince the people that things are good in the Gambella region, that the government will not continue to lease land to the foreign investors and that people should come back; yet, issues of human rights abuses, pervasive injustice, repression of basic rights, arbitrary arrests, lack of political space and the forced displacement of the Anuak from their homes and ancestral land in order to lease it to foreign investors and regime cronies, all remain unresolved. However, if the refugees can be convinced or forced to return, it will weaken these two cases involving the Anuak who have fled the region and strengthen the position of the TPLF/EPRDF. We believe this is the intent and are concerned that bribery of witnesses or officials could undermine a fair and just process, particularly in a place where living conditions are so difficult and where despair is endemic.
2) To divide the Anuak refugees, including using money (bribes) to sway some Anuak to give false testimony and to support the TPLF/ERPDF’s position;
The AJC is highly concerned that the TPLF/ERPDF has already violated protocols and laws in regard to tampering with witnesses in both cases and may have engaged UNHCR and camp officials, possibly without their knowledge, to aid and abet them. For example, in the case involving Mr. O, where he has filed a lawsuit against the DFID, sources from the camp indicate that when investigators from the DFID arrived in August 26 until 29 to interview witnesses, those refugees with first-hand information on the facts of the case were not chosen to be interviewed. Instead, seventeen others, who had left Gambella following the massacre of the Anuak in December of 2003—years before the implementation of the PBS program and land-grabbing began—were handpicked by UNHCR and another NGO managing the Juba Refugee Camp and were transported to their offices outside the camp for their interviews.
It is unknown if they were aware that these witnesses would know little about the facts of the case and only second-hand information, at best. None of the seventeen refugees who had been interviewed by the first independent inspection panel from the World Bank were given the opportunity to testify to the DFID investigators, even though they had had very similar experiences and possessed substantial information on what had been going on over the last several years.
According to one individual who had been chosen to testify, that person was instructed by the interviewers not to tell anything to the Juba Camp’s organizing committee, a group elected by the refugees who should have been consulted. This Juba Refugee Committee is currently at odds with the camp’s administrative management over other issues of possible mismanagement and the delivery of services to them. Sources believe the Ethiopian government’s hand is in this manipulation of witnesses.
Refugees in the camp are anxious to read the report from the DFID, knowing they will claim to have gone to the camp to interview Anuak from Gambella, Ethiopia, but know it will not reflect the testimony of those who know what has been going on in the last several years. The AJC believes this manipulation of witnesses is deliberate and may be attempted again in the WB investigation. It has caused division and even some violence in the camp, especially in light of the TPLF/EPRDF’s alleged willingness to pay off “a few million” in order to obstruct these two investigations.
3) To gain the cooperation of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS), other authorities and informers within the camp so as to identify, arrest and hand over Anuak who may be planning a future resistance effort within Ethiopia.
The TPLF/EPRDF wants to target potential Anuak insurgents and suppress any possible resistance before it grows. They have had ongoing fears that these refugee camps will provide the safe haven needed to make plans for resistance efforts within Gambella. Within the last year, the former Gambella Regional Governor Omot Obang Olom and other Ethiopian authorities went to Juba to meet with government officials to gain their cooperation in extraditing Anuak who are suspected of being insurgents back to Ethiopia. They worked in conjunction with security agents from the GOSS in rounding up approximately fifty Anuak who were thusly accused. In violation of international refugee laws, and without trials or representation, these Anuak were turned over to Ethiopian authorities. Once in Ethiopia, these refugees were tortured and given prison sentences ranging from twenty years to life imprisonment.
According to the following, the UNHCR may be unknowingly violating their own principles. Here is their mandate: “The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency is mandated by the United Nations to protect and support refugees at the request of a government or the UN itself and assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.”
As for the AJC, we will continue to investigate further details of these incidents in order to better establish the truth in these cases and to advocate for their rights as refugees. Evidence of illegal corruption, violations of international refugee laws and interference with the WB appeal and a DFID lawsuit case will be reported to the appropriate authorities for follow-up responses or investigations of suspected breaches of the law, mandates or protocols.
A Word to the GOSS from the Anuak of Gambella and South Sudan:
If the South Sudanese government cooperates with the TPLF/EPRDF in either sabotaging these investigations or turning Anuak over to be extradited back to Ethiopia—even if they are insurgents fighting for their freedom—it is a slap in the face to the Anuak of Ethiopia who welcomed thousands of Southern Sudanese to the Gambella region as a safe haven from the civil war as well as a base for the Southern Sudanese who were fighting for their freedom. Additionally, many of the Anuak from South Sudan fought and died for the freedom that has now come to this newest country in the world.
It is very sad if South Sudanese authorities forget about this and betray their own people and their families in Ethiopia when it is still so fresh in the minds of the Anuak. Those Anuak of South Sudan, who lost family members or who can still see the scars of war on their bodies or who are still feeling the pain of their injuries or who are still limited by some disability, should not have to be witnesses to a betrayal by those with whom they struggled. It is also time for freedom in Ethiopia. Will the GOSS support this?
Can you imagine how South Sudanese in refuge in Gambella in those years of struggle for their freedom would have reacted if delegates of Omar al Bashir had worked in conjunction with the Ethiopian government in forcing Southern Sudanese from Gambella refugee camps to go home? If it would have been wrong then, it is wrong now. The AJC will continue to call on the Southern Sudanese to treat these people decently, like they were treated in Gambella and make sure justice is upheld by refusing to undermine these investigations.
As for the AJC and the Anuak people, we will continue to work not only for the rights of the Anuak, but also for the rights of all the people in the Gambella region. The AJC was founded to protect the rights of the Anuak wherever they are found, including in refugee camps in South Sudan and Kenya.
The AJC will continue to call the governments of South Sudan and Kenya to uphold international obligations under refugee laws; neither forcing these refugees to return nor allowing the oppressive government that first caused them to flee to meddle unlawfully in these cases or in the extradition of Anuak to certain torture and imprisonment. Once freedom and justice comes to Ethiopia, most of these refugees will need no pressure to return to their homes and land but will return willingly.
To the refugees, a word of encouragement:
As for the refugees, stay firm, strong and united. Do not fall into any TPLF/ERPDF traps. Trust in God as you stand against untruth, corruption, injustice and offers of bribes. May God protect the oppressed and bring justice to Ethiopia as many call on His name.
Please do not hesitate to e-mail your questions or comments to Mr. Ochala Abulla, Chairman of the Anuak Justice Council (AJC): E-mail: Ochala@anuakjustice.