Gambela History

The state of Gambella is situated in the Southwestern part of Ethiopia bordering with Benishangul Gumuz to the North, bordering Oromo Region to the West, bordering the Southern Ethiopia People’s Regional State to the South and bordering the Sudan Republic to the West.

Modern Gambella is inhabited by Anywaa (or Anuaks), Mezenger, Opuo, Kommo, Nuer, Olam, Dhwok, Bula and Maw. The Manjanger ethnic group is located in northwestern part of the region and occupied mountainous region. Komo and Opwo are found in the northwest of the region bordering Sudan and Wello. Bula, Dhwok, and Olam are located in the southern part of the region. Nuer is found on the west part of the region. Anuak is found in most of the central, west and east parts of the region. The economy of Gambella is based on agriculture, semi pastoralist and bee keeping.

Anywaa, Komo, Opwo, Bula, Dhwok, Olam and Manjanger are all natives of the region. Nuers are Sudanese and they infiltrated Gambella mostly starting 1950s as a result of the protract civil war, including Southern Sudanese and northern-based subsequent governments. The initial population of Nuers who arrived in the east of the region was very few.

Freedom Age
Gambella has a history that date back to over 2,000 years. A good starting point in analyzing the country’s status is the period referred to as Gambella’s “Freedom age”, when the entire Pa-Anywaa (Anuak country) was first united under one ruler. There is no serious dispute over the existence of Gambella as an independent state during this period. Even Ethiopia’s own historical records acknowledged the 17th century period refer to Gambella as a strong state.

As there is no documented history before 17th Century because education was far from the reach of most Gambellans, according to rich Gambellan oral tradition, Anuaks country lies between Ethiopian escarpment South West to Pibor river and to the West up to Nyium the present day Nasir in Sudan. It is a land dissected by four main rivers the Akobo, Gilo, and Alworo and Openo (Baro). This country has seven Administration States, Adongo, Ciro, Nyikaani, Lul, Tier Naam, and Openo under one Nyeya (king) rule. Each state has it own autonomous administration. They have right to choose from the two Anuks’ political Systems Nyech (king) or Kwar (headman-ship). Nyech is a system that is inherited from family to family and Kwar is a public administration decided by people.

The integrity of Anywaa land came to end when it came under nominal British control from 17th to the 18th century followed by Ethiopia invasion. On 15 May 1902, after complicated and prolonged negotiations, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia signed the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement that established his western frontier with the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In order to satisfy his imperial ambitions in western Ethiopia Menelik had claimed all the territory between the Ethiopian escarpment and the White Nile, but the British were determined to secure unhindered control of the Nile waters.

This treaty has divided the Anywaa land into two, portioned it amongst the bordering countries Sudan and Ethiopia, without the consent of its leaders. The Southwestern part remained under British control as part of Sudan and the eastern part became part of Ethiopia under name Gambella. Gambella was named after an Anuak chief, reputed to have been over a hundred years old who was living there as a sort of hermit in a solitary tukl (hut) when the first Sudanese custom inspector arrived in 1905. Article IV of the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement defined the leased territory as 2,000 meters along the north bank of the Openo and no more than 4,000 acres beyond the river. The lease was to last as long as the Sudan was under Anglo-Egyptian control, and the enclave could not be used for any military or political purposes. Menelik was enthusiastic about this commercial station, for it provided a ready outlet for the expansion of the rich coffee-growing regions of western Ethiopia that would generate revenue for the state and a commodity of exchange to satisfy the craving of western Ethiopians for Sudanese salt. The British regarded Gambella as a miserable place that soon became a source of irritation in Anglo-Ethiopian relations because of the subsequent botched delimitation of the Anglo-Ethiopian frontier boundary.

In 1903, Major Charles W. Gwynn conducted a superficial boundary survey of the borderlands defined by British and Ethiopian ignorance in the 1902 treaty. Instead of following the fundamental principle of aligning the boundary along the crest of the Ethiopian escarpment, Gwynn found it more convenient to simply follow the course of the various rivers flowing below the escarpment that he did not have to personally traverse.

Despite Gwynn’s later defense of his demarcation (he was in a hurry and short of supplies), the fact remains that rivers do not make good international boundaries particularly when people of the same ethnicity live on either bank, in this case the Anuak, under the jurisdiction of different governments. By delimiting the boundary along the rivers Openo, Pibor, and Akobo Gwynn gave the territory surrounded by them and inhabited by the Anuak to Ethiopia.

The Anuak live below the Ethiopian escarpment on the floodplains of the Openo, Akobo, and Pibor rivers, later known as the Baro Salient and for the first twenty years of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium were left alone by the British administration in the Sudan. Since the last decades of the nineteenth century the Anuak had been preoccupied in the 1880s with the eastward expansion of the Nuer who drove all the way to Ubaa and the sacred rock-pools at Abula in the southeastern extremity of Anuakland and probably would have settled had not their cattle suffered heavy losses from the tsetse fly. The Nuer retired west of the Pibor to their Nilotic plains but continued to raid Anuak villages east of the rivers so that by the end of the century the Anuak appeared to be near extinction. But due to arrival modernization the people of Anyuwaland were saved by new techniques of farming and technological revolution. At the end of the nineteenth century Ethiopia was awash with European rifles–the French Graz, the Austrian Werder, and the British Martini-Henri-and the old muzzle-loaders were first traded to the Aunak with which they were able to shoot elephants and obtain ivory that was now exchanged with eager Ethiopian traders for European rifles. This technological revolution appears to have been accompanied by significant changes in Anuak society in order to organize their military forces. The acquisition of breech-loading rifles by influential individuals permitted them to extend their sphere of authority over neighboring villages. The amalgamation of small independent households and family groups into a larger political organization, symbolized by the Royal Emblems of the Anuak nation, contributed to the formation of new political institutions that provided the discipline and organization necessary to make the Anuak a formidable fighting machine.

Sometime around 1910 Akway-wu-Caam became the holder of the Royal Emblems and the dominant leader in the Adongo region, and in 1911 launched his riflemen against the Lau and Jikany who wrecked havoc among the spears of the Nuer. His forces, they cannot be called an army, marched all the way to Bahr al-Zaraf to return with hundreds of Nuer captives and thousands of cattle. The British could no longer ignore the Anuak. They were committed to protect their unwilling subjects, the Nuer, but they were even more concerned with the massive illicit gun trade in Ethiopia that threatened to destabilize their very long eastern frontier. Consequently, the following year, l912, a large Sudanese force under Major C. H. Leveson drove into Anuakland only to suffer very heavy losses from Anuak rifles.

Another punitive expedition was planned for revenge in 1914, but the outbreak of the First World War left the Anuak to them surrounded by a chain of small Sudanese police posts to contain them. No British official entered Anuakland until 1921 when Lt. Col. C.R. K. Bacon made a brief reconnaissance upon the death of Akway wu Caam, but it was to be another fourteen years before a British district commissioner again visited Adongo. Even with the assistance of the anthropologist, E. E. Evans-Pritchard and the work of G.L. Elliot-Smith, the administration of the Anuak remained an exercise in imperial frustration.

During these same decades, no Ethiopian official ever appeared in the Baro Salient. As for the Anuak they came to understand the concept of an international boundary that they could conveniently exploit by avoiding unwelcome administrative demands by simply crossing back and forth across the rivers between Ethiopia and the Sudan.

The principal problem on the Sudanese-Ethiopian frontier was not the ownership of the Royal Emblems but Gambella. Upon the death of Menelik II in 1913 Ethiopia entered a period of internal instability that did not end until the coronation of Regent Ras Lij Tafari Makonnen as Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930.

He revived the imperial ambitions of Menelik and particularly the consolidation of Ethiopian authority on its western frontier that would challenge British commercial control at Gambella. During the 1920s the value of goods passing through Gambella, mainly Ethiopian coffee in return for Port Sudan salt for Wallega, and Illubabur, had expanded to over £E 300,000 by 1928 under an extraordinary British administrator, Colonel J. F. H. Marsh who considered “without joking and with every show of justification that his business is to keep British prestige high in Abyssinia so far as he is locally able and he certainly does so.” [Struve Memorandum, 10 October 1926, Struve Papers, Sudan Archives, Durham]. Customs duties and the profits of haulage of coffee and salt by Sudan steamers from Gambella was one of the largest single sources of revenue for the Sudan government.

In 1928 he was succeeded by J. K. “Jack” Maurice who remained at Gambella for twenty-one years until 1949 whose withering gaze made him the dominant personality on the Gambella frontier. On this unsettled and volatile frontier there were endless disputes. Local Ethiopian officials continually contrived to impose regulations in order to extract ever greater revenue from Greek, Lebanese, and Sudanese merchants protected by the Sudan government.

There were constant arguments with Ethiopian officials in the highlands to improve the tract leading down the escarpment, and it was not until 1935 that the Ethiopian government completed a motor road and bridges. The success of commerce at Gambella was dependent upon frontier security, and the British representatives from London and Khartoum in Addis Ababa had continually exhorted the Ethiopians to administer the Anuak of the Baro Salient that in 1932 coincided with Haile Selassie’s determination to consolidate his imperial authority below the escarpment.

Majid Abud al-Askar was appointed to assert Ethiopian administration over the Nuer and Anuak living in Ethiopia. Majid was a Syrian Druze born in 1884 near the source of the Jordon River. His parents were killed by Turkish brigands, and he grew up in an orphanage in Jerusalem to ultimately make his way to Ethiopia in 1906 where he came to known to Ras Makonnen. He like Ethiopia was fluent in Amharic, commercially and socially successful, and given estates by the emperor Lij Iyasu on whose behalf he led a punitive expedition against the Anuak in 1916. His relationship with Lij Iyasu made him highly suspect by the government of Ras Makonnen, so he lived quietly on his estate at Gomera until appointed the Frontier Agent by Haile Selassie to assert Ethiopian authority over the Anuak and Nuer of the Baro Salient.

Described as “a professional soldier of fortune endowed with all the qualities to success in that line, he is tough, brave, and intelligent, perhaps more accurately cunning and one must add mercenary and unscrupulous.” [G. L. Elliot-Smith, “Notes on Majid Abud,” Elliot-Smith Papers, Sudan Archive, Durham]. Unfortunately, these qualities were insufficient for success in the Baro Salient.

On 26 May 1934 his force of some 400 rabble in arms described as Ethiopian soldiers equipped with a machine gun were overwhelmed by the well-armed Anuak of the salient and would have been annihilated if not for the intervention of Jack Maurice and his Gambella police. Thus ended the Ethiopian attempt to control the Baro Salient; the next to try were the Italians.

In the euphoria of independence and the feelings of brotherhood with fellow Africans, a Sudanese delegation to Addis Ababa agreed to officially hand over Gambella to the Imperial Ethiopian government on 15 October 1956. The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium had come to an end and with it Article IV of the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement of 1902 that guaranteed British Sudanese administration of Gambella during the lifetime to the Condominium that had now come to a peaceful end, but the legacy of an arbitrary boundary remained to continue the international and administration confusion on this remote frontier for another half century.

Colonial Rule
Since the hand over of Gambella to Ethiopian Empire in 1956 without consent of its people, none of Ethiopia government has indorsed the people of Gambella as a citizen of the country. The interest of Ethiopia Empire was only to expand the territory of the empire to the southwestern border of Sudan to get more land.

Menilk II did not structured his administration in Gambella till His majesty Haile Selasse the Empire of Ethiopia attempted to raid the state of Gambella which resulted into his defeat by the Anuak’s King Urubulu in May 26, 1934 in a battle of Pinykaw along Baro River which left his frontier agent Kanyazmatch Majid Abud wounded and nearly killed if he had rescued by British governor in Gambella. It was later in joint operation between British government in Sudan and Ethiopia government that weaken the power of Anuaks after they were disarmed and Ethiopia government started establishing police posts in Gambella region to levy the peasants and plunder the wealth of the region, but not to administrate the region nor develop its’ people. Anuaks were having a better political institution and administration than Ethiopian government apart from lack of educational institutions and civil services facilities.

The 1974 Revolution, which Menegestu H/Mariam led, was the only government of Ethiopia that infiltrated into Gambella and up-rooted the existing political institutions of Gambella people. It’s destroyed all political systems of Anuaks and all tribes in the region. The Communist government of Ethiopia had established strong military contingent in the region follow by displacement of thousands Anuaks from their respected ancestral land and dumped them into less fertile areas. The subsequent was the settlement of seventy-seven thousands households of highlanders Ethiopians into Anuaks land in pretext of 1984 famine in the country. This left the displaced Anuaks in a destitute condition ever since and no development project was though for them rather than developing the settlers from highland Ethiopia.

The young generations of the region don’t have education and development opportunity whatsoever. The very few schools supported by the peasants’ well-fare became the recruitment centre where the government go and round up the students and send them to East to fight the Somalia war over Ogada and to North to fight Eritrea and TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front). Anuaks were the living armour of Ethiopian’s militaries without any respect for them.

The people of Gambella were left in the hand of God waiting for return of Christ to give them freedom, peace, grace and better life in heaven. The few elites who attempted to ask for the right and freedom of the people ended up in jails and the remaining ran to the bush and formed political organization to fight for the right of Gambella people. This created a greater catastrophe to the people left home. The government sponsored South Sudan Liberation Army (SPLA) to massacre the Anuaks in three Anuaks villages that claim nearly thousand people life in 1989.

The 1991 regime change, which Anuaks were the participant in the process, brought hope to the people of Gambella that it would bring peace, human right, freedom and better life including development to the region. The people of Gambella demanded for self-administration and they took control of the regional administration power as according to the Ethiopian constitution. However, the chauvinists’ highlander Ethiopians who have been masters over people of Gambella (the people whom they were treating as slaves and none citizens) didn’t welcome the change positively including the EPDRF the ruling party. They started eroding the democracy previllages and self-administration that had promised and constituted by the government till it became a sham in Gambella state. The Federal government in Addis Ababa didn’t respect the right of Gambella people to administrate themselves as it did to the others states (Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, Dire Dawa, South Nations, Nationalities and people, Harari and Somalia) in others parts of the country. The federal government started appointing people from Addis Ababa ignoring democratic election and sent advisors to the region in pretext of regional backwardness and lack of educated people while there are gifted leaders who can administrate the region. On the other hand the federal government was dismissing all elites from regional government positions and forces them to exile or locked them up in prisons in Addis Ababa and Gambella.

The government had instigated ethnic conflicts among Gambella’s people using the minor differences exist among the communities to create misunderstanding and disunite them not to fight together for democracy and human right. Failure to stop Gambella’s people from persisting on demanding for self-administration, high demand for education and social services resulted into the government sponsored genocide of innocent Anuaks in punitively. Thousands were displaced and the remaining people still are hunting in theirs’ hiding places. Framers couldn’t harvest any of their produces for two seasons, which will put their situation in danger for a long period

Therefore, the exploitation, grievances and human right abuse of many years including the unwillingness of century’s masters of black skin people of the region to accept the administration of yesterday servants led to present day crisis in Gambella State.

I. Robert O. Collins. 1983. “Shadows in the Grass: Britain in the Southern Sudan, 1918-1956.” New Haven: Yale University Press
II. Eisei Kurimoto. 1992. “Natives and Outsiders: the Historical Experience of the Anywaa of Western Ethiopia.” Tokyo: Journal of Asian and African Students no. 43

Ojulu Odola wrote this piece for gambelatoday.com

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