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The recent attack in Gambela and its implications for humanitarian operations

The sudden attack by a group of raiders from South Sudan on the 15th of April, 2016 which claimed 208 Ethiopian Nuer lives and 108 children abducted, helps one to revisit the recurrent ‘conflict induced humanitarian crisis’ in the Gambela region of Ethiopia.[1] The raiders were widely alleged in media accounts to have been mainly Murle with a few attackers understood to be Dinka.[2] The attack is a conclusive reminder that the humanitarian crisis in Gambela is closely intertwined with the peace-building process in South Sudan which was revitalized by the August 2015 agreement political agreement between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. To be more precise the conflict in South Sudan and the ultimate outcomes of the peace process have close bearing on the protracted humanitarian crisis in Gambela region.

Before April 15, 2016 the Ethiopian government’s focus has largely been on the intermittent Nuer vs. Anuak conflict in Gambela. Hence, the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), has not it seems conceived of the intermittent raids across the border as an ‘existential threat’.[3] These raids have tended to be interpreted as cattle raids and revenge attacks widespread in pastoralist and agro-pastoralist areas. It is the scale of the current attack and the horrendous losses it inflicted that drew widespread attention and calls for action. Conventional wisdom has always viewed Gambela as conflict prone but never as under threat from cross border attacks. In hindsight, this may seem surprising as Gambela has not been completely unaffected by the conflict dynamics in neighbouring South Sudan. In his historical study, Regassa Bayissa clearly shows the linkages between the decades long trafficking in SALWS (Small Arms and Light Weapons) from South Sudan into Gambela and the internecine local level conflicts in Gambela. Moreover, the refugee camps in Gambela have also functioned as an epicentre for several conflicts in Gambela, whose actors transcend international borders.[4]

Interestingly, the Murle constitute an insignificant portion among South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, barely 0.04 %, which partly explains why the Murle were not a significant issue of concern, needful of Ethiopian policy response, when their numbers and proportion amongst the refugee population compel far less attention than the Dinka (5.87%), Nuer (57%) and Anuak (35.7%) who constitute a bigger proportion of the refugee population.[5] The  attack also induced its own humanitarian crisis as reportedly an estimated 20,000 people have been internally displaced since the attack.[6]

Preliminary assessment of the cause and responses to Gambela attack

The Ethiopian government, South Sudan authorities and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) appeared to be at a loss on how to deal with what occurred. However, it is clear that this inaction could conceivably exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the region.  In his official address in the aftermath of the attack, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, denounced the attack, and interpreted the attack as apolitical and mainly driven by ‘primitive’ cultural customs.[7] The response can be problematized in so far as it delves into the stereotyping of certain peoples as ‘primitive’ which raises uncomfortable historical echoes.[8]

The recent attack in Gambela is inseparable from the political dynamics across the border in South Sudan and more recent unravelling of the political settlement arrived at between the SSDM-A (South Sudan Democratic Movement-A Cobra Faction) led by David Yau Yau and the SPLM (Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement) led Government of the Republic of South Sudan, in May, 2014. The agreement led to the creation of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA), a development that had been at the core of the demands raised by the SSDM-A and the communities that it drew support from (mainly sections of the Murle but not limited to the Murle) during the conflict.[9] The agreement was hailed as a success but its drawn out implementation and the issue of the integration of the fighters of the SSDM-A Cobra Faction into the regular army, were clouds on the horizon that observers should have paid closer attention to.

The decision to territorially restructure South Sudan from the previous 10 states to 28 states has led to the replacement of the GPAA with Boma state and the ascendancy of Baba Medan (political figure long aligned with SPLM) at the expense of David Yau Yau. These political shifts have led to clashes and renewed insecurity in the region of South Sudan adjoining the Gambela region of Ethiopia.[10]  The status of security forces that are in ‘limbo’ and the possibility that these forces may engage in criminal activity for profit and/or survival also may explain phenomenon such as the recent attack in Gambela.[11]

Prior to and in the aftermath of the attack the Ethiopian premier urged the South Sudanese government to securitize the bordering area. Similarly some of the Ethiopian opposition, albeit not all of them, have held the government of South Sudan accountable for the recent attack.  The fragility of the state and government in South Sudan coupled with the civil war in South Sudan and the defunct peace agreements, until August 2015, are a clear indication that the South Sudan government is a long way from exercising a reasonable degree of control over its borders with neighbouring states.

The Ethiopian government was a key mediator in trying to devise a peace agreement in the Sudanese civil war driven by the decades spanning Gambela crisis based upon the trans-national ethnic identity of the Nuer population in South Sudan and the Gambela Region of Ethiopia and their political quest for power and representation in in South Sudan and the Gambella region of Ethiopia.[12]  The efforts of the Ethiopian government to resolve the crisis in South Sudan are also driven by the burden of the humanitarian crisis in Gambela due to the presence of the South Sudanese refugees. Gambela shelters more than 270,000 South Sudanese refugees, 221,000 of whom arrived since the inception of the civil war.[13]

The fiasco of South Sudan peace-building vis-a vis disarmament& its implication for humanitarian intervention in Gambella

Apparently, one alleged grievance at the local level in Gambela against the government centres on the disarmament of civilians in Gambela, which some allege left the victims of the attack unprotected.[14] The rationale for disarmament is clear enough since Ethiopia has domesticated the Bamako Protocol since April 2003, which commits the government to disarm civilians and non-state actors. The Weberian principle of state monopoly of the legitimate means of violence is another pressing argument for disarmament of non-state actors which is rendered even more pressing in the current global and regional context defined by civil war, terrorism and violent extremism.[15]

The securitization of the border should not jeopardise humanitarian responsibility. In other words, the attack should not create a detrimental environment for the operation of various refugee camps in Gambela, run by the United Nation’s Higher Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR). According to one report from a Sudanese newspaper, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, local authorities supposedly carried out a search for perpetrators of the attacks in adjacent refugee camps.[16] Historically, refugee camps and refugees in Gambela have on occasion been targeted in revenge attacks by members of local communities. It is also within the realms of possibility that incidents such as the Gambela attack may make conditions difficult for refugees already in refugee camps or those who might seek refuge in the future.

The attack in Gambela demonstrates the correlation between peace-building in adjoining regions of South Sudan and its spill-over effects and potential impact on the humanitarian crisis in the Gambela region of Ethiopia. Humanitarian interventions cannot unfold in isolation from peace-building and a coherent ‘disarmament project’ in the region. In other words, this  article argues  that   Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) program, peace-building in South Sudan, inclusive local governance and humanitarian intervention throughout the region should be integrated.

Policy recommendations

The on-going political settlement in South Sudan should respond to the local political grievances in regions adjoining Gambela in South Sudan. Regional actors such as the IGAD should not overlook the potential spill-over effects of local level political and security dynamics. Similarly, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), which was tasked by IGAD to follow up on the implementation of the August 2015 peace agreement, should take note of this matter.

On the other hand the South Sudan’s DDR project, as a part and parcel of the on-going peace-building initiative, should be implemented in a concerted manner with the Ethiopian governments program of disarming non-state actors in Gambela. Other humanitarian actors, such as UNHCR, should not shy away from actively involving in the disarmament program of the region.

Eyob Asfaw Gemechu is a lecturer, at Addis Ababa University, also serving as community services expert at the office of Vice President for Research & Technology Transfer of the University. His areas of interest includes cultural diversity, identity, governance, advocacy and peace. He may be reached at


[1] The New York Times.  2016.  ‘Deadly Ethnic Strife Convulses Ethiopia-South Sudan Border’. 25APRIL 2016 in

[2] ‘Death Toll Rises to 182 in Gambela Attack’, Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, 17th April, 2016,, see also, ‘East Africa: Gambella Attack Exposes Ethnic Tensions Between Ethiopia, South Sudan’,, 21st April, 2016,  ‘

[3]Imperatively it is a sophisticated policy of national security architecture, that places ‘existential threats’ across the glossary , policy and action of a state. Notably, the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) is prone to frequent usage of the term ‘existential threat’ as a premise for military and security strategy of the country .( )

[4] Bayissa , Regassa . 2010. ‘War and peace in the Sudan and its Impact on Ethiopia: The Case of Gambella 1955-2008’.  Addis Ababa University Press.

[5] Ibid.

[6i] Addis Admas Newspaper.  23April  2016 . (Amharic Weekly Newspaper)


[8] Kebede, Messay.  2004, ‘ Africa’s Quest for A Philosophy of Decolonization’, Value Inquiry Book Series, Vol. 153, New York.

[9] Todisco, Claudio. March 2015. ‘Real but Fragile: The Greater Pibor Administrative Area’ . Small Arms Survey. Geneva. Pgs 24-32.

[10] ‘Baba Medan blamed for looting of Pibor town’, 8th March, 2016, Radio Tamazuj,, see also, ‘South Sudan’s Boma state violence displaces hundreds’, 24th February, 2016, Sudan Tribune,

[11] De Waal, Alex. March 2016. ‘A Political Marketplace Analysis of South Sudan’s Peace’, Occasional Paper. World Peace Foundation: Justice and Security Research Foundation. Pgs 6-7.

[12] Mesfin, Berouk. June 2015.  The Regionalization of South Sudanese Crisis, in East African Report Issue 4.  Institute of Security Studies.

[13] Sudan Tribune.  2008. Dozens of S. Sudanese refugees arrested in Ethiopia. 27 April  2008.

[14] Addis Admas Newspaper, 23 April 2016 , (Amharic Weekly Newspaper).

[15]Freeman, Laura. 2015. ‘The African warlord revisited’ . in Small Wars & Insurgencies, 26:5, 790-810, DOI: 10.1080/09592318.2015.1072318.

[16] ‘Dozens of South Sudanese Refugees arrested in Ethiopia’, Sudan Tribune, 28th April, 2016,

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