History For Inclusive Social Cohesion and Common Good, Not Politics

A Response To the “Dancing with Wolf: A Reflection on Gambella Politics”

By Nyikaw Ochalla,

People along River Baro in Gambella, Ethiopia(Photo: via Anuak Media)
People along River Baro in Gambella, Ethiopia(Photo: via Anuak Media)

Dec 20, 2014(Nyamilepedia) — The article “Dancing with Wolf: A Reflection on Gambella Politics” by Chuol R. Kompuok, has drawn interest and much heated debate over the internet including some social media sites. The first article in particular, was well placed and covered wide range of issues including the root causes of ethnic identity politics and serious destructive political motives in an already troubled region. However, both original article and subsequent response fall short of achieving the intended target of unifying ethnic diversity of the region due to historical accounts manipulation, deliberate attempts to credit the power sharing model of governance to struggle of minority Ethnic Nuer at the time and lack of information as to why the Anywaa controlled three senior regional government positions during the transitional period-1991-1994. This brief article attempts to fill the information gap and contributes to correct some historical accounts misfits in the first and subsequent article that followed.

The author, a former head of Gambela region Urban and Water Bureau before he studied for his PhD in Economic at Dare Es Slam university-Tanzania and later went to live and work in South Sudan could have appealed so much to wider audiences on the account that TPLF/EPRDF continued interference is among the root causes of current underdevelopment and lack of insecurity in the region. Until recently, the federal government in Addis Ababa despatches political, economic, social and administrative advisors to various Ethiopian peripheries regions including Gambela regional state. Some of these “advisors” are newly graduates with no practical experience on their subject matters and hardly could be claimed as advisors in real sense. The entire confusion and political gimmicks between indigenous peoples as well as non-indigenous communities emanates from high level corruption they embroiled in and their attempts to undermine state political power until today. However, Chuol original article and subsequent response could not do justice on the accounts of migration of Nuer and other claims that lacks substance and credibility.

On migration, it is important to note that mass migration to claim territories is an old human activities associated with medieval past. Vast territorial claims in this days are undertaken by state parties and non-state actors in a fair and substantial established international and national legal environments. For most cases, state and non-state actors lay claims on a territory based on historical accounts or their ties with people who occupy certain geography they lay claim of. This makes territorial claims and further encroachments remote and rare in international setting in the 21st century. Even, in African state settings, where very few ethnic groups could be identified as founders of contemporary African states, the cases of further encroachments in today contemporary world have become somewhat rare, if not totally unheard of. Nonetheless, the Nuer and Anywaa still finds themselves in territorial claims in a clearly visible and well defined territorial geography in modern era.

In history, both the Anywaa and Nuer who were not immune from such golden medieval practice, did so due to various man-made and natural disasters to migrate to their current locations. In particular, the Anywaa migration eastwards to the current homeland, Gambela region, a subject of current debate that Chuol’s article have and is drawing many to contribute has multi-factors. Noticeably, their stern relationship with fellow Nilotic tribe, the Nuer in history has brought them to dominate and occupy the entire territories along Baro (Openo), Gilo, Akobo, Oboth, Alworo, Gilo, Pibor (Dekuny), Obela, Akula, Owac Rivers, etc.

The two ethnic groups until recently, have practiced different life styles and mode of production, a sources of moderate conflicts and displacement. While the Anywaa are permanent settlers and agriculturalist, their fellow Nilotic Nuer cousins are nomads and pastoralists in their life style. In history, these two incompatible life styles do not come to terms with one another and extremely difficult to command harmonious relationships. As a result, the Anywaa were forced to leave their land along the Sobat River bank[1], currently known as Nasser. However, there are remains on some pocket of Anywaa villages along the bank until recently but assimilated into Nuer tribe. Yet, they strongly traced back their roots into wider Anywaa society. This was the origin of Nuer intrusion and occupation of vast Anywaa territories that made the Anywaa loss geographical boundary with their close relatives; Collo or Shilluk.[2]

The current migration of Nuer into Anywaa heart land, Gambela region in Ethiopia; mainly, Jokau (Jikaw), however, is of recent past.[3] The history tells us that the British colonial administration in the Sudan made an agreement with Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to allow South Sudanese subjects-Nuer to access grazing rights on the Anywaa land during the dry seasons and their return back during rainy seasons. But this agreement was made without consents of Anywaa village leaders and became potential source of conflicts between the two communities as Nuer continued to stay and settled permanently on Anywaa territory. The traditional feud continued with both parties finding support from outside to secure firearms to settle their disputes.

As ethnic and tribal politics took international dimension, both Anywaa and Nuer join in the Italian occupation war with the former supporting the British and Ethiopian ally forces while the latter joining Italian occupation. E.E Evan-Pritchard who also made great contribution to Nuer history, recorded in his observation to political system of the Anywaa (Anuak) and noted that “In Ethiopia the Anuak were for the most part very favourably disposed towards us, particularly those in Nyikaani and Jor districts. They were irritated by Italian actions due to ….” [4]The renowned anthropologist, Evan Pritchard made an appeal to his fellow British and allies in the Italian occupation war to reciprocate the Anywaa (or Anuak) for the goodwill and support during the Italian occupation war campaign.

During his stay with the Anywaa (or Anuak) on the war campaign against the Italian Ethiopian occupation trail, anthropologist, E. Evans-Pritchard, documented Anywaa villages both in South Sudan and Ethiopian territories. Among them are Nyikuoo, Inyuon, Ideni, Pinyneau, Pinykeau-Aduo-Jwoki, Pinymoo, etc. along the Openo (Baro) River bank. The sketch of the above village locations on map planet indicates that they are located in Jokau (Jikaw) district currently occupied by Nuer in Gambela region. Similarly, it is also possible to mention some villages from E.E. Evans-Pritchard historical accounts in the heart of Anywaa land both in Ethiopia and in South Sudan including Aliel, Obuodhi, Udiek, Umila, Pinykooa, Koc, Umiel, Ugin, along Akobo River bank, and Oboo, Uthiel, Dokoli, Nyikwar along Pibor (Dekuny) River bank. This indicate that Anywaa has set foot beyond doubt on the current location as it is clear from even independent accounts and historical facts.

But Chuol’s historical accounts at least puzzling and a grand political rhetoric at best. His second article, in particular mentioned that the Nuer, migration was dated back to 16th century. He further claimed that the Nuer migration went as far as Gojam region[5] in the heart of Amhara land in northern Ethiopia. Yet, failed to point to any account that supports the claims apart from list of individuals that he claimed to have spearheaded Nuer expedition to the heart of Ethiopia in the north. The names could be made by any lay man and they show little authenticity. Even assuming that his claims could hold water, but they (Nuer) could not settled in northern Ethiopia due to unfavourable weather conditions and health hazards to their cattle, it is provable that large migration could have left some trace of history; either in the form of written documentation or oral historical accounts. The Ethiopian highland including Gojam, Bure and Shebel mentioned in his articles are home for considerable numbers of cattle with no fear of tsetse flies. Even in Gambela with the exception of some parts of Jor, Gog and Abobo districts most of Anywaa land and territories accommodates cattle breading with high yields.

Another account that need be set right is assimilation of other ethnic groups in the course of migration. Although, Chuol in his second article tacitly agreed with the assimilation policy of the Nuer against Anywaa indigenous people, he further went on to claim that the Anywaa also assimilated other indigenous people of Gambela including Majang and Komo people in the region. Chuol failed to understand and appreciate the richness of Anywaa tradition unlike other Nilotic cousins including the Nuer. The roots of those assimilated in Anywaa society do not go thin as they will always be referred to their origin in their social interaction. For instance, those whose ancestors originated from ethnic Nuer are known as “Anaadh or Winynaadhi” to indicate that their ancestors originated from “Naadh”.[6] Similarly, those whose ancestors originated from “Jaang”[7] are addressed as “Ajaang or Winyjao” referring to their Dinka roots. Even those who are abducted during ethnic wars are addressed in a way that indicate how they came to be part of Anywaa society.

As Chuol claims to be writing on behalf of Gambela Nuer as in his second article or response, I guess he should do more work to gain acceptance in the wider Nuer community to stamp out any social stigma against other ethnic groups. For instance, while the Anywaa has abandant derogative words such as “Lango”, and address ethnic Opuo in a respectful manner, the Nuer remain in the world that addresses Opuo as “Chai or Chay”, an equivalent to Anywaa word of “Lango”. The two words used by Nuer and Anywaa means the same when translated into English-Slave. This is the beginning of justice to the highest degree and could cement good and harmonious relationship with ethnic minority if strictly followed.

In the case of Ochom, Chuol has a major task and agenda to convince anyone to buy his claims. Chuol claimed that those Nuer who found themselves at Ochom were invited by local chiefs of the area and those whom they had marriage relationship. Could it be that he was still in boarding school as south Sudanese refuge?

I should inform him and others that those who came to Ochom were through UNHCR programme as those refugees who lived in “Newland”, in Gambela town. When I was working for UNHCR in Gambela, due to inaccessibility of screening centre at Tierkidi in Itang during the rainy seasons, it was decided that screening centre be set at Ochom, less than six (6) km from Gambela town for South Sudanese refugees the majority of whom were Nuer. This is a similar fashion where a handful ethnic Nuer were accommodated around UNHCR office in Gambela town for security purpose to attend their secondary education in 1980s. While residing in Changkwar area in Gambela town, a South Sudanese Nuer refugee by the nickname, “Tomorrow”, coined the name “Newland”, indicating that they were non-natives to the area.

International law, in particularly, the 1951 Refuge Convention provides protection to refuges but do not accord rights to claim territories by displacing the indigenous community in their host country. The 1983 large refuges influx who were genuinely fleeing persecution and prolong civil conflict should not give Nuer further pretext to occupy Anywaa traditional land. In fact, before the recent outbreak of hostilities in South Sudan that sent another web of refugee influx into Gambela region, the UN and Ethiopian government has no mandate to keep South Sudanese refugees mainly ethnic Nuer when South Sudan had already achieved a relative peace and stability when it broke away from the Sudan.

While the first article could be taken at face value, the second article lay bare Chuol’s true motives and colour to my shock and surprise. Chuol claims that Nuer at Ochom were paying taxes to Gambela administrative and Anywaa Chiefs. I was reading along the lines but without indication that South Sudanese refugees at Pinyudo, Dimma and Itang refugee camps were also victims of Gambela administrative and Anywaa Chiefs scheme to levy taxation on refugees in the host country.

On the account of GPLM, Chuol articles were full of claims against GPLM[8], an organisation that provide him with employment and education opportunities irrespective of his association with South Sudan. In his first article, Chuol complaint about the Anywaa under GPLM leadership to have controlled and took hold of three senior positions and the Nuer struggle against such “injustice” brought salvation and liberation of other minority ethnic groups. This assertion is far from the truth.

Firstly, when EPRDF assumed power in 1991, the only credible organisation that fought alongside TPLF/EPRDF to liberate Gambela indigenous peoples including ethnic Nuer was GPLM entirely dominated by Anywaa for injustice and human rights abuses they suffered during the military regime, some Majang and Komo people. During the liberation struggle to liberate Ethiopia from military dictatorship, the majority Nuer were either in refugee camps or in support of few Nuer who were in regional administration and political party office.

As none of them (Nuer) suffered injustice and abuses in equal measure as their fellow Anywaa counter parts, their sheer believe that EPRDF was not going to consolidate power and their relentless support for military junta and enjoying easy life in the refugee camps, the work of the transitional period being to restore peace and stability, and the destabilisation activities some were engaged in including the attack they mounted at Jikaw from across the international border, it was apparent and was difficult if not impossible to trust the Nuer during the transitional arrangement. Furthermore, there was a country-wide programme to inform and educate those strong supporters of former regime with new political ideology and GPLM was party to that arrangement not to loss hard won peoples victory at that time. In addition, it was too early to trust Nuer at that critical time as anything could go wrong due to their support for the military junta.

Nonetheless, GPLM awarded other ethnic groups for their support in the liberation struggle; Peter Amman and Aterfa Mustafa became GPLM representatives in the Ethiopian parliament in Addis Ababa and Gambela transitional administration in Gambela respectively. Some Nuer and other Majang community were also in the regional administration if not in the top three positions. What Chuol should understand is that the nature of decision making in GPLM circle was a collective one rather than based on what position an individual holds in the organisation.

However, with the establishment of regional state government and the adoption of state council approved regional constitution in 1995, it was made possible to have equitable distribution and ethnic representative in the regional administration. Yet, this was not the case in two districts; Akobo and Jikaw where the Anywaa still have sizeable number and hold territorial rights. There was no Anywaa representation from those two districts and the Anywaa did not complain about lack of any representation of those people who are still living in those two districts. Despite such biased representative in the two districts, the GPLM leadership has accorded equal development budget support and manpower to those districts. Nonetheless, it was evident that the Nuer were not willing to live in remote parts in those two districts and serious budget misappropriation including money being paid to people who do not exist took place in Gambela town.

With regards to GPLM operation in a place Chuol called “Chotgur”, another Nuer attempts to corrupt Anywaa village names, it is apparent that Chuol could not understand the implication of political ideology during that period perhaps he was too young to understand it or too distant to share the pain of those Anywaa people whose value and identity were under serious attack from the regime. Putting things right, the incident he was referring to took place in Cam or Cham village between Pinykeau and Imedho villages in Jikaw district. What followed after was a rampage and gross human rights abuses that little has been known to the world; Anywaa students forcefully recruited into the Ethiopian army while Nuer were in the refugee camps and associated with South Sudanese refugees, mass disappearances, control of check points by some Nuer who were South Sudanese refugees origin and migrants from Ethiopian highland, the massacre of Anywaa people by South Sudanese refugees at Itang and Pinyudo believed to have been orchestrated by two senior ethnic Nuer in political power at the time and disruption of Anywaa youth education enrolment. The Anywaa side of story could go on and history of such human rights abuses during military regime are recorded in history books for future generations.

Chuol in his second article left no stone unturned by announcing that “the Gambella land is ancestral land for all the Gambella people-(Majengir, Komo, Anywaa, Nuer and Opo) period!” and further sited Ethiopian constitution that accords equal rights to other Ethiopian nationals to live in the Gambela region. Nonetheless, it worth pointing out that despite Ethiopian federal constitution article 32 and Gambela regional state revised constitution article 33 that accord equal rights to all nation, nationality and people, the basis of Chuol’s argument, the Ethiopian federal constitution article 39(3) unequivocally provides rights for nation, nationality and people the rights of nation, nationality and people to set up institutions on their territories. The anchor of the article is self-rule of nation, nationality and people of Ethiopia in their territories and equal representation on administrative echelon as it is fit.

It is the duty of any human being to protect and look after other fellow human family. Eleven (11) years after December 13, 2003 Ethiopian armed forces and some Ethiopian highlanders’ attempts to annihilate Anywaa indigenous peoples, it will remain a dark day in their history. Whatever support Anywaa fellow Nilotic Nuer ethnic provided to safe lives is much appreciated. However, Nuer were not the only people who gave safe heaven to Ethiopian government genocide survivors. On that dark day, not all Ethiopian highlanders buy into the government idea of exterminating the Anywaa from their homeland and some gave a valuable support and protection to the government genocide survivors.

For harmonious relationship, in the hope to cement strong ties with other ethnic groups and foster economic development and stability in the Gambela region, history has key place to play. Telling history to the current generation and future ones without mixing it with political motives would uplift the indigenous people of Gambela from extreme poverty and historical marginalisation and neglect of Ethiopian state institutions. All indigenous communities without exception, in my view should take it on their shoulder to diffuse unnecessary misunderstanding and mistrust in the interest of peace and harmonious co-existence of various ethnic groups in the region. The elites of Gambela today have duty to leave a better legacy for the coming generations without digging further to open wounds. It will only add salt to old injuries.


  1. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1947). “Further Observations of the Political System of the Anuak.” Sudan Notes and Records 26:62-97.

[1] A tributary of while Nile located in Upper Nile state in South Sudan. The Anywaa territories include some parts formerly known as Nyuum and Beet along the Sobat River bank.

[2] Collo or Shilluk are Anywaa close Luo speaking brothers that occupy vast territories in the Upper Nile province and currently in some forms of territorial disputes with ethnic Nuer in South Sudan.

[3] Until 1983 mass influx of south Sudanese refugees that camped in Itang and Pinyudo areas of Anywaa territories, the number of Nuer were considerably insignificants to justify territorial claims. Before that, there was somehow accommodative tendency among the Anywaa to live with their host. And, in fact, the Nuer could not lay claim to any territory as they were considered non-natives at that time. Those who came to Gambela town as I could remember were to sell their cows and off they go to Ethio-Sudan border.

[4] E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Further Observation on Political System of The Anuak

[5] Addis Ababa, Ethiopian capital to Gojam province in the north, is about 407km and 780km from Addis Ababa to Gambela the capital of Gambela regional state.

[6] The Nuer called themselves as Naadh. Thus, the reference Anaadh (Female) and Wnynaadhi (man) are used to trace those assimilated into Anywaa society but with origin from Nuer ethnic group.

[7] Jaang is the name the Dinka ethnic group use to call themselves, Dinka is another Anywaa neighbour in South Sudan. Ajaang (Girl and female) and Winyjao (boy and man) are used to refer to those whose origin are traced back to Dinka but assimilated in Anywaa society.

[8] Gambela Peoples Liberation Movement founded in 1975 by Oguta Adiw Okwom, Cham Onyieng, Ajak Opiew, Agwa Kiro, Philip Adula Ojulu and ten others in Khartoum, the Sudan.

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