The Spillover effect of South Sudan in Gambella, Ethiopia

(Dereje Feyissa)

Refugee influx and ethnic conflicts
Gambella is one of the most conflict-ridden regions in Ethiopia. One of the most contentious issues is the politics of numbers that has locked two of the region’s major ethnic groups, the Anuak and the Nuer, into conflict[1]. Both have a cross-border settlement in South Sudan as well. Until the mid-1980s the Anuak constituted the majority of Gambella’s population. However, the massive influx of refugees since the outbreak of the second Sudanese civil war in 1983 has dramatically changed the region’s demography[2].

The Nuer have a larger presence in South Sudan than Ethiopia and represent the majority of the refugees coming to Gambella—a process, facilitated by the cross-border settlement pattern and clan networks. By 1994 they had already become the majority constituting 40% of Gambella’s population, a demographic trend which has continued to grow, as the latest census in 2007 indicates. The Anuak, who advance a historical argument for political entitlement over the Gambella region, contest the census, arguing that most of the Nuer in Gambella are not Ethiopian citizens.

These competing narratives of political entitlement—historical and demographic—have been one of the drivers of conflict in the Gambella region, especially after the establishment of the Gambella regional state as one of the constitutive units of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia since 1995. In Ethiopia’s federal system, regional administrative power is allocated in direct proportion to the population of the country’s ethno-cultural communities. The relative numerical superiority of a certain ethno-cultural community would, therefore, entitle it to more seats in regional and national parliament than the other.

Map - Juba, South Sudan - Gambella, Ethiopia

The ongoing civil war has already produced hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly hosted in refugee camps in Gambella. By mid-September 2014, the number of South Sudanese refugees in Gambella rose to 190,000[3], predominantly ethnic Nuer. The Ethiopian government is hosting the refugees with assistance from international organizations. However, the new refugee phenomenon in Gambella is viewed only from a humanitarian point of view, whilst it may have longer-term political ramifications for the area.

For decades the Anuak have felt marginalized by the influx of Nuer refugees into the Gambella region, a demographic anxiety compounded by massive migration of highlanders from the east. The current Nuer movement may renew tensions if Anuak believe they are here to stay, further altering the area’s demographics in their rival’s favour. The Anuak believe themselves to be the main indigenous group but the continued influx of Nuer refuges affects the power balance. Anecdotal evidence shows that some Nuer political elites are using the refugees to gain political advantage, by issuing Ethiopian ID cards to Nuer refugees, causing tension between the regional political leadership and the federal institution of the Administration for Refugee Affairs[4].

Anuak political organizations have also already politicized the refugee influx. In its press release, for instance, the diaspora-based Gambella Nilotes United Movement (GNUM/A) has called for a halt to what it calls “resettling refugees throughout the Gambella Region” without the will of the local communities [5]. It further noted, “The spread of the refugees’ camps in the Anuak land is nothing else than ethnic cleansing to serve the EPRDF [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front] government’s interest in the region”. What appears a humanitarian act of the Ethiopian government is thus represented as a conspiratorial scheme, fuelling the already existing tension not only between the Anuak and the Nuer but also between the Anuak political organizations and the Ethiopian government.

Competition over natural resources

Although Gambella has one of the lowest population densities in Ethiopia, there is however a growing pressure on the land, particularly the fertile but limited riverine land that supports flood-retreat farming for the Anuak and provides pastureland for grazing for the Nuer during the dry season. This riverine land is contested not only at the inter-ethnic level but also intra-ethnically, and the various Nuer clans have frequently fought to access the water points. The protracted conflict between the Jikany and Lou Nuer and the violent conflicts among the various Gaajak clans are cases in point. The leasing of hundreds of thousands of hectares of land for foreign companies with the advent of large-scale commercial agriculture in the region has further created land scarcity.

The refugees might, as was the case in previous times, seek to access the contested land, further fuelling the resource-based conflict. The problem might be compounded as the Nuer tend to aggregate into groups (clans, sub-clans, sub, sub clans etc.).

Unintended consequences of humanitarian support

The sense of exclusion and relative deprivation of local communities generated by provision of basic services to refugees is one of the major drivers of tension and conflict between refugees and host communities. This is so mainly because refugee camps are often established in the border areas that constitute the most marginal spaces, such as Gambella, in the provision of basic services by their respective governments. With some exceptions, the focus of the humanitarian support has been on the refugees without paying attention to the host community[6].

Public health risks

As the political crisis in South Sudan continues, the physical condition of arriving refugees is deteriorating and the prevalence of malnutrition is alarmingly high. There are also huge issues with measles. Outbreaks of the disease in South Sudan have been reported, and 60-70 cases were documented across the border in Ethiopia[7].

The Ethiopian government, in partnership with the various international organizations, is supporting a mass immunization campaign but there is still fear of a possible epidemic. At a time when the world is grappling with new global epidemics such as Ebola, there is a need to monitor and control potential public health risks emanating from the refugee camps.

Gambella’s significance for South Sudan

Cross-border political and military mobilisation has been a hallmark of regional politics that binds Gambella closely to South Sudan. Like the 1991 split of the SPLA, the on-going violent conflict has also been increasingly framed in ethnic terms, with Kiir and Machar claiming to represent or identified with the two major ethnic groups of South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer, respectively. The conflict quickly spread and became deeply polarized as civilians were targeted based on their ethnicities. People in Gambella are furious with President Salva Kiir for the killings of Nuer in Juba, while many have relatives now sheltering in the UN’s compounds in South Sudan. The SPLM in opposition led by Riek Machar has extensive support among the Nuer populace in Gambella. The Ethiopian government, on the other hand, has followed an official policy of neutrality and assumed a mediating role; a position that is reinforced by its current IGAD leadership.

Regional political actors in Gambella, especially among the Nuer populace and leadership who explicitly show solidarity with Machar’s “Nuer faction”, do not necessarily share Addis Ababa’s policy of neutrality. The Nuer have occupied the crucial office of the regional presidency since 2012; an office hitherto considered as the ‘reserve’ of the Anuak. Apart from facilitating the influx of Nuer refugees through the porous border, the Gambella regional state reportedly hosted prominent political figures in South Sudan at the height of the conflict in March 2014. Some Nuer members of the Regional Special Force are also said to have joined Machar’s army with the consent, or at least complacency of some members of the Nuer political leadership in the Gambella Regional State. Still, many Nuer prophets from Gambella have joined Machar to augment his ‘spiritual capability” in his deadly confrontation with his rival, who has also done the same much in line with South Sudanese political culture within which prophetic tradition plays a crucial role[8].

Apparently, this gives the impression that Ethiopia has two ‘foreign policies’ towards South Sudan; one federal and the other regional, or what Kincaid (2010)[9] calls a ‘constituent diplomacy’, international activities of a sub-national government within a federation. It remains to be seen whether this constituent diplomacy catalyses a possible change in Addis Ababa’s official policy of neutrality in the context of the increasing regionalisation of the conflict in South Sudan; further creating a diplomatic space for local political actors to influence Ethiopia’s foreign policy making. Asmara has already gone too far accusing Addis Ababa of “actively supporting” the Machar faction[10], albeit without providing a credible evidence, except for a reference to Ethiopia’s criticism of Uganda’s military intervention supporting Salva Kiir and the greater political representation of the Nuer in Gambella.

Addis Ababa, on its part, accuses Asmara for siding with the Machar faction as part of its regional destabilisation efforts[11]. Both allegations at least indicate the possibility of South Sudan as the new arena for the wider proxy war between Addis Ababa and Asmara within which Gambella plays a strategic role. At stake is Ethiopia’s image as an “impartial mediator” between the two factions and even between Juba and Khartoum.

Some recommendations

Humanitarian interventions need to be pursued in a conflict sensitive manner, such as a more regulated refugee influx and move towards a more harmonious refugees-host community relationship. As the discussion in the previous sections reveals humanitarian interventions in Gambella need to be situated within the broader historical and current political context in order to avoid refugees’ related conflicts affecting regional politics like in the previous periods. With that spirit the following recommendations are put forward:

* Cost-sharing: Gambella has disproportionately borne the brunt of hosting South Sudanese refugees. To alleviate the demographic pressure in Gambella, which has created a potential for rekindling inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic conflicts, the refugees need to be fairly distributed within Ethiopia, particularly in regions that share border with South Sudan such as Benishangul-Gumuz and SNNPR (Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region). Cost sharing should also be evenly distributed among the IGAD countries. Of course, the Nuer might not feel comfortable going to Uganda given the latter’s military intervention supporting the South Sudanese government. But countries such as Kenya and the Sudan could and should share the burden of hosting the refugees in the spirit of regional solidarity.

* Humanitarian intervention in a conflict sensitive manner should also include an integrated intervention supporting not only the refugees but also the local communities near the refugee camps. This helps avoid a sense of relative deprivation of local communities.

* The Ethiopian government, though commendable in its humanitarian act as it were, should also to pay attention to how it is locally perceived and its unintended consequences. The emerging conspiratorial narrative about its role fuels conflict and undermines state legitimacy in an already fragile region such as Gambella. Humanitarian action, whether by international organisations or the regional government, should not impinge on the contentious issue of citizenship.

* The Ethiopian government needs to articulate a more coherent policy of neutrality towards South Sudan, constructively engaging Gambella’s regional political leadership. As it stands, the incongruence between what appears to be a constituent diplomacy and Ethiopia’s foreign policy could subvert the country’s regional peace making capacity ultimately undermining IGAD’s mediating efforts. The incongruence might also reinforce the regionalisation of South Sudan’s conflict, the signs of which are already discernible.


[1] For a comprehensive analysis of ethno politics in the Gambella region see Dereje Feyissa. 2011. Playing different games: The paradox of the identification strategies of the Anuak and the Nuer in the Gambella region. New York: Berghahn Books.

[2] See Esei Kurimoto. 2005. ‘The multidimensional Impact of Refugees and Settlers in the Gambella Region’. In: Itaru Ohta and Yntiso Gebre (eds).  Displacement Risks in Africa. Kyoto: Kyoto University.

[3] Before December 2013 there were already 56,000 South Sudanese refugees in Gambella.

[4] The tension escalated in April 2014 when the regional leadership dismissed one of the ARA officials from his position on the controversy surrounding the issuance of Ethiopian ID cards to the refugees.


[6] For instance, UNICEF has identified the burden on the local services at an early stage and decided to increase the number of shallow wells in the area in order to create a balance between the host community and refugees. See


[8] Machar’s claim for a divine mandate in his bid for political power ostensibly refers to the prophecy of Ngundeng, the greatest of Nuer prophets of the 19th century.

[9] Kincaid, John. 2010. ‘Comparative Observations on the International Activities of Constituent Governments’ in Requejo, Ferran, ed. Foreign Policy of Constituent Units at the beginning of 21st Century.




* Dereje Feyissa is Africa Research Director at International Law and Policy Institute, Oslo, Norway. He can be reached at [email protected]

* Originally published on Horn of Africa Bulletin September-October 2014 issue.

Content gathered and compiled from online and offline media by Hornaffairs staff based on relevance and interest to the Horn of Africa.

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