Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Numbering more than 89,000 (2007 National Census), Anuak are hunters, agriculturists and fishers living in the fertile Gambella forest region of south-western Ethiopia.
The Anuak people date from the first millennium BCE.
At the end of 1979 their land was seized by the government, and there were attempts to draft them into the army and into forced labour on collective farms. Many Anuak fled into the bush in an attempt to reach Sudan and were shot and imprisoned. During the 1980s Mengistu forcibly resettled in Gambella some 60,000 peasants, mostly ‘highlanders’ from other parts of Ethiopia. At the same time there was an influx of Nuer fleeing Sudan’s civil war and settling on traditionally Anuak lands. Tensions rose as competition for land and water intensified. Anuak numbers halved within a generation.
These reached a head in 2003 when, after the Ethiopian government offered a concession for oil exploration in Gambella to a Malaysian company, Petronas, armed Anuak militias launched a series of attacks against highlander civilians. In reprisal, Gambella was subjected to a brutal military campaign that saw an estimated 400 Anuak civilians killed in December 2003 by Ethiopian security forces, predominantly highlanders, with violence continuing for a number of years.
In the ensuing years tensions have persisted, exacerbated by deepening ethnic rifts between the largely agrarian Anuak and pastoralist Nuer, resulting in regular outbreaks of violence that have left many civilians dead and displaced thousands of others. These rivalries have deepened as Nuer refugees from South Sudan have crossed the border into Ethiopia and have led to a number of bloody clashes between communities.
Anuak and other communities in the Gambella region have in recent years been in conflict with the government over large-scale development projects. The scale and speed has been striking. From 2010, 225,000 people were meant to be moved in just three years in Gambella alone. According to the respected US-based Oakland Institute, 42 per cent of the region was leased or marketed to investors. State-led developments have generally been implemented without consultation or accommodation of indigenous communities, causing them to lose large areas of ancestral lands to foreign corporations to accommodate sugar cane plantations and other investments. A recurring element in these projects is a process of forced relocation known as ‘villagization’, whereby communities are forcibly resettled in makeshift villages, often far away from livelihood opportunities, natural resources or basic services. Human rights organizations have collected testimonies of killings, rapes and beatings; soldiers have burned homes and crops to prevent people from returning.
Many of these government initiatives have received international donor funding. In 2013, an Anuak man sued the UK government on behalf of the Anuak community in Ethiopia, arguing that UK development aid funds had been used to perpetrate human rights abuses against Anuak people. Under massive pressure both the UK’s development agency, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO, formerly DfID), and the US government have in recent years implemented policy changes in relation to their development funding in Ethiopia, especially in relation to the Gambella and the human rights of indigenous peoples. However, overall funding commitments remained unchanged, and victims remain displaced.
Updated January 2018.