Ethiopia is well known as a plateau country. Its cultural and political core areas have always been in the highlands. But Ethiopia also includes extensive lowlands, a legacy of the imperial conquests in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ethnic conflicts plague much of Ethiopia’s lowland fringe, as do tensions with the central government. One of the most troubled regions is Gambella, in far western Ethiopia along the border with Sudan.
Although relatively moist and fertile, Gambella is sparsely settled, with just 300,000 people in 25,800 square kilometers. Tropical diseases and frequent flooding have historically constrained agricultural development in the region. But Gambella’s population is now booming, due largely to migration from the highlands. As many as one in five residents may be former highlanders, mostly Amhara and Oromo.
Increasing population has brought escalating tensions. The two main indigenous ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Anuak, have been fighting over land. Although speaking closely related Nilotic languages, they traditionally follow different modes of life: for the Nuer, nomadic pastoralism; for the Anuak, sedentary cultivation. As is often true in the age-old conflict between herders and farmers, the former seem to have a military advantage.
The deeper ethnic conflicts in Gambella stem from domination by the highlands. Much of the upland plateau is densely populated and short of food. As a result, sparsely settled Gambella beckons. It has good soil and plenty of water, and also boasts tungsten, platinum, gold and oil deposits. Hostility between the indigenous inhabitants and highlander immigrants intensified in recent years. In 2004, after some 400 Anuak men were reportedly killed by the Ethiopian military, Genocide Watch placed the Anuaks on its list of potential victims. Violence seems to have subsided since then, but it has by no means disappeared.
Gambella’s agricultural potential has been noticed by the world market. Ethiopia has recently leased roughly one million hectares of farmland to foreign firms, and reportedly plans to lease another two million. In Gambella, Saudi Star Agricultural Company has taken over 10,000 hectares and is expected to add another 250,000, and the Indian company Karuti Global has leased 741,000 acres. The Ethiopian government’s desire for such deals is not difficult to understand; it is an impoverished country faced with chronic hunger, whose western lowlands could produce a great deal of food. But it is also not difficult to understand local opposition. As the Anuak exile Nyikaw Ochalla reported to the Anyuak Media news site on March 2, 2010, “These are secret deals between the government and the land grabbers, in particular the foreign investors. I very much doubt that the regional government is even aware of these deals. This land grab is something that is happening in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. There is no consultation with the indigenous population, who remain far away from the deals. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”