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The many conflicts within the Ethiopia-South Sudan transboundary conflict

Winnie Cirino and Selam Mulugeta
Kidnapping children, stealing cattle and killing afflict communities on the South Sudanese-Ethiopian border. It is hard for those struggling to survive to imagine a life without fear and suffering.
16.08.2022  |  Juba, South Sudan & Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Homesteads in the South Sudan-Ethiopia border region. (photo: The Niles / Winnie Cirino)
Homesteads in the South Sudan-Ethiopia border region. (photo: The Niles / Winnie Cirino)

Around 300,000 people reside along the 847-kilometre border between the Gambella region of Ethiopia and the Akobo region of South Sudan, often facing risks of violence.

Many different ethnic groups inhabit the Ethiopia-South Sudan border region, including the Anuak, Nuer, Komo, Oppo, and Murle, belonging to the Nilotic and para-Nilotic groups of people. Besides, other ethnic groups from different parts of Ethiopia and South Sudan also live along the border. The three largest ethnic groups in the borderland region – the Nuer, Anuak and Murle – are ethnically polarised.

Akobo and Gambella in the Eastern Nile sub-basin region are areas of high poverty and food insecurity. Approximately 85 percent of the population of Akobo is food insecure, and poverty is severe. High levels of violence interact with poverty, and a lack of resources produce dire results for civilians. According to the 2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO), Akobo has pockets of communities ranked at the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification System (IPC) Stage 5 – representing famine conditions.

Meanwhile, conflict over natural resources is a significant problem, exacerbating poverty. The two regions are very isolated with poor communications and scant provision of services, a situation that limits development.

Information obtained from the Gambella regional state indicates that violent cross-border conflicts have been escalating for over a decade now, with an average of 15 violent clashes registered every year. Atrocities committed in the area include kidnapping children, stealing cattle and killing.

In February, for example, a group of Murle gunmen from South Sudan raided the Dima refugee camp in the Gambella region of Ethiopia, killing one person and wounding two others. Data from the Ethiopian regional administration shows that between 2016 and 2021, Ethnic Murle were thought to have killed a total of 217 people, abducted 240 children,  stolen 2,530 cattle and burnt many villages.

Traditionally, the relationship between the Nuer and the Anyuak was formed in part by differing livelihood sources. The Nuer are mobile pastoralists and depend heavily on cattle. In contrast, the Anyuak have mixed livelihoods sources, relying on agriculture and cultivation as well as livestock.

The Nuer have expanded their influence and geographical reach in both South Sudan and Ethiopia; areas that were previously predominantly Anyuak are now predominantly Nuer. This has resulted in instances of violence. In March 2015, Anyuak attackers burned down Nuer houses in Gambella. Tensions between Nuer and Anyuak have, however, until now, remained restricted, and the scale of violence has been relatively limited.

Illegal arms trafficking, money laundering and uncontrolled border trade are additional security problems in the region that have increased over the past three years.


Stealing cattle, kidnapping children

The cross-border conflict in the Ethiopia-South Sudan border area has been seasonal. As many of these communities are pastoralists, disputes are often ignited over grazing lands and access to water points, especially during the dry seasons.

The trend of kidnapping children and stealing cattle can be blamed on both cultural and economic factors, according to Agetu Adig, press secretary of Gambella regional state. For example, according to prevailing traditions of some ethnic groups, whenever a man is ready for marriage, he should demonstrate his bravery by kidnapping children or stealing cattle from another ethnic group.

A child is worth more than the price of thousands of cattle.

Agetu also saw economic reasons as underpinning the current conflicts. Poverty results from competition and environmental pressure and shocks, including floods and droughts.

According to a 2021 study by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), cattle raids are conducted by youth so they can sustain themselves and their families. From a livelihoods perspective, cattle are critical to the survival not only of pastoralists but also agro-pastoralists.

People also measure economic gains by the number of cattle a person owns. After all, livestock represents sources of income, food, and prestige for them. The Ethiopian government has frequently condemned the cattle raids and demanded the release of kidnapped children through mediation efforts with local government officials of both countries. Its efforts failed, and the Ethiopian government resorted to using defence forces to return 109 children out of 161 children.

Currently, there are frequent attempts to kidnap children in the area, said Agetu Bader, press secretary of the Gambella region. “After the kidnapping, they are often sold. The price of a child is worth more than the price of thousands of cattle,” he added.


Weak border protection means more violence in Ethiopia

The situation remains highly volatile, security is scant, and most of Ethiopia’s borderland remains unprotected. This has created opportunities for criminal actors to move freely back and forth across the border.

Ethiopia’s Gambella State is one of the country’s least developed regions. Frequent clashes in the area damage existing infrastructure while the ongoing risk of violence slows economic activities. Such factors have made life and farming unstable for local inhabitants.

Gnega Lo is a resident of Gambella. She is one of the mothers whose children were returned after being kidnapped by the Murle people for months. She says, “because of the frequent violent clashes happening in the area, I cannot lead a stable life”.

The press secretary for the region outlines the heavy burden of those living with everyday risk: “Frequent cross-border conflicts have exerted a negative psychological impact on the communities living in the area. Their life is being threatened because conflicts are inevitable. They feel like they are waiting for their death.”

Dr. Samuel Tafesse, a researcher on peace and security from Addis Ababa University, said prolonged instability in the area would create a safe haven for illegal arms traffickers to operate freely. “Downplaying the existing cross-border conflict along the Ethiopia-South Sudan border will dismantle not only the national security of the country but also the security of the entire East Africa region,” he said. “Ethiopia and South Sudan are in a geo-politically strategic region in Eastern and Central Africa. Ensuring the peace and security of these countries means ensuring the entire region’s stability.”

According to information from the Gambella region peace and security bureau, illegal arms traffickers made several attempts to transport arms to central Ethiopia from this region over the past few months.

Since the current government of Ethiopia came to power in 2018, several opposition armed groups have been created in different parts of the country to try to topple the regime. The Gambella region is one of the areas where different armed groups operate. These include the Benishangul Liberation Front (BLF), one of the armed groups operating in Benshangul Gumuz, where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is under construction.

In addition, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), referred to as a terrorist organisation by the Ethiopian parliament, is fighting in areas close to the Ethiopia-South Sudan border. “Many of the border areas have remained in the hands of anti-government forces. The area is suitable for them to access arms, money laundering, and also to migrate to other countries,” says Dr. Tafesse.

Because Ethiopia could not solve its political differences through dialogue, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). After over 16 months, fighting has slowed, but Ethiopians are bitterly divided, and their country is wracked by suffering.

Besides the war in the northern region of Ethiopia, “Al-Shabab from Somalia are penetrating the centre of the country”, says Dr. Tafesse, adding that there are also violent clashes in the country’s border regions with Kenya, South Sudan and Sudan.


Violent conflicts also rife on the South Sudanese side

Since 2013, only two years following independence from Sudan, South Sudan has been in a state of civil war organised initially between supporters of President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar. While a brief period of peace was reached in 2016, the agreement ended with violence in the capital. While a power-sharing deal was once again signed in 2018, the results have been insufficient to quell longstanding inter-communal grievances and tensions that are only exacerbated by ongoing tension in Juba and the failure to integrate smaller rebel groups into the peace process.

As a result of the weak presence of the South Sudanese state and its inability to provide security to local populations, violent conflict has continued and generated a severe protection crisis affecting 8.3 million people, with humanitarian conditions being characterised as ‘catastrophic’ or ‘severe’ across much of the country according to the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The conflict in Ethiopia seems to have also indirectly weakened the implementation of a peace deal in neighbouring South Sudan.

They feel like they are waiting for their death.

The Ethiopia-South Sudan borderlands are beyond the reach of the South Sudanese government in Juba. Akobo County, as a predominantly Nuer area, is less directly affected by national dynamics.

It is firmly aligned with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) and South Sudan’s First Vice President, Riek Machar. But, according to the press secretary of the Gambella region, the SPLM/A-IO cause frequent conflicts along the borders with neighbouring countries.

Inter-ethnic violence between the Lou Nuer and the Murle, or the Lou Nuer and Anyuak, and intra-ethnic conflict between the Lou Nuer and the Jikany Nuer is commonplace. Underpinned by a perception of cultural and ethnic difference, these violent conflicts are driven by resource competition, for example, over water and conflict over grazing land and cattle.

Access to water and pastures, for example, is central for local communities in Jonglei State, and the Lou Nuer are at a geographical disadvantage. Living in a water-poor area, they are forced to move into the territories of other groups during the dry season, which can give both pretext and opportunity for conflicts over shared resources and cattle raiding. Over the past 30 years, this dynamic has been amplified by progressive warming and prolonged dry seasons in South Sudan, frequently bringing the Lou Nuer close to the Murle.

Movement between Akobo in South Sudan and Gambella in Ethiopia is an everyday occurrence, with most people travelling daily between the two countries. Manas James, a 26-year-old from Akobo, explained how the conflicts impact people living amid the uncertainty. The threat of violence disrupts cross border movement and, as a result, local livelihoods. “You are from a certain ethnic group, and you can’t cross to the other side because you could get yourself killed. People cannot move freely,” James explained. “When there is fear, then businesses cannot flourish.”

Jay Adingor Alual, the Minister for Information, Culture, Youth and Sports in the Pibor Administrative Area, said that with a distance of 265 kilometres from Juba to Pibor, locals rarely source commodities from Juba. Instead, Ethiopia is their nearest market. But when violence erupts, borders are closed, meaning that locals lack access to essential goods.

Kang Yech is the former Deputy Town Mayor of Akobo. He underscored that many manage to coexist peacefully, saying that when their area is flooded, the community crosses to Gambella and settles for about three months, only returning when the water level has reduced. But he, too, fears the consequences of conflicts along the border. He blamed insecurities at the border on a lack of basic services and absent support from the government. He described the root causes as economic: “If a community person has a farm, he will not disturb another person because he has food, but right now, people are not farming because there are no seeds.”


Unlocking cross-border opportunities

Transboundary cooperation is key to transforming the multitude of conflicts and their underlying causes. Ethiopia and South Sudan had already agreed to implement several joint economic development programmes disrupted mainly by violent conflict in both countries and lacking financial resources. In 2017 both nations signed several agreements to strengthen cooperation on security, trade, and development along the borders. Part of these agreements was the plan to construct roads linking Gambella to Paluoch through Pagak. The construction of another road that would connect Ethiopia’s Dima to Jonglei’s capital Bor was also part of the plan.

Such infrastructure projects are urgently needed to start up large scale livelihood activities targeting the youth. Poverty and conflict interact to generate a negative spiral in the Akobo-Gambella region. Poverty and hunger are among the reasons why youth conduct cattle raids, and fear of retaliation curtails farming and income generation opportunities. At the same time, boys experience continual pressure to earn money to pay dowry and get a bride, which is a minimum requirement for social respectability.

To break the cycle of local and cross-border violent conflict, the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO), one of the three centres of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), conducted the BARO-AKOBO-SOBAT (BAS) Multipurpose Water Resource Development Study Project (BAS-MWRDS) and published its findings already in July 2017.

Ethiopia and South Sudan have a common responsibility.

The Akobo-Gambella floodplains transboundary development programme is one of the three short-term projects proposed as part of the BAS-MWRDS. The three short-term projects are based on the sustainable development of water resources.

They aim at providing inter-sectoral benefits and improving people’s livelihoods in the sub-basin. The Akobo-Gambella programme is designed around solar pumping and the provision of water for various uses – potable water supply, sanitation, livestock watering, capture fisheries, aquaculture, small scale irrigation and capacity building.

“The main purpose of the programme was defined by the key stakeholders of the Baro-Akobo-Sobat sub-basin during the baseline workshop held in Adama in April 2016. The programme should help reduce transboundary conflicts associated with water, improve food security and lead to improved livelihoods,” the study highlights. Once implemented, the programme is expected to support economic development and opportunities for livelihood enhancement to support a generalised reduction in violent conflict and poverty and enable communities to become increasingly self-reliant.

Since the study was published, little progress has been made with both countries entangled in internal struggles. But in April, James Pitia Morgan, Ambassador Extraordinary, Plenipotentiary to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative of South Sudan to the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) told the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) that Ethiopia and South Sudan should revive opportunities for new heights. “Ethiopia and South Sudan have a common responsibility to ascertain the political, security, stability and peace in the Horn of Africa and also maintain economic development of the two countries, promoting economic integration in the Horn of Africa,” he said.

This article is part of:
Trouble Don’t Last Always.


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