Uncaring Addis fuels Gambella’s cutthroat communal contest

Uncaring Addis fuels Gambella’s cutthroat communal contest

Pugnido 2 refugee camp in Anywaa Zone; 6 February 2021; Okello Miru To improve Anywaa-Nuer relations, development must be devised locally.

(Ethiopia-Insight) — There is a fish that Anywaa people in Gambella call the okuura. It is tasteless and requires a lot of salt to eat. Because of this, it does not cost much.

“The price of the life of an Anywaa person is as cheap as the price of okuura,” an old tobacco seller told me matter-of-factly at the market in Pugnido town. It was a sweltering day in February, and I was on my way to visit Gambella’s longest-running refugee camp located in Anywaa Zone.

As an Anywaa Gambellan myself, bleak sentiments like this are not new to me, as for a long time the community has suffered regional displacement and national marginalization. They do, however, represent a return to despair just three years after the promise of Abiy Ahmed’s ascendency.

Among much of Gambella’s political class, the disbanding of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was celebrated. Under the EPRDF, primary attention was paid to its four member-regions, while Gambella was among those states whose ruling party was merely affiliated with the coalition.

When Prime Minister Abiy first visited the westerly region in May 2018, a month after taking office, people in Gambella sensed that they might finally be recognized; their concerns given weight at the national level. That hope rose when the Prosperity Party was created in 2019 through merging the Gambella People’s Democratic Movement and seven other regional ruling parties.

Three years later, promises have been broken and hopes for meaningful participation dashed, as Gambella remains a backdrop concern to powerful actors engaged in higher-order dramas.

Meanwhile, serious local problems endure, unaddressed.

One of the chronic issues is the complex and sensitive issue of refugees in what is a low-lying region that has a relative abundance of land and water. And though significant national—and even international—attention has been given to refugees in Gambella, policy decisions are made without sufficient community consultation or consent.

Despite Gambella being relatively sparsely populated, for the Anywaa and Nuer struggling to co-exist, a sense of scarcity—of recognition, power, and opportunities—creates a zero-sum game with the region’s two dominant communities pitted against each other.

With elections upon us, decision-makers in the region must focus on how to increase opportunities for all communities, so as to break a long cycle of mutual recrimination. Local people must finally devise and implement solutions for long-standing sources of tension between the Nuer and the Anywaa.

Chasing cash

Fatefully affixed along the porous South Sudan border, Gambella hosts almost half of the nearly 900,000 refugees residing in Ethiopia. In January 2019, to international acclaim, Ethiopia’s parliament amended its 2004 Refugee Proclamation.

The new law, in line with the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted in 2016 by the 193 member states of the United Nations, takes advantage of significant funds for hosting refugees. A worthy idea, especially for European nations aiming to reduce asylum claims amid a nationalist right-wing backlash.

Approved at a time when Europe was feeling the strains of what was being dubbed a “global refugee crisis”—caused in part by the wars in Syria and Libya, and in other parts by gaping gulfs in living standards between Europe and its former colonies—donors pledged assistance to integrate refugees closer to their home countries.

Building on an Out-of-Camp Scheme for some Eritreans in Ethiopia, all refugees in Ethiopia were, on paper, granted the right to settle anywhere in the country, obtain work permits, the ability to receive a government education, register births, marriages, and deaths, and some access to land and financial services.

After the fanfare over the new law, aid was earmarked for industrial parks that were supposed to provide 100,000 jobs; 30 percent of those were promised to be made available for refugees.

In June 2018, the World Bank pledged $202 million to Ethiopia under its Economic Opportunities Program to support efforts to provide jobs for Ethiopians and for refugees. The UK pledged £80 million for the same program. The European Union offered €50 million and the European Investment Bank lent €200 million.

For the Ethiopian government, promising to integrate some of its nearly one million refugees meant serious money—money which could be used with relative flexibility. But, in reality, the proportion of refugees employed at industrial parks is closer to 0 percent than 30, and the new federal proclamation has not been followed by policies, directives, and regulations on implementation, especially at the regional and local level, in spite of aid received.

Furthermore, despite its large refugee headcount, Gambella was not picked as a location for industrial parks. The region is also not home to any of a new batch of agro-industrial parks, despite its fertile lands.

It’s estimated that more than two million Ethiopians enter the labor market each year, many of them desperate for any kind of work. In Gambella, competition for limited labor opportunities is related to inter-communal strife. That is primarily because tension between refugees and nationals in Gambella, and particularly between the Anywaa and Nuer community—many of whom have arrived in recent years from war-torn South Sudan—remains high.

My land, your land

I squatted in the shade of a small hut and struck up a conversation with its elderly owner, who spoke of cheap fish with stewing fury, while we hid from the hot market-day sun.

Here in the Gog district, in spite of the reformed laws which, in principle, permit free movement of refugees, officials have, until recently, forbidden refugees to come to Pugnido town and its market since last year.

This seemed counterintuitive for business, as an increase in customers would mean more revenue for sellers like Nyaak Ongwach. I questioned the decision.

“Don’t you see the people of Akobo?” Mr. Nyaak asked me.

Located on the other side of Akobo River, South Sudan Akobo, commonly known as Chiro to the Anywaa, was actually fresh in my mind. A story I had heard recently from a young man named John during my travels had stuck with me.

I met John seated with two others outside of a souk along the Pinyudo-Gog road. I struck up a conversation with the men to hear their thoughts about the host community and refugee relationships. John responded to my questions by narrating a disturbing story.

John had fled from Gog Dipach, a kebele in Gog Wereda, to South Sudan in April 2012. He felt forced to leave the country after a brutal crackdown on Anywaa youth by federal soldiers following the killing of some workers for a Saudi Star Agricultural Development sub-contractor that month.

Saudi Star, owned by Ethiopian-born Saudi billionaire Mohamed al-Amoudi, was marked by controversy from the get-go due to, in part, poor coordination between government, investors, and the local community. With the recent revitalization efforts, the rice farm may provide youth with employment, as should be expected from such large-scale agricultural projects using the region’s plentiful resources.

A year after his undesirable exile in South Sudan, John decided to come back home to Gambella in 2013, passing through South Sudan Akobo.

Anuak women selling maize flour and Nuer refugee women selling bundles of grass and firewood in Pugnido market; February 2021; Okello Miru

He described having mixed feelings when he arrived. Located along the river, the town was as familiar to John as it is for any Anywaas. It was in South Sudan Akobo that the first missionaries who came to Anywaa land arrived to start their work—well-known men like Don Mcclure and Harvey Hoekstra, the first person to translate the Bible into Anywaa language.

The first educated Anywaas, men like Professor Anade, Joseph Oteo, Cham Adhoom and Simon Mori, are all from there. The history of great Anywaa men like these inspires strong emotional attachment for our people, who see Akobo-Chiro as ancestral land—inhabited now primarily by agro-pastoralist Nuers.

Shortly after he arrived, John said that a Nuer man fell into the Akobo river and drowned, apparently intoxicated. The following day, a member of the Nuer community came to the Anywaa with the accusation that they had murdered the man. Fearing a fight, John hastened his journey home.

When he reached Gambella town, John heard the news that the Nuer had attacked the Anywaa as retribution. Twenty-five people were reported dead, and many others ended up in Pugnido as refugees. Fighting spread along the river and across the border.

In 2015, another conflict broke out between Nuer and Anywaa members of the regional special forces in Ethiopian Akobo. Many people died on both sides, and more Anywaas fled to Pugnido, where they settled between the town and Akachi village and have since been living as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). Some of those who settled in the refugee camp later decided to join the IDPs due to clashes in the camp between the two groups.

These were the people of Akobo that Nyaak Ongwach now referred to: displaced Anywaas who had been forced from ancestral lands nearly a decade ago through processes of targeted violence. Expressing a prevailing suspicion that many Anywaas sadly have for the Nuer, Nyaak proclaimed “they [the Nuer] want to live in our land, but don’t want us in it.”

Problematic yet pervasive convictions like these have a long history and are reaffirmed by ongoing contentious interactions between Nuers and Anywaas. Without addressing underlying concerns over land, resources, and two-sided prejudices, it’s not hard to see how refugee policies that Anywaas perceive to favor Nuers perpetuate conflict.

One hundred years of history

Gambella became part of the Ethiopian empire at the end of the 19th century. From 1902, the British ran the town as a bustling port for its colony in Sudan. When Sudan achieved independence in 1956, Gambella returned to Ethiopian administration.

According to Ethiopian anthropologist Dereje Feyissa, the Anywaa-Nuer conflict dates back to the second half of the 19th century when mostly Jikany Nuers migrated east from southern Sudan. The main driver, he wrote, was access to and control over natural resources, including cropland and pasture along the tributaries of the Sobat River. Anywaas are predominantly cultivators, while Nuers require roaming space for livestock.

More recently, political power struggles at the regional level have exacerbated problems, as has the fluidity of borders. That is the case for Anywaas at, for example, Pochalla, but particularly for Nuers, who often have ties on both sides. Researchers have identified that cross-border Nuer networks involve “families, kinship groups, and the Nuer institution of cieng, forms of identity that carry far greater weight than that of national citizenship.”

The first and second Sudanese civil wars, fought between 1958-1972 and 1983-2005, radically altered demographics in the region. Historian Esei Kurimoto estimated, in a 1992 paper, that around 300,000 Sudanese migrated to Gambella over the course of the 1980s—a decade when Ethiopia’s military government also moved tens of thousands of highlanders to Gambella as part of its ill-conceived and coercive resettlement program. Some Nuers registered as refugees; others simply settled along the Baro River.

Between 1986 and 1988, three camps—Itang, Bonga and Pugnido—were opened in Gambella. It did not take long for deadly violence to occur. For example, in September 1989, suspected Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fighters razed Pugnido village to the ground, Kurimoto writes. Four days later, another deadly fight erupted between an Anywaa militia and the Nuer in Itang, 75 kilometers north.

In the Anywaa community, these incidents are part of a series, particularly just prior to the fall of the military regime in 1991, in which Nuer groups violently displaced Anywaas from land that they had lived on for up to two centuries, whether in Ethiopian Akobo, the contested Itang area, inside Gambella town, or other locations.

After the Derg fell, the EPRDF government demarcated administrative boundaries according to ethno-linguistic settlement patterns in line with a 1995 multinational federalist constitution. The EPRDF inherited six weredas in Gambella that were soon made part of administrative zones 1 and 2.

In the late 1990s, Gambella was divided into three zones. The Anywaa Zone (split into five weredas) and the Nuer Zone (also with five weredas) were created. The other zone was for the Majang people, who live in the east of the region towards Oromia and have also suffered marginalization and repression.

The restructuring was part of an attempt to share power in the region between the two main groups whose fortunes had shifted over previous decades in line with national and regional trends. Broadly, the imperial regime had favored the Anywaa, who it funded to fight Khartoum during the first Sudanese civil war. In response, the Derg promoted Nuers to administer Gambella in the 1980s, while the EPRDF swung the other way after taking power and cultivating their allies from the local Anywaa elites, before trying to rebalance the approach.

In 1998, the EPRDF heavy-handedly merged the Anywaa’s Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM), and the Nuer’s Gambella People Democratic Unity Party (GPDUP) into a single party: the Gambella People Democratic Front (GPDF). Resenting the merger, Anywaa elites chose to establish the Gambella People Democratic Congress (GPDC), which challenged GPDF in the 2000 regional election. Despite gains in Anywaa areas, and amid accusations of election rigging, GPDC ended up with only marginal representation in Gambella State Council.

Subsequently, the proportion of Nuer in the council rose further after their role in the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war, contributing to Nuer-Anywaa conflict in 2002, Dereje explains.

On 13 December 2003, eight officials from Ethiopia’s refugee agency were killed by Anywaa gunmen, allegedly furious over a lack of consultation for a proposed new camp. The assassination triggered federal troops and allied local highlanders killing more than 400 locals over three days, almost all of them Anywaas, according to Human Rights Watch. Thousands fled, themselves becoming refugees in neighboring countries, and more centrally directed political party reorganization occurred.

Tit-for-tat and blood-for-blood became par for the course, as Nuers and Anywaas fought for control over arable land along the Baro river, a geographic border which for centuries was fluid with intercommunal crossings. The establishment of Itang Special Wereda was eventually finalized in 2007 as a supposed solution to territorial violence. The district has 23 kebeles; nine are majority Nuer, ethnic Opo reside in two, and twelve are mostly Anywaa.

Ojulu Obang, an exiled Gambella politician, told Anywaa reporter Agwa Gilo, also now abroad, that the creation of what became the special wereda was partly down to federal scheming.

He says that in 1997, when Okello Oman was regional president, Ojulu Obang and other Gambella politicians were summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office after a training session in Addis Ababa. Ojulo was promised the presidency and was instructed to give the Nuer five kebeles in the Itang area. Ojulu responded that the plan was actually for the Nuer who had fled fighting in Akobo to return there after peacemaking.

Ojulo still became acting president, but months later he and Okello Oman were jailed, and Okello Nyigelo became president. During his rule, Ojulu said, the Nuer raided Anywaa villages in Itang, killing people. The Anywaa fled, and the Nuer presence in Itang increased.

Across the border, Sudan’s civil war ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, culminating with South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Fighting, however, soon broke out again in the new country. By 2014, around 1,500 asylum seekers, almost all Nuer, were crossing into Gambella every day. More camps were built to hold them.

Seven years later, there are now seven camps in Gambella; four in the Anywaa Zone (Pugnido 1 and 2, Jewi and Okugo), and three in Itang (Kule, known to locals as Akula, Nguenyyiel and Tierkidi).

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that almost 370,000 refugees have arrived in Ethiopia from South Sudan, and Gambella hosts more than 340,000. Ethiopia’s last census in 2007 found that Gambella’s population of 307,000 comprised 65,000 Anywaa and 143,000 Nuer.

One hundred years of history makes it clear that the links for the Nuer to Gambella are long. For the Anywaa, however, the future feels increasingly uncertain.

The price of peace

Early last year, kebele leaders in the mostly Anywaa wereda of Gog unanimously called for Nuer refugees to be moved from their district. Partly referencing donor money, they asserted: “it is better that we stay poor and hopeful that our grandchildren will continue to live.” The Gog cabinet submitted their letter to Anywaa zonal and regional leaders demanding that refugees be settled elsewhere.

According to an official present at a meeting that addressed the matter, Gambella President Omod Ojulu Obub, an Anywaa like all presidents but one have been in the federal era, responded by saying that not even Prime Minister Abiy himself has the power to move the refugees. As a signatory of the international declaration, the Ethiopian government, he claimed, was trapped in its commitments.

In practice, refugee integration has been almost nonexistent, and new refugees are rarely allowed to settle outside of camps in Gambella. Still, the Gog district leaders were frustrated enough to take matters into their own hands. Against the will of the federal administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and UNHCR, they issued an order forbidding refugees from entering Pugnido town.

This January, Flippo Grandi, Head of UNHCR, visited Ethiopia. Before his arrival, regional leaders in Gambella and ARRA officials called a meeting in Gog. At the meeting, they posed just one question: do you like peace or not? People responded: yes, we like peace. If that is that case, the officials told them, refugees shall be free to come to town from now on, and if they have money then they are free to buy what they want from the market.

Back at the market, a seller told me that a Nuer refugee came and picked a fish weeks ago. The seller told him that the cost was 50 birr ($1.16), but the man did not have the money to pay. The two began to fight, as the man refused to put the fish down.

Things could have escalated, had community members not stepped in. In the end, a local chief who was present at the ARRA meeting paid to keep the peace: 50 birr for the price of the fish.

Anuak women selling maize flour, cabbage, and tomato in Pugnido market; February 2021; Okello Miru

Prosperity for whom?

On his first visit to Gambella in 2018, Abiy indicated that he had a sincere interest in engaging with local people. He welcomed back exiled Anywaa activists and held meetings with community leaders, where issues from infrastructure development to job creation were addressed. Refugee integration was discussed at length. Anywaa representatives argued that an increase in Nuer integration would heighten their anxiety and lead to more bloodshed.

Abiy’s promises pleased many Anywaas, who felt they would finally have a say in policies which impact them, an impression reinforced at a meeting with federal officials in Addis Ababa on 27 December 2018. But then the rumors came that Ethiopia would be promoting refugees living outside camps.

Shortly before the law’s passing, Gambella’s Ojulu Gilo pressed his fellow federal parliamentary members on the lack of discussion. He noted that only a couple meetings had been held in the region, with unsatisfactory answers given regarding how to manage conflict.

On 21 January 2019, leaders from an Anywaa youth group known as Dhaldim wrote a letter to Gambella town council saying they did not want the refugee bill implemented in their region. They declared that it was time for other regions to share the burden of being hosts.

That afternoon and throughout the next day, soldiers patrolled Gambella town. The refugee law passed, with near-universal praise outside of the region.

Beneath the smoke and mirrors of policies that remain unexecuted is real anger over insufficient consultation and fear of violence. For example, a Pugnido camp resident named David told me that in June 2020 gunmen attacked the refugees living at the furthest end of the camp leaving one person dead and one permanently paralyzed.

Stories like these—of which I heard many on my 12-day trip from Abobo to Dimma and from Abobo to Pugnido—illustrate the type of violence that has become normalized.

Treading water, far from the ground

The UN’s Grandi didn’t end up visiting Gambella on his latest trip this year; instead, he focused on the refugee crisis in Tigray where the federal government failed to protect Eritrean refugees after war broke out in November. In his parting remarks on 1 February, he proclaimed that: “Ethiopia is a country that has been quite exemplary in many aspects of refugee assistance… due to some very innovative policies inaugurated by this Government… both at the legislative level and the operational level.”

Abiy’s government might still win such praise, but in the Eritrea and South Sudan cases it is no longer always automatically recognizing asylum claims, and continuing conflict in Gambella should be a strong indication that the region is bearing too high a cost for the way policies have been devised and implemented.

The majority of individuals in high federal positions are not affected by the impact of hosting large numbers of refugees, so it is not a big issue at that level. The same applies for national political parties such as Prosperity Party or Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (often known as ‘Ezema’), who have no detailed suggestions for integrating refugees in Gambella or easing communal tensions. Integration policies are designed at the center, without involving those affected.

But with elections looming and tensions mounting, competing political parties would be wise to start treating Gambella as more than a backwater with people and problems as cheap as saltless fish. With sustained political attention on devising policies that boost opportunities, the region can reduce violence, and eventually realize its potential.

Integration and relocation

Indicating the continuing stark challenges, on 8 April, Médecins Sans Frontières said thousands of asylum seekers have been stuck for months in Pagak in appalling conditions in a reception center at the Gambella border town with South Sudan. Like others, these asylum seekers, who happen to all be Nuer from South Sudan and now number more than 10,000, need to be settled somewhere. But where?

Historical grievances and a marked demographic shift in favor of the Nuer over the Anywaa makes peaceful coexistence in Gambella between refugees and the host population difficult. However, in Benishangul-Gumuz, Somali, and Afar regions there is less tension between refugees and hosts, and even in Gambella displaced communities such as the Uduk, Nubia, and Shilluk generally have better relationships with the host community than Nuer arrivals.

Similarly, the Murle and Anywaa also live together more peacefully, in spite of some sporadic conflicts which are mainly a result of a lack of control on the flow of weapons and people across the border. Still, these clashes are far less entrenched and can be overcome through direct dialogue and by better securing the border.

The integration of Nuer refugees in Gambella, on the other hand, has implications for political representation. Ethiopia’s updated refugee law includes provisions that ARRA may arrange places for refugees and asylum-seekers to live, with the caveat that, “The arranged residence place shall be located at a reasonable distance from the border of the country of origin.”

Considering the stipulations, one option to resolve the strains on Gambellan society would be to relocate some of the refugees to other regions. Big cities like Addis Abeba should also be considered as an option, as greater opportunities for work are available. Of course, refugees tend to prefer to live in areas where they have a community—such as the Nuer Zone.

Nuer Zone home

According to the United Nations, nine out of ten arrivals in Gambella are Nuer. And yet, only two camps have been opened in the Nuer Zone, both of which were closed. In 2015, more than 50,000 refugees living in Nip Nip and Leitchuor, in the Nuer Zone, were relocated to upper lands, including Pugnido and Jewi camps, in the Anywaa Zone due to issues of health, sanitation, and repeated flooding during the rainy season. Most Nuer arrivals end up in the camps in Itang Special Wereda.

Since then, no camp has been opened in the Nuer Zone, for the same reasons. Still, the UN Refugee Agency’s Ethiopia Country Refugee Response Plan 2020-21 acknowledges that “Identifying land and the expansion of camps within areas inhabited by Ethiopian Nuer is essential”.

In a peace conference held in Gambella in August 2018, one Nuer representative stated that the cause of conflict is that refugee camps are in the Anywaa Zone. He questioned why the Nuer Zone is not considered instead. It is time for all the relevant authorities to reconsider this point.

Trust and transparency

Heads of regional governments hosting refugees are not part of key steering committees, which means their concerns are heard from intermediaries, whom locals lack trust in. An incident in March of this year, for example, illustrated that mistrust when Anywaas in Dimma suspected an individual from the Murle group of a murder; yet, ARRA ruled it a suicide. Amid local anger, a Murle man was killed. Generally, residents do not believe ARRA reports, which strains relations.

On the ground, local authorities are not involved in the management of refugees in Gambella. However, for example, when a refugee dies in the camp and the cause of the death is not identified, that is when ARRA officials will ask the local authority to find a solution.

In general, ARRA is seen to have dragged its feet on Ethiopia’s ‘out-of-camp’ approach as it benefits from the plentiful donor funds that flow in to provide education and health services in camps. The federal refugee agency therefore needs to be incentivized to assist with refugee integration in the community in order to overcome the bureaucratic inertia. Locals well-versed in Gambella’s dynamics should also be brought into ARRA’s leadership.

In spite of suspicion, local leaders are more solution-oriented than external organizations give them credit for. For example, Peter Uualgak, a member of the three-year-old Gambella-based civil society organization Dit Ni Teek (‘Life Matters’) told me that the problem is really just a few rogue individuals, who can be brought to book if the community exposes their activities, while community-based organizations can organize inter-communal dialogue to discuss issues.

Okuch Okello, the director of Gogkaboro, a Gambellan non-profit that promotes local farming, stresses that the problem is not refugees versus hosts, but the changing demographic balance and, for example, justified Anywaa concerns about discriminatory outcomes in civil service employment.

These local leaders, community members, and indeed the refugees themselves have good ideas on how to avoid conflicts and manage situations better. Unfortunately, they are rarely listened to by policymakers, despite being the most vital of all stakeholders. Rather than focusing only on the refugee issue, donors should talk to the regional government about Gambella’s broader needs.

Another useful way forward involves engaging and investing in civil organizations, including religious institutions with close integration within the camps. For example, Anywaa churches in Dimma have established a good relationship with the Murle by inviting them for trainings and church conferences and helping when there are problems such as death.

Activities like these that foster peaceful coexistence between refugees and the host community need more recognition and support.

Integrated development

Importantly, investing in jobs and development programs that directly benefit the host community would play a meaningful role in alleviating an acute sense of scarcity in a region that should be bountiful for its inhabitants.

The largely failed villagization campaign in the last decade was without the interests of local people at heart, but community-based villagization that frees land for medium-scale local commercial farmers could have much better results. Farmers with the capacity to rent tractors should be given the opportunity and credit to do so and each farmer could till around 15 to 20 hectares. Irrigation would be encouraged and subsidized.

Also, land made available by participatory villagization could be used for harvesting timber and planting mangoes on a large-scale like the one in Mender 8 and 9 in Abobo established by a Catholic charity. That successful project has been a source of income for locals.

Given the relative land availability in Gambella, large-scale commercial farming is possible as long as participants pay a market price to rent land and use water, pay all their due taxes, and do not get involved in illegally exporting charcoal by destroying forest, as some investors have done. Commercial agriculture investors should be subject to regulations so that they sell some part of their products locally to boost food availability and security, always prioritize the employment of local people, and use land which is not thick with native forest like Zeru Gebre Libanos.

Nuer refugee women selling bundles of grass in Pinyudo town; February 2021; Okello Miru

Investing in and revitalizing Gambella National Park, which is currently largely dormant, would also benefit the region by bringing tourism, jobs, and education around conservation. A stalled scheme for integrated land use and development in Gambella should be restarted. After all, the park is the destination for what is thought to be Africa’s second-largest annual animal migration, the journey of White-eared Kob from South Sudan.

Any and all solutions should consider youth unemployment as a central issue to address. In Gambella, many young people complain that even if they meet qualifications to work in various organizations—including those working with refugees—their names are rarely shortlisted for interviews. Though these organizations claim to be equal opportunity employers, these ‘credentials’ need to be better scrutinized by local authorities.

To provide more jobs, Gambella could also be made part of the government’s industrial development drive. Integrated agro-industrial parks are possible in the region as there are raw materials, suitable climatic conditions, ready buyers amongst the organizations assisting refugees, road construction is ongoing, and the power supply is improving.

While developing the economy for both the host community and the refugees, sustainability needs to be kept in mind. For example, bringing people together and telling them to form cooperatives has proven to be unproductive. Instead, empowering entrepreneurship and leveraging business and creativity will be more useful and produce better results.

When such policies are enacted, with community consultation, then the aspirational refugee law may well be welcomed by the people it impacts—not just by those signing cheques to Ethiopia’s federal government.

Whatever political party wins the upcoming election should be ready to support locally-led solutions. They should do this not because it will get them votes, but because peace and prosperity in Gambella is in the interest of Ethiopia as a whole—and because the price of life in the region should not be as cheap as the okuura.