deadly cross-border raid from South Sudan into Ethiopia’s western Gambella Region last Friday has left scores dead and prompted the Ethiopian government to declare two days of national mourning. Officially, the Ethiopian government says 13 villages were attacked, leaving 182 civilians dead along with 60 attackers.
Ethiopian authorities have blamed the attack on Murle gunmen and reported that the victims were Ethiopians belonging to the Nuer tribe, which straddles the border with South Sudan and is one of that country’s two largest tribes.
News reports have described the raid as ethnic fighting and as a cattle raid –– but it also represents a spillover of South Sudan’s broader crisis into Ethiopia. Radio Tamazuj today takes a look at some questions that remain outstanding after the raid:
1. Where did the attackers come from?
Villages affected by the raid are located in the Nuer-inhabited districts of Jikaw and Lare of the Gambella Region. This area does not directly border the Murle; in order to reach it from Murle territory, raiders would need to have passed through other Nuer or Anyuak districts of Gambella Region, possibly making use of passage through part of the Gambela National Park to ease the journey unnoticed.
Murle raiders are unlikely to have crossed the South Sudanese border directly from the west or north because to do so would have required them to have crossed through the Nuer-inhabited Akobo and Ulang counties, where they would not have been welcomed and potentially could have been resisted by the well-armed SPLA-IO.
The Anyuak and Nuer districts of Gambella, on the other hand, were reportedly less secure because Ethiopia’s government had recently withdrawn regional special police owing to inter-communal tensions within these forces in February. “No Ethiopian military or Federal Police have filled this vacuum,” reported one journalist account.
It is unclear where exactly the raiders crossed into Ethiopia, but according to a South Sudanese official from eastern Jonglei who is familiar with territory on both sides of the border, they would have had trouble crossing through Pochalla South because of conflict among Anyuak in that area. He said they could have crossed via Likuangole, the home area of the new Boma State governor Baba Medan. If this is true, it would mean that the raiders most likely crossed the Akobo River into Ethiopia somewhere between Pochalla town and Akobo town, an area lying closest to the Murle of Likuangole.
A good deal of planning and reconnaissance would have been necessary for a large group of attackers to make a journey of this kind through wilderness and crossing territory of at least two tribes to reach their target.
2. Who gave the attackers their weapons?
The raiders in the recent Gambella attack were armed with Kalashnikov rifles of good quality with plentiful ammunition. They also wore military-style uniforms and many were seen to have the same model of plastic white shoe. Pastoralist communities in South Sudan are known to commonly position such munitions, and uniforms are also not hard to come by, but the scale of this attack indicates that these attackers were unusually well-armed. Ammunition is frequently in short supply among community militias in South Sudan, so reports of plentiful ammunition are significant.
Hallelujah Lulie, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, told the Washington Post cattle rustling and kidnapping have long been common in the region but never on such a scale. “It is the magnitude of the attack we are still trying to understand. We still don’t have the full picture,” he said.
The provenance of the weapons used in the Gambella attack has not yet been determined. Some armed groups in South Sudan have secured weapons by capturing them from government forces, some have been supplied by outside actors, while others rely on weapons left over from previous conflicts. Additionally, a recent report by the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan points to a central role by certain security services in South Sudan in encouraging rather than curbing illicit flows of arms to civilians.
An attack on Pibor in February by armed gunmen from Likuangole, the home area of Boma State Governor Baba Medan, points to the possibility that this group has been recently rearmed. Supporters of the Cobra Faction, another armed group in the area, blame Baba’s militia for recent instability in the Pibor area and perceive him as a puppet of the Juba government whose support base among the Murle is limited to his home area of Likuangole only.
3. Are we sure the attackers were ‘Murle tribesmen’?
Most witness reports identify the attackers in the Gambella raid as Murle tribesmen. Distinctive Murle scarification seen on attackers slain in the raid corroborates these witness reports.
However, the Murle are not a single entity – there are several ethnic sub-divisions – and members of the tribe are serving in several different armed groups.
Meanwhile, some survivors also reported seeing corpses with the scarification unique to the ethnic Dinka among the slain attackers, according to at least two reports from journalists who interviewed survivors. If the survivor accounts are true and not rumor, this would be unusual because Murle and Dinka tribesmen have never been known to raid together, and because the Dinka do not share any border with Gambella. The New York Times reported that victims who related this “expressed surprise” at seeing gunmen from the two tribes together.
However, no photographs have been published to corroborate these reports.
4. How may people were killed and wounded in the attack?
The official civilian death toll from the Ethiopian government appears to be 182. In an address on Sunday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said 208 “mothers and children” were killed by Murle tribesman. However, the Ethiopia’s foreign affairs ministryclarified online that the 208 figure included those killed “last month,” and that 182 died remained the death toll for the April 15 attack. Ethiopia’s state media refers to 182 dead as it begins two days national mourning on Wednesday. The New York Times also initially quoted a “security affairs officer with the regional government,” Othow Okoth, with an estimate of 182 victims killed.
The Ethiopian government also claims its forces killed about 60 of the attackers, who abducted 102 children and over 2000 cattle.
The Gambella hospital received 80 wounded in the two days following the attack. Although wounded casualties typically outnumber those killed, this particular attack could prove an exception. Survivor accounts tell of surrounded villages, significantly outgunned, with attackers chasing villagers into the bush. In addition, the wide and remote area of the attack likely posed challenges for locating all the wounded.
5. Who is governing the area from which the attack was launched?
Until December last year, the homeland of the Murle tribe was governed by the Greater Pibor Area Administration under the terms of a 2013 peace deal between the national government and the Cobra Faction, an armed group of predominantly ethnic Murle led by David Yau Yau. The peace deal gave the Cobra Faction control of the Greater Pibor Area Administration and made the group’s leader the chief administrator of the area, a position equivalent by protocol to that of governor.
President Salva Kiir in a set of decrees in December 2015 removed Yau Yau, renamed the Greater Pibor Administrative Area ‘Boma State,’ effectively dissolved the entire existing administration of David Yau Yau, and appointed Baba Medan as governor of the newly designated state. Baba is a Murle but he was not a Cobra Faction member. Until his appointment, he had also been making his home in Bor, homeland of the Dinka Bor, not in Pibor. Some members of the Cobra Faction rejected the appointment of Baba as governor, considering it an abrogation of the peace deal, but Yau Yau accepted his removal and said he would wait for appointment to another position in the government.
This situation ultimately led to violence between Cobra Faction soldiers and Baba Medan’s supporters in Pibor in February this year, leading to the looting of the new state capital Pibor. Partly because of this, the new governor has yet to establish his administration in Pibor, and the area remains unstable. Thousands of people have fled from the town into the bush, many relief services have been suspended, and the area is suffering widespread hunger. “The area of Boma State is suffering from a government vacuum,” said Yau Yau in an interview with Radio Tamazuj on Monday.
With instability in Pibor and a dysfunctional government, areas bordering the Murle near to Ethiopia have also recently seen increased conflict. Jie and Murle communities in the Jebel Boma area of eastern Boma State clashed within the last week, leaving at least five people dead and thousands displaced, a local official told Radio Tamazuj on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in the Pochalla area to the north of Boma, and also bordering Ethiopia, the army’s military intelligence is reported to have taken a heavy hand in the affairs of the local government, arresting virtually the entire county administration last week. The attackers would have likely passed through Pochalla county to cross into Ethiopia.
Altogether, the security vacuum on both sides of the border presented an opportunity to a well-armed and well-organized group, and local insecurity driven by political power struggles has likely further militarized groups recently on the ground.
6. What was the motive for the raid?
Attackers took plunder in the form of cattle and abducted children and women, according to news reports. Promise of reward of this kind could have been enough to motivate rank-and-file fighters to take up arms and risk their lives on such a long-distance raid. But survivors also wonder at the brutality of the attack. “If they had come just to take our livestock, why all the killing?” Asked Bol Chuol, 26, whose child was kidnapped in the attack. “They kept following people and killing them even after they had all the cattle,” he added, as quoted by The New York Times.
“These kinds of raids have happened before, but never in so many villages like this,” said Gatbel Guek, 26, who suffered a fracture when a bullet hit his left arm.
The attack primarily targeted the Gajaak, a sub-group of the Jikany Nuer. The Jikany Nuer do not border the Murle. Raids between the Murle and neighboring Lou Nuer, however, are common and frequently very violent.
Ethiopian officials have denied that the attackers were connected to the South Sudanese government and have also downplayed the timing of the attack, which coincided with the planned travel of SPLM-IO Chairman Riek Machar to Gambella en route to Juba. Yesterday, however, SPLM-IO spokesman Mabior Garang said in a press statement that the security situation in the Gambella Region was “suspicious,” without elaborating further.
Pagak, the base of SPLM-IO, sits on the border with the Lare district, although it is not clear how close the attackers came to the Pagak area. Machar was to travel by road from Pagak through Lare district to Gambella to fly to Juba.
Victims of the raid openly wondered “whether South Sudan’s government had sanctioned the killings,” according to the New York Times report, pointing to a political motive for the targeting of the Gambella Region. On the other hand, the vulnerability of the villages may have been reason enough for raiders from an impoverished area whose other neighbors are too well-armed to carry out attacks without fear of serious reprisals.
Survivors reported that some local militia from the targeted communities fought back, killing some of the attackers, but that the defenders were outgunned, since Ethiopian authorities don’t generally allow citizens to have weapons. A journalist who interviewed survivors also reported that some regional police and military guarding a road construction project nearby responded to the attack, but that there was no large-scale response operation in response to the attack.
7. What will happen if Ethiopia pursues the attackers?
Ethiopia’s government has vowed to pursue the attackers into South Sudan if necessary, possibly as part of a joint operation with South Sudan’s army. But this raises questions about whether and how the pursuers would be able to identify the actual perpetrators rather than targeting the Murle tribe indiscriminately for reprisals. Operating on unfamiliar ground, the Ethiopian military would be potentially vulnerable to false tip-offs and manipulation, dragging it into local conflict dynamics and score settling between national actors, especially if joint operations with the SPLA target ex-Cobra factions or other opponents of the Juba-appointed Governor Baba Medan.
The area is already heavily conflict-affected, with poor roads and communications infrastructure, magnifying the difficulty of working with civilian populations to identify the perpetrators of the Gambella raid. In previous conflicts with the Lou Nuer tribe of Jonglei and during the Cobra Faction war with the SPLA, Murle civilians fled from towns into rural areas, wilderness and swamps, avoiding contact with the military. Many are still displaced as a result of recent conflict in the area.