Dozens of people have been killed in the western Ethiopia region of Gambella during fighting between Nuer and Anuak groups that involved local security forces, an official said.
Weapons from neighboring South Sudan’s two-year civil war are contributing to the insecurity in Gambella, which is also hosting more than 280,000 mainly Nuer refugees from that nation, according to Okello Obang, administrator of Itang district. After a September murder in Itang, retaliatory violence spread in recent weeks and involved the razing of villages, Mr. Okello said by phone on Monday.
“A lot of people are expected to have died, but we don’t know the exact number,” he said. Central government spokesman Getachew Reda said by phone that at least 14 people died in fighting between Nuer and Anuak that took on an “ethnic dimension” and the situation is now under control.
Gambella, which has a history of low-intensity conflict, is divided into administrative zones run by the Anuak, Nuer and Mazenger communities, while Itang is a separate, ethnically mixed area. The sparsely populated federal region has been the focus of foreign and domestic agricultural investments since about 2010. Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc, an Ethiopian company owned by billionaire Mohamed al-Amoudi, is involved with a rice farm in Gambella.
The serious fighting that followed “petty quarrels” may be related to Anuak anxiety over the refugee influx and a perception that Nuer increasingly dominate the regional government, said Dereje Feyissa Dori, a federalism expert at Addis Ababa University.
The Anuak population was recorded as around 64,000 at the last census in 2007. South Sudanese political actors involved in a power struggle could be stoking ethnic tensions in Gambella, he said by phone from Addis Ababa on Monday. Efforts are being made to implement a power-sharing deal in South Sudan to end the predominantly Nuer rebellion that began in December 2013.
“It’s accumulating tension from Anuak grievances over perceived Nuer dominance in Gambella region, but also some cross-border dimensions,” Mr. Dereje said.
Mr. Getachew said the effect of South Sudan’s war couldn’t be ruled out, “but it would be a bit of a stretch to assume this was simply a result of the refugee crisis.”