By Zecharias Zelalem
Just three days away from the first year anniversary of the massacre of twenty eight Ethiopians at the hands of a Daesh affiliated sect in Libya, the nation has been brought to her knees in fresh mourning yet again. In what sounds eerily similar to the recounts of mass killings committed against Bosniaks in Srebrenica and Tutsis in Rwanda, hundreds of ethnic Nuer Ethiopian civilians were slaughtered by what the Ethiopian government has described as rogue bandits who crossed the border from South Sudan. The death toll ranges from as low as 140 according to government estimates, to as high as 170 as reported by the France based Sudanese website Sudan Tribune. Despite the lack of images and on the ground reporting, the ghastly depictions of hundreds of defenseless women and children being killed at whim by a gang of blood thirsty marauding terrorists has plunged the Ethiopian nation into mourning, as we continue to ask the poignant questions that are never served with a satisfying answer: why always us?
As thousands of Nuer, survivors, friends and relatives of the dead, devastated beyond belief try to pick up the shattered remains of their lives, an entire nation is beside them in disbelief, shock, sadness and heartache. Of all the people, those who are the farthest from the firing line, farthest from the battlefields, farthest from the political drawing boards, women and children just partaking in the daily tasks that make them a crucial part of the family unit and community structure, were mercilessly cut down for reasons they have no control over. Like only oh too often, it has left us flabbergasted and crying for divine justice.
But while the tragedy that has befallen our fellow citizens has left us all distraught, for those of us, frustrated and searching for answers as to how such an attack on our own soil can take place, it takes a mere analyzing of the different accounts of the story to realise that what has transpired goes beyond glaring failures on the part of our security forces, our intelligence. It’s almost scripted in a sense. The drama behind the scenes may be too ugly to fathom.
To better analyse the horrors that took place, it’s best to gather as much facts from what we have heard and what we as Ethiopians would know. Al Jazeera, BBC, Russia Today and a host of international media outlets started covering the story a little less than twenty four hours ago. They have all described it as a massacre of civilians that took place in “Jikawa Ethiopia.”
The correct spelling is “Jikawo.” Jikawo is a woreda in the Nuer zone of Gambella state. According to the government’s Central Statistic Agency, a community of some thirty thousand people inhabit the forest and grasslands of Jikawo, living off of livestock and agricultural means. Jikawo is located a mere 15 kilometers from the extremely porous border with South Sudan, which means the perpetrators of the massacre could easily have been scouting their targeted victims from nearby for days or even weeks before crossing the border and unleashing their most primal instincts. One might argue that it was impossible to react and prevent the attack due to the proximity of the South Sudanese border. The attackers could swiftly return to the relative safety of internationally drawn lines before Ethiopian forces arrive in the area.
But before international media got a hold of the story, it was the Paris based Sudan Tribune website which initially broke the story with a much more detailed course of events. They managed to speak to a survivor who gave a chilling account of the bloodbath. According to the Sudan Tribune, the massacre started on Friday the 15th of April in what was a peaceful morning abruptly changed to one of terror and bloodshed when “thousands” of heavily armed men, most of them in South Sudan army uniforms crossed the border and started to indiscriminately attack villagers. The report doesn’t specifically describe the type of armaments used to commit the murders, but a witness told the Sudan Tribune that fighters had rocket propelled grenades in their arsenal. The South Sudanese attackers retreated sometime in the afternoon. State owned Radio Fana reported that the Ethiopian army arrived on the scene and managed to kill sixty of the attackers. Ethiopia’s Communication Affairs Minister Getachew Reda added that in addition to the army’s counter attack that resulted in the “bandits” running for their lives and retreating into South Sudan, the army may launch an offensive in South Sudan to punish the perpetrators.
But according to the Sudan Tribune, it wasn’t Ethiopian army operations that sent the murderers running. The attackers were hardly “bandits.” They were a highly organised military unit and members of the South Sudanese Murle tribe. After hours of killing, they finally met opposition not from the national army but from neighbouring villagers of the Cieng Nyajani clan. These fellow Ethiopians killed up to fifty of the attackers as they tried to return with over “600 heads of cattle.” The Ethiopians couldn’t prevent the kidnapping of girls and women, 32 in all according to Ethiopian state television.
Communication Affairs Minister Getachew Reda’s account is full of holes and leaves us with even more unanswered questions. If there was really an Ethiopian army operation launched to fend off the attack, how could they arrive so late, approximately six to nine hours after the killing commenced despite the presence of nearby military bases in Gambella state? How could they let the bulk of the self defense and rescue operation be shouldered by a local militia? With the common knowledge that the South Sudanese government is incapable of controlling its borders and that the country is teeming with armed groups and tribal militias, how could Ethiopia not have a sizable security force at the border keeping watch over our citizens? Were the country’s security officials content with gambling with the lives of people living near and around the border? How on earth were Ethiopia’s intelligence forces, so often the heroes in state television documentaries not able to pick up the movements of THOUSANDS of heavily armed invaders moving at full steam in the direction of our border?
The Ethiopian army has long been known for its expertise in fending off cross border attacks and security threats. Al Shabab and the short lived Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) group have tried on countless occasions to gain access to a third fighting front, one on Ethiopian soil. Somali armed groups regularly defile Kenyan sovereignty and commit murders and even execute kidnappings of Kenyan diplomats, civilians and security personnel. Al Shabab have never attempted to engineer a raid into Ethiopia’s Somali state without being met at the border by Ethiopian security forces and taking heavy casualties. Intelligence tends to stay a step ahead of them, despite their constant threat, their seemingly endless source of funds and foreign fighters and their control of vast swathes of Somalia’s countryside. According to a 2011 UN Security Council report focusing on East Africa, in 2010, over two hundred armed members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) a group fighting for the secession of the Somali State from Ethiopia, made an attempt at illegally entering the country. Travelling from Eritrea, the group named the “Alanside force” entered Somaliland from Djibouti before making a run for the Ethiopian border. The BBC would later report that 123 of them were killed by Ethiopian border troops while another 90 were surrounded. The UN Security Council report team was able to interview 76 members of the defeated group.
One occasion where Ethiopia was unable to prevent a costly border infringement was the 2012 Ertale Afar attack by ARDUF Afar rebels. The rebels killed five western tourists and kidnapped two Germans and two Ethiopians before fleeing towards the Eritrean border. Still, two months later, the Ethiopian military exacted revenge, attacking and destroying three ARDUF bases within Eritrea. The group have been unable to regroup since then. The four hostages would be released later that year.
For the most part, these incidents highlight the Ethiopian army’s efficiency at decimating armed militant groups approaching Ethiopian soil with nefarious intentions. So how exactly would this army be HOURS late in responding to an incursion of thousands of armed fighters advancing past the border and 15 kilometers deep into the country? Something doesn’t add up here.
Now let’s take a closer look at the Murle tribal army who by all accounts committed the massacre. In the last decade, about a dozen massacres of fellow South Sudanese citizens have been accredited to Murle tribal armies, mostly committed over longstanding ethnic grudges and stolen cattle. In 2011, the governer of South Sudan’s Jonglei state Kuol Manyang told the BBC that up to 600 South Sudanese Nuer had been butchered in a Murle tribal army cattle raid. Two years prior in 2009, armed Murle men were blamed for a massacre of 350 mostly elderly women and children of South Sudanese Nuer descent in the Akobo County. If anything, Murle tribal cattle rustlers have long proven to be a menace to the security of the entire region and more of a threat to East Africa than Al Shabab and Daesh combined. Since the Murle militias have yet to kill or kidnap any tourists or westerners, it’s unlikely that their rampages will ever get the sort of hype and publicity that terrorism committed by groups in the Middle East tend to receive. But statistically speaking, these Murle cattle thieves have killed and maimed on a much larger scale than anything committed by non state parties in Iraq or Syria.
When South Sudan and Sudan signed the UN sponsored civil war ending treaty in 2005, President Salva Kiir embarked on a campaign to disarm the civilian population, as according to his belief, the South Sudanese nation wasn’t at war with itself. According to a communiqué by the Nuer White Army rebel group released in 2012, this campaign only further emboldened the Murle. Salva Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), had poor representation of the ethnic Murle in its ranks throughout its struggle. This was an underlying source of friction between the Murle people and the SPLM that the Kiir government seemed to downplay. According to the Nuer White Army, while the peoples of the Nuer, Anyuak and Dinka communities in Jonglei State willingly disarmed, the SPLM failed to disarm the Murle population. For years afterwards, the people neighbouring the Murle were left as defenseless sitting ducks every time a Murle raiding party came their way. And so often, hundreds of people at a time would be killed in cold blood.
In recent years, the Murle have become more and more militarized as a result of South Sudan’s internal politics getting more and more destructive. After a falling out with the government over power sharing, Murle politician David Yau Yau decided to create an armed rebellion and started the South Sudanese Democratic Movement (SSDM) Cobra Faction. Portraying itself as a pro democracy movement, the Cobra Faction committed massacres against the Nuer and Dinka peoples of the region. Cobra Faction of Murle rebels were now stronger than before, with arms and funds coming from North Sudan. David Yau Yau, eventually signed a peace agreement and rejoined the government. But that didn’t stop the warring Murle from continuing with their existence of mayhem.
Because in February 2015, the Murle faction of the SSDM rejected any talk of a peace treaty, and declared its loyalty to opposition forces controlled by Riek Machar.
This is where Ethiopia comes in.
Machar has long provoked the ire of Ethiopian politicians even before he allegedly pushed an exasperated Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to threaten to arrest both him and Salva Kiir in Addis Ababa if both refused to sign a peace deal in 2014. Machar, who is on the verge of a planned return to Juba, is supposed to rejoin the Kiir government in a power sharing deal. But he is a shady character that Addis Ababa understandably, doesn’t trust. His rebellion against Kiir put him in contact with leaderships in Eritrea and Egypt. A Wikileaks cable dated 2011 talks of the Saudi and Egyptian governments’ attempts at planning Kiir’s assassination. Some three years later in 2014, the son of the late John Garang was arrested in Addis Ababa, armed and planning on assassinating Salva Kiir who was also in Addis. Machar was suspected of being complicit in that plot.
A trip to Cairo in February of this year may have been seen as Machar and his sponsoring allies setting up an agenda ahead of the planned setting up of the transitional government. Riek Machar is most likely back in Juba to further his faction’s interests and since the August 2016 peace deal involves Machar arriving in Juba accompanied by some 1600 of his rebel forces, there’s the real possibility that he’s still seeking Salva Kiir’s downfall with the help of foreign power players.
Despite being renounced by rebels who oppose his signing a peace deal with Kiir, Ethiopia can and may decide to hold him accountable for yesterday’s Jikawo massacre. With the reports of the killers of hundreds of Ethiopians wearing South Sudanese uniforms and RPG wielding fighters, it’s highly likely that the massacre was committed by the Murle faction of the Machar allied SSDM.
If this is the case, then the Ethiopian Communication Affairs Minister Getachew Reda’s threat to launch a military operation within South Sudanese territory may be more than just an eye for eye tit for tat revenge mission and much more than a rescue mission to return the thirty something kidnapped women and children. It might actually be a mission to destroy Riek Machar’s military influence and render him incapable of carrying out orders he might be given by handlers in Cairo, Riyadh, or Asmara. What Machar may have designs on might not necessarily be in the best interests of Addis Ababa.
Another possibility might be the Ethiopian government losing sleep over growing cooperation between the militaries of Egypt and South Sudan. For two years now, the two nations have conducted joint military exercises, training programs, with Egypt playing the role of advisor to the Kiir government military. Seemingly out of nowhere, Egypt have established a military presence on South Sudanese soil. Egyptian President El Sisi has managed to dance around the fact that his country was the biggest opponent to South Sudanese independence and create military ties in Juba. From an Ethiopian viewpoint, this can only be seen as negative. Several years after a Wikileaks cable had exposed joint Sudanese Egyptian discussions over an attack launching pad against Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project from Sudan during Hosni Mubarak’s tenure, this may be seen as an Egyptian rebound by the Ethiopians. So the massacre of hundreds of Ethiopian civilians would justify an Ethiopian military presence in South Sudan with no United Nations peacekeeping mission limiting the boundaries of their escapade. This of course would go in tandem with Minister Getachew’s statements that a “joint operation” between the militaries of South Sudan and Ethiopia might be possible. The goal here would be to weaken Egypt’s case for a military presence in the country and see their influence wane while Ethiopia’s rises up a notch.
In both cases, it would seem like the Ethiopian government may have willingly allowed yesterday’s Jikawo massacre to take place for the sake of preserving national interests. Although there is no suggestion that Ethiopia instigated anything, a willingness to sit back and let things play out may have been considered as beneficial in the long term. Because as it stands, the Ethiopian people are saddened, angered and more than willing to support a military operation that would appear to be launched in retaliation for the blood of the innocent men, women, children so senselessly spilled. Although this isn’t something that’s proven and written in stone, the inside job scenario isn’t as far fetched as what is being written and broadcast to the masses.
It would explain how the Ethiopian military appeared to have responded to the cries of Gambella’s residents in such a lackadaisical manner. Besides locals on the ground defending their people, the arrival of a noteworthy Ethiopian military force came too late. It can appear to be a conspiracy theory, but considering Ethiopia’s military finesse when it comes to dealing with foreign threats, it’s almost a conspiracy in itself to believe that thousands of men armed to the teeth would trespass the Ethiopian frontier 15 km deep without sounding a single alarm bell and avoid the gaze of one of the most sophisticated intelligence agencies in the region.
The Ethiopian government’s public expressing of sorrow on state media yesterday is a far cry from the staunch militant unapologetic tone it normally has when it faces accusations of having used disproportionate force against its own citizens, like the force that has resulted in the deaths of some four hundred unarmed demonstrators taking part in the Oromo protest movement over the past five months or so. So why the sudden shift in attitude? Are the lives of some Ethiopians worth more than the lives of others? What’s with the inconsistency? Killings of Ethiopians didn’t start on the 15th of April 2016.
There’s definitely more than meets the eye.
This article is in no way conclusive. It is impossible to determine if the Jikawo massacre was indeed an inside job unless someone from within spills the beans. But all in all it isn’t hard to see how the official sequence of events would leave one appalled and raising his or her eyebrows. In this day and age, accepting what we have been served is the utmost naivety. And with the points I’ve raised here, I hope you can see why it would be so.
The Ethiopian nation’s unofficial period of mourning continues, as the government is still to declare the deaths of hundreds of the people it was supposed to be serving as worthy of lowering national flags to half mast.
May the forcibly taken see the day they are reunited with their loved ones.
May all the fallen victims of the Jikawo massacre rest in peace.
My name is Zecharias Zelalem.