Our History

Our History

1. Introduction 

Openo (Opëënö) is a local name referring to Baro River which is the only navigable river in Ethiopia. It is in the western frontier bordering with the new nation of Republic of South Sudan. It is internationally known as Sobat River when it crosses the border into South Sudan. As a tributary to White Nile River basin in East Africa, Opëënö-Baro attracted Great Britain to Gambella and used it as an international inland route for trade in coffee between Imperial Ethiopia and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan during colonial rule. To this effect the historical and geopolitical significance of Gambella Region is directly related to presence of such navigable river and international border dividing Anywaa into two countries.

2. Anywaa Traditional Administration System

Livelihood of Anywaa population in Opëënö area depends on sedentary farming and fishing. Anywaa settlements along this river were under traditional administration of loosely federated, independent and autonomous village chiefs-locally known as Kwäärï (Kwääröfor singular). This is true to the entire region of Gambella with one exception in Abobo district which was ruled by nobleman, ‘Nyiya’ who was descendants from South Sudan. The traditional chiefs, Kwäärï in the entire Anywaa traditional administration in Ethiopia were removed by socialist regime in late 1970s. It was unfair to categorize and consider them as anti-revolution forces and feudal lords by the regime. They were traditional leaders who had enjoyed popular support of peasants in their respective villages. Their authorities were properly checked and balanced by special appointees from elders serving as counselors. No absolute power in the system. Records show that those who did not enjoy popular support of their followers locally known as ‘Jøbura’ were removed by local revolt called Ageem’. Such mechanism made Kwäärï ineffective intermediaries in the implementation of indirect rule (divide and rule) policies applied by both Imperial Ethiopia and Britain.

 3. Effects and Impacts of Border Delimitations   

Historically, administration of Gambella region remained very difficult and elusive while its status was fast evolving. In 1902 the town of Gambella emerged from an obscure village of local chief into an international inland port when expansionist Imperial Ethiopia and Great Britain signed an agreement. Accordingly, Britain obtained an enclave, locally known asLøø-Nyïgïlïc, literally meant for “British side” of the town to serve as port for trade in western Ethiopia. In fulfillment of effective administration required by delimitations and necessary security in the western frontier customs station was set up at Gambella enclave in 1907. Soon collection of revenues from custom goods in the town became bone of contention in the administration of Gambella at two levels. This rivalry over collection of trade profits existed as confrontation between Gore of Illubabor and Seyo of Wollega provinces which were both major coffee suppliers and consumers of imported goods in the business. Secondly, it was a controversy between the two signatories of 1902 agreement on the overall supervision of the enclave, collection of taxes and security matters. Italian colonialists interrupted port services and took actions which were in favour of trading with Wollega by building road to connect Gambella and Nekemte in 1936-41. Permanent solution to this internal dispute came in 1941 when Gambella was promoted to district level under full authority in Gore after liberation of Ethiopia from Italian military occupation. But this change in its administrative status only ended the rivalry over collection of trade revenues between Gore and Seyo without solving the international rivalry between the two signatories of 1902 agreement. Moreover, both Britain and Imperial Ethiopia did not seriously consider ethic unity of Anywee who remained divided into two countries by border based on natural rivers. As a result Anywee were left vulnerable to high risk of becoming minorities in future administrations in two countries: Ethiopia and new Republic of South Sudan.

 4. Administrative, Security and Humanitarian Challenges  

 Imposition of Ethiopian government authorities in the region through several independent local chiefs of Anywaa in the hinterland was practically challenging. Anywaa local chiefs relatively maintained their freedoms from the authorities. Most of interventions in reducing number of local revolts-“ageeme” against Kwäärï, apprehension of wanted criminals, collection of land taxes, rescue of war captives or cattle obtained from cross-border raids; and demand for onerous and free labour by police authorities were resisted or simply ignored. In regard to political administration, the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian agreement did not legally permit Britain to exercise military power in controllingkwäärï outside of the Gambella town within Ethiopian sovereign territory. In desperation to appease Britain, Ethiopian authority sent foreign military envoy in the personality of Majed Abud of Syrian origin to conduct two militarycampaigns to epicenters of resistance along Opëënö River. He lost both campaigns and battles to Anywee. He was seriously wounded in his last attempt in 1934. In the event British authority and Ethiopian police in Gambella town were forced to send a rescue mission to save his life. His legacy exists as Løø-Majed, across Openo Bridge.

          In the overall reconciliation efforts of the region after liberation of western frontier from Italian occupation and the aftermath of Second World War, police stations and check points were set up deep into localities of Anywaa. Yet, effective administration and maintenance of peace and security required further campaigns. In that structure its administrative status was raised from district level to zone-Awaraja level. These efforts did not dramatically change security situations on the ground.

          Independence of Sudan in1956 which ended Condominium Agreement of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was a short- lived delight for South Sudanese who soon embarked upon first civil war in 1960s. The civil war signaled a ‘stop’ sign for steamships as an end to port services in Gambella. Instead of that Itang (Itääng), original site negotiated for port services and exchanged for an enclave in Gambella town in1904 due to its muddy soil became refugees’ camp for South Sudanese while Gambella was serving as headquarters of guerrilla warfare. The enclave administration at Sudan Consulate had no much chance to reopen the port. Emperor Haile Selassie who brokered Addis Ababa Peace Agreement between Republic of Sudan and first Southern SudanLiberation Movement was overthrown by socialist military junta of Derg in September 1974. The new regime of Derg officially closed both port services and Sudan Consulate in Gambella. Apparently, diplomatic relations and security concerns in the western frontiers with Sudan remained in jeopardy to the extent that the entire international boundaries became battlegrounds of so called ‘meddling or intrusive politics’ and proxy wars of cold war era for several decades.

     The advent of socialist revolution to Ethiopia and the replacement of Anywaa traditional chiefs by Peasants’ Association leaders, whose motto was based on foreign concept of socialism by Derg Regime in late 1970s, left all Anywaa villages without symbolic figures that were capable of uniting several age groups in the society. The radical political change in traditional leadership that had maintained the Anywaa leadership for generations by the Derg resulted in a serious blow to social fabrics which made preservation of vital social and cultural values more difficult. Those so called “progressive changes and forces” created conducive atmosphere where strong attachment to lands and culture of farming were lost to the peasants’ associations. Thus, communal agricultural productivity and other methods of food gathering declined. Moreover, most of villages were unable to cope up with massive influx of South Sudan refugees crossing borderdue to second civil war in Sudan in 1980s.     Furthermore, the continuation of forceful resettlement and villagization programs of internally displaced peoples-IDPS from highlands by Derg ; and extensive trafficking in small arms and light weapons due to presence of Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) resulted in population pressure and demographic changes. Anywaa villages in Jikawo district were totally taken over by Nuers. According to UNHCR Itang town was reported as one of the largest refugee camps in the world until May 1991. These affairs of the state of Derg again called for structural advancement of Gambella to an Administrative Area level. Even though security check points were put in place by the Administrative Area to deter insecurity problems, things weredone with lack oftransparency, absence of proper documentation on citizenships, unnecessary restrictions on free movement of local population and involuntary military recruitment. In effect it can be said that Ethiopian international border was in the hands of SPLA until the regime change in May 1991.

      It is also true that since the first South Sudan liberation movement (Anya Nya) in 1960s which resulted in many Sudanese Nuers resettlements in Gambella; there has been unfortunate persisting local conflicts between Nuer and Anywaa over grazing land and water along Opëënö River. These minor conflicts were re-ignited by the second Sudanese civil war, political transition and ethnic federalism in Ethiopia with adverse effects on political tensions and hostility among Anywaa, Nuer, Majanger, highlanders, and other indigenous peoples in Gambella. The cumulative consequences of all these social disruptions intensified underdevelopment, political marginalization of the region by central government and development agencies, internal displacement of peoples, deforestation, persistence of cross-border crimes, extreme poverty and socio-economic burden on indigenous peoples of Gambella; and dependence on humanitarian assistance due to prevalence of food crisis. These challenges will remain critical in the administration of current Gambella Regional State of Federal Ethiopia; especially in most impacted three districts of Gambella area, Itääng and Jikawo. It rather requires inclusive policies, multifaceted approach, comprehensive plan on peaceful settlement of local disputes and arms control (disarmaments), as well as empowerment of traditional leaders and elders.

      But at any rate in failure or success, it would be unacceptable and unjustified to generalize that perpetual difficulties in the administration of Gambella Region emanate from unsociability of Anywee whom are categorically characterized as hostile and violent people to their neighbors in most of literature scratched on security agonies. It is all about aspirations for mutual respect, understanding, development opportunities, respect of human rights, freedom to live free in our land, preservation of our culture and dignity.

     It is worth reminding observation of Robert Skinner of the USA in mentioning hostility of peoples in lowlands of eastern Ethiopia as deterrents to modernization and obstacles in isolation of Ethiopia. This should not be the occasion in the western frontiers of the country after a century since Skinner Commercial Mission through Djibouti to meet Emperor Menelik II in December 1903. Moreover, British access to Gambella for commercial interests should not be misjudged as an absolute entitlement of the entire Gambella Region to Britain. It was one of British territorial gains and limited rights in the1902 agreement on border delineations which was similar to free access granted at Lake Tana, source of Blue Nile for hydraulic interests. In the words of Charles Gwynn: “the delimitation in the Sudan-Ethiopia border was from Setit River in the north up to the junction of the Pibor and AkoboRivers in the south”.



1.Bahru, Zewdie, Relation between Ethiopia and the Sudan on the western Ethiopian frontier 1898–1935.Ph.D., Thesis, University of London

2. Kurimoti, Eisei, Politicization of Ethnicity in Gambella Region:  in Ethiopiain broader perspective.

3. Medhane Tadesse, Gambella: The Impact of Local Conflict on Regional Security, website of International Institute for Security

4. Ojulu Owar, The Anyua and Their Neighbors: A Political Analysis up to ca.1970s, B.A Thesis, Addis Ababa University, 1987

5. Robert P. Skinner (Author) (Introduction, Ambassadors: David Shinn and Aurelia Brazeal, History of a Century between Ethiopia and USA, 2001

6. Wondwosen Teshome, Colonial Boundaries of Africa: The Case of Ethiopia’s Boundary with Sudan, University of Vienna, Department of Anthropology, Austria

July 23, 2012 | Comments Closed