Political developments

Elections held on 15 May 2005 were widely considered to be a test of the ruling party's willingness to bring democracy to the country. Election results show Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) retained its majority, but opposition parties gained many seats. The final official results are not due to be announced until 23 September 2005. Several days of violence followed the parliamentary elections and around 40 people were killed when police fired on protesters. A European Union report said the 15 May parliamentary elections failed to meet international standards and complaints were not handled well. The two main opposition groups maintain they won, and are threatening to boycott parliament unless a unity government is formed. Land ownership and good governance were important election issues.


Although some international observers have acknowledged that Ethiopia has made progress on the road to democracy, concerns have been raised over alleged human rights abuses. A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on 10 May 2005 said that regional authorities and security forces continue to suppress political dissent in the southern Oromia state. Oromia is home to the Oromo ethnic group and, along with Addis Ababa, has been the centre of dissent against the EPRDF. HRW declared that the pervasive pattern of repression and abuse in Oromia, home to 32 per cent of Ethiopians and the biggest region, would ensure that elections would be a 'hollow exercise'. With the continued insurgency in the south, even Oromo unaffiliated with militant and violent organizations are still targeted and subject to governmental abuse and detention.


Ethiopia's Gambella People's National Regional State (Gambella) lies on the Sudanese border in the south-west of the country. Nuer and the Anuak are the two largest groups in the region, the third-largest population group consists of people the indigenous groups refer to as 'highlanders,' or 'habasha,' terms which group together all migrants from other parts of Ethiopia and their descendants.

The region has attracted government interest, largely because of its natural resources. Gambella is the best-watered region of Ethiopia and has large tracts of uncultivated land, along with deposits of gold and oil. Petronas, Malaysia's state-owned oil corporation, has acquired exploration rights in Gambella, and China's Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB) has begun seismic exploration activities in Gambella under a subcontract from Petronas.

Forced resettlement by the Derg (the military ruling council) in the 1980s generated a massive influx of some 60,000 highlanders to the region. All of the resettlement villages were located on land that the Anuak claimed as their own. At the same time, Nuer refugees from the Sudanese civil war began fleeing into Gambella, with many Nuer refugees then claiming Ethiopian citizenship and settling permanently in Gambella. The result has been that the Anuak are now a minority and greatly outnumbered by Gambella's Nuer population. There are persistent ethnic tensions – some traditionally Anuak lands are now inhabited almost exclusively by Nuer – and the most frequent outbreaks of ethnic violence in Gambella have pitted the Anuak against the Nuer. Many Anuak also bitterly resented the arrival of the highlanders and a number of ambushes attributed to armed Anuak have left scores of highlander civilians dead.

Gambella's long and porous border with Sudan is a source of perennial concern to federal authorities. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) managed to infiltrate fighters into Ethiopia through Gambella in 2002, reportedly with the help of the Eritrean government; forces led by a former Derg official have succeeded in destabilizing some areas along the Sudanese border; and the Anuak-led Gambella People's Liberation Front (GPLF) has launched raids into Gambella from bases in southern Sudan.

A report, Targeting the Anuak, published by Human Rights Watch in March 2005, alleges that the Ethiopian army has been killing, raping and torturing people in Gambella since the end of 2003. The federal government assumed de facto control over the regional government, and has stationed several thousand more Ethiopian National Defence Force troops in Gambella since December 2003. Almost all of those soldiers are highlanders and identify themselves as such in the context of highlander-Anuak ethnic conflict. The primary reason for the large military presence in Gambella appears to be an effort to eliminate armed Anuak groups in the region and assure the security of areas under exploration for oil. The Ethiopian military has undertaken operations aimed at rooting out armed Anuak and Nuer groups operating in Gambella, some of which are based in southern Sudan. Gambella currently has no regional president and no Anuak representative in the House of People's Representatives, as both sought asylum abroad in early 2004.

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