Less operational but more strategic solution is the way forward

Gambella, April 19, 2016 (GMN) - All citizens of the country unanimously have been expressing their outcry against barbaric attacks on civilians in four Woredas of Gambella regional state by armed assailants. A massive and coordinated attack by combined military and armed Mulre civilians from South Sudan’s of recent Buma state (Former Jonglei state) has left at more than 200 civilians dead.

The recent government report indicated that the death toll has risen to 208 people and 108 children were kidnapped besides the assailant looted more than 2000 head of livestock. Majorities from Murle pastoral communities believe that all cattle belong to them and they have moral obligations to restore and restack their cattle annually.  The Murle youths instead of going to schools (as they have been marginalized and they don’t have the infrastructure), they have been embroiled in raiding the cattle of neighboring tribes. Many argue that the structural violence and inequalities have been the reason behind these kinds of cross-border perennial attacks. Back in old time, a cattle rustling was restricted toward driving away cattle and forcing the other groups to retreat. It had not been as bloody as the recent attacks. The nature of retaliation deviated from the long standing norms after 2011 Lou (Nuer section) attack on Murle. The youths from Lou began barbaric attack by killing and targeting children and elderly. Since then the norms of skirmish among cattle camps have completely becoming deadly and savagery.

The perennial cattle raiding practices have been very lethal and destructive these days. The vast supply of assault rifle in civilian hands has led to the situation where cattle rustling becoming more violent in recent years. Tadesse avers that the act of cattle raiding is an almost primordial practice tied to initiation rites into manhood and marriage However, with the introduction of guns, what was hitherto fought with spears and sticks has become an all the more lethal practice (Tadesse 2007). In remote areas of Gambella police service lacks the capacity to protect communities. Hence, many cattle herders used to keep arms to defend themselves till disarmed by the federal government late in 2011.

Although cross-border cattle raids have happened in the same area in the past, often involving Murle tribesmen from South Sudan, many already began to questions the nature of the raids. The involvement of state like structure, sophistications of attack, scale and magnitude of attacks as well as the usages of heavy weapons were some of the indicators that someone can use to argue against reducing the recent attacks to normal cattle raiding practices among the pastoralist camps.

Ethiopian defense forces have already begun to strike back immediately. According to Ethiopia's communications minister, the defense forces have killed more than 60 of the assailants and have been pursuing them. As to many social media outlets, the operations have continued to take over the assailants with the objectives of destroying the force, returning the abduct children and 2000 head of livestock. Many have been arguing that it is the responsibility of the government to protect civilians from these kinds of barbaric attacks. And many even criticized the government for failing to take precautionary measures against introducers and others for delayed actions.

The military actions seem to be the most favoured solution at this point in time. One can argue that so long as the forces are able to distinguish and take necessary precautions to safeguard those civilians who have been merely motivated through the long standing traditional norms, the military options might be viable for specific situation and period of time. But the blurred lines among traditionally motivated cattle raiders and those who are well organized state like structure make the tasks of precautionary measures difficult.

Unless well coordinated and strategized, one can argue that only military means to resolve these kinds of conflict might end up in shading more civilian bloods rather than the assailants. Anyone easily can deduce from the trends of cattle raiding practices that the cattle raiders usually hide themselves among civilians. Military force pursuing those cattle raiders can risk indiscriminate attacks against civilians from Murle communities.  From the previous practices, many witnessed that the assailants have been using the civilians as human shield.  It might be worth to take proportional measures but at the same time it is high time to push for collective strategic actions from the regional players like IGAD.  The threats of insecurities because of cattle raiding practices have not been confined only to certain geographic areas in the region. Communities in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia have been bearing the brunt of these practices.  Hence, one can argue that initiating discussion and trying to address the structural issues that have been at the root of aggravating these barbaric acts can help to resolve the problems amicably and in more sustainable manner. By Samuel Zewdie Hagos