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Anuak History
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Robert O. Collins

In 1902 the British Government unilaterally delimited the 1,500 mile frontier between the Sudan and Ethiopia, and after prolonged negotiations Emperor Menelik II accepted the boundary. It was badly flawed. Instead of following the base of the precipitous Ethiopian escarpment the boundary followed the rivers leaving to Ethiopia the swampy plains in the Sudan below of the Baro Salient jutting into the Sudan, the home of the Anuak. Today there are some 70,000 Anuak with their principal town and center at Gambella below the escarpment on the north bank of the Baro River. Named after the Anuak chief of the region, Gambella was leased to the Sudan Government as a commercial station in 1902 for Sudan steamers to carry out Ethiopian highland coffee much in demand, highly profitable, and a principal source of revenue for the Sudan when the Baro was navigable from June to November. From 1921 until 1947 this tiny enclave (1 sq.mile) was administered by only two British officials of the Sudan Government with the title of “Customs Inspectors,” but by the force of their personalities and British power wielded considerable authority in the Baro Salient on this wild frontier that the Ethiopian Government did not control. Besides collecting duty on coffee they adjudicated frontier disputes, mediated disagreements among Anuak chiefs, and tempered the marauding proclivities of the occasional Ethiopian punitive patrol against the Anuak. In 1956 the Sudan Government surrendered its lease to Ethiopia in the spirit of African brotherhood, and the fact that the export of Ethiopian coffee was now by truck to Kassala and Khartoum making steamers redundant.

There are three fundamental factors that have characterized the history of the Anuak in the twentieth century and remain today at the beginning of the twenty-first: the political structure of Anuak society, the long hostile relationships with the Nuer of the Sudan on their western frontier, and the failure of the Ethiopians to establish their administration and governance in Anuakland.

The Anuak are a Luo speaking people of the Eastern Sudanic language family that includes the Luo of Kenya and the Maasai of Tanzania. They migrated into their present homeland in the late eighteenth century from the southern Sudan to settle in clusters of villages in the Baro Salient and along the rivers Pibor and Akobo. They were cultivators with some cattle under a chiefs who ruled more by consensus than decree. There was no central authority except among the southern Anuak on the Akobo who acknowledged the authority of the “Royal Emblems,” but since the emblems were often acquired in a vicarious fashion they did not symbolize political stability. The historic character of Anuak political life enabled the Ethiopians to play-off one chief against the other that simply perpetuated Ethiopian mal-administration or no administration at all.

The second constant factor in Anuak life, past and present, is the hostile relations with the neighboring Nuer of the Sudan. At the end of the nineteenth century the Nuer embarked upon expansion eastward into Anuak territory across the Pibor River and into the Baro Salient. The Anuak, who were skillful elephant hunters, bargained ivory for guns from Ethiopian, Swahili, and Oromo traders from the highlands awash in guns at the beginning of the twentieth century and remain so in the twenty-first, the only difference being the efficiency of automatic weapons in contrast to breech loading rifles. The Anuak defeated the Nuer at the turn of the nineteenth century seizing large numbers of Nuer cattle that they have not forgotten. During the first half of the twentieth century the British struggled to contain conflict between Nuer and Anuak with only modest success on a porous, isolated frontier administered by a few beleaguered British officers for the Sudan Government had no intention of expending scarce resources to control the borderlands when they received no support from the Ethiopian Government on its side of the frontier. In the Sudan the latter half of the twentieth century has been dominated by the civil war in the South that has only ceased this last week after fifty years of conflict but has accounted for two million southern Sudanese dead and four million refugees, thousands of whom have been Dinka and Nuer who have fled across the border into the Baro Salient. Here they have sought safety and sustenance in three huge refugee camps supported by international non-government humanitarian organizations. Many have been settled on surrounding land that is indisputably Anuak. The prospect of the Anuak losing their homelands to their traditional enemies not by conquest but by the efforts of Western humanitarian agencies is bitterly resented by the Anuak who see only force as a means to redress Nuer colonization.

The third factor is the failure of Ethiopia to control the frontier, administer the Baro Salient, and provide good governance. Underlying much of Ethiopian policy or lack thereof is the historic disdain by the highlanders, principally the Amhara but also the Oromo, for the Africans on the Sudan plain below the escarpment, the Anuak and the Gamuz. Ethiopia is a Christian, literate, kingdom two thousand years old of proud people with historic traditions unlike the petty, pagan, illiterate chieftaincies of the Anuak who are contemptuously known as Shangalla that has the same equivalent in Arabic as Abid (slave), and English, Nigger. Racism is compounded on the plains below the highlands by their isolation, swampy and forested terrain, and a porous frontier. When Ethiopia was strong under Haile Selassie from 1930 until his overthrow in 1975, the Ethiopian Government would send its punitive expeditions into Anuakland often to be defeated but certainly of insufficient strength to establish a stable, continuous, and effective administration. By and large the Anuak were more or less left to their own devices punctuated by the occasional foray and fragile administration of Ethiopian authorities at Gambella. Historically, the government regarded Anuak as marginalized people living in a hostile environment with few resources and for whom the most appropriate policy was benign neglect. During the 1990s the present government has launched a more aggressive policy of Amharaization. The Anuak have reacted with the same hostility as to the loss of their land to the Nuer. Discontent runs deep in a land awash with guns, and the Anuak have only to look across the Pibor River into the southern Sudan to see that insurrection is the answer as it now seems it is in Darfur.

There are only two future prospects for the Anuak: negotiate an acceptable settlement of their grievances or armed insurrection. To carry out either the Anuak must first organize as Anuak and not representatives of individual chiefdoms.

Robert O. Collins, Professor of History, Emeritus, University of California Santa Barbara

Read a History of the Anuak to 1956 by Dr. Collins.