Over 25 investors have fled the region due to attacks, kidnapping and looting
Threats posed by OLF-Shane and South Sudanese refugees-turned-looters have compromised security in Gambella Regional State, leaving the regional administration powerless to retain investors who are abandoning the region in droves.
The root cause of the problems began when OLF-Shane (self-proclaimed Oromo Liberation Army), an armed group based largely in Oromia and designated as a terrorist organization by Parliament, stormed Gambella a year ago, according to regional officials.
The investors and employees of commercial farms in the region fled after OLF-Shane conducted attacks on their farms, according to Low Obup (PhD), investment commissioner of Gambella Regional State.
He told The Reporter that OLF-Shane burned down agricultural machinery and abducted 50 workers from commercial farms in the region.
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“They were afraid, so they left,” said Low.
There were close to 40 large-scale commercial farming investors actively working in the region at the time of OLF-Shane’s attacks. These farms have since been abandoned as investors and employees fled to safety in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.
This led to more problems involving South Sudanese refugees residing in Gambella.
“Refugees from South Sudan took advantage of the security gap and began looting the properties, machinery and crops on the commercial farms,” Low told The Reporter. “The security complications have been creating chronic problems for investments in the region.”
Tractors, harvesting machinery, ripe crops, trucks, warehouses, camp materials and other property were among the looted goods.
“They just come in large numbers, and take everything. They do so repeatedly. Our investments, which we have been nurturing for over a decade now, have been turned to ashes,” said an investor who fled Gambella and currently resides in Addis Ababa.
The looting is especially prevalent in Woredas near the South Sudanese border. Itang Woreda, in particular, has seen some of the worst looting, according to investors.
Commercial farms financed by the Development Bank of Ethiopia (DBE) have also been damaged and looted, according to the sources.
Some 41 commercial farming investors affected by the crisis have been desperately seeking a solution from the federal government, including the Office of the Prime Minister.
“Every government organ knows about the problems in Gambella, including the PM’s office and Parliament,” said an investor who spoke to The Reporter on condition of anonymity. “We’ve been running from one government office to another to no avail. The damage continues to date.”
The Gambella regional administration has established a committee to visit the looted and damaged commercial farms and assess the damages.
Still, only five farms out of nearly 40 that had been operating in Gambella before the onslaught of the crisis have returned to their activities in the Regional State.
“We’ve been trying to persuade the investors to return since last year, but only five have come back and began collecting their harvests,” said Low.
The Commissioner observes the lack of federal security forces in the vicinity of the commercial farming investments has created an enduring sense of insecurity. Refugee camps and settlements are also located close to the commercial farming areas.
“There is no Ethiopian National Defense Force presence in the areas under threat, but there are ENDF soldiers in other locations,” said Low. “There is a security gap.”
Ujulu Gilo, head of communications for the Gambella administration, believes the issues can only be solved through dialogue.
He observes the investors affected by the looting have been in close communication with Umod Ujulu, president of the Gambella Regional State, who has been busy with a visit to Addis Ababa.
“[The investors] have been visiting the president’s office frequently but no lasting solution has been provided thus far,” he said. “The farmers have all presented their complaints to the president. The issue can only be solved by the president, so we are waiting.”
Low, however, argues that only a firm response from the Refugees and Returnees Service, a federal agency, can offer a lasting solution to the problems in Gambella.
He disclosed the Gambella regional administration is awaiting discussions with Service officials.
There are six refugee camps in Gambella, housing half a million IDPs from South Sudan.
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