Ethiopia: Understanding Land Investment in East Africa
Africa has emerged as the premiere frontier market in the world for vast agricultural land acquisitions, often called “land grabs” due to widespread evidence that the land being acquired is not “free and clear” of inhabitants. Instead, repressive African governments, like in Ethiopia, are forcing some of the poorest people in the world from their homes and land without consultation or compensation, leaving most of them more destitute than before. Those who resist have faced arbitrary arrests, beatings, rape, torture, and death.
In Ethiopia, huge swathes of fertile, well-watered agricultural land are being leased for up to 99 years and for negligible amounts to foreign countries, foreign multinational companies and private investors. At the forefront of these mostly secretive deals are investors from India, China and Saudi Arabia.
Africa has a history of being abused, whether through the trafficking of human beings during slavery, during the centuries of colonialism or through the more modern-day exploitation of its diamonds, oil, gold or some other natural resource; however, the expropriation of land in a country where nearly 80% of the people depend on subsistence farming may threaten African life at its roots.
Mr. Obang Metho, the Executive Director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), a grassroots social justice movement advocating for the rights and freedom of the Ethiopian people, will be speaking at the Understanding Land Investment in East Africa.
The SMNE partnered with the Oakland Institute in completing an in-depth study on “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa.” Mr. Metho originates from Gambella, Ethiopia, said to be at the epicenter of land-grabs on the continent and the location of the largest Indian agricultural enterprise in the country—a potentially 300,000 hectare farm being leased to Karuturi—as well as the location of many other Indian business ventures.
Mr. Metho will voice concerns regarding the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding these land acquisitions in a country known for its authoritarian, one-party, ethnic-based government, which has been in power for 21 years. Elections have not met international standards with the current regime “winning” the election in 2010 with a purported 99.6% victory. Only 1 out of 547 members of the Ethiopian parliament is a member of the opposition. The government controls all the media. Journalists and dissidents are charged as terrorists under vague anti-terrorism laws.
Restrictive laws on civil society have essentially closed down all independent institutions, replacing them with government-controlled look-alike organizations. These are the facts about Ethiopia and so if any think that these land acquisitions have the input, let alone support of the people, they are mistaken. Even though it is required under the law, no one can anyone assume that this has been followed.
Even though India may be struggling with its own land issues, Ethiopia and India are very different countries. In India, there may be a debate between peasant groups, landowners, developers and the government; however, in Ethiopia, such a debate would be outlawed. In India, the media can discuss the issues and write about it in newspapers, but in Ethiopia, those involved may end up in jail if they oppose the government position. When normal avenues for public discussion or legal action are blocked, conflict, including violent conflict, will sometimes erupt, particularly where government security forces have abused the people.
When Ethiopia promotes land investments to prospective foreign partners, they emphasize the immense opportunity, while minimizing the rising risk of insecurity that will be inevitable as more and more people are evicted from their homes and land, as they become hungry, no longer being able to feed themselves or as water is diverted from local use to instead irrigate new farms.
In 2012, one farm was attacked by insurgents resulting in the deaths of a number of employees as some believe the only way to deter land leasing is to attack investors. What the government has not explained is how they are pitting the people against the investors rather than helping to create mutually-beneficial partnerships between investors and the local people. It can be done, but not in this way.
Currently, there are legal processes underway in the UK and the US to deal with the very repressive program of moving smallholder farmers and pastoralists into concentrated villages, devoid of services, fertile land and water, in order to free up the land for foreign investors. Human rights organizations have exposed the widespread human rights abuses associated with this resettlement process. It may be that those who support and collude with such programs will be found complicit.
Foreign investors cannot close their eyes to these risks. Nor can anyone count on the current government for protection as this regime has always looked after its own self-interests first, which may be self-preservation as it suffers internal power struggles that could unpredictably change its direction or cause it to implode, a greater risk now that the mastermind dictator, the former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has died after ruling the country for twenty-one years.
Foreign investors should instead align with the interests of the people against what has become not just a “land grab” but a “life grab” because the land which has sustained them is no longer there. Their voices have been silenced by their own government. If this is wrong in India it should be wrong in Ethiopia.
When people are pushed to the edge, the people will fight back. No group knows this better than the Indian. When it happened in India, Ghandi led the people as they fought for justice. The same thing will happen in Ethiopia or in other parts of Africa.
Working with African dictators who are stealing from the people for their own benefit is not only risky, unsustainable and wrong, it is unconscionable. When decisions are made without morality, honesty and integrity, the consequences to human life are devastating and long-lasting. An example of this is the Berlin Conference in the late 1800’s when Africa was divvied up among colonialist powers without an African being included at the table. That decision is still affecting Africa, enflaming conflict on the continent that has enveloped others throughout the world.
The same thing could happen with land grabs that now threaten food security and water resources on the continent. This time, the decision may not be made at the table in Berlin, but it could be in Addis Ababa or in New Delhi. The one thing of which you can be sure is that there are no indigenous people at this table. Instead some Ethiopian officials are making these decisions with Indian investors without considering the impact on the people or the country in the long term. Ethiopia and Africa need investment and welcome Indian investment but what we stand against is the daylight robbery of the people. If it is not allowed in New Delhi or other parts of India, it should never be allowed in Gambella, the Omo Valley or anywhere else in Ethiopia.
Let us follow our consciences, respecting the value of the human life of others rather than exploitive investment that breaks all the values Ghandi revered to the point of losing his life. Those who have experienced colonialism should not trade places with the colonialists either at home or in a foreign land.
Only when we see the God-given value in our global brothers and sisters, putting our shared humanity before our ethnicity, nationality, or other identity distinctions will we truly be free. Only then will we be building a more peaceful, respectful and harmonious global society. Let our conscience give us the guidance we need at such a time as this.
For media enquiries, including interview requests, contact Mr. Obang Metho, Executive Director of the SMNE. Phone 202 725-1616 or Email: Obang@solidaritymovement.org