The suffering of farmers in Ethiopia, especially in Oromia, Benishangul, Somali and Gambella regions, is going from worse to the worst as a result of inequitable land acquisitions, better called by “neo-colonial land grabbing,” by foreign investors in the name of lease by the Ethiopian regime. This act is worsening the already broken food security situation in Ethiopia. The peasants are losing their farming and grazing land they have owned for centuries in a matter of months. The draconian proclamations and the brutal police force behind the mess is a point to be noted. This new form of agrarian neo-colonialism is launched under the pretext of utilizing “wastelands” while the reality and reason behind it are completely different.
Ethiopian government officials have already acknowledged that 8420 foreign investors have received license for commercial farms. Even if the problems started when contemporary Ethiopia assumed its current territorial definition at the end of the nineteenth century, the danger posed by this regime, even if it looks it is going on under the pretext of the law and the cover of investment, is extremely huge.
The regime change in 1991 and the subsequent ratification of the Constitution (1995) failed to restore any tangible land ownership right. Articles of the new Constitution complicated the problems of alienation and powerlessness experienced by the people for so long. In the FDRE (the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia) Constitution, the rights of citizens to possess farming land are maintained (Art.40.4). Proclamation No. 89/1997 (Art. 2.3) provides for the right to lease one’s holding. In line with the provisions of the decree, the Oromia State issued a Directive (No. 3/1995), which states that any farmer may rent a maximum of half of his holding to anyone at any rate for a maximum of three years (Art. 23.2). But contrary to all these pillars and precedents, Proclamation 455/2005 gives authority to the Woreda and urban administration, not to defend and protect, but to confiscate and expropriate land for any purpose the higher authorities believes are for “public purpose and/or investment.”
Farmers are expected to evacuate from their ancestral land with a short notice of 30 days, as per Article 4(4) of the same proclamation in discussion. Failure to comply with this short notice will entitle authorities to use police force to forcefully evict farmers from their land. This very proclamation clearly marked the end of land right of farmers and opened big door for land grabbers.
Looking at the controversial and self contradictory part of the Constitution itself, the FDRE Constitution Article 52(2)(D) that relates to the powers of Regional States are defective as they tie the latter’s power to administer land and the use of other natural resources to the provisions in the Federal Laws. Put it another way, the provisions give only nominal power to the Regional States, because the latter are not free to exercise full freedom to administer land and other natural resources in their respective regions. In effect, it is the Federal State that decides how the land and other natural resources of Regional States should be administered and used. They maintain that the Federal State deliberately shaped the Constitution in such a way that Regional States do not enjoy real autonomy, because if they did, the former could not manipulate the laws to fit its interests.
The constitution and federal laws are designed to empower the Federal State to influence the decisions made at the level of the Regional States. This is particularly so when it comes to the use of land and other natural resources. State monopoly of land under the guise of “public ownership” reduced land to a marketable commodity contrary to what had been the case before the state formation when land was seen not only as a vital source of life but also, if not more, as a symbol of identity since “people relate to land, not just as individuals, but also as members of groups, networks, and categories.” What is more, even if the laws are perfect and states are autonomous on land issue, the regional state authorities are not there to protect the interest of the nation they claim to represent, but that of the TPLF top decision makers. They are picked from their respective regions just to show up and boost with empty federal structure. This can be well understood by looking at the formation and the last 20 years functioning of OPDO and others surrogate regional authorities.
Very recently, the Ethiopian government has offered huge land for a long term lease to private and government-backed investors, such as Karuturi Global Ltd of India, which has acquired 1.8 million hectares, Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc of Sheikh Mohammed Al-Amoudi, Saudi Arabia 100,000 hectares, German company Flora EcoPower 13,000 hectare, Djibouti’s First Lady and President about 10,000 hectares and a group of Egyptian investors who have acquired 500 hectares. Ethiopia has already committed to hand over 1.7 million of the 2.7 million hectares of arable land to foreign investors. Prime Minster Meles has offered the land grabbers a “tax holiday” in which he exempted them from paying taxes and leasing fees up to the first five years of production and allowed them to export all their production.
The federal government of Ethiopia has taken over millions of hectares of farmland from the States of Benishangul, Gambella and Oromia to distribute it to the so-called investors. According to his speech of December 1, 2009 at the World Economic Forum, Meles Zenawi claimed that his government’s policy will bring new “technology” and “development” into Ethiopia. However, as witnessed in many places of Oromia and Gambella, the mega-farms use rudimentary methods of farming similar to the typical Ethiopian farming. The new thing is that, the farmers-turned-labourers have lost their dignity, ownership right and become slaves in their own country and land. Shamelessly, Mr. Zenawi said that this land giving policy works only in the South, revealing his racist policy of governance. He said the northern part of the country is out of discussion as far as land selling is concerned.
After all, this is the same government that has closed down multimillion hectares of mechanized state farms in few years after it had seized power in 1991, mainly in Wollega, Arsi and Bale. These farms used to employ high-tech machines, including aircraft. The tractors, the combiners and all the multi-billion dollar investments of the state farms were left to rust, and the state farms were forced to collapse with their thousands of their employees. In Wollega only, 65,000 heads of families were thrown out on the streets, exposing them and their extended families to starvation and humiliation. This remains to be one of the dozens of crimes for which the EPRDF government, headed by Meles Zenawi, is going to answer sooner or later. The land and the property were neither privatized nor allowed to continue in corporation. Today, these farms could have fed at least millions of people looking for western hand outs, if not able to generate foreign currency. It looks as if this government is deliberately subjecting the people to systematic impoverishment and shame.
Yet, in Gambella, the other fertile southwestern region of Ethiopia, most of the land is forcibly taken from the indigenous subsistence farmers, not for the development of the needed infrastructure, but for lease to private foreign companies, mostly from India. Like in Oromia, in Gambella neither the profits nor the majority of the produce will be shared with the communities. In all cases, farmers and indigenous people receive little or no compensation for their land.
Currently, millions are believed to be in need of food aid. But the government in Ethiopia is offering at least 3-million hectares of its most fertile land to rich countries and some of the world’s most wealthy individuals to export food for their own populations. This fact clearly indicates that the Zenawi regime has neither a consideration nor accountability to the peoples in Ethiopia, but only to its corrupted will and interests.
A closer look at how this government is handling of the land issue shows that the reason behind its decision to lease and sell fertile farmlands to foreign investors for an indefinite or century-old contract. It is neither a quest for technology nor utilizing the excess land. The reality is, the TPLF-dominated EPRDF officials are busy building their personal business empire for the last 20 years that they have been in power. TPLF officials own more than ¾ of the total business in the country, majority of them in decisive government positions and military ranks. As popular discontent grows, the TPLF leaders are getting worried about the future of their personal and group wealth and their business empire, which stretches to all corners of Ethiopia and dominates from small biscuits to large truck industry. The idea they came up with is that, to call up on foreign investors to cover them in this big scam they are involved. That is precisely the reason why land confiscation is so heated, foreign hands are lined up and the name of investors rather than native farmers is flown full over the air of Ethiopia.
Several governments have come and gone in Ethiopia. However, the land issue has never been addressed satisfactorily to redress the injustices committed. Neither the existing laws nor resources are utilized so as to serve the interest of its citizens. In a country where 85% of its population rely as a means of subsistence on what is obtained from agriculture, the relation of land to man is crucial in a manner similar to the need of air to breath, sunshine and water to live. To deprive anyone of any of these vital resources is equal to rendering a death sentence on him or her and to their extended family members. Consequently, the current land grabbing will fuel conflict, create political instability, uproots the indigenous peoples and results in food insecurity.
The land question in Ethiopia is a potential time bomb waiting to explode. The land issue was the major factor for the demise of all Meles’ predecessors in the history and has also already consumed a government in Madagascar. However, the impact on health, soil, water, food security, ownership right and the environment will remain an expensive price for the next generation to pay.
Hence, it is very important for the international community to stand in unison against the brutal regime in Ethiopia and uphold the right of peoples to land ownership; peoples are exploited, left defenseless and are, currently, running out of means to protect their rights. The land grabbers (investors) should also understand the complicated reality they are involving in and need to calculate their risk on time before it is too late. Any land deal, that has not been agreed to by nations and nationalities in Ethiopia, will not be honored and will bring neither lasting peace nor development in the country and for the investors, too.
It is also high time for the UN and its concerned stakeholders to call special investigation on this serious matter, and issues immediate resolution against the continued suffering of farmers due to eviction and the serious poverty that follows. It is also very important to exert all possible pressure to undo the unfair law with regards of land issues.