Ethiopia: lives for land in Gambella

Gambella in Ethiopia

By Graham Peebles

To many people land is much more than a resource or corporate commodity to be bought, developed and sold for a profit. Identity, cultural history and livelihood are all connected to “place”. The erosion of traditional values and morality (including respect for human rights and environmental responsibility) are some of the many negative effects of the global neo-liberal economic model, with its focus on short-term gain and material benefit. The commercialization of everything and everybody has become the destructive goal of multinationals and corporate-driven governments.

Land for profit

Since the food shortages of 2008 agricultural land in developing countries has been in high demand, seen by corporations from Asia and the Middle East in particular as a sound financial investment and as a way to create food security for their home markets.

Three quarters of the world’s land acquisitions have taken place in sub-Saharan Africa, where impoverished and economically vulnerable countries (many run by governments with poor human rights records) are “encouraged” by donor partners and international financial institutions to attract foreign investment.

Poor countries make easy pickings for multinationals negotiating deals for prime land at giveaway prices and with all manner of government sweeteners. Contracts sealed without consultation, transparency or accountability have virtually no benefit for the host country and result in dispossession, deception, violation of human rights and destruction of livelihoods.

Ethiopia is a prime target for investors looking to acquire agricultural land. Since 2008 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government has leased almost four million hectares for commercial farm ventures. Land is cheap – it is virtually give away – tax is non-existent and profits (like the food grown) are mostly repatriated. Local people are swept aside by a government unconcerned with human rights, domestic or international law. A perfect environment then, where shady deals can be done and large corporate profits made. In its desperation to be seen as one of the growth gang and to make way for agricultural land investments, the Ethiopian government has “committed egregious human rights abuses, in direct violation of international law”, according to the Oakland Institute.

Forced from home

Bordering on South Sudan, the Gambella region (where 42 per cent of land is available), with its lush vegetation and flowing rivers, is where the majority of land sales in the country have taken place. Deals in the region are made possible by the EPRDF’s “villagization programme”, which is forcibly clearing indigenous people off ancestral land and herding them into state-created villages. Some 1.5 million people nationwide are destined to be resettled in this way, 225,000 of whom are from Gambella.

More concerned to be seen as corporate buddy than guardian of the people, the Ethiopian government guarantees investors that it will clear land leased of everything and everyone. It has an obligation, Oakland Institute says, to “deliver and hand over the vacant possession of leased land free of impediments” and to “provide free security against any riot, disturbance or any turbulen[ce]”. Bulldozers are destroying the “farms, and grazing lands that have sustained Anuak, Mezenger, Nuer, Opo, and Komo peoples for centuries”, Cultural Survival records. Dissent is dealt with harshly. Human Rights Watch relates the case of one elder who was jailed without charge in Abobo and held for more than two weeks, during which, he says, “they turned me upside down, tied my legs to a pole, and beat me every day for 17 days until I was released”.

Hundreds of thousands of villagers are being forcibly moved by the regime, often to areas without essential services such as education, water and health care facilities.

Murder, rape, false imprisonment and torture are reportedly committed by the Ethiopian military as they implement the government’s policy of land clearance and resettlement. My village was forced by the government to move to the new location against our will. I refused and was beaten and lost my two upper teeth,” one Anuak man told the non-governmental organization Inclusive Development International. His brother “was beaten to death by the soldiers for refusing to go to the new village. My second brother was detained and I don’t know where he was taken by the soldiers,” he added.

To the Anuak people, who are the majority tribal group in the affected areas, their land defines who they are. It is where the material to build their homes is found. It is their source of traditional medicines and food. It is where their ancestors are buried and where their history rests. By driving these people off their land and into large settlements or camps, the government is not only destroying their homes, in which they have lived for generations, but it is also stealing their identity.

The Ethiopian government is legally bound to obtain the free, informed and prior consent of the indigenous people it plans to move. Far from obtaining consent, Niykaw Ochalla of the Anywaa Survival Organization states that “when [the government] comes to take their land, it is without their knowledge, and in fact [the government] says that they no longer belonged to this land, [even though] the Anuak have owned it for generations”. Consultation, consent and compensation are required by domestic and international law. Those forcibly moved receive no compensation for their loss of livelihood and land. After extensively researching the issue, the Oakland Institute “did not find any instances of government compensation being paid to indigenous populations evicted from their lands”, despite binding legal requirements to do so.

“Waiting here for death”

The picture of state intimidation in Gambella is a familiar one. Refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, recount stories of the same type of abuse, as do people from Oromia and the Lower Omo valley. “The first mission for all the military and the Liyuu [police] is to make the people of the Ogaden region afraid of us,” a former commander of the Liyuu told me. And to achieve this crushing end, they are told “to rape and kill, to loot, to burn their homes, and capture their animals”. It is clear from a wealth of information collated by Human Rights Watch and the Oakland Institute that the Ethiopian military in Gambella is following the same criminal script as their compatriots in the Ogaden region.

The new settlements that make up the villagization programme are built on land that is “typically dry and arid”, completely unsuitable for farming and miles from water supplies, which are reserved for the industrial farms being constructed on fertile ancestral land. The result is increased food insecurity leading in some cases to starvation. Human Rights Watch documented cases of people being forced off their land during the “harvest season, preventing them from harvesting their crops”. With such levels of cruelty and inhumanity, the people feel desperate. As one displaced individual told Human Rights Watch, “The government is killing our people through starvation and hunger… we are just waiting here for death.”

If families try to leave the new settlement and return to their village homes, the government destroys them totally, burning houses and bulldozing the land. “The government brought the Anuak people here to die. They brought us no food, they gave away our land to the foreigners so we can’t even move back,” Human Rights Watch quotes a villager as saying.

Faced with such government atrocities, the people feel powerless. But some are awakening and demanding justice and respect for fundamental human rights. “We don’t have any means of retrieving our land,” Mr “O” from the village of Pinykew in Gambella told the Guardian newspaper. “Villagers have been butchered, falsely arrested and tortured, the women subjected to mass rape,” he added.

Enraged by such atrocities, Mr “O” is bringing what could be a landmark legal case against Britain’s Department for International Development (DfiD). Leigh Day & Co, solicitors based in London, have taken the case, “arguing that money from DfiD is funding the villagization programme”, which “breaches the department’s own human rights policies”. DfiD administers the GBP324 million given by the British government to Ethiopia, making it the biggest recipient of aid from the country. It denies supporting forced relocation, but its own documents reveal British funds are paying the salaries “of officials implementing the programme and for infrastructure in new villages”, the Daily Mail reports. These allegations are reinforced by Human Rights Watch, which says that “British aid is having an enormous, negative side effect – and that is the forcible ending of these indigenous people’s way of life”.

In an account that rings with familiarity, Mr.O, now in Dadaab refugee camp, says he was forced from his village at gunpoint by the military. At first he refused to leave, so “soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force beat me with guns.” He was arrested, imprisoned in military barracks and tortured for three days, after which time he was taken to the new village, which “did not have water, food or productive fields”, where he was forced to build his house.

Government duplicity, donor complicity

The Ethiopian government unsurprisingly denies all allegations of widespread human rights abuse connected with land deals and the villagization programme specifically. It continues to espouse the “promised public service and infrastructure benefits” of the scheme which, the Oakland Institute says, “by and large have failed to materialize”. The regime is content to ignore documentation provided by human rights groups and non-governmental organizations and, until recently, had refused to cooperate with an investigation by the World Bank into allegations of abuse raised by indigenous Anuak people. The World Bank, incidentally, gives Ethiopia more financial aid than any other developing country – 920 million US dollars last year alone. A former provincial president, Omod Obang Olum, oversaw the plan in Gambella and assures us resettlement is “voluntary” and “the programme successful”.

An independent non-profit group working to advance human rights in development, the Inclusive Development Institute has helped the Anuak people from Gambella “submit a complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel implicating the bank in grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ethiopian government“. The complaint alleges “that the Anuak people have been severely harmed by the World Bank-financed and administered Providing Basic Services Project (PBS)”. The institute says that “villagization is the principal vehicle through which PBS is being implemented in Gambella”, and claims “there is “credible evidence” of “gross human rights violations” being committed in the region by the Ethiopian military. Human Rights Watch found that donors are “paying for the construction of schools, health clinics, roads and water facilities in the new [resettlement] villages. They are also funding agricultural programmes directed towards resettled populations and the salaries of the local government officials who are implementing the policy.”

The Inclusive Development Institute’s allegations further support those made by many people from the region and Mr “O” in his legal action against the DfID. The World Bank’s inspection panel has said the “two programmes (PBS and villagization) depend one each other, and may mutually influence the results of the other”. The panel found “there is a plausible link between the two programmes but needs to engage in further fact-finding”. It is imperative that the bank’s inspection panel is given unrestricted access to Gambella and that people feel safe to speak openly about the government’s brutality.

All groups involved in land sales – the Ethiopian government, the foreign corporations leasing the land and the donors, namely, the World Bank and Britain’s DfID, – have a moral duty, a civil responsibility and a legal obligation to the people whose land is being leased.

The Ethiopian government is in violation of a long list of international treaties – from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and many others in between – which they are happy to sign up to but less enthusiastic to observe. Investors are certainly morally bound by the United Nations’ “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework which, among other things, makes clear their duty to respect and work within human rights. Donors’ responsibility first and foremost is to the people of Ethiopia, to ensure any so-called “development” programmes support their needs, ensures their wellbeing and observes their fundamental human rights.

To continue to turn a blind eye to widespread government abuse, and to support schemes which, directly or indirectly, violate human rights and cause suffering to the people is to be complicit in state criminality that is shattering the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in Gambella and indeed elsewhere in Ethiopia.

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