The refugee who took on the British government

Employees of Saudi Star rice farm work in a paddy in Gambella. The Ethiopian government has built massive road, rail, agribusiness and hydropower schemes without pausing to conduct the necessary social and environmental impact assessments (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Guardian | 12 January 2016

The refugee who took on the British government
by Ben Rawlence
One day in late 2010, a farmer – I will call him Opik – woke up in his village in the remote Ethiopian province of Gambella. In this lush lowland area of savanna bordering South Sudan, the semi-nomadic Anuak people have lived for centuries, cultivating sorghum and maize, swimming in the river and gathering nuts, berries and fruits from the trees and wild honey from the forest. “It was paradise,” Opik recalled.
The Anuak have an intimate relationship with their landscape. Their highest traditional authority is a spiritual leader called the wat-ngomi, who must sanction any human intervention in nature. Some trees are deemed sacred and cannot be cut down. Spirits live in certain sites and even the boundaries of their territory are inscribed with religious meaning. Everyone knows where the land of one community ends and that of another begins. This intimacy is reflected in their language: “How are you?” in the Anuak language is piny bede nidi, which literally translates as “how is the earth?” The reply is piny ber jak (“the earth is fine”) or piny rac (“the earth is bad”).
That morning, the earth was bad. Officials from the regional government in Gambella, accompanied by soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) had come to tell Opik and the other inhabitants of the village to leave. It was not the first time they had come. Earlier in the year there had been several meetings. The government had arrived with police and militias and informed the residents that they were to be moved to a new location. There was a national plan called “villagisation” and Gambella was in the first phase.
The officials had explained that the purpose of the relocations was to cluster communities together in places where the government promised to provide a new school, a clinic, a borehole and a grinding mill. In time, the new settlements would be better-connected to the rest of the country via new roads, they said. The officials also promised to provide a grader to clear the land at the new site and make it ready for planting.
In a detailed document outlining the villagisation plan, the regional government had written that the relocations aimed to “bring socioeconomic and cultural transformation of the people”. The timeframe was ambitious: in three years, starting in 2010, 225,000 people (or 60% of the population) would be relocated in Gambella. Nationwide, across Ethiopia’s fertile lowlands, the government aimed to relocate up to four million people in five years.
Ethiopia is in a race to develop. In a similar fashion to Rwanda, the authoritarian government, lacking a democratic mandate, has staked its claims to legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, and it is in a terrible hurry. During the past decade, Ethiopia has pursued a Chinese-style rush to develop its economy: locking up dissenters, crushing the opposition with a succession of 99% electoral victories, and building massive road, rail, agribusiness and hydropower schemes without pausing to conduct the necessary social and environmental impact assessments.
Nonetheless, despite still knocking along the bottom of every poverty index, Ethiopia has earned a reputation as a development success story, and donors, including the UK, are very keen to help, praising Ethiopia’s apparent strong progress towards the UN’s millennium development goals: increasing primary school enrolment and improving statistics on access to healthcare, water and so on. But donors are steadfastly silent on human rights abuses. Ethiopia receives more aid than any other African country – close to $3bn per year, or about half the national government budget. For the donors, Ethiopia is a priority, a linchpin of their development efforts, research and policy; especially so for the UK, where rising aid budgets have propelled Ethiopia into second place, behind Pakistan, as the recipient of the most British aid.
Until 2015, the main vehicle for aid spending in the country was a huge multi-donor fund managed by the World Bank called the promotion of basic services (PBS), the largest of its kind in the world, to which the British Department for International Development (DfID) was the largest single contributor. Over 10 years since 2006, the PBS scheme has invested around $12bn (including around $3bn from DfID) in five sectors: roads, water, health, education and agriculture.
In Gambella, the government’s plans for delivering these things took the form of villagisation. The inhabitants of Opik’s village, though, were mistrustful of the government’s intentions. There had been no dialogue, no consultation. If the government had done little for them before, why would they suddenly start caring now? They suspected a plot to steal their land. They had heard of investors coming to test soil in certain areas.
Their suspicions were well founded. In Opik’s district, the allocation of land for agribusiness was well under way. Information was patchy, but a study by the Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, estimated that in Gambella, at that time, the government had leased or marketed 42% of the region to investors. Speaking to investors in India, government officials referred to the land on offer as “unused,” “under-utilised” or “completely uninhabited”.
After that first visit, the elders of Opik’s village held a meeting and agreed that the next time the government came, they would inform the officials that they did not agree with the plan. They did not want to leave their ancestral home. At the next meeting, they duly spoke up. Government officials called them “inciters” and arrested them. They were still being held in the town jail on the day the soldiers came back to carry out the evictions. So this time, Opik knew not to argue.
* * *
All along the riverbank in Opik’s village the maize was standing tall, ready for harvest. Someone protested that they could not leave the crops: the monkeys and termites would have a feast. “Don’t worry about your crops,” one of the soldiers said. “You can come and get them after you have built your houses.”
Opik, his wife and their six children walked with the rest of the village in sombre silence for several hours through the hot bush, escorted by the soldiers. He reckoned the new location was about three or four miles away from their old village. When the soldiers finally halted, he was dismayed. The ground was poor, not fertile. The scrub was dense; it had not been cleared. There was a road nearby, but otherwise, there was nothing: no school, no clinic, no well, no grinding mill, and most ominous of all, no food.
That first night, they slept under trees. The soldiers camped nearby. The next day, under supervision of the soldiers, they began the arduous job of clearing the land and then constructing tukuls, traditional huts made of sticks and straw. Schoolchildren from a nearby town arrived in trucks to help with the cutting; they had been told there was a “national campaign”, and that normal lessons were suspended; each week they went to a different village to help. This was what the government meant by a “participatory approach” in its villagisation plan. Opik’s own children helped, too. Their old school was too far for them to return to – a three-mile walk in the other direction from their old village. No one was paid.
Opik resented the work. He did it slowly. And people who were slow with their work or who asked questions of the soldiers were beaten. Several young men ran away in the night. The villagers were tired. There was no food. Once, at the beginning, the government distributed wheat to the villagers. But mostly, they lived on roots and berries. Some people boiled leaves from the forest. After three weeks, when construction was finished, the soldiers departed. The very next day, Opik and most of the men walked the two hours back again to their old village to see what had become of the harvest.
It was just as they had feared. Baboons had rampaged through the maize fields, stripping the plants. Rats had taken care of the rest. Back in the new village, things were desperate. People were starving to death. After several people had died from malnutrition, Opik and some of the other men sneaked back each day to farm at their old site.
In October 2011, officials came to visit the new village to see how the move had gone. At the meeting, Opik was one of the most outspoken in denouncing the evictions. “He was that kind of person,” a friend later recalled. A few days later, just after dark, soldiers found him sitting outside his house in the new village. He said they took him and several other so-called troublemakers to a military camp, where he was gagged, beaten with rifle butts and accused of being a terrorist. After three days, the soldiers released him.
He felt lucky to be alive. In the preceding months, everyone had heard stories about young men being rounded up, and about elders who had refused to move being found dead on the roads in the morning. Without saying goodbye to his family, Opik fled, dodging the police and militias, following the route taken by hundreds of other Anuak refugees from villagisation: to the refugee camp of Gorom in South Sudan and then, after a journey of several weeks overland by bus, to the Dadaab camp in Kenya, where he arrived in December 2011. By the end of that year there were 2,155 Gambellan refugees in Dadaab. The Ethiopian government claimed there were none. In Dadaab, Opik met others who had fled from different parts of the region.
In January 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a damning report (which I edited) about villagisation, detailing rapes, murders and forced evictions. It described soldiers destroying crops and burning villages to discourage people from returning, and government officials who questioned their orders being sacked from their jobs and ending up at Dadaab among the refugees. The report accused western donors, including DfID and the World Bank, of complicity in the evictions. For their part, the donors asserted they had no direct involvement in the villagisation programme.
Confronted with the allegations, representatives from the Development Assistance Group (DAG), the consortium of donors to Ethiopia, said that a team of officials from DfID, USAid and Unicef had conducted visits to Gambella in February and June 2011 to look into rumours of abuses connected to villagisation. DfID and USAid did not share or publish their own assessments, but said that while they had found problems with the evictions, the relocations were, in their view, on the whole, voluntary.
Throughout 2012, HRW, the Oakland Institute and several MPs asked DfID to publish the findings of its own field visits to Gambella. It refused.
Meanwhile, after reading the HRW report, and the donors’ claims that evictions were voluntary, the Gambellans in the refugee camps were outraged. In baking hot Dadaab, without a green shoot in sight, and with nothing else to do, the Anuak talked politics all day. Opik quickly became a regular orator. The Anuak wanted the donors to come and speak to the victims themselves, in the refugee camps. The communities in exile in the camps wrote to the consortium of donors inviting them to come and meet them. They claim they got no response.
The Anuak had to wait 10 months for a clue. In October 2012, after questions were asked in the British parliament, the findings of the DfiD visits were quietly deposited in the House of Commons library. They described massive flaws in the villagisation programme, inadequate services and insufficient food, possibly requiring an emergency response.
The first report, which has since disappeared from the parliament website, noted that more than half of respondents had said they did not want to move. The report warned of a “potential humanitarian crisis” due to the people’s “limited livelihood options”. It also warned of “reputational risks” to donors’ aid programmes. This, then, was the heart of the matter.
There is almost no government activity in Ethiopia that is not underwritten by foreign money. Through the PBS programme, DfID, the World Bank and other donors were in effect paying for the promised services in the new villages, and they were wary of being implicated. Taking the refugees’ stories seriously would complicate billions of dollars of investment and undermine the narrative about Ethiopia’s success story. Villagisation presented an awkward contradiction between the dash to develop and the rights of the people supposedly being “developed”. To borrow a recent phrase, DfID’s Ethiopia programme had become “too big to fail”.
* * *
The blindness of foreign donors to such abuses is, ironically, part of a success story. When Bob Geldof first conceived of the charity pop single Do They Know It’s Christmas?, he had no idea how it would transform British political culture. The campaigns of Band Aid, Live Aid and Comic Relief have succeeded beyond anything they could have imagined. Images of starving Africans shown annually (along with red noses) have defined the continent for several generations of Britons since 1984.
For first Tony Blair and now David Cameron, the essentialising of Africa has been a useful political arena for the exercise of idealism untainted by politics. It was a deft move, following the Iraq war, to establish the Blair Commission for Africa and the Make Poverty History campaign. For Cameron, ring-fencing aid spending “was a key part of the compassionate Conservative makeover,” a senior former No 10 adviser told me.
As a result, there is now an unusual cross-party consensus on maintaining aid spending at 0.7% of national income, regardless of how it is spent. The hard ideological work done by UK charities over the past 30 years has been facilitated by generous grants from DfID in order to build public support for the 0.7% figure. The need to give aid has become a national interest, but that protected budget creates enormous pressure to spend, and pressure to spend narrows the space for reflection or caution.
The money going out of DfID’s door has grown: from £2bn in 1997 to £12.2bn in 2015/16. In poor countries, only governments can effectively spend such large sums. In the mid-1990s, DfID forged partnerships with leaders who appeared to be committed to tackling poverty, such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni or Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi (Zenawi died in 2013, having picked his successor; the other two are still in power, nearly 20 years later). But when Zenawi gunned down hundreds of opposition protesters in 2005, and when Kagame funded warlords pillaging neighbouring Congo, DfID’s policy came unstuck. In both cases it suspended aid briefly, but resumed it under new programmes with different names in a matter of months.
A former chief economist of DfID, who did not want to be named, told me, “If you’re asking, ‘Am I prepared to tolerate a certain level of human rights abuses in exchange for progress on development?’, the answer is yes.” The question, then, is who decides what constitutes a “tolerable” level of repression in the absence of a democratic system?
By 2012, it was not only Opik and the abuses in Gambella that DfID was required to tolerate in order to maintain its spending in Ethiopia. There were hundreds, or possibly thousands, of political prisoners, including the PEN laureate journalist Eskinder Nega. Most independent newspapers and NGOs had been shuttered. Torture was routine, as were horrendous abuses in a long-running counter-insurgency campaign in Somali region. And other areas of land were being grabbed. In the historic Unesco world heritage site of the Omo Valley – the river that feeds Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake – the Ethiopian government announced plans to create 245,000 hectares of irrigated sugar plantations, threatening the slow death of Lake Turkana, and the livelihoods of approximately 300,000 people living there.
Once again, in early 2012, just as Opik was settling into the Dadaab camp, DfID and USAid duly sent monitors to investigate the stories coming out of the Omo Valley about indigenous people being killed, intimidated and driven off their land. The translator accompanying the officials was an American called Will Hurd, who spoke the Mursi language and had lived in the region for many years. The team spent a day with the Mursi and Bodi people, and Hurd taped the conversations, in which they explained at length how they were being forced to move from their traditional lands.
“I thought the DfID guys sounded sympathetic. I was impressed,” Hurd told me. He kept in touch with the officials and asked to see a copy of their report. Meanwhile, stories of forced evictions and the impending catastrophe facing the Omo valley peoples appeared in the British and North American media. But, once again, no report appeared from DfID. Concerned at the silence from DfID and USAid, Hurd sent the officials the transcripts. After hearing nothing, he contacted an NGO that campaigns on behalf of indigenous people, Survival International, and they encouraged MPs to ask questions in parliament.
Finally, on 5 November 2012, 10 months after Hurd had visited the region, Justine Greening, then and now the secretary of state for international development, told parliament that DfID “was not able to substantiate the allegations of human rights violation it received during its visit to South Omo in January 2012” and promised another visit to follow up. Hurd was furious and gave the Guardian transcripts of people telling the DfID officials about forced evictions. DfID’s response to the resulting Guardian story is instructive. It said in a statement: “To suggest that agencies like DfID should never work on the ground with people whose governments have been accused of human rights abuses would be to deal those people a double blow.”
A former head of DfID Ethiopia said to me, in relation to the relocation of the Omo peoples, “but if they’re being relocated anyway, aren’t we making their lives better?” She could not see that there was a problem with underwriting the transaction. It is almost impossible for those who make a living dispensing aid to imagine how easily it can become a tool of repression. She evinced a kind of helplessness, whereas a report by the Oakland Institute into alleged cover-ups of human rights abuses noted that DfID and USAid are, “wilful accomplices and supporters of a development strategy that will have irreversible devastating impacts on the environment and natural resources and will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.”
By September 2012, Opik and the others in Dadaab had despaired of waiting for an answer to their request for a meeting with the donors. That same month, the World Bank renewed the PBS programme for a third phase, costing $4.9bn (£3.4bn), with DfID kicking in an unprecedented $778m (£533m), almost as much as all the other donors combined. The Anuak in the camp discussed what to do and, with the help of some friends, they decided on two things.
One was to file a complaint to the World Bank seeking an investigation into what was being done with donors’ money. The other was to get in touch with the Leigh Day law firm in London, which had agreed to put together a claim for judicial review against the British government if they could select a plaintiff on behalf of the community. The community selected Opik. To protect him against reprisals from the Ethiopian security services who are active in the Dadaab camp, henceforth, and in all legal documents, he was to be known as Mr O.
* * *
A succession of British journalists subsequently made the long trek up from Nairobi to the Dadaab camp to sit in the shade and listen to Mr O and others recount the histories that had caused them to file suit. Finally, the world was paying some attention, the Anuak felt. But some sections of the UK media were affronted that a man in a Kenyan refugee camp could sue the British government for the misuse of British aid that was intended to help him. To the right wing, Mr O’s case was confusing: it was not an argument against aid but rather a call for more humane and intelligent spending.
The curious case of Mr O v the Secretary of State for Development is indicative of how little the department listens to those it is ostensibly trying to help. DfID is perhaps the least accountable ministry: its operations are far away and its beneficiaries do not vote in the UK. The MPs who sit on the select committee on international development are, on the whole, friendly cheerleaders untouched by any real political pressure, except to maintain aid spending at 0.7%. And the relatively new Independent Commission for Aid Impact has a tiny budget and is mainly concerned with, as it says, the impact of aid, not the underlying rationale or strategy.
For DfID, unused to scrutiny, the lawsuit came as a shock. A full year after Anuak refugees in the camps in South Sudan and Kenya had invited them, officials finally announced plans for a visit. The Anuak refugees were delighted. As a solicitor explained to Mr O through a translator, the claim put together by Leigh Day alleged that DfID had failed to follow its own human rights policy. In effect, they claimed, DfID had knowingly ignored human rights problems in order to keep spending. DfID needed to show that it had made reasonable efforts to investigate claims of rights abuses and had adjusted its programming accordingly. The 2012 report read: “Given the gaps in the implementation of the DAG principles and guidelines for resettlement, it remains unlikely that international donors or aid agencies would be able to provide any additional developmental financing explicitly aligned with supporting the Gambella villagisation programme.” The key word is “explicit”: funding continued nonetheless.
All DfID’s work with partner countries is supposed to be governed by principles that spell out the nominal importance of democracy and human rights in the development relationship. In pre-trial letters, Leigh Day asked what mechanisms DfID had for assessing or measuring progress on human rights against the partnership principles. It became increasingly clear that the answer was none.
Mr O and the Anuak believed in DfID’s good faith. They assumed that if only officials met them and talked, the whole matter could be resolved. But still DfID didn’t come to Dadaab. Officials instead made a day trip to the camp in South Sudan and spoke to a handful of refugees, concluding nothing. For Mr O, this was the principal charge against the UK government: that they had not come to hear the refugees’ side of the story. For DfID, it seemed, once the policy of supporting Ethiopia had been decided, no amount of data, however disturbing, was going to change its mind.
Of all the academic economists working on Ethiopia, I could not find one who was willing to speak on the record for this article. Much of the professional field of development studies is dependent on DfID research grants, with many academics serving on multimillion-pound study teams.
“If you challenge the consensus and make headlines, it is going to make your life harder,” said one economist at a London university, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Career progression is not just about where you publish, it is also about the amount of money you can raise and, in that regard, DfID is the biggest donor by miles,” he said. The two main centres of development studies research in the UK, the Overseas Development Institute in London and the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, have depended heavily on DfID contracts over many years: “If that dependence is not a kind of institutional capture, then I am not sure what is,” said Warwick’s Prof David Anderson, a rare critic.
Of the many reports of abuses in Gambella and Omo provided to DfID by credible organisations such as HRW, Survival International, Prof David Turton of Oxford University, and others, DfID told the court: “It is not possible to establish whether all or some of these allegations are well-founded.” Meanwhile, when the Ethiopian government claimed that the villagisation plan was voluntary, DfID said: “We consider these statements are made in good faith by the government of Ethiopia.”
* * *
The court was unimpressed. On 14 July 2014, after two years of resistance by DfID, Mr Justice Warby granted permission for a judicial review upholding Mr O’s claim that DfID “has in effect ignored, or chosen not to enquire further into, factual allegations which are plainly relevant to the [human rights] assessment.”
When the call came through to Mr O’s sandy compound in the Dadaab camp, there was jubilation. The hearing was scheduled for February 2015. Then came more good news.
In November 2014, the World Bank Inspection Panel that had been requested by the Anuak reported that “given the magnitude of the financing”, donors had ignored the risks of inadvertently funding villagisation, and it pointed out that the donors’ monitoring and evaluation systems were all but useless. The donors’ assertions that their expensive and controversial programme was delivering “development”, the panel found, were not supported by evidence.
Evaluations of PBS relied on figures supplied by the Ethiopian government; there were huge, unexamined risks of corruption in funnelling the money through the Ethiopian treasury, and the metrics used to measure success were simply the things purchased by the programme, such as schools built, wells dug, pupils enrolled or teachers hired. The donors had, in fact, no way of measuring whether those things actually benefitted the populations concerned.
The panel’s indictment of the Ethiopia programme was unequivocal. There was, they wrote [pdf download], a “thin” results framework for PBS, which “put little emphasis on the quality of or impact of basic service delivery”. After 10 years, despite all the billions of dollars spent, there was no way of knowing the impact of those teachers, nurses, and agricultural workers on the material lives of Mr O and his neighbours in the villages.
It was a technical acknowledgement of what Gambellans knew for themselves. One of the refugees in Dadaab who came from the same region as Mr O ruefully pointed out that in their old village there was a school under a mango tree. In the new village, donor money had paid for a new school building. The children, however, were too hungry to attend, roaming instead in the forest looking for food, “but now the government can show the world there is a ‘school’”.
When so much money is at stake, the incentives to demonstrate progress are extremely high. The numbers are crucial, as the scholar Filip Reyntjens points out in relation to Rwanda, in the trade-off between development and repression: “If this ‘development’ is not based on evidence, as appears to be the case now, all that is left is repression (for which the evidence is overwhelming).” Suddenly DfID’s defence looked a lot more shaky.
* * *
In February 2015, at the beginning of his third year in the refugee camp, Mr O took a final call from his solicitor at Leigh Day, telling him he had won. A week before the judicial review hearing, DfID had backed down, announcing it was ending support for PBS in Ethiopia. DfID later claimed in court that its decision to stop funding had nothing to do with Mr O and Gambella. It cited concerns related to civil and political rights at the level of the overall partnership with Ethiopia. But it seems likely that, in the light of the damning World Bank report, DfID feared the court would force it to design and implement a transparent policy for assessing human rights, which might limit its ability to freely transact with some of the world’s ugliest regimes.
It was an enormous climbdown for DfID. Their biggest bilateral programme in the world, worth billions of pounds, cancelled. After getting off the phone, Mr O called a community meeting. The Anuak gathered round to hear the news. “We did not expect such a victory,” Mr O told me. But the celebratory mood quickly dulled.
Would this mean that the UK would now persuade the Ethiopian government to stop selling Anuak land, someone asked. Can we go home? Nobody knew the answer. As the months passed, the Anuak kept waiting for something to happen, some consequence of the legal victories so hard won. When it came, it was not what they expected.
After six months, the Ethiopian government arrested a pastor who had worked as translator for the World Bank Inspection Panel in Gambella, and two other indigenous rights activists raising awareness of land grabs, and charged them with terrorism. In September 2015 the European Commission released more documents that detailed a horrific picture of the death of a whole way of life for thousands of indigenous peoples being evicted from the Omo valley. News came from Mr O’s family that soldiers had repeatedly questioned his wife about his whereabouts. Then more news: his former farm had been ploughed by tractors and now belonged to an Ethiopian businessman, who was growing rice and beans along the riverbank.
The World Bank accepted a rap on the knuckles for the massive flaws in the PBS programme but did not cancel it. DfID re-routed funds to other programmes in Ethiopia, the aid flowed to the authoritarian regime as before. In late 2015 and early 2016, famine threatened. No one asked the obvious question: how much has Ethiopia’s brutal, donor funded, economic experiment contributed to the collapse in livelihoods?
In December, I tried to contact Opik. I phoned the translator in Dadaab, who said Mr O had gone away. With his land effectively gone and the case finished, there was no reason to stay in the refugee camp. Mr O had left, he said, “to find life”, somewhere else. Exiled from his family and his beautiful homeland, he had joined the continental throng of homeless, stateless persons whose sad stories are told more quietly and less urgently than the confident shouts of “Africa Rising”.
• Ben Rawlence is the author of City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, which will be published by Granta on 4 February
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