Ethiopia on the verge of colony of many

Ethiopian farmers walk in their wheat field in Abay (Photo: Barry Malone)

Anyuak Media | January 31, 2010

By Kindeneh Mihretie

These days, most of us do not seem to have the patience to read an entire article. It is commonplace to hear friends complain about undue length of writings, be it opinion pieces or feature articles. The outcome is often that contributions on issues of existential challenge that require immediate attention end up being glossed over with essays on mundane subjects. Lest that be fate of this essay, herein below are the main points in one paragraph.

There is a massive “land grab” by foreign companies currently underway in Ethiopia, under the invitation of the regime in power. The move has settler colonialism written all over it. Indeed, it has already induced many in the international community, such as the UN, the EU, FAO to mention but few, to sound the alarm. Major news organizations that are otherwise notorious for their negligence of events pertaining to Ethiopia, have also described the move by echoing the word ‘colonialism’ one after the other. Ethiopians, who are supposed to carry the brunt of the consequence, are not however anywhere to be found in heeding the warning.

The main objective of this essay is therefore to draw the attention of fellow Ethiopians to the issue. So that it stays front and center in our contemporary political agenda, until we manage to mobilize the necessary popular pressure and try our best to stop it from taking effect. Similar measures of land grab in other countries, I should mention here, have led to popular outrages that delivered immediate results, ranging from cancellation of proposed deals in west Africa, to over throw of the regime in power in Madagascar.

In our case, beyond marveling at the sheer amount of land already disposed of and in the process of being grabbed, and what appears to be the near giveaway nature of the deals, news reports on the issue have so far fallen short of enlightening us on how exactly the doomsday is going to befall on us. This is partly because the nature and content of the contracts are shrouded in mystery, as the bargaining is conducted behind closed doors. The only journalist who seemed to have succeeded to get to the bottom of it is Jason McLure, a Bloomberg correspondent. His report suggests that the regime in power stands to rip off hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the short run. His eye opening report also hints at how the myths, the PR machine of the regime is busy fabricating to counter criticism on the issue are too fragile to stand the least amount of scrutiny. No wonder then that the correspondent found himself thrown out of the country shortly after his report was published late last December.

In this essay, I will try to do a few things. First, by joining the bits and pieces of information that has already come out together, I will debunk the three major components of the justification, by which the regime in power tries to portray the deals as success in attracting desperately sought after foreign investment. These are ensuring food security, idleness of the land set aside for lease, and creating jobs. While nothing of these sorts trickle down to the masses, the real motive, I will proceed to show lies elsewhere. Contrary to widespread assumptions that the regime in power is giving away land for no apparent attractive returns on its side of the bargain, I will show that as far as fattening the foreign bank accounts of the few in power is concerned, the ventures are gold mines. Even more than that, I will argue that the major motive of the regime in power in signing these deals is to ensure its indefinite hold on power, by turning the country under its rule, into a client state of powerful multinational corporations that have the potential to pull strings in their respective host nations whenever necessary on its behalf.

This of course will come at a huge cost to Ethiopia and Ethiopians. More directly, it will deny, at least three generations of the rural masses in and around the sites of the foreign holdings, any access to land and turn them into squatters, thereby instituting an agrarian system akin to settler colonialism, which needless to say, was the worst brand of colonialism. Indirectly, it will have a snowball effect in further complicating and exacerbating our existing woes as a nation. The deals will create external players who will find it necessary to meddle in our internal affairs in order to safeguard their interests.

Finally, if it is any help, I will also show that the “land grabs” currently underway are perhaps the best proof yet of the fact that the regime in power is surviving in an ideological vacuum. The two central pillars of its ideology have always been championing ‘the rights of nations and nationalities’ and promoting the economic welfare of the rural masses. It claims to have ensured the former, i.e., ‘the rights of nations and nationalities’ through a system of ethnic federalism whereby, all the major ethnic groups are given autonomy in their respective regional states. If so, whence does the mandate of the alleged agency of the federal government that gave away a huge chunk of Gambella, an area larger than the size of the entire nation of Luxemburg, to an Indian based company come from? As for the rural masses, the regime had always claimed to have stood guard of their small plots through a system of state ownership of land, so that bloody land grabbers would not make advantage of the peasant at difficult times of his need, such as famine. As a demonstration of its unflinching stance on the issue, the ruling party was consistently telling us that the land tenure system, which is set up under this rationale, would change only “’over the dead body of EPRDF”. Now that a state run agency is busy disposing of land, which used to belong to the rural masses, is it not fair for us to ask if EPRDF is already dead. Or shouldn’t the resurrected EPRDF tell us who make up its new constituency, if it is not the rural masses and ‘nation nationalities’ any more?

It is outright sale, not a long-term lease!

One of the things that stupefied observers invariably is the sheer vastness of the land the regime in power made available for foreign companies to grab. In one case alone Karuturi, a Bangalore based Indian company, has grabbed more than 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) of land in Gambella. Correspondents of major media outlets have each come up with their own unit of measurement to give their audiences a sense of the size. The Bloomberg correspondent we have already met, compared it with the size of Luxemburg. A reporter for The Guardian preferred to quote another manager working for Karuturi who proudly said, “It is 120 kilometers [75 miles] wide…Three hours to cross by Jeep.” A Japanese TV station impressed the size of the land upon its viewers by quoting another Karuturi manager who said that the entire land would take five months to cultivate. To give his Japanese viewers even a better sense of the size, the journalist added that it is 1.5 times the size of Tokyo. Karuturi has also leased land elsewhere in Ethiopia such as Bako. The Saudis on their part are trying to claim their share of the scramble chiefly through their surrogate, the billionaire Al-Amoudi. The Saudi team is operating with 15 billion dollars the government of Saudi Arabia set aside for companies to engage in agricultural ventures overseas. Al-Amoudi has also his own farming ventures for which he has already secured half a million hectares at various sites throughout the country. Other countries so far part of the scramble are Egypt and China.

As mentioned above, observers are also bewildered by what appears to be the giveaway nature of the deals. For example under the agreement, Karuturi does not have to pay a penny for the first six years for its holding in Gambella. Then it has to pay only 15 birr per hectare per year for the remaining 84 years of its 90 years lease. Reports show that similar land in other countries, for example in Indonesia, would cost more than 350 USD per hectare per year. Other incentives the foreign companies would enjoy include importing all their agricultural equipments and trucks duty free.

This makes it look like the land is given away virtually free of charge. That is until Jason McLure, the brilliant Bloomberg correspondent came around, who managed to snatch the most revealing statement so far about the deals from Omod Obang Olon, the president of Gambelle region, who the journalist found it necessary to add is “an ally of Meles”. Olom said that the companies pay the government of Ethiopia right now from “corporate income taxes and future leases”. This effectively means that the deals are on the spot sales than a lease! It means that, in the case of Gambella for example, the 90 years lease is calculated now and paid in advance, instead being spread over 84 years. This means that the regime in power gets all the money while future generations would have no claim whatsoever on the land for the next 90 years!! That seems why there is virtually nothing known about the details of the deals. It is done without the knowledge and approval of the even the rubberstamp parliament! The lucrative nature of the venture for the companies is evident for example from the statement of Karuturi’s head who told the Bloomberg correspondent that he expects 100 million dollars annual earning from the Gambella farm alone.

The Myth of Food Security

While this is the reality, as indicated above, the PR machine of the regime in power is busy putting out list of myths to make the deals appear investments beneficial for the country. The most ridiculous of the claims is that the agricultural ventures of the foreign companies would ensure food security. In order to debunk this claim, it suffices to note that the regime’s invitation for the foreign companies came last year, at a time when the world was dealing with the worst food crisis in decades. The crisis was set off by the rise of grain in the global market. In some of the countries that are now investing in food production in Ethiopia, the crisis had led to outbreak of serious riots. In the aftermath of the crisis, countries like India and Saudi Arabia realized that while they have excess wealth in the form of cash, they do not have arable land to produce enough food for their population. In response, they set up funds, and announced list of incentives for companies that would invest in agriculture elsewhere in the world. In other words, outsource food production. That is how all the companies currently scrambling for land in Ethiopia found themselves here. It is therefore the worst perversion of reality to tell Ethiopians that companies operating under this background would solve local food shortage.

In other words, the base of the claim that these companies would contribute towards food security in Ethiopia is that they would supply their products to the local market. However, from all the available evidence, it is crystal clear that there is nothing in the deals that require them to do so. It is also interesting in this regard to look at the items these companies are producing. Karuturi’s 300,000 hectares of land in Gambella is exclusively reserved for the production of palm oil. China is mostly interested in producing sesame seeds. I am not quite sure if these names are familiar in local food markets any where in Ethiopia.

The Myth of Idle Land

The regime tries to counter criticism about the amount of the land in two ways. One is by comparing its size with the total amount of arable land in the country. In this case, it says that it constitutes only a fraction of the total arable land, which is 74 million hectares. In order to appreciate the problem with this claim, it is enough to make a trip to any part of northern Ethiopia. It is clear that farmland is so scarce that mountainous areas that cannot in any way be designated as arable, and should have been covered with trees, are cultivated all the way up to the hilltops.

In this connection, it is also worth mentioning here a recent BBC Television report. The report was entitled “Ethiopia attracting foreign investment” in construction and manufacturing sectors. However, in terms of manufacturing, all the correspondent could show was an Indian factory that is engaged in paper production! It did not occur to the journalist to ask, of all things why paper? If she did, I am sure she would have discovered the juicy fact that would wait the appetite of the keen investigative journalist. Which is that, the wood for the production of paper might be coming from forests the same company is clearing for its palm oil and other cultivations! This speaks volumes about the claim that the land is idle.

In general, experts in the field will tell you that there is no such thing as idle land in Ethiopia, or anywhere in Africa. Studies after studies showed that competition for grazing land and access to water bodies are the two most important sources of inter-communal conflict in most parts of Ethiopia populated by pastoralists. Indeed, in almost every case of recent land grabs involving foreign enterprises, there are complaints by locals that they lost access to grazing land and water. This is the case for example both in Bako and Gambella.

Even worse, some of the land now grabbed by foreign companies used to be teff field! It is mind boggling as to what justifies giving a land in the outskirts of Addis which used to produce teff, the staple diet of most Ethiopians to an Indian company to produce corn for export. Is the difference between teff and corn yield per hectare enough justification to jeopardize the supply of teff for the ever-increasing population of Addis Ababa? No wonder that the price of teff keeps sky rocketing. The residents of Addis have therefore to see corn shipped to India while they forego their staple diet due to excruciating price, a result of decreasing supply in the face of ever-increasing demand.

As for job creation, people in Gambella now working at Karuturi’s palm oil fields as daily laborers, have already started complaining that they were much better off working there own land. No sooner had companies started operating than complaints of inhuman treatment also started to surface.

Child labor is also a common practice. According to one report, China has even threatened to bring its own workers unless the locals behave themselves, by which it meant accept reduction to servitude and treatment as squatters in a land, which Gambellans thought, was their own.

They asked for it! The Regions had Begged for it!

A seemingly inconsequential interview Meles gave to the host of an online opinion journal recently has produced an interesting response to the question as to where the central government’s right to lease the land of regional states came from. Meles said that the regional states begged the federal government to manage the land for them, for they are too illiterate to do so.

He also blamed the whole deal as the fault of the stupid and ignorant peasant! Only he puts the word into the mouth of imagined critics of his regime. As such, his statement is reminiscent of colonialists who took away virgin lands of Africans by claiming that the perpetually lazy and backward native was not capable of making any good use of it.

The response is also interesting for it came from the ardent patron of the rural masses, who perceives his role as “saving the peasant from his own rationality”. In explaining the position of his party on land tenure, the unflinching position of Meles was always that land should and will always remain in the hands of the state, because private ownership would induce the peasant to sell his small plot when he finds himself under difficult circumstances, such as, famine. Hence, in order to save the peasant from a rational measure under irrational circumstances, land should always remain under state control. In short, in the good old days, Meles’ love for the peasant was such that, he would rather have the peasant die of hunger than see him, i.e., the peasant, humiliate himself by trying to save his life by selling his land.

Most of us had always known better than buying such garbage. The reality had always been that without land the regime was afraid of losing its tight grip on the rural masses.

In any case, that is not the issue now. The issue now is that the country is literarily on sale, hectare by hectare! And let there be no mistake, these multinational corporations are here to stay! The question is then, are we going to do something about it, or continue to sit idle and acquiesce?

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

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