Meles Zenawi says: No land grab in Ethiopia—Not today, not tomorrow

9 Aug

Why could he not succeed in refuting the massive evidences of displacements & abuses?

    “All of it is our land. Come here; you will get a lovely shot from here! Look at that river taking a gentle turn. What we need to export we would put on a small boat to South Sudan, North Sudan, and go to port Sudan…We are creating history here! This is what is happening here! This is land that has never been tilled from the time God made us! This is virgin land! It is green gold, if you know what green gold is! This is green gold!”

    Sai R. Karuturi, Chief Executive Officer, Karuturi Global Ltd (KARG),
    Speaking to a visitor he brought to Gambella, Western Ethiopia, and pointing into the vast horizon of his 300,000-hectare agricultural empire that he got on lease for 99 years. He has now purchased two tugboats for the purpose.

    “When food becomes scarce, the investor needs a weak state that does not force him to abide by any rules…” With risk, you have to look at risk and reward together — this is why we pick our areas very carefully…There’s always an issue of instability. There’s no perfect scenario. We’re not investing in the U.S. This [Southern Sudan] is more frontier land. It’s also extremely fertile land.”

    Philippe Heilberg, Jarch Capital
    Food and water drive Africa land grab, Reuters, 21 January 2010; UPI 29 April 2010 Le Monde Diplomatique.

    “What we are doing is putting all unutilized land in this country and we have a lot of unutilized land in the lowlands…What we have done is to build infrastructures in those areas and therefore open up the area for investments both by domestic and foreign private sector on the basis of a clearly set out lease arrangement. That is a win-win arrangement. It is not a land grab. And, therefore, we are very comfortable with the fact that we have put in place all the necessary guidelines, environmental and otherwise, to make sure that everyone benefits from this exercise.”

    Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in an interview with Vickram Bahl of ITMN television on 26 June 2011 in Addis Abeba.

    “Nobody consulted us; our lands are taken by force. Our government did not even call a meeting of villagers to discuss the matter. I have eleven-member family. And I no more have land. Even my livestock have no grazing lands. This is a situation that forces us to pick arms.”

    A displaced Gambellan surrounded by his friends, colleagues and neighbors, speaking to John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, March 2011.

    “You cannot speak freely about the land issue now.You can be arrested or even killed for this.This is a dark period for all indigenous people living in the south-west of the country.”

    A local person in Gambella speaking on condition of anonymity to Ed Butler of the BBC, 16 Dec 2010.

    “The real issue in Africa is that a lot of these deals are done in secret…The small-holder farmers who stand to lose their land are not consulted. No one is sure the amount of money declared is the real amount.”

    Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. His NGO is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (African farmland deals need rules, grass-roots warn, Reuters, 30 Mar 2010).

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin*


There is very thin line between loathing transparency and telling lies*

LANDGRAB. We have heard all the arguments about it, for and against. To date, numerous audio and video materials have surfaced, documenting displacements and mistreatments of Ethiopians, i.e., beatings, torched villages, some of them heart-rending and enraging. It has now reached a stage where it has become impossible to ignore or discount the persistent allegations of stories of removal under armed guards of individuals from their farms and villages. The BBC’s Ed Butler for the Business Daily program reported about people enveloped in fear and insecurity, as can be seen from .

Unfortunately, the government of Ethiopia has not so far presented satisfactory and truthful explanations about its actions, let alone credible defense of its role as agency and facilitator of the abominable practices of farmland grabbing, shown here by evidences, one amongst the many is that of John Vidal, the Guardian‘s environment editor:

The latest high-level attempts to undo once and for all these allegations and the various charges, with futuristic implications, against the Ethiopian state were led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn on Indian television in June 2011 and December 2010, respectively. It is unfortunate that they have not managed to do what they have wanted because of their failure to properly and honestly read the reality on the ground. As I will discuss in the series that follows this article, the two gentlemen were defensive. They were only seen scurrying in search of shelter in the existing national development goals to sublimate their illegal actions.

This is, because they know that no one in his right mind would be opposed to the state working to provide better life to its citizens. We already know that, for instance, the official figure for the number of people so far relocated in the official villagization program has been adjusted downwards to 125,000 from the target of 140,000 in Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambela for fiscal year 210/11, according to information by the Interior Minister Shiferaw Teklemariam (ENA, 7 August 2011).

In a country constantly battered by short cycles of hunger-drought-famine-good harvests drought…accentuated by poor and unproductive agricultural practices bordering destructiveness, the official reference here is to relocation of people to new locations to set up villages to provide them with governmental services. In Gambella alone, where the most controversies have centered, the target was to resettle 45,000 rural households, or 15,000 people in Ethiopian fiscal year 2003, with each household to be allocated 3-4 hectares.

I welcome this and, I trust, many well-meaning people too do. After all, all these strifes that diffuse the webpages is not about that, at least as far as this webpage is concerned. It is all about it not being an orderly and voluntary attempt to transform the lives of these Ethiopians, whose existence by successive regimes is only understood in the context of the border with the Sudan–a country that Ethiopia neither accepts from the heart nor can afford to ignore to live within a very delicate margin of good neighborliness. The issue here is the usual problem of all Ethiopians with the regime itself: its secretiveness, heavy-handedness and boisterously knowing it all attitude, only be found muddling through.

For reasons I would explain in a moment, let me say I watched with as great interest as ambivalence the nearly half hour long 26 June 2011 interview of the prime minister with Vickram Bahl, Editor and CEO of India’s ITMN television. The interview was current since it strictly dealt with the land grab issue, although its singular focus was how Ethiopia could safeguard the interests of Indian investors, instead of its own.

I seriously weighed the interview, because at the same time my mind was still processing message of the 27th McDougall Memorial Lecture on food security by Kofi Annan, Chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and former UN Secretary General and Nobel Peace Prize winner, which he delivered from Rome the night before the premier’s interview. How I liked Annan’s emphasis on the untold problem of the growing and ominous global retreat from the idea of a common purpose, based on shared values ( Surprisingly, that is one issue the mention of which is seen these days as awkward, even as indecent as ideological.

Nevertheless, the former United Nations Secretary-General’s stand was unequivocal in its conviction. He was emphatic in stating, “It is neither just nor sustainable for farmlands to be taken away from communities in this way [land grab], nor for food to be exported when there is hunger on the doorstep. Local people will not stand for this abuse – and neither should we.” He warned, “If countries cannot come together successfully to deliver food security – this most basic of human needs – our hopes for wider international co-operation look doomed…” This ties well with the words of the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), who in 2010 made it his mission to remind especially Africa from Dakar, Senegal, that in today’s world food sovereignty is not a matter of convenience. He knew what he was talking about. Because he is a man who has proven records in pulling millions of poor Brazilians out of generational poverty and exploitation within eight years.

The basis for my above-mentioned ambivalence was the prime minister’s demeanor, which from the outset clearly was apologetic to his clients, as he attacked his own people—those he referred to as “people who should know better”—merely for telling the truth. In so doing, one could even sense from his body language he was uncomfortable listening to himself. This is not to imply that his usual hominess with the media was lost. In fact, he had done well especially compared with the insufficiency his lieutenant exhibited in December 2010 during a similar encounter with the same journalist in Delhi, shortly after his anointment as Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister. He spoiled it with uncalled-for echoing and needless repetition of every word his boss has been uttering.

In recalling that infamous encounter, my intention here is not to awaken those unhappy memories of Ethiopians that from December 2010 through the following January pervaded the webpages, the underlying causes of which, I guess, must be disgust with the prevalence of loyalty over merit in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE). In this piece, therefore, I am trying to explore Vickram Bahl’s rationale in coming to Ethiopia in June 2011 to ask the prime minister the same set of questions he had already served the DPM/FM seven months earlier. In the absence of any plausible explanation, to my mind, it suggests that either the December interview did not satisfy Bahl or, it was his judgment that the interviewee had lacked sufficient authority to calm concerns of ITMN’s Indian audiences.

Mr Vickram Bahl hardly needs any introduction. He has effectively utilized the ITMN as his propeller that in turn, with him as editor-in-chief, has turned itself—by its claim—into content provider to other domestic and foreign broadcasters. For instance, programs such as Insight – with Vickram Bahl and Opportunities Overseas have already made him one of the most recognizable presences on the Indian economic and political airwaves. In India, he has somewhat gained fame and respectability as media savvy and guru of international politics, who is determined to open up the world for the rising India.

It was, thus, this that brought him to the attention of Indian businesses, which since the 1990s have shown that they have a good feel for what is sellable and acquirable—through purchase or acquisition—the shrewdness and vision that have propelled India onto its path to greatness. First order marketable on the Indian end is education, technologies and services and soft window loans to Ethiopia. On the Ethiopian side, there is export of agricultural commodities, which over the years has hardly helped to improve the trade balance that has consistently been heavily weighted in favour of India. This would assuredly worsen now, a thing that had worried the visiting Indian prime minister in May 2011, who politely expressed to his host his hope that Ethiopia’s balance of trade would gradually equalize India’s, as the economy grew.

Instead of taking note of the sentiments, concern and the caution with appreciation from an experienced leader who as finance minister in the early 1990s had made his mark on India’s rise today by overcoming its persistent economic sluggishness, caused partly by the balance of payments problems, his host ran outside to the press to play down the remarks. The Ethiopian prime minister told the Indian media, “Our bilateral trade is $660 million, which is peanuts compared to our overall trade. I am less concerned about the contents of the peanuts than about the fact that these are peanuts. It is the capacity to trade that we lack and this is what India is helping Ethiopia to develop through its investments.”

As a matter of fact, the meaning of this had not escaped those laser-mind Indian journalists from The Hindu, who picked up the balance of trade comment (Come and farm our virgin lands, Ethiopia tells India). The former Indian finance minister, who kindly shared his mind, is remembered, among others, as the person who in the early 1990s initiated India’s far reaching economic reforms, accompanied by the largest ever sale of Indian gold holdings to the IMF.

In a way, what is left for Ethiopia is to sale, packaged as a special form of service — leasing farms—a lot of it, probably half of the country, were it not for the government’s fear of the rising international criticisms, with the publication in May 2009 of International Land Deals in Africa. Also recall that, after the publication of this report, Ethiopia half-heartedly came out a week later to announce that it had rent out three million hectares of land. Anyways, this issue is something that leaves anyone wondering if there is any difference between farmland leasing and surrogate motherhood, both of which are governed by the same principles of the weak and the unfortunate losing all the time.

If it were not a broad generalization, I would say, surrogate motherhood is the case of desperate women in either poverty or debts choosing to carry a baby for someone for $10 or $15 thousands in the US. I am not sure about the latest rate in other countries. Once the baby is born, whatever ties a mother would have with the baby are severed with the umbilical cord. She would never get to care for the baby or help it grow, fend for him with her maternal instincts voice and contact with her breasts, as nature has wanted it. After delivery, she would be barred from coming nearby the baby’s adopted parents’ residence. As standard practice, a surrogate mother would never claim the child is hers, despite she being responsible for the carrying, delivering and the genetic markers she has imprinted the baby with.

Similarly, farmland leasing imposes enormous obligations on the land renting Ethiopian state, mainly in:

    •Delivering the specified size lands on a given date, often larger in Ethiopia’s case than what the lease agreement says, because of lack of capacity to measure properly area sizes;
    • Building roads and other infrastructures with the country’s meager resources;
    • Severely dealing with ‘trouble makers’, the new title of farmers thrown out of their ancestral lands and villages; and
    • Preventing trespassing into company properties, including by livestock that can no longer graze around the vast lands now taken by the foreign-owned farms. It is reported that in 2009, many displaced farmers had to sell their livestock at throw away prices, unable to take care of them because of which many took a hit on prices, according to an account on Addis Fortune, entitled Stranger coms to town, 23 August 2009 that led the Indian Embassy to feisty protest.
    • The leasing country is often subject to political pressures from the capital exporting countries that the Karuturis of this world are especially gifted in taking advantage of to get anything they want.

Recently, there popped up a short-lived controversy over the news that the Ethiopian government had cut down the 300,000 hectares given to Karuturi Global Ltd (KARG) to 100,000 hectares. Rumor has it that some from the Indian Embassy in Addis Abeba immediately raised concern at a reception. Undoubtedly, there must have been interest on the Ethiopian side to reduce the abominable size of Karuturi’s holdings, which the media dubbed as ‘the deal of the century.’ It has Karmjeet Sekhon, KARG’s project manager, who recalls “we never saw the land; they gave it to us and we took it”, according to The Guardian, Ethiopia at centre of global farmland rush 21 March 2011.

The desire to cut Karuturi to size was also confirmed first by Esayas Kebede, the former director of agricultural support services of the ministry of agriculture, and later retreated. At that point, there was also talk of conditions on food exports. Immediately, Karuturi hit back putting on his webpage his lease agreements and stating that he was free to sale his food products wherever in the world, no conditions to build anything in Gambela—no schools or anything—unless it was a goodwill gesture. As if suddenly waking up, before the arrival of the Indian prime minister on a visit to Ethiopia, things had to solved without any delay, lest it clog the loan pipeline Ethiopian anticipates for railway construction or other forms of cooperation with India.

There is no doubt that the country must have woken up to the reality it finds itself in; its options are limited. This issue had also surprised Africa Updates, which on 19 June observed:

“The question here is, why this public spectacle of this dispute between the FDRE and Karuturi when it all apparently came to nothing? Was it to please critics of the land deals? Was it to intimidate Karuturi in some way by using misleading information to influence stock prices—which could be considered a crime under securities law in most countries? Was it meant to give an open door to any opportunistic “insiders” to make some lucrative investments at the time the stock reached its lows? Whatever the motivation, it makes one wonder!”

Consequently, as in the case of a surrogate mother without any options, the blankness in that two-page 99 years lease that was a heavily guarded secret until recently showed that the fundamental interests of our nation have been pushed into the hands of foreign investors in Ethiopian agriculture, the backing of their wealthy countries behind them.

So, what is Vickram Bahl’s motive?

Central to Vickram Bahl’s mission in Ethiopia was, as mentioned above, the concerns of Indians for the safety and security of their investments in Ethiopian agriculture. That is why I found the prime minister’s interview sort of political drama. At the encounter between the two persons, Vickram Bahl initially delicately treated the rise of the guerilla-fighter-turned-statesman-prime minister. Even in a matter of fact manner, relations between Ethiopia and India, en passé touch aside, were left to sort out each other. The conversation, therefore, was mostly dominated by the unyielding uncertainties of Indians in Ethiopia, presumably, according to Bahl, the negative experiences of Indians in East Africa in the 1970s influencing today’s attitudes.

Soon after, he effectively worked his way into plucking out information on the degrees of land security and insecurity in Ethiopia, as his way of assessing the security of the investments. Experienced and mild mannered, as he appears, his questions offered a peep into the personal side of the interviewee’s life, perhaps intended to grease him gently to speak out a little more openly. After brief ambience-setting introductory exchanges on the usual staff: education, career and achievements of the prime minister, Vickram Bahl delved into his main preoccupation on behalf Indian investors.

After all, India being the largest investor in Ethiopia, with already $ 5 billion at work, of which 70 percent is in agriculture, the primary concern was what would happen in the event of political crisis, since land development means pouring money into immovable assets. He thus shot the first set of questsions, as follows:

    • “There is also the question of farming for Indians in Ethiopia, where you are getting out land to Indian farmers who wish to come here, corporates as well as individuals, who wish to come here and set up large farms. This of course has also brought about a debate in your country about the issue of giving land to foreigners; especially in view of the fact privatization of land in Ethiopia is also being debated. Currently all the land is held by the government. Do you think that this would in some way dampen the initiative that you have taken on leasing land to farmers from India who can come here develop the farming and sell the crops in an open market?”

This then was followed by another question vital to the journalist and ITMN’s mission to Ethiopia:

    “At the same time Indians have suffered in the past in some countries in Africa, where they have been asked to leave when a regime changes. In this case, there will be a concern that if your government is giving land on long lease, which could be fifty years, subsequent government may reverse this policy. Is there any risk of that?”

On this latter point, I must assume that, as a reasonably well-equipped journalist, Vickram Bahl must have heard how Karuturi has pulled off the 300,000 hectares for 99 years in Gambela. But surely, he must have felt it was abominable for him for a mention with his own words.

For the last time, for now, he tried again to poke through the land privatization angle since that holds the key to his preoccupation on behalf of Indian investors:

    “There is also a debate on privatization, I believe, in your country. Do you plan in the future at some time to privatize landholding for your Ethiopian population?”

*(A revised and enriched version)

(To be continued…)

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