Gambella villagization — tidbit of truths slowly emerging in defiance of coverups & falsehoods

16 Feb

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

The objections and criticisms to the resettlement programs in Ethiopia, past and present, are not fostered or designed by someone or a sinister group out there to render Ethiopia squishy because of ideological hostility to the country and its leaders, as the prime minister on 8 February 2012 alluded in parliament during the question and answer session. Also it is not based on opposition by the international community to settlements per se, i.e., as if it were a taboo of sorts.

While it is not surprising that our leaders should suffer from lack of institutional memory, they should, however, find it helpful to realize that resettlements were first proposed to the Ethiopian government as a package of projects decades ago by the World Bank to move people from lands that have failed them in several districts in the country to more fertile parts. That not being worked out successfully, today millions of our compatriots to be precise in 290 districts of the country have become dependent on international humanitarian aid under the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP).

Therefore, the problems encountered experienced in implementing resettlement or villagization program have taken the form of manifest opposition or systematic reaction from within and open criticisms and vilification from abroad have more to deal with the manner of its implementation. That is to say disagreements underlie the program’s implementation doubts being expressed whether it has been voluntary, the concerned people and communities have voice, are active participants in its design and implementation and that there is unmistakable reliability of the projects underway that people would be better off in their new environs now and over the long-term.

The for and against of villagization as it is being played out

While the Ethiopian government claims that the program it has been implementing meets the above criteria, its words have lacked both potency and credibility to convince those that mostly are concerned with and for respect for fundamental human rights of the individuals and families to be resettled and whether the approach envisioned has been holistic in the development sense — schools, health services, infrastructures, markets, etc.

If anything, the actions and virulent denials of the government regarding the failure of its resettlement program have fallen on disbelieving ears. This primarily is because of information filtering out from the settlers themselves that they have been forcibly relocated. They have alleged that they are thrown where nothing has been prepared for them. Most importantly, they have confirmed time and again to researchers, aid workers and the media about them being beaten, their shacks gutted out and the people forced out of their localities. What has stuck in my memory is the picture of gutted out villages in Gambealla, investigated in March 2011 by the Guardian’s environment editor John Vidal and his interview with State Minister of Agriculture Wondirad Mandefro.

A new village of Bildak in Ethiopia's Gambella region ( © 2011 Human Rights Watch )

For instance, quoting diplomatic sources in Addis Abeba, on January 24, 2011 Capital wrote that “a third of the 240 households that have been relocated in a state-run “villagization” program in Gambella region left resettlement areas during the first year of the initiative.” The paper attributes this to poor facilities and living conditions, according to the diplomatic source it talked to. The diplomat who spoke to Capital on condition of anonymity added, “Conditions are such that people decided to walk one or two hours back to where they came from last year.”

Government Communication Affairs Office Minister Bereket Simon picks up this and says:

    We have to clearly assess the situation on the ground. Even if there is credible information that shows that some people have left- out of some 20,000 people, it only shows that the government understands their right to leave the villages. They were voluntarily included into the program and they may exercise their right to leave the villages whenever they wish to do so which is fully respected by the state.

The minister even goes further and adds, according to Capital, lack of medicine and under equipped facilities can be seen from time to time and the federal and local governments have been meeting the demand as they arise. I thought I had heard the minister on 17 January 2011 giving the BBC a list of number of the amenities that have been built. He also said at the time that the government did not take the decision on villagization lightly since its objective is to help those people who are denied in the past such basic infrastructural amenities.

Perhaps in remembering that, when talking to Capital he returns to that same theme and amplifies it as follows:

    The approach has been to prepare the facilities in advance and relocate the people later; this will continue also in the future programs. However, some shortage may occur and we will respond to that as they arise but the efforts exerted to put in place the start-up facilities have been successful.

I do not think anyone expects the government to establish a resort for the settlers. The issue here is whether the government is caught in its haste to clear the lands for investors. Because of that it may have considered those people as creates of goods to be shipped away somewhere or to be pushed off the land.

Nonetheless, indicating that haste and consistent with what Capital wrote quoting its diplomatic source, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had also been involved in protecting and supporting 1,400 individuals that had run away from Gambella’s resettlement villages. Why do these people have to run away, if there is no danger to their lives, or the regime’s police and security organs have labelled them as troublemakers for demanding their rights.

The Ethiopian government says, according to Capital, the number of people who have left the resettlement program is very small. Their departure shows they are willing participants in the program and they are exercising their right to leave the village when they wish to do so, according to the government. This does not mean that there are no settlers that have become content with their new villages. The problem is that people must have experienced traumatic problems, given the Ethiopian state’s heavy-handedness. That is what the reports that filter out indicate.

You are not echoing what I am saying, so you are my enemy, says the government

The problem for the Ethiopian government is that the operational parameter of engagement with it is circumscribed by its notion that it is either its words or else everyone that has a different view is against it. As the essence of its statements on resettlements indicates, those that spoke anything different from what it says are seen as liars! This is a very difficult predisposition for the government itself to make amends in situations where mistakes are made or wrong policies are implemented.

For instance, in its response to all the allegations, above, and that of Human Rights Watch in Waiting Here for Death,the Ethiopia’s Ministry of Federal Affairs not only has it denied the allegations as a whole with wholly ideological overtones but also simply dismissed them as an expression of the organization’s hostility “that emanates from the market fundamentalism ideology advocated by neoliberals which Ethiopia does not accept.”

The small exception in approach to all this, however, and that I welcomed as encouraging is the partial admission by Kedir Yasin, Gambella’s point man for coordination of development activities. In an interview produced by the government’s propaganda arm Walta Inc video (Villagization in Gambela), he confidently underlined that the implementation of the region’s resettlement program had experienced serious constraints. In producing the video, the intention of Walta has been to counter the allegations by parading hand-picked settler interviewees who are heard praising the resettlement projects as the best thing that has ever happened to them.

There is always a better more productive ways of doing things

For a moment let us keep that on one side. At the same time, in that same video let us take into account what Ato Kedir Yasin said in so many words. He explained that the whole program has suffered from lack of construction workers, capable builders and untold capacity problems on every front. His conclusion is that this forced substantial delays in planned implementation of certain activities. This, he added, was further compounded by administrative failures in making sensible follow-up of program implementation.

To be honest, I was puzzled when I saw the video at first glance, mostly because of the unmistakable correspondence between his admission as a professional in charge and the allegations by Human Rights Watch in the above-mentioned report and what the anonymous diplomat had told Capital. In a way, it should teach good lessons to good students of government. Instead of making its case in the manner of Ato Kedir Yasin had done and seeking help where need, as a developing country still grappling with so many capacity limitations — the Ethiopian government chose, as part of its consistent patterns, to stand by the side of defensiveness, denials and it knows it better.

The whole thing left me wondering with the whys of this problem. I also wondered when our country would learn to engage all those that have different views from it and explain its position in a more honorable manner. As one can see from their words here, instead they preferred to throw volleys of senseless counter allegations and denials, or fabrication of charges to go after their critics.

This points to two things: the first is sign of drowning in a very perplexing ideological world view that officially and strictly operates on the plane of ‘them and us’. It only acts not from the position of in control of its environment and strength, but on instructions from a tiny single cell at the center. This inevitably renders the actor to becoming suspicious of everything, the excesses of which could lead to psychological disorder known as siege mentality — a sense of victimization and defensiveness. Secondly, these manifestations speak of someone, as individual or a nation, always trying to jump where the fence is short, since its self-preservation strategy has ‘escape’ in its default mode.

The fact of the matter is that by now the leadership ought to recognize that there is no shortcut to where they want to take Ethiopia, without having the people on their side! Two decades should have been more than enough for them to learn that the people have passed the stage of gullibility and manipulation by political cadres and their gimmickry about popular participation! They need to get over it, that has not worked in Ethiopia under the Dergue! It does not work on now either! The recourse to force and threats of use of force also produce only silent resistance that would liken the regime to a burrowed tree from within.

If the TPLF-led EPRDF were to examine their actions in some respects and most of their reactions objectively to every situation in the past two decades, they would be surprised. They would certainly reach one unmistakable conclusion from the consistency of their patterns of responses. They would see that they have needlessly created more frustrated and disenfranchised people from within and surprised and dismayed partners and observers from without to the country’s policies and heavily ideology-laced politics than true friends.

This needs changing, before it is too late!

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