State engineered land grab & corruption are alive and well in Ethiopia

8 Jan

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

This piece found its origin in an article on Addis Fortune of Dec 30, 2012 under the title: New Agency Likely to Administer Land for Agricultural Investment.

In following the discusion indirectly and analyzing why Ethiopian officials now want to establish the so-called Ethiopian Agricultural Investment Land Administration Agency (EAIAA), what I learned, coupled with their past mishandling of the land issue, has made me skeptical of their intentions, especially their rendition of EAIAA’s role, mandate and objective(s).

I begin by stating that I see this as one of Ethiopia’s major problems, as a country that is governed by the whims of powerful people and those they delegate, but never by the rule of law and management by institutions. It sounds bizarre, but it is true that the big guys in Ethiopia or those with delegated influence often get hit by new ideas and seizure like impatience. Because of that institutions across the country are constantly made and unmade only to suffer stunted development, notwithstanding Ethiopia has long history in state organization.

Since the mid-20th century, this seizure has worsened, with accelerating pace all the time. Even before the impact of one measure of policy change or restructuring is assessed and future course is recommended, again new ideas take grip and new preparations are started to translate the latest one into action. ‘Fortunately’, so long as one is seized with seemingly doing something, accountability is not an issue of concern in Ethiopia’s public service system. The consequence of this is a longstanding tradition of lacking strong and functional institutions – and with it respect for the laws thereon.

This brings to mind how the first NATO Parliamentary Delegation to Ethiopia in 2010 sized up the approach to governance of Ethiopia’s leadership’. The delegation’s report on their mission to the country entitled VISIT TO TIGRAY AND ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA, from 23 – 29 October 2010 embarrassingly states:

    “The government rules in a kind of commando fashion rather than building up strong governance institutions. This leads to a personalization of politics which raises important questions about the long-term sustainability of the current order.

EAIAA is TPLF’s trojan horse

Like many citizens, who pay attention to such things, I fear that EAIAA and its agricultural economic zone (AEZ) is one of those things that sounds good, but a real poison in the current situation. The policy-makers and the ruling party may once again be taking everyone for a ride, as EAIAA is their signal about the end of the first wave of farmland grab and onset of the second one.

In anticipating what each and every little fibre inside the EAIAA could be, it is possible that rural land grab could resume with even greater ferocity. I am also fascinated by the lukewarm reception the idea is receiving from businesses, at time tempers flaring.

The fact that the EAIAA would be established now with approval by the council of ministers and endorsement by parliament would not change the distinct possibility of more people being dislocated and lands being robbed away from helpless individuals and rural communities. This is encouraged by the current inordinately small interest group politics that is running the country. Its approach to governance is guided by deliberate weakening of institutions to allow their own enrichment and robbery by others of the country’s resources.

One good example for this is why Meles Zenawi, shouting and ranting during parliamentary session in November 2006, attacked and dismissed one of the most experienced Auditor-Generals the country had – Ato Lemma Argaw – for his critical report on misuses of state resources by the federal government and some of the regions.

Since it was uneasy time, after the murderous 2005 election, and alliances were necessary for the TPLF leader with the regions, Meles defended (misrepresented/lied) the regional chiefs’ abuses of authority and squandering of resources, saying “they could even burn the money.” This hit hard the audit fragile institution (although founded in 1943). Beyond that, the irresponsible action by Meles as a national leader shattered respect for laws and the limits of authority when it comes to implementing actions limited in purpose and defined by law/regulations. In essence, Meles used his authority as prime minister to defend corrupt practices and misuse of authority.

As recently as last June, the World Bank, with the help of external inputs (including governments), a diagnostic study on corruption in Ethiopia, with and Janelle Plummer as Editor was finalized (Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia). It opens a fascinating window on the extent of corruption in Ethiopia.

In saying that, surely I would not like to be mistaken as oblivious to the fact that it would hardly bring new information to the everyday man in Ethiopia, who has to put up on a daily basis with the arrogance of power, lawlessness and diminished integrity of political leaders.

The study states that:

    “Although most corrupt activity in the land sector occurs at the implementation stage, the level of corruption is influenced strongly by the way policy and legislations are formulated and enforced. This influence can take many forms. For example, the capture of state assets by the elite can occur through the formulation of policy that favors the elite. Other examples are (a) inadequate provision fo resources to institutions mandated to administer land under generally sound policies or (b) abuse of power where policy is weak and unclear.”

In the case of the EAIAA, some of the very ‘engineers (picture), who are discussing its details are the same people who have been pushing and defending the dislocations of communities and tens of thousands of poor farmers from their fertile lands in Gambella, Oromia, SNNPR and parts of Amhara.

Berehane Gebreyohannes (right) , Tadesse Haile left and Wondiyirad MY (centre) discussing  EAIAA.

Berehane Gebreyohannes (right), Tadesse Haile left and
Wondiyirad MY (centre) discussing EAIAA. (Courtesy of Addis Fortune)

Wondirad Mandefro, crop geneticist by training and minister of state in the ministry of agriculture, told The Guardian’s John Vidal on 21 March 2011, “There is no movement of population. It’s their choice to have these basic services. But they have to abandon their previous way of life”, without batting an eye.

It is one thing to push the people of their lands for appropriation, a different ball game to persuade them and have them resettle, if they are open to the idea. They would not abandon their previous way of live because the state minister of agriculture has ordered. In the end, think and see to what tension and dupery that led especially in Gambella.

Of course, Ato Wondirad Mandefro was kowtowing the party line and the order of his boss Meles Zenawi. Meles had done exactly the same thing that year, when he swore to Vickram Bahl, Editor-in-Chief of India’s ITMN television that there was no land grab in Ethiopia and there would not be any land grab in Ethiopia.

That lie was couched in the following language:

    “Small-scale farmers have all the property rights they need, except the ability to buy and sell land. And that provides more protection to the small-scale farmer from being dispossessed in one form or another. This is the best policy for us in Ethiopia.[After all, he added] we have a constitutional order here. The constitution clearly states you do not disempower you do not grab property from anybody. There is a rule of law here and it is firmly entrenched in our system. That provides additional and, in my view, adequate protection to all investments, including agricultural investments…”

Even when he knew that was NOT true and not the practice, nevertheless, Meles tried did his juju tricks on Vikram Bahl to convince him that land grab was not feasible in Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, not many months had passed when he eventually turned Gambella and Afar regions into military garrisons, after the rural population was angered and some did not have choice but to raise arms.

Still, Meles argued:

    “First, these agreements [land grab] that we are signing with Indians as well as other foreign companies are precisely designed to make sure that everybody benefits. Once people begin to see the results of the investments in terms of job creation, availability of foreign exchange, availability of various agricultural products in our markets and so on, they will see the benefits for themselves and it will be completely irrational for them [his critics] to try to shoot themselves on the foot. And so the benefit of the investment, in my view, will be its ultimate protection.

    “And secondly, we have a constitutional order here. The constitution clearly states you do not disempower you do not grab property from anybody. There is a rule of law here and it is firmly entrenched in our system. That provides additional and, in my view, adequate protection to all investments, including agricultural investments…”

Consequently, what has happened is that literally in all parts of the country land robbery by the state and its officials became the norm. Some of those lands were passed to the regime’s political supporters and the rest were leased out to foreign investors, although the number of foreign investors remained, to Meles’s disappointment, lower than the government had anticipated.

As indicated in a previous write-up, after swallowing his words and, in violation of existing Ethiopian laws, Meles Zenawi snatched hundreds and thousands of hectares in the rural areas to give it to investors and his political base.

Once he had done that, Meles then turned his attention to literally incorporating all urban lands under TPLF control. This happened by secretly rushing legislation within a day and without parliamentarians having a chance to discuss it.

In Ethiopia, it was established since 1975 that land would be utilized and administered through the shared ownership rights of the state and citizens. This was contrary to the interests of Meles and the TPLF. Therefore, they had to re-engineer the legislation to create conditions, whereby ultimate on rural and urban lands are placed under the control of the TPLF, the core of the Ethiopian body politic that is running the state.

In its above-mentioned study on corruption in Ethiopia, which was heavily edited to keep the government on board to secure its approval, nonetheless, the Bank managed to carefully impress on the nation and others interested in its findings that since 2009 land related corruption has been “on an upward trajectory”, along with other areas – what it referred to as the “old sectors” – i.e., construction and mining.

The very same people, who pushed farmland grab and knowingly and unknowingly the corruption itself, are now telling the world that they are establishing agricultural economic zone. As stated above, there is no doubt that it is another stage in the life of the Ethiopian land grab.

They are the very individuals that have closed their eyes, when and scam was carried out under their nose through the already existing notoriously iniquitous and inadequate Investment Support Directorate within the ministry of agriculture.

It presided over the larget sufferings of the rural population since 2009. That outfit has been committed on one to human dislocations, destruction of communities, the nation’s pristine ecological environment from Gambella via Oromia to Omo, Afar via Amhara to Benishangul-Gumuz. On the other, it has facilitated the acquisition of the country’s fertile lands on political grounds and ethnicity.

Irrespective of what the new outfit’s name or its tailored tasks are made to sound, the EAIAA is another executioner of land grab much in the same manner as the Investment Support Directorate. The only difference this time is that in its terms of reference on papper regulating agricultural economic zone (AEZ) would be added.

EAIAA is now coming to pick up where Investment Support Directorate is leaving. If one checks its records, they do not even have clear idea how much land has been leased. On top of that, the practice of land lease has been varied, even those above 5,000 hectares and are administered by the ministry of agriculture.

Consequently, the latest theatrics by the trio in the picture is their way of getting the attention of new agroindustrial investors on the 250,000 ha of pristine lands in Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz.

These are only the first offer. If it is up to the officials, many more hectares would follow. It is unlikely the hesitation that investors showed, even long before the Gambella crisis has not been removed. In fact, in view of the rising tensions in the country and the government’s inability to find political solutions to political problems may become added uncertainty.

The government is only playing its drums to as quickly as possible shave off the terrible shortage of forex it is suffering from. On top of that, it is also terrified since it has become shorthanded in terms of financing the GTP in time by 2014/15.

Not surprisingly, the officials in the picture are debating eventually to agreeing to making EAIAAA autonomous. The lurid part of the proposal is the question of accountability. At the insistence of Wondirad Mandefro, it is the prevailing desire to make it part of the ministry of agriculture, as has been the inefficient and badly managed Investment Support Directorate.

For that, they have not presented any persuasive argument, save their desire to be in control of land lease and distribution.

Bear in mind that the corruption report of the World Bank has put its fingers on the right place regarding this. It states: “Capture of assets by the elite and senior officials is facilitated by weak record system, policy and legal framework and poor system to implement existing procedures and laws.”

Among others, the report also underlines “issuance of forged land documents resulting from fraud, bribery, or nepotism, which seriously eroded confidence in the land records system.”

Aside the straight line of land grab issue, i.e., taking land by force, who in his right mind could then say there is no land related corruption in Ethiopia that involves officials on both the policy-making and the implementation sides? It would not be surprising if people should wonder what guarantees they have not to be cheated again or directly forced of their lands by the EAIAA itslef?

Besides, what compensation is the regime to pay to those it has already forcibly dispossessed their lands, for example, in Gambella, the lives lost and families scattered as refugees and internally displaced individuals?

Ask poor Addis Abebans, who built their homes with ‘equib’ money (traditional means of fundraising). The authorities were aware of it. At least, they gave them permit to install power services, according to the affected population that are pleading for help from other Ethiopians. Years after the buildings were completed and people had long started living in their homes; suddenly, the time came for the authorities to change their plans and minds.

Without giving them alternative lands or compensation, in many instances they went ahead demolished those houses, in many instances while the people were inside, according to news reports and testimonies by the concerned individuals on the telephone to ESAT.

Therefore, the name and purpose of development has been terribly abused in Ethiopia. People are dislocated and they are told the land is needed for development, leading to rendering many citizens homeless in urban areas and landless farmers in rural areas. Apparently, people say, the whole purpose of the exercise by the state has only been to give the prime lands to those that offer more money and strong political support.

There was a good movie from 2008 by the title No Country for Old Men (Tommy Lee Jones). I think it is time someone made another movie on the theme of No Law, No Country for Poor Citizens!

Similarly, ask a Gambellan, whose village has become a garrison for the army, why he raised arms last year. There is no doubt that he wanted to see the end of humiliation and dispossession by an arrogant state of their lands and mass mistreatment of people.

Since Gambella has gone through the worst, the Gambellan man surely would react to EAIAA by repulsively rejecting it. Why? Because, when the time comes to act on whims, he expects the state to come with its army or the militia to drive people out of their homes or farms.

I regret to say nothing would make EAIAA any different from past and existing sordid experiences since 2009, notwithstanding its notional mission of land regulation.

What the policy makers forget is that such exercises in deception would only plant the seeds of more inequalities, anger and bitterness. Our country has already begun to witness enough antagonisms that would only undermine its peace and stability!

It means that there would be no winner!

TE – Transforming ethiopia

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