Ethiopian minister comes close to acknowledging futility of land grab

2 Jun

by Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory

It took the Ethiopian regime doling out to foreign investors 10 percent of the country’s virgin lands from the 3.6 million hectares in the land bank – by Hailemariam’s information of April 24, 2012 and four million ha by Meles’s public statement of May 2012. The point is that those leased lands have achieved no returns for the country to date, if on the contrary it were not damages they have caused to its ecosystem and the spirt of its children.

“I have to be frank, they [recipients of state grabbed lands] didn’t meet our expectations,” professed in May 2013 Agriculture Minister Tefera Derbew during an interview with Aman Sethi of The Hindu.

In amplifying that further, the minister added: “We would like to get the land developed in a short period of time …[but] Karuturi, Saudi Star and the like, their implementation is not to our satisfaction.” It appears that these disappointing outcomes of the full four years of Ethiopia’s dabbling with land grab have compelled officials now in to swallowing their first bitter pills.

Since early 2012, there have been clear signs from investor farmer lessees’ end, as reviews of the ministry of agriculture showed a year ago. The review established that nearly half of those that got the farmlands kept them fenced and idle. The question, therefore, is why the regime should react now like this, as if they have not known that before. Evidently, here and there the fact now is that some of the lessees could not be in a position to deliver agricultural produces in keeping with the terms of their lease contracts.

What were the government’s expectations? By what metrics were their satisfaction measured? Why has it taken them four years to reach this conclusion we hear today? We would revert to these in a moment.

It would be recalled that each foreign investor is required by the terms of the farmland lease to develop the land within the first two years. Or else, each person would be required to provide convincing reasons to get extension, lest the public lands they so cheaply leased could be reclaimed. And that is what has been happening since 2012.

The agriculture minister told Aman Sethi, “Why they [investors] are failing has to be analyzed”. The journalist says the minister warned that his “government will consider all options including revoking the land lease if need be.”

As a matter of fact, India’s CLC Industries, which in 2011 leased 25,000 ha for cotton farming, with an outlay of $100 million investment in the planning to start spinning plant was made to lose 5,000 ha from its lease holding. The company’s spokesperson told The Hindu that the government reclaimed the land, using its police force. Now, the company blames the government of breach of contract. Whether there is corruption during the leasing processes is not clear; but in turn the regime alleges that the land in the first place did not belong to the leased area. Unable to change its circumstances and feeling spooked – as The Hindu put it – the company packed and left the country.

Already it has become public knowledge for a while now that Karuturi, who has swaggered with preposterous claim in Gambela of his likeness to ‘King Leopold of the Congo’ – the Belgian colonial overhead – has lost 200,000 ha. To begin with, since taking the leased land in 2010, he has managed to develop only five percent of the land, according to The Hindu. When he was found in breach of his contract for failure to develop 100,000 ha out of the 300,000 he cheaply and mysteriously got hold of, there was little sympathy for him. From the start, he has been in public teeth worldwide because of his portrayal as poster child of land grab and due to his arrogant demure, lies about workers benefits and mistreatment.

Post-9th party congress syndrome

Minister Tefera has found in himself stern tone, if not harsh, especially toward the billionaire sheik Ethio-Saudi tycoon and political insider – considered by many cardless ex-officio member of the TPLF/EPRDF. The other is the ambitious Indian from Karuturi Global, whom Meles appointed Ethiopian consul in Bangalore to soothe his pain caused by global campaigns of vilification he has been exposed to, because of which Karuturi has become synonymous with land grab.

Perhaps the minister’s aggressive posture may be a reflection of the public rebuke he suffered in March 2013 at the 9th party congress in Bahr Dar. He was blamed for the poor productivity in the agricultural sector and the failure to achieve the planned production target for 2004/2005. Tefera must worry about the future of his job. The attack against him was choreographed not by the party leader the deputy prime minister and minister of education, but the real hand behind power the power – Communications Affairs Minister Bereket Simon who gave him at the congress the dress down from a televised public forum.

There is now initial sign of the TPLF/EPRDF leadership being confronted by the reality, relevance and validity of the warning many Ethiopians in the diaspora and international experts have been talking about with the aim of protecting ordinary Ethiopians from the regime’s misguided polices and dangers of land grab.

It should be clear that at this point that the minister is not renouncing land grab. Nor is that up to him, as we saw with the new invitation for Chinese investors in Ethiopia’s farmlands. There still is strong belief in the TPLF/EPRDF that they could, as a last recourse, shake those foreign investors to work the lands within a given time by having them move onto faster gear to produce more. This is because, lacking any sensible options, the regime is under pressure to seize anything it thinks would be its silver bullet to ease its foreign exchange problems. As second tier priority, it would like to get investors, if they could, to contribute toward reducing the country’s dependence on on the costly imported food and stigmatizing humanitarian assistance for a country with its claim of double-digit economic growths.

Therefore, the expectation of the government from land grab the minister was talking about has been fed and bred by the developmental ideology of Meles Zenawi. He used to gather his senior and mid-level officials at Bishoftu resort, where they were encouraged into thing that there was nothing wrong with the policy and, after all, there was no land grab in Ethiopia.

Meles further expounded its logic publicly, in response to the same question by ITMN television journalist from India on 26 June 2011. This webpage discussed that at the time in an article entitled: PART III. Meles says no land grab in Ethiopia—Not today, not tomorrow. Unfortunately, that still remains the policy guide in Ethiopia, although devotion to it now is a matter of form rather than baptismal faith.

Therefore, the official position rejects any accusation of land grab at its worst as conspiracy by enemies of the country’s development. In its benign form, any position against land grab is interpreted as the “misplaced fear” of people who should have known better, as Meles put it then.

What they hang themselves on is the claim that there is no private ownership of land. Therefore, since all land is publicly owned they insist that there is no room for land grab.

Meles legacy to Ethiopia

The source of today’s deliberate ignorance and the attendant violence is in the meaning of “publicly owned land.” In a country, where the state is in a position abundance of leverages, it interprets the law in ways it wants or decrees new laws, as happened in February 2012 to dispossess people of their holdings in the name of modernization and development.

If not, it turns to its legal monopoly of power to unleash violence on any individual or group(s). That exactly is what Meles had done. He sent his militia to uproot people from their community lands to hand over the lands to investors;. Pulling rural communities into villages to provide them government services became the good excuse for their dislocation. Even if once accepts the ignore the investment and development side, official corruption also played a huge role in the dispossession of people.

In this situation, how could one think of sensible development policy, when implementation of any development policy on public lands is carried out by and because the state, or its officials are interested in it? What formula would then make the people and the state equal co-owners of land in Ethiopia in such a situation?

Today, Ethiopia finds itself drowned in profound public frustration because of these things. Of course, Meles has failed on that, since his prescription for our country of land grab has only brought misery to the nation. Measure this against what he promised Ethiopians on June 26, 2011 on India’s ITMN television:

    “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.

    “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.”

    He then amplified the above to justify his dismissive conclusion and denial of reality, above, arguing:

    “First, these agreements 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…”

Since then, many communities in Gambella, Oromia and Amara especially have become poorer, insecure. Gambella in particular has been militarized, where many youngsters have been hunted like animals and shot down by the army and those spared of that locked in prison, a fate they now share with Ethiopia’s Ogaden – all this because of land grab implemented by an arrogant state.

One Response to “Ethiopian minister comes close to acknowledging futility of land grab”

  1. Salaam Yitbarek June 4, 2013 at 19:20 #

    Why is no one in the EPRDF talking about land privatization? How long is the EPRDF going to continue twisting itself into contortions trying to solve the agricultural problem without privatizing land, which is the obvious solution? It’s like Soviet economists tinkering with their models looking for the solution instead of taking the obvious route and freeing the economy!

    In its struggle to avoid the obvious route, the EPRDF can’t even keep its own story straight. One day, Meles calls supporting commercial agriculture ‘stupid’ (, the next day the EPRDF is leasing huge amounts of land at low prices!

    Shouldn’t the EPRDF, for its own sake, hold serious internal and external discussions on land privatization? Shouldn’t it invest in research on the issue? For how long must Ethiopia suffer famine, drought, low agricultural productivity, high population growth, etc., before this obvious solution is at least given a fair hearing? It’s too bad.

    As to why many of these investments are failing – there’s a simply market-based explanation, if only our politicians would understand the market. What do you expect when people are given land for nearly free? If I buy land for a large price, I’m going to build something good on it to return my investment. If I get it for nearly free, then I don’t need to do much with it. Especially if I’m not sure I’ll have it in a few years. This explains why many of these investors haven’t put much into their land, and why so much of urban construction is of low quality.


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