By Duach R. Mach
Ethiopia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, is heralding great strides in eradicating poverty. The number of Ethiopians living in poverty has dropped below one-third of the total, despite population growth and soaring inflation.
Gambella land is not for sale yet! For thousand years, Nuer, Anyuak, and other Gambella ethnic groups have lived in villages not in towns. Two to three years ago, Ethiopia government came up with a very interesting program call “Villagization or mender.” In support of this program, I would like to express my opinion and advice to those who disagree with the government’s program. The people who oppose to this developmental program claimed that Gambella land has been sold to foreigners but this is not the case because the land is leased or bonded to the foreign investors. In the preceding years, we used to hear repeated condemnations of land distribution in Ethiopia, instead of saying that the land of Gambella is being rented or leased by the Ethiopian government to foreign investors (e.g., Indian companies, etc.).
The most significant change in Ethiopia investment law came in May of 1991, after the much hated and brutal military-Marxist dictatorship that traumatized Ethiopians for seventeen years was finally overthrown and that was when the current ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), introduced the foreign investment act (law) in the country.
Consequently, last month, excitement lit the fuse for a succession of loud explosions on the PBS NewsHour about the land issue in the Gambella region. The noisiest explosion came from one tribe of Ethiopia particularly from Gambella Region, and the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International seem to be prompted by the on-going baseless grumble about settlement or Villagization of people of Gambella Region. This program would urbanize our society. The population in Gambella has lived a rural lifestyle throughout most of its history. I hope the people of Gambella will quickly become urbanized as this program would assist them to migrate to the towns being built for them by the state government.
Villagizations or menders launched by the government funded-program to relocate people to new towns is now becoming the big issue in the country due to degrading security and dwindling of possessions, causing the program to slow down. Last year, the government has recommenced the program, uttering that it is charitable and justifying it by saying that the program is necessary to consolidate an infrastructure by having the villages build nearby the roads and available water supplies. However, to some people, this sounds like a valiant attempt to supply access to services quickly.
The indictments come from a local community accusing the government by saying that local residents are forced by the Ethiopian government to leave their land. To me, this claim is baseless. In case you do not know how many tribes live in the Gambella region, there are nine ethnic groups in Gambella Region, and one of these nine communities does not like the government program. Last month’s news on PBS NewHour surprised me of why only one community is crying about the land being taken by the government and gave it to foreign investors. Is Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Al Amoudi, an Ethiopian citizen, the 63rd richest in the world, and richest person in Ethiopia, and the second richest in Saudi Arabia, a foreigner?
I don’t think a citizen can be denied to invest his money in his own country. Sheikh has done a lot of good things for his country, Ethiopia. In the past, President Girma Wolde-Giorgis of Ethiopia has stated that, “a substantial investment in agricultural development is a key to improving the quality of life across Africa and that Saudi Star’s major investment program would benefit both Ethiopia and its important trading partner, around the world”. Sheikh continues to invest in agriculture and many other economic sectors throughout Ethiopia, this is a work of a responsible citizen. One of the reasons why it is important for any Ethiopian to invest his or her money into this program is because it creates more jobs for people of Gambella and the region.
As we all know, Gambella is rich with various ethnic compositions. The major ethnic groups include the Anyuak, Nuer, Mezengir, Opio, Komo and people from Amhara, Tigray, Oromiya and the Southern Nations, Nationalities (SNNPR). Their location also varies according to their ethnic group. Henceforth, rice plantation in Gambella region would be a major element of development, meaning food shortage in Ethiopia can be minimized. In my point of view, the report by PBSNewsHours was truly unprofessional or extremely misleading. However, let us just examine few accusations and the facts on the ground and how the government can carry out this economic development projects in the region responsibly. For example, how can the government and investors avoid misusing the land?
I can tell you that in five years period, Gambella region will become the biggest plantation of rice in Ethiopia. For instance, if you paid close attention to all the conflicting information on PBS NewsHour and other websites about land taking in Ethiopia last month, you can realize that these allegations or propagandas cannot benefit anyone. There is no doubt in my mind that this development program launched by the Ethiopian government will create more jobs in the state of Gambella. The program initially hired more people from the local communities of the region who many of them do not have jobs. I do not know if the land which has been empty for thousands of years should once again be allowed to remain empty for thousands of years while its citizens suffer.
Conclusion: Gambella land has not been sold, but psychologically been negatively disturbed for no good reasons. Hereafter, foreign investors can provide key resources for agriculture, including development of needed infrastructures and expansion of livelihood options for local people if land owners are financially disadvantaged. There is no doubt that, if large scale land acquisitions cause land expropriation or unsustainable use by the owner, however, foreign investments in agricultural land can become politically unacceptable. It is therefore in the long-term interest of investors, host governments, and the local people involved ensuring that these arrangements are properly negotiated, practiced, sustained, and benefits are correctly shared. However, a combination of international law, government policies, and the involvement of civil society, the media, and local communities is needed to minimize the threats and realize the benefits for all.
My basic belief is that this development sector will give change to the country economic context particularly to the Gambella region. It is good to acknowledge that the agricultural sector in Ethiopia requires more investments from foreign investors because of the urgent need for greater development in rural areas of which Gambella is one of the areas that need robust development. Also, the fiscal inability in the region is one of the main factors in which the development to provide the necessary infusion of capital and scale land acquisitions can be seen as an opportunity for increased investment in agriculture sector in the rural areas of the region.
I am a supporter of developmental projects in the region because benefits of these projects can be used to improve conditions in the rural poor communities of the region, including the creation of a potentially significant number of farms and off farm jobs, development of rural infrastructures, poverty improvement programs, and construction of schools and healthcare posts for the people of the region. Other conceivable positive spillovers include resources for new agricultural technology practices, stability of the country food price, and increased production of food crops that would supply local and national consumers. I am aware that the development programs that are being conducted in Gambella will benefit local communities and the entire population throughout the region.
The author lives in the United States. He can be reached at [email protected]