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Anuradha Mittal: Briefing on the State of Human Rights and Democracy in Ethiopia

January 30, 2018

Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director, The Oakland Institute

Congressman Ellison & Congressman Coffman, Congressional staffers, and the Ethiopian diaspora, thank you for this opportunity to share Oakland Institute’s experience and our concerns about land rights and the human rights situation in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was the world’s second largest recipient of development aid, having received $4.1 billion in aid in 2016. United States is the largest bilateral donor to Ethiopia — giving $865.65 million in 2016, the highest since 2010. The same year some 18 million Ethiopians required food assistance. In fact, every single year 8 to 18 million Ethiopians have depended on donor-funded food or cash handouts for their survival.

And yet, Ethiopia is hailed as a nation in “renaissance” — praised for its economic growth and partnership on key US strategic interests. Missing from this narrative is that the Ethiopian government’s “development” strategy is based on widespread human rights violations, forced evictions, displacement of millions of people from their traditional lands, and the criminalization of dissent through the misuse of the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Government plans to take over land in the Oromia region, which triggered protests in November 2015, are the unfortunate reality all over the country.

The enormous financial support Ethiopia gets from its international donors has been essential in funding the government's development strategy, as outlined in its Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). A cornerstone of USAID activity in Ethiopia was support for the GTP, a key element of which was the relocation of 1.5 million people from areas targeted for industrial plantations under the government's “villagization” scheme. These displacements were carried out without the free, prior, and informed consent of the impacted populations, and when communities resisted, they were forcibly removed by means of violence, imprisonment, intimidation, and the denial of humanitarian assistance, including food aid. Many were turned into refugees living now in Kenya and South Sudan. Today I am reminded of an 88-year old Anuak woman from Gambella, who I met in a refugee camp outside Nairobi. She said: “ Look at me. At this age do you think I would want to leave home. I left forests, rivers ... to come to the desert of this refugee camp when I was forcibly removed.”

These forced resettlements have operated in tandem with Ethiopia's land-investment policies. In early 2008, the government embarked on the process to award millions of hectares of land to foreign and national agricultural investors at rock-bottom prices. The 2015 Investment Guide to Ethiopia, a document from the Ethiopia Investment Commission, states there are nearly 11.55 million ha of potential land available for farming. The GTP II mentions 14.1 million ha set for biofuel development.

While the human rights consequences of the EPRDF’s political hegemony are indisputable and have been acknowledged by USAID and the State Department, recognition of human rights violations resulting from the government’s forced removals has gone overlooked. Our on-the-ground research since 2008 has exposed the systemic and coerced resettlement of indigenous communities and has documented specific accounts of beatings, unlawful arrests, torture, and rape at the hands of the Ethiopian Defense Force, all used to enforce the government's villagization program.

Though it has displaced thousands of indigenous people, the villagization program has never reached the 1.5 million people targeted by the government. However the program was revisited last year and the government seems to have fresh plans to relocate people in a new version of the program. This includes communities that were not impacted by the first phase of villagisation. Whereas the Oakland Institute has mostly documented forced relocations related to the establishment of large-scale agricultural plantations, the areas targeted are sometimes also rich in metals and minerals. This is the case in Dima district in the Gambella region. It is rich in gold reserve and has been the target of the government to displace local farmers from their land. Similarly, a Chinese company was granted gold mining license along Alworo River in Abobo district. This is an area where the local farmers use the land along the river bank to cultivate, graze and gather drinking water.

In 2014, we documented how officials from USAID heard first-hand accounts of forced resettlements and human rights abuses from villagers and still concluded that the allegations were “unsubstantiated.” In spite of hearing from people directly impacted, USAID officials said that no evidence exists to make the links between their programs and the practices of the Ethiopian government. The actual recordings and transcripts of this USAID assessment are available on our website and everyone can hear what US officials heard during their own investigation.

The USAID officials were ignoring their initiative, "Ethiopia: Land Tenure and Administration Program" (ELAP), targeting high-potential investment areas with the stated purpose of facilitating investment. Today Land Administration to Nurture Development (LAND), which replaced ELAP, is assisting the federal and regional state governments in implementing policies and plans to encourage investment for so called appropriate use of land for improved productivity.

US development assistance also operates through Feed the Future (FTF), which aims to make pastoralist land more productive. While FTF mentions concerns about Ethiopia's “policy of settlement regarding pastoral peoples,” it places primary importance on increasing private sector capacity in pastoral communities as a means to development. Whereas USAID has spent millions over the past decades to support pastoralists in Ethiopia, there is no indication that it has taken any step to address the issue of land grabbing, which affects many pastoralist and agropastoralist communities.

In September 2015, in violation of Appropriations Bills of 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016, the US Treasury voted in favor of World Bank’s new Enhancing Shared Prosperity through Equitable Services (ESPES) program in Ethiopia ESPES. With $600 million contribution of which $428.59 million has been disbursed, ESPES replaces the Bank’s Promoting Basic Services (PBS) program, which for years was associated with human rights abuses and the forced relocation of indigenous communities and large-scale land grabs. These issues were highlighted by the World Bank’s own independent Inspection Panel in 2015. Rather than addressing the grave concerns raised, the Bank, instead, launched an almost identical initiative under a new name. Our report Moral Bankruptcy: World Bank Reinvents Tainted Aid Program for Ethiopia, provides the details of this.

And in the course of our work, we have seen Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation used as the tool to carry out the government’s development strategy. It is a tool of repression, designed and used by the Ethiopian Government to silence its critics.

The law defines terrorism in an extremely broad and vague way so as to give the government enormous leeway to punish words and actions that would be perfectly legal in a democracy. It also gives the police and security services unprecedented new powers, and shifts the burden of proof to the accused. Worse still, many of those charged report having been tortured, and the so-called confessions that have been obtained as a result have been used against them at trial. Those who have been charged as terrorists under the law include newspaper editors, indigenous leaders like Mr, Okello, former governor of Gambella, Pastor Omot, translator for the World Bank Inspection panel, as well as bloggers, political opposition members, and students.

The Anti Terrorism law is used by the Ethiopian government, not against the terrorists, but to curb human rights of its own citizens. I am not just talking about some opposition leaders or prominent media persons. In 2016-2017 alone, over 1,000 people were killed and over 26,000 were arrested. We fail to find any other country in sub-Saharan Africa with this level of repression.

Ethiopia’s repressive system is not just about barring political freedom; to a large extent, it is about ensuring the control of a minority over the resources of the country and the benefits of the economic development. Many political prisoners in Ethiopia are not just members of opposition political parties but ordinary citizens who oppose the theft of their land and natural resources by the government.

They are members of indigenous communities such as the Anuak, Bodi, Mursi and other marginalized groups who spoke up against land grabbing and for the rights of their people to decent livelihoods and life in dignity. Thousands are being held by the regime in facilities across the country though the actual number is unknown given the general opacity surrounding such matters.

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty of the Ethiopian government but the silence of the US and the World Bank who turn a blind eye year after year.

For years, while donor countries like the US have turned a blind eye, thousands of Ethiopians have languished behind bars simply for speaking up against so-called development policies and related human rights abuses, all perpetrated by the Ethiopian regime.

It is within this context, after years of political suppression, and the imposition of a 10-month state of emergency, came the announcement on January 3rd, that the government will close the notorious Maekelawi prison and some political prisoners would be released. These actions, if actually carried through, are all long overdue, but not enough.

We need to consider the following: “Who is considered a political prisoner? How and when will these releases take place and under what conditions? Going forward, what kinds of political freedoms will be allowed? The right to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the media? How will the perpetrators of crimes that have been committed against Ethiopian citizens be held accountable? These are all details that have not yet been released.

Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of US development aid. It is imperative to ensure that efforts to reduce hunger, poverty and conflict in the East Africa are not being undermined by undemocratic and repressive development practices in Ethiopia. Congress put forward important protection in the Appropriations Bills around our aid being used for forced displacements. It is time to follow-through with those promises, to ensure proper monitoring of the situation on the ground, and where necessary, the redirection of funds.

We cannot underestimate the need for development aid, especially during major humanitarian crises. Yet it is counterproductive if donor aid is supporting the destruction of natural resources upon which the poor directly depend, and if it enables projects that lead to human rights abuses. US support to the Ethiopian government — financial, political and moral — is in danger of producing exactly the opposite result from what we intend. It is enabling an authoritarian government to ignore the rights and interests of its own citizens, which can only end in violence and instability. The US Congress should undertake a serious examination of our development aid to Ethiopia, to ensure that it is not supporting political repression, and is not being funneled into land grabs that are undermining the poverty-alleviation intent of US taxpayer aid.

It must also be asked what has been done concretely to monitor that US agencies as well as the World Bank were respecting the instructions given by the Appropriation Bills all these years. These agencies and institutions must be held accountable!

Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that get in the way of social progress and democracy. It is time for the United States to speak up for democracy and for human rights in Ethiopia. HR Resolution 128 is one such step in the right direction.