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Development Gone Wrong

March 31, 2018
By: Anuradha Mittal

“I am not afraid of being arrested. I am afraid of being tortured.” These words from Pastor Omot Agwa, an Anuak land rights defender, are a poignant reminder of “development” gone wrong in Ethiopia.

Image of a tractor.

The agricultural sector, seen as the driver for development by the Ethiopian government, has been used to lure foreign investments for agribusiness ventures — large industrial plantations as those set up by Saudi Star and Karuturi in Gambella, Ethiopia. The local indigenous communities bear the cost.

International Institutions — World Bank, USAID, DfID — Financing Human Rights Abuses in Ethiopia

In Gambella, Anuaks were forcibly removed from their homes under false claims of better social services made available through the government’s villagization scheme, aided by development money from international institutions such as the World Bank, USAID, and DfID. When Anuaks filed a complaint against the World Bank’s financing, Omot was the translator for the Bank’s Inspection Panel during their 2014 investigation visit to Gambella. The displaced — many reduced to refugees in South Sudan and Kenya — shared gruesome details of arrests, intimidation, and destruction of their lives and livelihoods as their lands were given away to foreign investors.

Pastor Omot Ogwa: Punished for Translating

Pastor Omot Ogwa
Pastor Omot Agwa. Credit: Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas/WG Film

Findings of the Inspection Panel found the Bank in violation of its own policies in Ethiopia, but not responsible for the harm done. Life, however, changed for Pastor Omot. Following the release of the Panel’s report he expressed fears for his personal safety and reported that he was being hunted by the Ethiopian Security Forces. He was picked up at the airport on March 15, 2015, along with his colleagues, who were on their way to Nairobi to attend a food security conference.

Charged as a terrorist, he spent over 20 months in prison and underwent torture and solitary confinement. He was released on bail in December 2016. Omot’s court hearing has been postponed numerous times. On April 2, he will be back in court with the hope to have the charges dropped and his name cleared. On his mind is the Ethiopian government’s January 2018 announcement of the release of political prisoners and the closure of the notorious Maekelawi prison.

“You might have heard about the announcement… and I am sure when they take action to release the prisoners I will be included. They also said that torture place will be close[d] to be turn as Museum which hope I will visit one day to see the dark room where I stayed for one month without seeing sunlight. […] I was there for one month without recognizing day and night. […] April 2, 2018 is the next appointment for me. They keep prolonging the appointment and I can’t do anything and I cannot cross the border to see my wife who sick in Nairobi.”

Pastor Omot Agwa

Land Rights at Heart of Conflict Uniting Different Ethnic Groups from Anuaks to Oromos

The Ethiopian government has managed to carry out its devious development schemes through a harsh crackdown on any form of dissent and opposition, but these tactics have failed to crush the demonstrations, protests, and strikes since the end of 2015. Ethiopia’s land problems and related human rights abuses — amidst an absence of democracy and basic political freedoms — are the crux of the political unrest that have shaken the foundations of the political elite. Imposing a state of emergency in February 2018 for the second time in 18 months after the surprise resignation of PM Hailemariam Desalegn, the government — dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic minority, who make up only six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 99 million people — is buckling as protestors mobilize across ethnic lines. Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in power since 1991, controls all 547 seats with no single opposition member in the country’s parliament. It is rocked by unprecedented unity between the Oromos and the Amharas, who constitute more than 61 percent of the country’s population.

The recent appointment of Abiy Ahmed, the first member of the Oromo ethnic group which makes up a third of Ethiopia’s population, as the next prime minister, will not resolve the conflict, given what underlies the struggle and unites different ethnic groups from Anuaks to the Oromos is the struggle for land. Protests started in November 2015 as the government sought to expand the capital via the “Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan,” and #OromoProtests went viral. Today the discontent has spiraled into #EthiopiaCrisis.

While Dogged Advocacy by Ethiopian Diaspora in US is Working, Development Myths Persist

Growing political unrest — despite increased repression, shut down of social media, detention of journalists and activists killings, and diabolic restrictions in the name of state of emergency — the United States, Ethiopia’s key ally and the largest bilateral donor to the country, is finally somewhat changing its tone. After years of ignoring widespread abuses that have been acknowledged by the State Department Country reports, in a statement on the state of emergency in February 2018, the US ambassador to Ethiopia urged greater freedom, not less.

“We strongly disagree with the Ethiopian government’s decision to impose a state of emergency that includes restrictions on fundamental rights such as assembly and expression.”

Michael Raynor, US Ambassador to Ethiopia

Dogged advocacy by the Ethiopian diaspora is making it impossible for the US elected officials to ignore the crisis in the country. Unsurprisingly, House Resolution HR128 on Human Rights in Ethiopia continues to gain cosponsors, despite attempts to stop the resolution from getting to the House Floor by the Government of Ethiopia, including hiring a Washington D.C. lobbying firm for $150,000 month.

What remains unchanged, however, is the United States continued perpetuation of the myth of Ethiopia’s eight percent economic growth rate — and hailing it as “bellwether and an economic stability for the region.” This rhetoric, not only ignores the devastating impact of “development” schemes, abetted and supported by donor countries like the US, but is also a blatant lie. Ethiopia is the world’s second largest recipient of development aid, having received $4.1 billion in aid in 2016. The United States is the largest bilateral donor — giving $865.65 million in 2016, the year when over 26,000 people were arrested and hundreds killed in Ethiopia. The same year some 18 million Ethiopians required food assistance. In fact, every single year since 2005, from 8 to 18 million Ethiopians have depended on donor-funded food or cash handouts for their survival.

False, Top-Down Development Myths Responsible for Ethiopia’s Instability

Deliberately oblivious to the horrors unleashed onindigenous and small-holder farmers, the US State Department continues to promote agriculture as a sector that Ethiopia has economic advantages and investment opportunities. But with 85 percent of the population engaged in agricultural production, it is Ethiopia’s small-holder farmers who need investment and guaranteed land rights, and not displacement via large-scale agricultural plantations, as has been the case. State Department officials pat Ethiopia on the back for being on track — developing “from agriculture to industrialization and then to consumer-based industrialized growth.” But the question of how the displaced makehomes and livelihoods now, remains unanswered, as have been the Anuak complaints of human rights abuses to the Bank’s Inspection Panel.

This upside down and backwards development paradigm — with scaffolding made of donor and World Bank aid and the foundation built on the blood and tears of millions in Ethiopia — is the root cause of political unrest in the country. False claims of a remarkable growth rate overlook widespread human rights violations creating acceptance of top down “development” policies. This only worsens the spiral of unrest in Ethiopia, thereby creating the very regional instability that the US so fears. False claims can never be the truth. Shuffling of political leaders cannot hide the truth.

“The true word remains true, even if covered by many liars. […] We are telling the truth, but few people understand and majority ignores our words of truth. My people are worthless, but they [are] worthy and created equally the same with all people in the world having same blood although color differs. That is why we were blessed by God giving us fertile land that many people are jealous about it and they want to destroy its environment to make people remain poor and slaves in the future. […] God created man, man created money and money made man mad. […] money is bad but it is good if it is utilized for betterment. […] I trust in God who knows everything and I the trauma I am facing will be healed one day.”

Pastor Omot Ogwa