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Cut the noise. Here's what Ethiopia says about #IndiaAfrica

October 27, 2015

Anuradha Mittal

As the biggest ever India-Africa Summit gets underway, the drumbeat of the historical trading ties with Africa and a shared history of struggle against colonial rule is being rolled out under the euphemism of South-South cooperation.

Broadly, South-South cooperation is solidarity between developing countries through exchange of resources, technology, and knowledge for development.

It is an attractive proposition to shift the international balance of power and to assist developing nations to break away from aid dependence on former colonial powers.

Ethiopia's late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, for instance, welcomed India's expanding footprint in Africa as essential for the well being of his country, a vision adhered to by successive governments there.

Today India and her corporations are present in a big way on the African continent.

They hunt for lucrative deals in foreign assets ranging from coal mines in South Africa to oil pipelines in Sudan and South Sudan, and operating agricultural plantations in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ethiopia.

But lets get real

The discourse of South-South cooperation cannot mask human rights violations involving Southern governments and corporations.

This is a case with India, once a colonised country, now looking to colonise in Africa.

Though India, while extending a line of credit (LoC), doesn't impose any restriction about purchasing from any particular company, it does put a condition that 75% of imports be from India, said Debasish Mallick, the deputy manager of Exim Bank, in an October 2014 interview.

The bank is India's premier export finance institution. Mallick went on to celebrate the LoCs given to Ethiopia for setting up sugar projects and a cement plant.

India had also extended a line of credit for Ethiopia to set up a power transmission line and railway tracks by Indian companies.

So the end result is 'I pat your back, but you pat my back harder.'

Paradigm of development

Perhaps there is nothing wrong in wanting something substantial out of one's benevolent credit line to an African nation. But Mallick forgot to mention something.

The presence of Indian companies, facilitated by India at the behest of the Ethiopian government, was forcibly displacing local indigenous populations and widespread human rights abuses.

The Oakland Institute's extensive field research reverts claims about "development" and "South-South cooperation".

Take the example of Ethiopia. Support for sugar plantations in the country yields only non-food export crops. At the same time, tax incentives offered to foreign investors deprive the nation of valuable earnings.

The promises of job creation remains unfulfilled as plantations mostly offer menial, low-paying jobs.

Worse, the Ethiopian government is using the villagisation programme to forcibly relocate some 1.5 million indigenous people from their homes, farms, grazing lands, and everything else they have ever known to make way for agricultural plantations.

Those who refuse, face intimidation, physical and sexual assaults, arbitrary detention and imprisonment, and killings.

Organised repression

In fact, repression of social resistance to land investments is stipulated in land lease contracts: "(it is the) state's obligation to 'deliver and hand over the vacant possession of leased land free of impediments' and to provide free security 'against any riot, disturbance or any turbulent time'."

A case in point is Karuturi Global Ltd, an Indian company known for its rose fields in Ethiopia.

Its farms employ both highlanders and displaced locals. While the highlanders are paid 3,000 birr (about $149) per month, the locals are called 'non-people' and are paid half that amount, said a local who did not wish to be named.

The $640 million credit line provided by the Exim Bank to the Ethiopian government is for developing the controversial sugar sector in Lower Omo. Indian enterprises, including Karuturi Global, Ruchi Soya, Emami Biotech and Shapoorji Pallonji, have made most of the investment in the country.

These companies, who have acquired hundreds of thousands of hectares of land for agro-industrial projects, view locals as 'non-people' who get in the way of development.

With 80% of its population engaged in agriculture, Ethiopia is home to over 32 million chronically hungry people. In the 2015 mid-year review by the government there, 1.6 million were added to a list of people who need relief food.

The list now has 4.5 million people - that's a 55% jump from 2.9 million. And the United Nation has warned that without action, some "15 million people will need food assistance" next year - more than those inside war-torn Syria.

What form of solidarity

It is against this scenario that international solidarity between communities bearing the brunt of the development model - one which prefers profits over people - has to reclaim the principles of South-South cooperation.

To challenge this form of South-South cooperation, Oakland Institute has partnered Indian civil society groups with Ethiopian activists. Testimonies of their community being dispossessed of their livelihoods, ill-treated and subjected to misery are shocking.

This coming together of Indian and Ethiopian civil society actors would mark a turning point in peoples' struggles for lands rights and livelihoods in the two countries and beyond.

Such collaboration ensures that the agony of communities who face human rights abuses reach the investors for whose investment land is taken over.

This can also initiate a rewriting of South-South cooperation where takeover of communal land by corporations - even from the global South - is redefined as a new form of colonisation. Such land has provided shelter, grazing ground and water resources to millions for generations.

From sharing of memories and experiences by land rights activists emerges the need to challenge the paradigm of development that trivialises and ignores the illegality and unethicality of land acquisitions by corporate investors and governments.

The idea that "some have to be sacrificed" for the "larger national good", which is nothing more than double-digit economic growth benefitting a few, has to be rejected.

The message is loud and clear: true development must recognise human rights for all and good investment should promote human development. That should hold true even in the case of business deals between developing countries validated through South-South cooperation.