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Obang Metho’s Statement at the U.S. Congressional Briefing on Land Grabs in Africa

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mr. Obang Metho, from the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), gives warning of the impacts on the people at the U.S. Congressional Briefing on Land Grabs in Africa

I would like to thanks Congressman Christopher Smith, Chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations and members of the subcommittees for making this briefing on land grabs in Africa possible.

I am honored to be among those invited to talk about the impact of these land and resource grabs on the people of Africa. It is a vitally important issue that needs to be confronted. To me, this is not just about land grabs, but it is inherently about life grabs. In Africa, as well as in many other places, when you take someone’s land, you take away the means to an entire family’s livelihood, wellbeing and future. I am thrilled that the World Bank is also addressing this issue and hope it will soon lead to concrete action that saves lives.  

Mr. Obang Metho (center) at the U.S. Congressional Briefing

Mr. Obang Metho (center) at the U.S. Congressional Briefing

To me and the organization I lead, the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), the problem of land grabs is not new. We have been actively working to expose and find solutions to these land grabs since they began in 2008 and partnered with the Oakland Institute in 2011 in a comprehensive in-country study on: Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa: Ethiopia.[i] What is going on today is an immoral and predatory practice by African strongmen and their powerful partners that is targeting the most vulnerable people on the continent.

When I speak today, my testimony will not be as an outsider, but as a witness. When I talk about the people being displaced from the land grabs, in many cases I am speaking about people whose names I know. They include my uncle, my cousins, my nephews, my extended family, my community and my people—the people of Gambella, the people of Ethiopia, the people of Africa and the people of the world. We the people of Africa must be able to feed ourselves, but when the powerful take the food and land we have to sustain ourselves, leaving little behind for the indigenous, it is unconscionable and should be challenged. I welcome the opportunity we have to talk about this today. I request that my statement be submitted into the record in its entirety.


When the global food crisis of 2008 struck, with its food shortages, sky-rocketing food prices and widespread riots, it sounded an alarm that began the global race for fertile agricultural land, particularly land with access to water. Asian countries in the global south, like India, China, and South Korea, simply did not have enough unused, suitable land to meet the increasing need for food for their people. Some European countries were in the same position. Arid countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, may have wealth from oil, but they were large importers of food and have little or diminishing arable land. Underground water aquifers were already being depleted in efforts to irrigate existing food crops.

Soaring populations, decreasing available land, environmental degradation and lessening confidence in access to adequate imports caused many governments to search beyond their borders for new ways to ensure a supply of food for the future. At the same time, speculators, investors and multinational agri-businesses began to see food as a high-profit commodity which could be profitable like oil, minerals and other natural resources.

So began the second scramble for African land that has led to massive land grabs of land already occupied by the people of Africa. For most of those affected, it has led to widespread displacement and to greater, rather than less, food insecurity. This abuse of land rights has happened most easily in nations where authoritarian regimes maintain their control over the people through suppression of basic freedoms, human rights abuses, fraudulent elections, corruption and military power. Unfortunately, many of these foreign investors become complicit as they partner with Africa’s strongmen.

World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim said at their annual meeting last week, “Usable land is in short supply, and there are too many instances of speculators and unscrupulous investors exploiting smallholder farmers, herders, and others who lack the power to stand up for their rights. This is particularly true in countries with weak land governance systems.”[ii]

In many countries in Africa freedom does not exist. Freedom House in their Freedom in the World Study for 2012 ranked Sub-Saharan Africa as 82% un-free or only partially free. People who dare to demand their rights or who expose the dark side of those in power, do so at risk to their lives and futures. Those in power do not represent the best interests of their people, but instead represent their own interests. With the search for agricultural land, authoritarian governments with weak adherence to laws and few protections for the people are making secretive deals to lease both small and large swathes of some of the prime agricultural land to foreign and crony investors for negligible amounts (e.g. $1.19 per hectare in parts of Ethiopia) for up to 99 years. Equivalent land reportedly brings $350 per hectare in places like Indonesia and Malaysia and thousands in the farm belt of the US.

Much of the food is destined for export or wherever it can bring the highest price. Most Africans are small farmers; though poor, they have been able to sustain themselves because of their land; however, the displaced will no longer be able to be self-reliant and may easily end up hungry or in need of food aid. Although some of the food produced will end up locally, food prices may well be beyond their ability to pay. The displaced are mostly in the rural regions where education and training have been lacking, leaving most ill-equipped to find other jobs. Institutions, meant to strengthen civil society, often do not exist or are under government control. Because there is little accountability or transparency, it has opened the doors to high-level corruption, crony favoritism and illicit transactions as secretive deals, with vague contracts, are negotiated by regime power-holders. 

A focus on the Gambella region of Ethiopia, my birthplace and the epicenter of land grabs in Africa

Ethiopia is one of the leading examples on the continent where large scale land grabs are going on. Gambella region, considered to have the potential for becoming the breadbasket of Ethiopia or the Horn of Africa, may now fail to feed its own. The region has some of the richest, most fertile land and abundant water in the country. My own ethnic group, the Anuak—as well as other indigenous groups like the Nuer, the Mazengir, the Komo and the Opo—consider Gambella their ancestral home, but little investment has been directed towards this marginalized and undeveloped region. Now, Gambella is the region most significantly targeted for land grabs.

In 2003, related to natural resources, the current government of Ethiopia massacred 424 Anuak leaders within three days and went on to commit many more crimes against humanity directed towards this one ethnic group in the following three years. It was related to natural resources at the time and now, their land is being grabbed.

It is happening in other regions as well. Already, an estimated 200,000 small farmers and pastoralists in the rural areas have been displaced from their land in order to free it up for investors. Recently, thousands of people of Amhara ethnicity were forcibly evicted from the region of Benishangul. A year ago, 70,000 other Amhara were evicted from land in the Southern Nation’s region. In 2011-2012, 70,000 small farmers from the Gambella region were forced off their land. Many more will be moved to resettlement areas in the next year. In Gambella, a region with a total population of about 300,000, this means nearly three-quarters of the people will be affected. 

In the vague contracts, previously made available on the government’s website, investors are promised land “free of impediments.” Impediments, a description which refers to the people now living on the land, are citizens of Ethiopia, but instead of their own government protecting their rights, they are seen as obstacles to be “cleared from their land” as if they were squatters or intruders in their own homes. Even though the government claims the local people are choosing to leave voluntarily in order to access better services, resistance is met with human rights abuses.

This is most often occurring in rural areas among indigenous people who have no established land rights even though they and their families or communities have lived on the land for generations. Neither do they have the power to resist the regime’s security forces as many are forcibly evicted from their land and moved to resettlement areas where they are promised improved access to services; however, most often, those services do not exist and the land is inferior with less access to water sources. Some end up homeless, in refugee camps in neighboring countries or working for slave wages on land they used to own. In most cases those affected have neither been consulted nor compensated for their losses, in contradiction to national and international laws.

The government claims there is no relationship between the resettlements and land leases; however, as soon as they are pushed off their land, the investors or agricultural companies move in to clear the land. For example, land grabs from small farmers have opened up 100,000 hectares—nearly 250,000 acres—for large agricultural farms like Karuturi Global Limited of India. Karuturi has been promised a total of 300,000 hectares—nearly 750,000 acres, which will require the expropriation of the vast majority of the best agricultural land in Gambella.Water for irrigation from this Upper Nile region is not being regulated and could greatly impact water availability elsewhere, including down river in other parts of Gambella, as well as in South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.

Another agricultural company, Saudi Star, owned by the second richest man in Africa, multi-billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi has been given 10,000 hectares to lease in Gambella. As part of his Derba Group, he plans to lease another 290,000 hectares in the same region. He also allegedly has intentions to lease 300,000 hectares in Benishangul, another marginalized region, north of Gambella, and recently purchased three other farms in the country. There has been violent conflict related to Saudi Star. Within Gambella, smaller sized sections of land have been leased to regime cronies. In fact, it is estimated that nearly 70% of the domestic lessees of land in Gambella are either regime supporters or members of the ruling party’s own ethnic group.

Some real-life stories from the ground

Case Study #1: Mr. Okok Ojulu: Okok is an Anuak smallholder farmer who was educated in the UK in sustainable development.  In 2002, he led the World Bank’s project in the Gambella region. His work was very effective in utilizing the bank’s development funds to build schools, clinics and to dig water wells for the region. The funds were given to all other regions in Ethiopia as well. After the World Bank assessed the outcomes, Okok was given an award of excellence for how the funds were used and how the services were implemented. One of the rewards received from the bank was a car for his work. Shortly thereafter he was imprisoned for several years in Addis Ababa by the federal government because he had become a threat to the government, having become so popular and influential in the community. In 2007 he was released and returned to his family and region.

Shortly after his release and prior to the land rush in the Gambella, Okok, a man of considerable vision and ability, began plans to form an agricultural cooperative that would benefit the community. He began to grow food himself and when he had grown enough food to make a profit, he began hiring local people. He also began negotiating for the purchase of a tractor that could be leased out during planting and harvesting. Those using it would help pay for the cost of the tractor with their crops when they were successfully harvested. The cooperative would then market the produce to the local people.

The initial success of the venture inspired the young people to see farming as a viable opportunity for their future livelihoods. It was also seen as a way to eradicate poverty and to become more self-reliant; however, the TPLF/EPRDF saw it as a threat, in direct opposition to the foreign investment model they were selling to the people. They intimidated him and after finding out he was again going to be arrested, he had to flee the country. He had been supporting his own children’s school fees as well as fees of other relatives, which he could no longer do. His vision was killed and the people he had hired no longer had jobs. In doing this, the regime further disempowered the small holder farmers, the backbone of solving food insecurity.

The farmland he had used in this project was instead given to Saudi Star. When we talk about local small farmers being pushed off their land and impoverished by it, we have names for you of many more examples. Mr. Okok is now in Kenya as a refugee because it is no longer safe for him to live in Ethiopia.

Case Study #2: WorOwar: A second case example is a local business man, WorOwar, who invested all the money he had from his business to lease agricultural land when he noted how foreigners were coming to take the land. However, because he was not a government supporter, a regime crony nor a TPLF/ERPDF party member, the government authorities ended up harassing, threatening, and torturing him. He lost the land to the government who made it so difficult for him and his family that they were forced to flee the country for safety in 2010. Some regime crony now has possession of his land.

Case Study #3: Gambellans in the Diaspora: There are Anuak, now living in the Diaspora, who took the initiative to attempt to lease land in the Abobo District of Gambella. They had heard that the area where they had grown up and where family members still lived was on the list to be leased. This was an effort to ensure that these family members would not be displaced and that the land would continue to be theirs; however, the regime authorities refused to lease it to them. Instead, an Indian company took over the land.

Case Study #4: Mazenger community leaders: In 2011, community leaders of the Mazenger people took the initiative to go to Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgis to seek help to stop the clearing of their virgin forests for an Indian company to grow spices.

The president agreed with the local people and advocated on their behalf by writing a letter to the Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture, the former Prime Minister, and the Minister of Environment, saying it would hurt rather than help the country in the long run; but his efforts were ignored. Instead, those community leaders who initiated this ended up losing their jobs and some were even put in jail. This is impact of the land grab investment on the people even while the government denies it all. This is why I call it not only a land grab, but a life and future grab from these innocent people. There are too many other examples to tell; not only in Gambella, Ethiopia or Africa but throughout the world

What undergirds land grabbing?

 1.       Lack of freedom:

Out of five countries in the world showing the greatest aggregate declines in freedom from 2007-2011, Ethiopia was fifth according to the previously mentioned 2012 study by Freedom House. In the case of Ethiopia, it is well known within the country that the ethnic-based Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) not only controls the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), but it also controls every sector of society and every facet of life from the federal level to the kebele (neighborhood levels). This includes the parliament, civil service, the judiciary, the military, security forces, civic institutions, religious institutions, the economic system, the educational system and the administration of developmental aid; including the dispensation of food aid, fertilizers, seed and other developmental aid. 

2.       Lack of justice and equality

Most benefits are directed to the TPLF’s own region or supporters. For example, in their own region of Tigray, there are five hospitals and four universities whereas in a region like Gambella, there are no universities and only one hospital without running water. Party membership is necessary to get into schools, to get jobs and to access most any opportunities. If you are not part of the inner circle, you stand no chance of moving ahead. Conversely, if you challenge the system, you could face harassment, higher taxes, loss of property, intimidation or rights violations. The judiciary and the land appeal process are not independent but are controlled by the top regime power-holders. The number one interest of the regime is the resources but not the people whose freedom they must restrict in order to have free reign of benefiting from the nation’s resources.

3.       Lack of political space: 

Opposition groups are threatened and undermined and opposition leaders and activists are imprisoned on charges of terrorism. There is only one opposition member in Parliament out of 547 members. He is only given 3 minutes to speak at any session.

4.       Lack of freedom of religion:

The TPLF/ERPDF interferes in the religious affairs of both Christians and Muslims, for example, forcing regime-selected, pro-government religious leaders into top positions to undermine their influence on society. It has caused church divisions among Christians and caused thousands of Muslims to peacefully protest against religious control. Muslim leaders have been arrested and are in prison despite committing no crimes.

5.       Lack of independent institutions:

Civic institutions, which are crucial in healthy societies, are under the control of the regime. Even the laws undermine civil society by prohibiting significant parts of their work, with criminal penalties for infractions, if they receive more than 10% of their funding from foreign sources. For example, human rights organizations have had to close and instead, the government has created their own.

6.       Lack of Communication and technology

Communication and technology, on every level, is controlled. Here are some examples:

  1. Telecommunication: the government is the only provider and most Ethiopians have limited access; for example, the rate of mobile phone usage in Ethiopia (5%) is one of the lowest in Africa; the rate of fixed land phones is only 1%; again, among the lowest. Ethiopia has invested in sophisticated spyware equipment to monitor users.
  2. Internet: the government is the only provider; they actively control opposition websites and closely monitor use[iii] through various techniques, including spyware. Access to the Internet is one of the lowest rates in the world at 0.5%, seven times behind the African average.
  3. There is only one government-run television station and radio station. Voice of America (VOA) and Deustche Welle (DW) have both been jammed in the past. Newspapers are self-censoring or government–controlled. Journalists and editors have been imprisoned as terrorists or have fled the country. Printing shops have been threatened not to print any material that reflects poorly on the TPLF/ERPDF.
  4. The government disseminates propaganda internally and internationally; for example, claiming that resettlement is voluntary, by denying human rights abuses, by denying personal gain by regime power-holders, and by using democratic, developmental and war on terror rhetoric to dupe outsiders and to gain political, financial and military support.
  5. Lack of land tenure undergirds poverty and land grabs:

In Ethiopia, all land is owned by the state; essentially banning private ownership. This has made it impossible for farmers, who use their land as collateral, to buy and sell land. It also gives them uncertain rights to that land since the government has reserved the their own right to redistribute the land if they see fit to do so.

In regards to how this creates or mitigates food insecurity, the SMNE worked with the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota on the completion of a study, Land Reform in Ethiopia: Recommendations for Reform, focusing on the role of land tenure policy and poverty in Ethiopia. That report will be released this week and will be available on our website.

The team of researchers found evidence that a lack of land tenure contributes to the vulnerability of the people; particularly in regions where they have no certificates giving the people individual or customary/community rights to utilize the land. Small and marginalized tribes have the fewest rights. The TPLF/ERPDF uses the lack of certification to redistribute land on whim.

Only four regions now have partial certification: Amhara, Oromia, Tigray and parts of Southern Nations. No one is safe, but those with certification are safer. Lack of mapping boundaries of properties also exacerbates the problem.

City dwellers also are at risk. Even though many hold certificates; urban certificates are inviolable only as long as no one wants the land underneath your home, condominium or business. If it is strategically located or sought after by an investor or someone from the inner circle of regime, the land can be expropriated. New laws are on the books that can demand eviction from urban land sites if the lessees fail to build a two or three story structure on the site. Many find it financially impossible to do so and end up on the streets, homeless.

The study found that land appeals are oftentimes heard by the same people and authorities who made the decisions on the expropriation of the land involved. There is obviously an inherent conflict of interest. [More information on Ethiopia’s certification program can also be found from the World Bank’s document: the Land Governance Assessment Framework: Identifying and Monitoring Good Practice in the Land Sector.][iv]                                                        

Some observations

  • High rates of rural landlessness and land poverty already exist; challenging the government’s argument that there is abundant excess land. Much of that land is less arable than what is being forcibly vacated. Forty three percent of rural Ethiopians have no access to land and fully 60% lack sufficient land to grow enough food for a family of five. (Please see Humphrey Institute’s Executive Summary).
  • Land grabs can be linked to increasing corruption, but not to decreasing hunger.
  • Land grabs, which are resulting in increased food insecurity and dispossessing the small farmers of their livelihoods, are exactly contrary to goals expressed by the World Bank, the IMF, USAID, development groups like the Gates foundation and others who say they want to support smallholder farmers.
  • Most every voluntary guideline of the FAO is not being followed in Ethiopia.[v] [Please see: Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security for furtherinformation].

Some conclusions regarding the TPLF/EPRDF’s Control of Ethiopia

  1. Government ownership of land is equivalent to TPLF ownership of land, to be used as they choose. The TPLF strategic plan for hegemony of all of Ethiopia, including exploiting its resources for its own interests, will actively war against reversing poverty and conflict in the country. [Please see the link here to:TPLF/ERFDF’s Strategies for Establishing its Hegemony & Perpetuating its Rule.[vi]] This is a disturbing plan for one, ethnic-based party, the TPLF, to gain permanent control of Ethiopia and its resources that few insiders and even fewer outsiders have seen. A government that in and of itself has a policy that views any outside its party as enemies or people to be exploited, has egregiously failed to perform its duty to protect the rights of the people and must be reformed.
  2. A regime that actively promotes division, controls religious expression, criminalizes dissent and perpetrates robbery and violence against its own people has egregiously failed to perform its basic duties and should not be supported by international groups.
  3. A regime that lacks accountability and transparency and where corruption is rampant should not be supported by the international donors, the World Bank, the IMF, USAID, development groups like the Gates foundation. Ethiopia lost US11.7 billion in illegal capital flight from 2000-2009 and in the year following the beginning of the land leasing program in Ethiopia, the Task Force for Financial Integrity and Economic Development[vii] (FTFP) reported that the amount doubled to $3.26 million (USD)—with the majority of that increase coming from corruption, kickbacks and bribery. 
  4. International Developmental organizations, like World Bank, the IMF, USAID, development groups like the Gates foundation, report success in helping small farmers in Ethiopia, but the majority of that aid is directed by the TPLF/ERPDF to one region—the TPLF’s own region of Tigray. Financial support to institutions, economic enhancement programs and democracy-building are directed to pseudo-institutions run by the TPFL/ERPDF.
  5. Military support received from donor countries is believed to have been used to perpetrate human rights crimes. This autocratic regime, with a documented history of human rights crimes, should not be the recipient of such support until a full and independent investigation is conducted.


The solution to this burgeoning problems of land and natural resource grabs is to have a government where the law can protect the people and where the law is not only limited to the elite, its cronies and partners. For positive change to come, citizens must be able to claim their rights—human, civil, land and religious. Until there is such a government to protect the rights of the people, which upholds democratic principles of free speech, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom in the media, an independent judiciary and institutions, an independent appeal process, a non-politicalized military and similar aspects of free and open societies, the people will be seen as impediments to whatever the government wants for its own interests. No one is safe in such a political climate. This is where donor countries like the US can become involved in pressuring these governments to be accountable to the people; not supporting autocratic regimes that are creating poverty by pushing people off their land. Africans who used to feed themselves from farming their own land are now hungry and needing food aid. Some who have been hired to work on these agricultural farms, are often working for wages below the World Bank’s minimum wage standards.

Overall, the donor countries, like the US, should try to side with the people, supporting them in having the freedom to elect their own government. If land grabs, human rights abuses and increased resulting food insecurity continue, it could create conflict, displacement and instability. This is not just about a land grab but is a life-grab which will affect the lives of Africans for generations to come. The multi-dimensional impacts are broad, long-lasting and difficult to measure. Environmental impacts are frighteningly inadequate. Sometimes the environmental assessments have not been done or when done, are voluntary or simply not enforced. Few controls are put on users of water and few, if any, studies have been done on the impact of water use on the lives of people in the surrounding areas or downstream. This is about human rights and human freedom. The donors and investors should look into this and take it seriously. The donors should think beyond themselves and about the people to whom the land belongs.

The following recommendations are for the US and other donor countries

I.            Put pressure on the Ethiopian government to recognize human rights and provide social and environmental safeguards in land investment practices. Ethiopia is dependent on international aid and as such, donors are in a powerful position to demand that Ethiopia lives up to its international obligations and implements the above recommendations. Aid flows should be restricted if Ethiopia is not living up to international human rights, good governance, and indigenous rights standards.

II.            Ensure that not aid monies are going into any project that will be involved in land investment in its present form. Aid monies should not be funnelled towards projects that will make it easier for land investment in its present form to continue to take place.

III.           Aid flows be considered to aid and assist Ethiopian government in achieving the above goals. Many of the above recommendations will more easily be implemented if the financial support is available to support them.

In conclusion

By 2025, nine billion people are expected to be in the world and these people will need food. The search for this food has fueled the land grabs in Africa. The exploration for suitable agricultural land and water sources has gone to where the most vulnerable people live and these are the people who are the victims. The weakest and most vulnerable populations of the world, already deprived of their rights and freedom are like these people in Africa. The focus has gone to the places where there is no rule of law, where people are not valued and where there is no participation in the decision-making by the people. 

Africans lack human freedom. They live on one of the poorest and most hungry continents, but not because they do not have arable land or water. What they lack are governments and strong institutions that protect the people. This is why unscrupulous investors are robbing the weak and the vulnerable. The need for food, water and shelter is not only critical to the more developed nations or the powerful, but the same needs exist for the weak and the vulnerable in Africa. 

You do not see it happening in the most agriculturally productive countries in the world, like in Saskatchewan, Canada, America’s Midwest or other free countries because there is a rule of law that is followed, but you can see it in a place like Ethiopia and in other parts of Africa.  This is what I call robbing the innocent. It is a daylight robbery and must stop. We are not against investment but it is immoral and wrong to rob the most vulnerable in our global society. It demands that free, conscience-minded people speak up. For some of the more powerful and wealthy to unjustly take the resources from these people will create conflict and instability in our global world.

As World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim states, “Securing access to land is critical for millions of poor people. Modern, efficient, and transparent policies on land rights are vital to reducing poverty and promoting growth, agriculture production, better nutrition, and sustainable development.” But he also presents one of the most crucial challenges as he warns, “Additional efforts must be made to build capacity and safeguards related to land rights – and to empower civil society to hold governments accountable.”

The core principles of the SMNE are about sharing and caring about others. What this means to us is that humanity should be valued above our diverse identity factors—putting humanity before ethnicity.

The dehumanization of others precedes most every act of injustice and evil; meaning that lasting peace and the prosperity of others can only come to our world if we care about the freedom, justice and well being of others for “no one is free until all are free.” Our humanity has no ethnic, national, gender, political or religious boundaries.

Until Africans are free; the world will not be free. We can build a better, more humane, more just and more harmonious world than this by simply recognizing the face of our Creator in every one of our global brothers and sisters! Will you not be a bystander and help create a better world for all of us?

Thank you!

Please do not hesitate to e-mail your comments to Mr. Obang Metho, Executive Director of the SMNE at: [email protected]