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The refugee who took on the British government

January 12, 2016
The Guardian

Ben Rawlence

One day in late 2010, a farmer – I will call him Opik – woke up in his village in the remote Ethiopian province of Gambella. In this lush lowland area of savanna bordering South Sudan, the semi-nomadic Anuak people have lived for centuries, cultivating sorghum and maize, swimming in the river and gathering nuts, berries and fruits from the trees and wild honey from the forest. “It was paradise,” Opik recalled.

The Anuak have an intimate relationship with their landscape. Their highest traditional authority is a spiritual leader called the wat-ngomi, who must sanction any human intervention in nature. Some trees are deemed sacred and cannot be cut down. Spirits live in certain sites and even the boundaries of their territory are inscribed with religious meaning. Everyone knows where the land of one community ends and that of another begins. This intimacy is reflected in their language: “How are you?” in the Anuak language is piny bede nidi, which literally translates as “how is the earth?” The reply is piny ber jak (“the earth is fine”) or piny rac (“the earth is bad”).

That morning, the earth was bad. Officials from the regional government in Gambella, accompanied by soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) had come to tell Opik and the other inhabitants of the village to leave. It was not the first time they had come. Earlier in the year there had been several meetings. The government had arrived with police and militias and informed the residents that they were to be moved to a new location. There was a national plan called “villagisation” and Gambella was in the first phase.

The officials had explained that the purpose of the relocations was to cluster communities together in places where the government promised to provide a new school, a clinic, a borehole and a grinding mill. In time, the new settlements would be better-connected to the rest of the country via new roads, they said. The officials also promised to provide a grader to clear the land at the new site and make it ready for planting.

In a detailed document outlining the villagisation plan, the regional government had written that the relocations aimed to “bring socioeconomic and cultural transformation of the people”. The timeframe was ambitious: in three years, starting in 2010, 225,000 people (or 60% of the population) would be relocated in Gambella. Nationwide, across Ethiopia’s fertile lowlands, the government aimed to relocate up to four million people in five years.

Ethiopia is in a race to develop. In a similar fashion to Rwanda, the authoritarian government, lacking a democratic mandate, has staked its claims to legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, and it is in a terrible hurry. During the past decade, Ethiopia has pursued a Chinese-style rush to develop its economy: locking up dissenters, crushing the opposition with a succession of 99% electoral victories, and building massive road, rail, agribusiness and hydropower schemes without pausing to conduct the necessary social and environmental impact assessments.

Nonetheless, despite still knocking along the bottom of every poverty index, Ethiopia has earned a reputation as a development success story, and donors, including the UK, are very keen to help, praising Ethiopia’s apparent strong progress towards the UN’s millennium development goals: increasing primary school enrolment and improving statistics on access to healthcare, water and so on. But donors are steadfastly silent on human rights abuses. Ethiopia receives more aid than any other African country – close to $3bn per year, or about half the national government budget. For the donors, Ethiopia is a priority, a linchpin of their development efforts, research and policy; especially so for the UK, where rising aid budgets have propelled Ethiopia into second place, behind Pakistan, as the recipient of the most British aid.

Until 2015, the main vehicle for aid spending in the country was a huge multi-donor fund managed by the World Bank called the promotion of basic services (PBS), the largest of its kind in the world, to which the British Department for International Development (DfID) was the largest single contributor. Over 10 years since 2006, the PBS scheme has invested around $12bn (including around $3bn from DfID) in five sectors: roads, water, health, education and agriculture.

In Gambella, the government’s plans for delivering these things took the form of villagisation. The inhabitants of Opik’s village, though, were mistrustful of the government’s intentions. There had been no dialogue, no consultation. If the government had done little for them before, why would they suddenly start caring now? They suspected a plot to steal their land. They had heard of investors coming to test soil in certain areas.

Their suspicions were well founded. In Opik’s district, the allocation of land for agribusiness was well under way. Information was patchy, but a study by the Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, estimated that in Gambella, at that time, the government had leased or marketed 42% of the region to investors. Speaking to investors in India, government officials referred to the land on offer as “unused,” “under-utilised” or “completely uninhabited”.

After that first visit, the elders of Opik’s village held a meeting and agreed that the next time the government came, they would inform the officials that they did not agree with the plan. They did not want to leave their ancestral home. At the next meeting, they duly spoke up. Government officials called them “inciters” and arrested them. They were still being held in the town jail on the day the soldiers came back to carry out the evictions. So this time, Opik knew not to argue.

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All along the riverbank in Opik’s village the maize was standing tall, ready for harvest. Someone protested that they could not leave the crops: the monkeys and termites would have a feast. “Don’t worry about your crops,” one of the soldiers said. “You can come and get them after you have built your houses.”

Opik, his wife and their six children walked with the rest of the village in sombre silence for several hours through the hot bush, escorted by the soldiers. He reckoned the new location was about three or four miles away from their old village. When the soldiers finally halted, he was dismayed. The ground was poor, not fertile. The scrub was dense; it had not been cleared. There was a road nearby, but otherwise, there was nothing: no school, no clinic, no well, no grinding mill, and most ominous of all, no food.

That first night, they slept under trees. The soldiers camped nearby. The next day, under supervision of the soldiers, they began the arduous job of clearing the land and then constructing tukuls, traditional huts made of sticks and straw. Schoolchildren from a nearby town arrived in trucks to help with the cutting; they had been told there was a “national campaign”, and that normal lessons were suspended; each week they went to a different village to help. This was what the government meant by a “participatory approach” in its villagisation plan. Opik’s own children helped, too. Their old school was too far for them to return to – a three-mile walk in the other direction from their old village. No one was paid.

Opik resented the work. He did it slowly. And people who were slow with their work or who asked questions of the soldiers were beaten. Several young men ran away in the night. The villagers were tired. There was no food. Once, at the beginning, the government distributed wheat to the villagers. But mostly, they lived on roots and berries. Some people boiled leaves from the forest. After three weeks, when construction was finished, the soldiers departed. The very next day, Opik and most of the men walked the two hours back again to their old village to see what had become of the harvest.

It was just as they had feared. Baboons had rampaged through the maize fields, stripping the plants. Rats had taken care of the rest. Back in the new village, things were desperate. People were starving to death. After several people had died from malnutrition, Opik and some of the other men sneaked back each day to farm at their old site.

In October 2011, officials came to visit the new village to see how the move had gone. At the meeting, Opik was one of the most outspoken in denouncing the evictions. “He was that kind of person,” a friend later recalled. A few days later, just after dark, soldiers found him sitting outside his house in the new village. He said they took him and several other so-called troublemakers to a military camp, where he was gagged, beaten with rifle butts and accused of being a terrorist. After three days, the soldiers released him.

He felt lucky to be alive. In the preceding months, everyone had heard stories about young men being rounded up, and about elders who had refused to move being found dead on the roads in the morning. Without saying goodbye to his family, Opik fled, dodging the police and militias, following the route taken by hundreds of other Anuak refugees from villagisation: to the refugee camp of Gorom in South Sudan and then, after a journey of several weeks overland by bus, to the Dadaab camp in Kenya, where he arrived in December 2011. By the end of that year there were 2,155 Gambellan refugees in Dadaab. The Ethiopian government claimed there were none. In Dadaab, Opik met others who had fled from different parts of the region.

In January 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a damning report (which I edited) about villagisation, detailing rapes, murders and forced evictions. It described soldiers destroying crops and burning villages to discourage people from returning, and government officials who questioned their orders being sacked from their jobs and ending up at Dadaab among the refugees. The report accused western donors, including DfID and the World Bank, of complicity in the evictions. For their part, the donors asserted they had no direct involvement in the villagisation programme.

Confronted with the allegations, representatives from the Development Assistance Group (DAG), the consortium of donors to Ethiopia, said that a team of officials from DfID, USAid and Unicef had conducted visits to Gambella in February and June 2011 to look into rumours of abuses connected to villagisation. DfID and USAid did not share or publish their own assessments, but said that while they had found problems with the evictions, the relocations were, in their view, on the whole, voluntary.

Throughout 2012, HRW, the Oakland Institute and several MPs asked DfID to publish the findings of its own field visits to Gambella. It refused.

Meanwhile, after reading the HRW report, and the donors’ claims that evictions were voluntary, the Gambellans in the refugee camps were outraged. In baking hot Dadaab, without a green shoot in sight, and with nothing else to do, the Anuak talked politics all day. Opik quickly became a regular orator. The Anuak wanted the donors to come and speak to the victims themselves, in the refugee camps. The communities in exile in the camps wrote to the consortium of donors inviting them to come and meet them. They claim they got no response.

The Anuak had to wait 10 months for a clue. In October 2012, after questions were asked in the British parliament, the findings of the DfiD visits were quietly deposited in the House of Commons library. They described massive flaws in the villagisation programme, inadequate services and insufficient food, possibly requiring an emergency response.

The first report, which has since disappeared from the parliament website, noted that more than half of respondents had said they did not want to move. The report warned of a “potential humanitarian crisis” due to the people’s “limited livelihood options”. It also warned of “reputational risks” to donors’ aid programmes. This, then, was the heart of the matter.

There is almost no government activity in Ethiopia that is not underwritten by foreign money. Through the PBS programme, DfID, the World Bank and other donors were in effect paying for the promised services in the new villages, and they were wary of being implicated. Taking the refugees’ stories seriously would complicate billions of dollars of investment and undermine the narrative about Ethiopia’s success story. Villagisation presented an awkward contradiction between the dash to develop and the rights of the people supposedly being “developed”. To borrow a recent phrase, DfID’s Ethiopia programme had become “too big to fail”.

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