A 15-hour drive west from Ethiopia’s capital past coffee forests and jigsaw fields brimming with cattle and people, the road leaves the high country and enters the Gambella region — an expanse of flatter bush and forest with rich grasslands and rivers.
The land is sparsely populated; locals are taller and darker than their upcountry compatriots. Most are of Nuer or Anuak ethnicity. The Nuer, whose statuesque men display parallel horizontal markings on their foreheads, herd cattle and grow maize in the water-blessed expanses.
Gambella, long ignored if not invisible, has recently become a battleground over development, modernization, and human rights – one creating a furor inside the World Bank, which approved programs worth $920 million in Ethiopia last year.
Ethiopia’s effort to resettle local farmers into main villages while also leasing land to foreign corporations or wealthy Ethiopians has put Gambella under scrutiny for charges of violent forced relocations.
Now the issue is coming to a head: Ethiopian authorities since 2010 have embarked on a plan known as “villagization” to move some 45,000 households. The plan takes scattered families and consolidates them into fewer settlements. It is sold as a scheme for better schools, clinics, cleaner water, and, authorities say, more democracy.
Yet simultaneously Ethiopia is trying to lease up to 42 percent of Gambella – a state the size of the Netherlands – for agricultural investors. India’s Karutui Global Ltd and Saudi Star are the most prominent. Both have started huge farms for export of rice and other crops. Saudi Star is owned by Ethiopian-born Saudi billionaire Mohamed al-Amoudi and is the nation’s largest single investor.
The result is a bitter dispute in which NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW), and local people, some of them now in Kenyan refugee camps, allege that villagization mirrors previous brutal resettlement campaigns. They charge the government with Stalin-style collectivization that has increased poverty, carried out by beatings, rape, and killings. They say forced relocation occurred to clear land for investors.
The government denies all allegations. Former regional president Omod Obang Olum oversaw the plan in Gambella and says it was voluntary and successful. Some 35,000 families were gathered to 100 new or enlarged villages, putting them closer to roads and services.
“You’re going to transform the economic structures, the social structures, even political structures,” Mr. Omod affirms. “It’s an area for good governance, not only development.”
The situation is a dilemma for Western donors in Ethiopia who deliver over $3 billion a year. They trust Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation, for growing the economy, building infrastructure, and reducing poverty.
Yet the essentially one-party state’s use of authoritarian methods to quash dissent and affect radical change has put institutions like the World Bank and UK overseas aid programs into a difficult spot. Ethiopia is infamous among NGOs for its repressive tactics and restrictions on media and open expression.
In coming weeks the Bank must decide whether to enable a panel to further investigate allegations of funding involuntary or forced resettlements (see sidebar below) of local people.
The aid program financed by the Bank and other donors pays up to 60 percent of teachers, nurses and development workers in Gambella.
Also, a London law firm on behalf of a “Mr. O,” an Anuak man in a Kenyan refugee camp, is suing the UK Department of International Development for helping fund the means by which he alleges he was tortured and forced to flee Gambella.
There is little doubt that civil servants indirectly taking World Bank and UK development funds have staffed the resettlement sites. But donors say the poor would have suffered if the funding was withheld.
Mass land appropriation is a very new trend in Africa. (See accompanying print story on Masai lands in Tanzania under bitter dispute.) But the controversy around opening up land for corporate use is hardly restricted to this continent, but can be traced across the equator, to Cambodia and Indonesia among other places.
Land is marketed for mining, farms, tourism, suburbs, and multi-purpose crops like palm oil.
The core question: Are these crass “land grabs,” or a messy yet progressive move?
Today the scale and speed of land deals are larger and faster, says a Western expert with Ethiopia experience, and the interests of people are brushed past in the competitive market.
“In Ethiopia part of the government may be interested in land rights. But it doesn’t stand a chance against the agriculture and commerce wing,” the expert says.
The degree to which mass displacement has been used to turn around commercial farms is unclear. One village in a Karuturi farm remains unmoved. Mr. Omod says commercial agriculture and resettlement in Gambella are designed to achieved “accelerated development.”
The government of Ethiopia has said however it will not cooperate with a larger look at the issue by donors.
Government like a father?
The village of Pulkoat lies off a sweltering Gambella road that leads to next-door South Sudan. After dusk, Nypuk sits outside her sturdy new tin-roofed hut. She is a mother of three and one of tens of thousands who relocated. She gives a more affirmative account, at least to a Western reporter:
Some three years ago Nypuk walked four hours from her old village to a new home here. Previously, people couldn’t “grow enough food,” she says. “We have been moved by the government so we can be close to the road, so we can get development quickly.”
Pulkoat has a water pump. A school is being built with contributions from the community. A maize grinder was provided but is broken. Planting is hard as the area is covered with tangled scrub common to Gambella. “It’s very difficult to cut down with an axe,” she says. “We expected the government to come and cut down the trees.”
Villagers are expected to play their part by rebuilding huts and clearing land, things that the government cannot afford to do, says Omod.
Despite drawbacks, Nypuk, says the village is an improvement: “Even if some services are not perfect we believe God will give them to us.”
She describes her decision to relocate in paternal terms of the state and people. “Since the government is like a father, you accept whatever he says,” is her view.
Questionable track record and bad memories
Resettlement has a notorious history in Ethiopia. A decade after unseating Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military junta responded to the famine that inspired “Live Aid” – by trucking people hundreds of miles from drought zones to Gambella and other fertile climes.
An estimated 50,000 died in transit, or in new locations, from starvation and disease. The socialist government then separately conducted its own form of villagization. The idea was “to streamline distribution of basic services.” But it was also a counter-insurgency tactic causing mass suffering, according to historian Bahru Zewde.
The current government took power in 1991 after a 17-year rebellion. Ten years later it began its own resettlement, and encouraged at least two million people to move, mostly within their own regions.
Rather than reducing hunger, settlers’ lives became harder. The rushed plan was botched and services were not provided, a US government report found.
Now the same type of approach is being applied to Gambella, a place so wild that conservationists recently found what may be Ethiopia’s only remaining elephants and giraffes during aerial surveys.
A visit to Gambella does not yield the graphic findings HRW reported as villagization went into full swing. In several stops, no one said they saw killings or beatings – a story heard in refugee camps.
HRW says research in Gambella won’t reveal abuses as people are scared to talk. Yet in the village of Pokedi, locals did feel free enough to describe a slaying of civilians by soldiers last year. They describe 11 soldiers who came in search of insurgents behind an attack on the Saudi farm.
“They never said anything, they just arrived and started shooting,” says a resident. Five men including three security officials were killed.
Omod denied any innocent people suffered in counterinsurgency operations against Anuak rebels who murdered 19 highlanders on a bus. Workers from a sub-contractor of Saudi Star were also killed by gunmen a month later.
What is evident in Gambella is that resettlement has failed to deliver services and that the challenges of relocating may have made many people’s lives harder.
Officials who tout their achievements cite Tegni village as a model. Tegni does have a school, clinic, corn grinder, and water. But the land given to each of the 159 Anuak families is uncleared forest that most of them feel helpless to develop.
The “basically successful” resettlements faced delays in Gambella due to poor infrastructure, inefficient officials and low-grade contractors say minister of federal affairs Shiferaw Teklemariam. “The planning, the implementation and the follow through were not as strong as you would expect,” he added.
Karmi, a new site, is dishevelled. There’s a school but no kids playing and few women cooking. People fled to Gambella town after highland soldiers intimidated them following the bus shooting, said Ajulu Obang as she tied strips of bark together for a bird trap. In Karmi, as elsewhere, people felt they had no choice but to move.
For Nypuk, who earlier compared the state to a parent, moving from her old village had a practical element since not to move could bring officials to ostracized her: “The government will think that you are people opposing the government.”
By Robert Marquand
The World Bank's $30 billion annual budget makes it the world's top aid giver – and impoverished Ethiopia is a top World Bank recipient, receiving billions.
Part of those funds, which meet the needs of a US ally in Africa, come from US taxpayers.
But all may not be well: The World Bank's executive board is divided over whether the bank inadvertently aided forcible relocations of families in Ethiopia.
The case is sensitive enough for the board to balk on whether even to allow its own watchdog monitors to examine the case.
Last fall, about the same time the bank bestowed $600 million to Ethiopia for salaries for local officials, many of them in the Gambella Region, a small California-based nongovernmental organization, Inclusive Development International (IDI), wrote the board a complaint citing "credible evidence" of "gross human rights violations" in Gambella and copied new bank president Jim Yong Kim.
Many of the same people in Gambella that the bank helps are also part of a coercive resettlement program called "villagization," the NGO said, representing ethnic Anuak refugees.
Since 2006 the bank has given $1.4 billion for a program that covers salaries.
The Ethiopian government, since Human Rights Watch called it out last year, has denied any links between those receiving bank funds and villagization, a program it says in any event is harmless and useful.
In the development world, the World Bank is influential, sets standards and rules, and has an internal inspection panel that reviews complaints of harm and lack of accountability.
IDI said Ethiopia's denial is laughable. It urged the bank to use its investigative panel.
On Feb. 8 the panel did find grounds for a look, citing "conflicting assertions and differing views" on who is being helped by bank aid, and saying the "context" in Gambella is one in which bank aid and villagization are happening at the same time and "may mutually influence the results of the other."
Officials in Ethiopia and at the bank have denied any overlap of salaries and officials. Ethiopia says it won't cooperate with a panel.
That puts the bank in a dilemma. It delayed making a decision at its last board meeting, on March 19, to hear an Ethiopian presentation. Since then it has said nothing.
A World Bank spokesperson, asked when a decision might be made, told the Monitor: "Executive directors rescheduled the discussion of the Ethiopia ... project originally set for March 19, 2013, at a date to be determined. As is standard procedure in Inspection Panel cases, World Bank staff are not authorized to comment prior to the Board discussion."
For the World Bank to squelch a look at possible violations would harm its credibility, say activists. "Human Rights Watch remains hopeful that the government of Ethiopia and the World Bank board of executive directors will support the Inspection Panel investigation," says Jessica Evans of Human Rights Watch's Washington office. "The complaint raises serious concerns of violations of bank safeguards and human rights that deserve full investigation."
An official at one London NGO says, "The question is whether the bank will end up covering for the Ethiopian government's bad behavior. That would be a terrible blow."