Tearing down the Ethiopian society through land seizures

By Agabos Debdebo

Land seizures by the Ethiopian regime, with the pretext of modernizing the country, is really intended to tear down the foundation of the Ethiopian society. Today, entire communities in Ethiopia are being forced out of their land and neighborhoods, and pushed into internal displacement and exile. Land and property owners are evicted by governmental decrees, and often paid only a fraction of what their properties are worth in compensations. Others are relocated at distant sites, far away from public transportation and commercial centers; or are housed in ill-designed urban concrete slums. In the rural areas, millions of subsistence farmers are resettled from one part of the country to another, with devastating economic, social, and environmental results.

Villages and communities are more than simple living spaces, serving the citizens as access to means of livelihood, community interaction, and as nucleus of family and social support systems. Systematically, these centers of culture and history are being destroyed by the Meles regime. In the current wild, frantic and desperate atmosphere of land grab, whole villages and districts are wiped out overnight. In Addis Abeba, the old communities of Piazza, Kazanchis and Lideta have already been bulldozed over. Not even old church cemeteries, like Kedus Yosef, have escaped destruction. Poor farmers from Harar are being actively settled in Wellega, where the new settlers are destroying what little remains of the natural resources of the country, aggravating the already severe environmental degradation of the Ethiopian landscape.

The regime’s current land policy schemes render the people needier than they were before their evictions from their homes and communities. The regime’s assertions that resettlement and evictions are necessary to bring modernization and improvement in public health, transportation, schools, agricultural, and so forth are unsubstantiated. The fact is that all resettlement plans, including the Derg’s villagization programs, have been utter failures in Ethiopia.

Notwithstanding these facts, and in lock-step with the Derg, the current regime has made property ownership in Ethiopia restrictive. The state owns the land, and the citizens own only the improvements made on the land. By design, ownership of the improved property is ambiguous, because the government can remove anyone off a property at any time, and at will. The pretext of the removal is a decree by officials that a certain property or a neighborhood is necessary for “investment.” Since the ruling party cadres have strong incentive to make money from investors, they often use militant and brutal tactics to force the people off their land, or to remove them out of their buildings.

At the heart of this inequity lies in the fact that the Ethiopian people do not have the right of land ownership. By default, regime officials enjoy easy access to the land, enabling widespread corruption and arbitrary land seizures. In the cities, there hangs an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and fear that ones’ property could be snatched away at any time. In the country sides, the regime is in the business of leveraging and selling hundreds of thousands of hectares of farm lands, virgin forests, fertile valleys, highland meadows and floodplains, often for as little as US$1 per acre. The beneficiaries of this largess are Pakistanis, Turkish, Indian, Israeli, Saudi and Ethiopian Diaspora investors, all in cohort with the officials.

Today, among regime and ruling party officials, reaching to the highest echelons of power, and including the wives and relatives of those in high places, there prevails a sense of harried entitlement, unrestrained corruption, and nepotism that is hastening the process of land seizures and evictions. Since the evictions in Ethiopia are of massive scale, implemented in a rushed time frame, and made without adequate planning and resources, thousands of years of tradition, culture, history, and the natural environment of the country are being obliterated. The result is that whole populations of dispossessed, landless, and impoverished citizens are scattered all over the entire country.

Regime officials and their cronies, at all levels, vie with each other trying to get as much of the land as possible, turn quick profits for themselves and families, and move on to the next piece of land. As a rule, the regime offers a small fraction of the property value as compensation, and hardly ever any adequate relocation assistance to tens of thousands of citizens affected by evictions. When citizens receive any payment, it is often very little. Besides, contrary to the regime’s assertions, there is never any consideration given to the loss of income, loss of businesses, lack of adequate transportation, access to markets, proper schools for children, public health, or care for the elderly.

Land is often confiscated by ruling party officials for dubious investment schemes. In Dejen, atop the Abay River, the otherwise pristine and clean mountain air is now polluted by a cement factory spewing toxic dusts into the air. This cement plant is a Pakistani investment scheme, built on confiscated land. The cement plant, imported in disassembled parts from Pakistan, is entirely run by Pakistani workers, except for a few local day laborers.

To the West, whole stretches of the fertile valley of the Baro River, vast swathes of the arable land, are given to Pakistani and Saudi investors. To the east, there are scheme to build sugar factories in Metehara with borrowed money from India, using Indian equipment, and Indian skilled labor. In this particular case, even before these sugar projects were ever launched, there are lawsuits currently underway in Indian courts. The Indian courts are hearing allegations of corruptions, implicating senior officials of the Ethiopian regime.

In the highland meadows of the central region, there are large tracks of fertile farm lands, confiscated from poor farmers, and now fenced off for various investment schemes. Dotting the hills and plateaus of the plains, huge, empty flower producing warehouses are found stretched for miles on end. In the south and the northwest, there are large scale mining and timber concessions given to Saudi investors, where heavy machinery are actively plowing away the virgin soils, and lying to waste hundreds of thousands of acres of hardwood forests. The ancient lowland bamboo forests of Beneshangul-Gumuz are given away at fire-sell prices to dubious companies from India, funded by borrowed money from the state-owned banks.

The Awash Basin has been rendered toxic by industrial spillage and chemical run-offs, all related to ill-conceived investment schemes; the ancient rain forests of the South and Northwest are being decimated by logging and mineral extractions; the Omo and the Boro Rivers are severely threatened by large-scale industrial farms, and ill-designed water projects; the highland meadows of the central regions have been depleted by soil erosion; and there continues the obliteration of our villages, cities, communities and neighborhoods. Even our cemeteries have become fodders to the prevailing greed and avaricious grabbing.

FORUM | AMHARIC