Ethiopia - The refugee who took on the British government

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selam sew
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Ethiopia - The refugee who took on the British government

Unread post by selam sew » 12 Jan 2016 14:31

Image 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.
* * *

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.

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A family in Kir, Gambella. The government has been forcibly resettling hundreds of thousands of people. Photograph: Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images

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