Obang speaks about the Land, Water and Resource-Grabbing
and Its Impact on Food Security in Africa
At the 1st Africa Congress on Effective Cooperation for a Green Africa in Bremerhaven, Germany
Thank you for inviting me to address the 1st Africa Congress on Effective Cooperation for a Green Africa (ECOGA). It is a great honor for me to be here with you and I am humbled to be one of the keynote speakers on a topic of such great importance to Africa and the world beyond. Before I start, I would like to thank Mr. Arne Dunker, the Executive Director of Klimahaus, (Climate House), a brilliant way of letting others experience the different climates of the world within one building without going anywhere. It is a unique way to educate the people about preserving our environment. Even the rooms used at this conference are named as significant symbols of concerns regarding global warming raised at the Kyoto Accord and Montreal Accord. I would also like to thanks the Society for Threatened Peoples, Jens Tanneberg, Dr. Eva Quante‐Brandt, Dr. Auma Obama, Ken Nyauncho Osinde, Dr. Nkechi Madubuko and other dignitaries here.
As I speak about the relationship between land, water and resource use related to food insecurity; particularly related to what I have called the “Second Scramble for African Land, Water and Resources,” I will not only be speaking of Africa as a whole, but I will be speaking as an insider—as someone who comes from this land and soil called Africa; in particular, from the Gambella region of Ethiopia in East Africa, which enables me to use my own experience as a microcosm of what is most at risk on the continent. Yet, the issues of Africa are also global issues that will positively or negatively impact our global society. As global citizens, we will best flourish when we respect the rights of others for “no one will be free until all are free.” This is a fundamental principle of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), the social justice movement of which I am the executive director.
We are all connected together not only by living our lives together on this planet, but by the God-given humanity within each of us, which should be a bridge to valuing “others” – including those unlike us—putting “humanity before ethnicity” or any other differences. This is another fundamental principle of the SMNE for our humanity has no ethnic, religious, political or national boundaries while the dehumanization of “others” has repeatedly led to genocide, injustice, exploitation, corruption, poverty and deadly violence. When I speak, I am talking not only about my life and the future of my children and grandchildren but also of yours. It is that same inter-connectedness that brought me here today to address this audience made up of some of the top thinkers and decision-makers related to a “Green Africa,” even though I grew up in one of the most remote and marginalized regions of Ethiopia, on the border of South Sudan.
I come from a tiny, previously unknown, and now what some consider to be an endangered people group called Anuak, which means, “people who eat together, who laugh together and who share.” Anuak indigenous land stretches between eastern South Sudan and western Ethiopia, dividing the Anuak between two separate countries. When the civil war was going on in Southern Sudan, tens of thousands of refugees from every ethnicity, passed through our land, seeking refuge and peace. The Anuak of Gambella, Ethiopia would often supplies food and water to the weary refugees as they fled war-torn Sudan.
Sadly, right now, the Anuak, nearly all small subsistence farmers, are becoming refugees in their own land as they are internally displaced from indigenous land their ancestors have possessed for centuries. They have become “discardable” people by a regime that wants their land, but not them, in order to lease it to foreigners and regime-cronies for commercial farms. They are not alone; millions of other Ethiopians and Africans from countries all over the continent are facing the same plight.
One of the greatest threats Africa has ever faced is the impact from this new phenomenon of land-grabbing. In many places, these land grabs are going on without any input from stakeholders and without any compensation for lost lands, homes, crops and livelihoods. Small farmers are ill-prepared for the sudden dispossession of their land and with it, the means to their livelihood. Lacking education or training for other jobs, some have become a source of cheap labor as they are left without alternative means for survival. These foreign investors, countries and regime cronies are often making secretive leasing agreements with authoritarian regimes that give them millions of hectares of land for next to nothing for periods of time as long as 99 years in some cases.
With the current concerns for food security, especially in a changing climate where our soaring world population is expected to reach nine billion inhabitants by 2050—only 38 years from now, unused and underutilized land, with access to water for irrigation, has become the new “precious commodity” sometimes called “green gold.” Add to that the ever-increasing global need for resources like minerals, oil, natural gas and commodities in general and where do eyes turn but towards Africa, a continent with great reserves of rich, untapped resources. This is what is driving the second scramble for Africa.
During the first scramble for Africa, foreign slave-traders trafficked African human beings with assistance from partners on the inside, Africans themselves, who were wanting to profit from the betrayal of their fellow African brothers and sisters, especially those from competing tribes. Divide and conquer policies made it easier for outsiders to align with some African opportunists, the powerful among them, who then became complicit with these outsiders in the exploitation of other Africans. Colonialism, while making some genuine contributions to Africa, is still broadly considered one of the darkest of times in the history of humanity, marked by the ruthless, exploitive and dehumanizing pursuit of slave labor, economic profit and power from Africans and Africa.
This pursuit of Africa’s people as marketable commodities and of Africa’s many resources led to foreign-led minority rule, which was maintained through divide and conquer strategies, later adopted by African strongmen. The continent has not recovered. These African strongmen, with their “tribal-based groups” continue today. Even in Ethiopia, where colonial efforts failed, feudalism succeeded—with similar results. Whether colonialism or feudalism, both systems fed off of the manipulation of tribalism or its weaknesses. Now, “one-tribe-take-all” politics, with its “colonial” or “feudal” strongmen, has infected much of Africa and can be seen in the ethnic-based, one-party regimes typical of most dictatorships on the continent. Conflict never resolves as one group thrives—usually a minority of the population—while everyone else struggles. If another group comes into power; the pattern is oftentimes repeated. Strong institutions for checks and balances do not exist or when they do, they are pseudo-institutions, controlled by those in power. These non-representative governments continue to epitomize what happened at the Berlin conference of 1885, held only a short distance from where we are today, when Europeans met to divvy up the continent of Africa based on their self-interests. No Africans were present. Now, modern-day African dictators are doing the same.
Thirsty for power, material wealth and privilege, and empowered by foreign and crony partners and heavy-handed militaries, they are divvying up the indigenous land and resources of the African people, without consulting the people or providing compensation for losses, as required under international law and many national constitutions. The people are disempowered, intimidated or “bought off.” The environment has never been at greater risk as short-term interests and quick gain trumps the political will to give oversight to ecological concerns surrounding development projects.
From 2008 until now, some 204 million acres of land (approximately 80 million hectares) have been leased worldwide. The majority of it is in Africa. Within the African continent, Ethiopia is at the forefront of these land-grab deals. Within Ethiopia, no place has been more affected than my own home region of Gambella, which has now become the epicenter of land-grabs in the world. Let me share with you how it happened and how these land-grabs are contributing to food insecurity in a place where people have not had to rely on outsiders to feed them until now.
In 2008, the authoritarian regime, led by the recently deceased Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, made a secretive deal with Karuturi Global LTD, an Indian-run commercial agricultural operation. In that deal, they leased 100,000 hectares for fifty years, with the promise of 200,000 more hectares when they developed the first section; making it the largest commercial farm in the world.
Most of the produce is destined for export to India or other commodity markets. Some of the local Anuak have been employed by Karuturi, but wages are mostly below the World Bank’s established poverty level. In one year, from 2009 to 2010, the number of private investors in the Gambella region—mostly companies from India, Saudi Arabia, China and regime cronies— mushroomed from close to zero to nearly 900. They include Saudi Star, owned by Sheik Mohammed al Amoudi, a half Ethiopian-half Saudi billionaire, who allegedly will be exporting the food to Saudi Arabia. This past year, armed insurgents, opposed to the land grabs, broke into their headquarters and killed a number of Saudi Star employees, an indication of potential for violence in some of these communities opposed to the expropriation of land from the local people.
A land study completed for the Ethiopian government in 1995 highlighted the value of the Gambella region as being a potential breadbasket of Ethiopia because of its fertile land and plentiful water in the lowlands of the Upper Nile headwaters. It was an undeveloped region of great bio-diversity, abundant wildlife and virgin forests. Around the same time, oil was found. Finding resources on your land is like finding cancer in your body—it threatens your life and future—especially in a country where the people are seen as impediments rather than valued; even more so if these people demand their rights under their own constitution and international law.
In 2003, the regime went after the oil. The first step was to silence those Anuak leaders who were most outspoken regarding having a say—a right within the Ethiopian Constitution—in the development of the oil reserves on Anuak indigenous land. Starting on December 13, 2003, armed Ethiopian Defense Forces, accompanied by civilian militias equipped by the regime with machetes, attacked and brutally murdered 424 Anuak leaders within a span of three days. The bodies were buried in mass graves. Women were raped and homes, clinics and schools destroyed; followed by over two more years of widespread perpetration of human rights crimes and destruction. I personally knew over 300 of those killed during this 3-day massacre; among them were relatives, classmates and colleagues in the development work I was doing in the area. The regime covered it all up and attributed it to ethnic conflict between the Anuak and another indigenous ethnic group. A Chinese company, under the auspices of Petronas of Malaysia, began drilling for oil at the very same time. As long as they were there, the human rights crimes continued.
Genocide Watch completed two reports, classifying it as genocide targeting a specific people group, the Anuak, and determining that those in the highest offices of the country were involved in its planning and execution. Human Rights Watch did two reports and found widespread crimes against humanity related to the oil drilling.
In 2007, when the drilling only produced dry wells, the troops were moved to southeastern Ethiopia and Somalia where many similar crimes were committed against civilians of the Ogaden region. Now, the Ethiopian government has announced that they will be partnering in the extraction of oil from the Ogaden region.
If you fast-forward to the present time in Gambella, it is now the grabbing of land, the forced eviction of the local people and the renewed human rights crimes perpetrated by the military against any resistance to the above that threatens the Anuak and other indigenous people. In 2011, we in the SMNE partnered with the Oakland Institute (OI) to complete a comprehensive study on the nature of these land grabs, “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Ethiopia.” It was part of a larger study done by OI and other partners of a number of other African countries.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch completed an investigation of the impact of these land grabs on the local people. They reported on the forced eviction of 70,000 indigenous people from their homes and farms in Gambella, with plans to eventually move a total of 245,000 people—three-quarters of the total population in the region. (See Human Rights Watch Report) The regime has alleged that the resettlement moves were voluntary and motivated by the regime’s intention to better provide services such as clean water, medical care and schools; but in actuality, the people were forced to move to “villagization centers” where many people ended up living under trees and to areas where services, fertile land and access to water were far inferior, less accessible or non-existent.
Some of those who have been displaced are people I personally know, so when I am talking about the impact, I know many of their stories. I know that those forced off their land are now struggling to eat. I know about the huge areas of virgin forests that have been cut down to clear vast fields for planting. I know how vulnerable the rivers are to pollution from chemicals and fertilizers. These are rivers from which I used to drink or fish. I know how the wildlife will be jeopardized. I know how those who resist are beaten, killed, disappeared or arrested. This is not only happening in Gambella and in Ethiopia but wherever people have no rights and where others covet their resources or land.This is confirmed by the PBS documentary http://cironline.org/reports/ethiopia-battle-land-and-water entitled: The latest battleground in the global race to secure prized farmland and water and another video done by the Guardian http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nt22chvx_yQ&feature=related
Land-grabs Undermine Food Security in Places Previously Independent of Food Aid
When we talk about food shortages in 2008 and food insecurity in general, we are not talking about the people in the rural areas of Africa where these land grabs are going on because these people, under normal conditions, have nearly always been able to feed themselves. These people will now be the ones to go hungry because their land is being used to feed the world, but not themselves.
Here are some facts on food security in Africa:
According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO):
- One out of three persons in Sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished.
According to the African Human Development Report of 2012 that focuses on improving food security:
- Over 41% of children, under the age of five in Sub-Saharan Africa, had stunted growth. Their projection for 2020 only went down by 1%.
- Hunger in Africa is the highest in the world.
In the June, 2011 quarterly issue of the African Food Security Brief, they report:
- Sub-Saharan African countries reported an increase in cereal production in 2010 from 2009, but it failed to result in increased food security in many of the countries studied.
Modern-day dictatorships set the foundation for the second scramble for African resources.
Where there is no freedom, no voice or no justice, the rights and interests of the people are ignored, forgotten or abused. Let’s look at some recent statistics that link poor African governance and the lack of freedom to food insecurity and the threat of land and resource grabbing.
- Africans are among the least free people on earth.
- According to a 2012 report from Freedom House,five of the ten countries in the world suffering the greatest aggregate declines in freedom from 2007 to 2011, were in Africa.
- Topping the list of those countries experiencing the greatest declines in freedom over the past two years were: The Gambia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda and Djibouti.
- In Sub-Saharan Africa, 82% of the countries studied were only partly free or not free; contrasted with Europe, where 96% of the countries are free, with only 4% being partly free and none being not free.
- In terms of the population, 88% of Sub-Saharan Africans are only partly free or not free whereas 13% of Europeans are partly free and no country within Europe is considered “not free.”
- Interestingly, two African countries made the list of countries that have seen the greatest net gains in freedom. They are Tunisia and Egypt, both of whom overthrew their authoritarian leaders in the Arab Spring, following decades of repressive rule; hopefully, they will continue in this direction.
Freedom House saw the greatest declines in freedom in these countries in respect to the rule of law and freedom of association with other noted declines related to flawed elections, suppression of the political opposition, the media, journalists and civil society; and in my own country, Ethiopia, the use of anti-terrorism laws to target political opponents and journalists.
I was recently charged by the current government of Ethiopia, and convicted in absentia, of terrorism, without ever receiving a single document regarding it. I received hundreds of calls and emails of congratulations from Ethiopians complimenting me for making the list as it meant the government saw our work as a threat to their authoritarian rule. Sadly, some of Ethiopia’s most democratic and valiant voices for freedom have been locked up and tortured within Ethiopia. 
Dictatorships, crony-capitalism and corruption will block food security despite efforts.
Meles Zenawi, the architect of the Ethiopian system of increasing authoritarianism, has died. Under his leadership, Ethiopia had plans to lease 4 million hectares of land to foreign and crony investor. Accompanying these secretive land deals are record amounts of illicit capital leakage from the country. Preceding the release of a more comprehensive study by Global Financial Integrity on Illicit Financial Outflows from Developing Countries Over the Decade Ending in 2009, they chose to highlight Ethiopia.
They reported $11.7 billion (USD) leaving the country in the period of 2000- 2009 and a shocking $3.26 billion USD in 2009 alone—the first year of record land acquisitions. They stated: “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”
Not only is money from investment, foreign aid and funds for development blocked from reaching the people, but an atmosphere of corruption prevents better models of investment from materializing. Corruption deters ethical investors from doing business in Africa—decreasing good economic opportunities for Africans and instead increasing their food insecurity. In the second scramble for Africa, it is no longer the people who are sought after, but instead it is their land, water and resources. In Ethiopia, anyone who stands against these land-grabs is called “anti-development,” “anti-investment” or “anti-economic growth” and becomes a target of the regime while investors and companies willing to give bribes and kickbacks, while ignoring the violation of rights on the ground, are becoming complicit with Africa’s corrupt governments in its abuse of the people.
No one will argue with the fact that Africa desperately needs development, investment and economic growth, but what is needed is the right kind of investor and development. In western countries, laws protect the people, but in most of Africa, those laws are absent or not enforced. The people of Africa seek investors who will partner with the people in mutually beneficial and sustainable economic opportunities; however, most of these kinds of investors, developers and partners shy away from much of Africa because of the very real risks of doing business there.
Those ethical foreign and local investors and developers, who do take the risk, usually do so with caution and on a limited basis; however, many simply refuse to even attempt to do business in Africa—or within most countries of Africa—because of its corruption, its lack of infrastructure, its insecurity and the unreliability of the forever changing whims and politics of its authoritarian political leaders.
A representative from a major agricultural company shared recently that they were only willing to do business in five African countries at this time because of the expectation of bribes by public officials and because their company had strict policies against bribery.
This decision is confirmed in a soon-to-be-released survey of eight East African countries by Transparency International and its East African Chapters. In their preview of it, they report that “more than half of all those who deal with public service providers are forced to pay bribes.” Despite the 37 signatories to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), against bribery and corruption and its mission to improve the economic and social well being of the people of the world, bribery is still rampant, with many countries still not signatories or where signatories, many still have shown a lack of political will to enforce compliance. Germany is the second greatest enforcer of this act, only exceeded by the United States, with a higher population.
Unfortunately, where impunity exists, corrupt practices give unfair advantage to corrupt partners and undermine opportunity for principled economic partners who comply voluntarily or because of anti-bribery laws in their own countries. Such ethical partners should be rewarded once these countries are freed from the hands of their strongmen, but until then, Africans depend on these foreign partners to uphold honest and fair business practice. If Africa is not going to fall victim to the next scramble, it cannot be done alone without such international cooperation. Additionally, the people of Africa must press their countries for needed reforms, transparency, accountability, and improved regional and continental cooperation. Africa has 54 countries and 1.2 billion people who must take charge of their future.
As long as Africans are denied land tenure; food insecurity will continue.
Mohammed Ibrahim, Africa’s billionaire who is offering rich payoff’s to African leaders who do not take kickbacks says there is no justification for Africa being poor due to its immense wealth. He blames Africans for the way they govern themselves. He believes if African leaders were not so corrupt, that many more investors would be interested in investing. Every year he publishes a report, the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, looking at 86 indicators in Africa’s 54 states; ranking them accordingly. Accountability is one factor he believes is missing from most. In 2011 he gives Sierra Leone and Liberia some of the best marks for improvement even though they are not at the top. In regards to Sudan and South Sudan, he states in a recent interview by the Wall Street Journal, “In the absence of security, who can talk about development?” Sudan is his homeland.
However, he voices concern for most of Africa regarding a total disregard for property rights. He says, “The glaring issue here is the land title. Almost without exception, states hold title to everything… this means the 70% of Africans who farm for a living can’t monetize their profits, they have no collateral—if you don’t have title, how can you raise money, how can you borrow money? It’s a major issue in agricultural development, and it needs to be faced head-on.”
Like he says, land tenure is a major problem in ensuring food security and gives the legal justification for land-grabs. These unfair laws should be challenged and changed. Until Africans can own land, these problems will continue. Africans must demand the right to own land.
The SMNE will be publishing a study on the relationship of food insecurity to the lack of land tenure in Ethiopia. It was done in partnership with the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. It affirms all that Mr. Ibriham has said. This one factor, land tenure, would help the small farmers to multiply their productivity; yet, it goes back to the overwhelming need on the continent for freedom.
The rule of law is a weapon against hunger; where it exists, the people are more food secure.
No foreign country would ever come to Germany and kick the people out from their homes and land with no benefit to the people. No outside country could go to Canada to exploit the forests for its lumber; chopping down the trees and not caring about the effect on the ecology and the people; it would never be accepted. It is like someone going to Saudi Arabia and taking all the oil and not caring that the Saudi people did not have any oil to heat their homes or to run their cars. It is like depleting the fish on the coast off of Japan, and leaving none for the locals. Every well-functioning country has laws to protect the rights of the local people. This kind of exploitation only happens in those places where there are no strong regulatory mechanisms or where there is a government who does not care about the people. Unless there are ethics or laws, the privileged and the powerful will take all the advantages; leaving the most vulnerable out.
We live in a world where the balance between the advantaged and disadvantaged is large; like in the case of the exploitation of minerals in the Congo. If those minerals were found in West London or in New York State, the people of that place would benefit, but in the Congo, it is the African strongmen and their partners in many forms—other strongmen, opportunistic nations, corporations or even donor nations. If you are not strong, you are on your own. In some cases, those who are benefiting do not want the people empowered or awakened because if the people knew their rights; the daylight robbery of the people would stop and fairer competition and the rule of law would inhibit exploitation.
In Africa, the people often do not know their rights because they are intentionally denied knowledge and information. Ethiopia is the fourth least prepared country in the world for technological expansion. The reason is because the dictatorial government has been so effective in using imported technology from China to limit the free-flow of information to their own people. Ethiopia should be embarrassed to have one of the lowest percentages of people with cell phones, Internet service or telephone landlines on the entire African continent. All of these blocks to information hold the people back and keep the country hostage to poverty, hunger and starvation.
For many Africans, their land is the only thing they have. They are uneducated and ill-prepared for jobs beyond farming if suddenly forced from making their livelihoods in this way. For example, in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia live some of the most isolated and neglected of people on earth. Left alone, they have survived because of their land and water. Now, the Ethiopian government plans on taking their land and water away from them without giving them any benefits in order to make way for government-controlled sugar plantations. Who will speak for the people of the Omo Valley? Their government, who should be setting the regulations to protect them, is instead complicit. As a result, they become the victims. They will struggle and some, if not many, will die of hunger or related health issues. Who will benefit? Regime cronies will if the status quo continues under the newly appointed prime minister and his government.
God has given us a beautiful earth with abundant resources and we have toiled to feed ourselves. Whether we are human beings or another living creature, we share the land and the water. We still have enough land to share, but in this global society, that sharing requires that we think not only about ourselves and our groups, but also about others who may be weaker and more vulnerable. We must also consider preserving the conditions for life for other living creatures; creating a balance within our ecosystem to sustain ourselves and our resources. It cannot be done by rhetoric from the powerful, which only serves to cover up the exploitation of those on the ground for there are those who know the law and how to use laws to their own advantage. They pass laws to criminalize dissent and to guarantee their own access to the land of others. They use their power to justify what is wrong, rather than to act fairly. They use their power to exclude. It is immoral and unconscionable. It should not be accepted.
If we are genuinely honest, we know that this land was given to us by God; in no place is that more affirmed than in Africa by the African people. We should not settle for anything less than what is right and it should apply to everyone. Knowing what is right is part of what makes us human. Whether educated or not, what is right is embedded in all of us. Everyone knows it—whether rich or poor, educated or illiterate, powerful or weak. For example, everyone knows that it is wrong to kill another person. The same applies to recognizing the need of other human beings for shelter, food, family and the necessities to sustain life and that what belongs to them should not be robbed from another person because they are weaker.
As global resources are becoming increasingly precious, we must follow righteousness in these decisions. If we do not, we will lose our humanity, our soul, our peace and our security. We will shirk our responsibility to care and protect others as we would want done to us.
This land-grabbing is life-grabbing. It should not be allowed and should not be accepted by decent human beings. We live on this globe called earth. It may look huge to us here, but from space, it is like a tiny ball that can fit into a hand. We are all in this together and we have to maintain it. We have a stake in it. When dealing with a human life, we should value it, putting “humanity before ethnicity” or any other distinctions that divide us from each other.
For a better world, it requires all of us to remember that “none of us will be free until our brother and sister—our fellow human beings in this world—are free.” Our humanity does not have boundaries. We have to preserve it, protect it and be part of it. Do not be bystanders. We have to reach out, take action, love our global neighbors and be the ones to do your share from wherever you are.
Please do not hesitate to email me if you have comments to: Obang@solidaritymovement.org
Mr. Obang Metho, is the Executive Director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia
 Wall Street Journal, The Philanthropist of Honest Government, September 8-9, 2012, by Anne Jolis
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