Meles Zenawi’s Subterfuge on Pastoralism Abebech Belachew

May 16th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

On January 25, 2011, on the occasion of the 13th anniversary of the Ethiopian Pastoralist Day, Meles Zenawi (il duce dei TPLF [TPLF’s Mussolini]) gave a speech in Jinka about pastoralism and development for pastoral communities. Before we expose the subterfuge in his speech, a bit of the history of the Ethiopian Pastoralist Day is the order of the day here which many in the Diaspora may not be aware of.

On January 25, 1998, an Ethiopian NGO working on pastoral development, Pastoralist Concern Association of Ethiopia (PCAE), organized a mass cultural gathering in a place called Filtu, Ogaden, for the pastoral communities in the surrounding area. At the end of the gathering, the pastoral elders resolved that January 25 should be observed every year as the pastoralist day. In 2000, when the Pastorlaist Forum Ethiopia (PFE), a national network of NGOs and of which PCAE is a member was formed, the responsibility of organizing the pastoralist day was passed over to PFE. Thereafter, all the Ethiopian Pastoralist Days had been organized by PFE until 2005 when the government of il duce (Meles) nationalized it and made it its own. On that year, the PFE was completely thrown out of the management and Meles started to appear for the first time. From then on, the Ethiopian Pastoralist Day, became the occasion through which the regime uses as a propaganda tool to deceive pastoral communities. Let’s now turn to what Meles said in Jinka on January 25. It should be noted that it is not just Meles Zenawi but a great many Ethiopians, and Africans at large for that matter, do not understand pastoralism or do not have the right perception on pastoralism. On the contrary, pastoralism is understood by many Ethiopians in the negative sense; as backward and barbaric. Hence, a brief introduction is required right from the outset.

Pastoralism is, in the first place, a traditional way of life whose livelihood system is ingrained in the livestock production. In the same manner as small scale farming is a traditional livelihood system to the peasantry, livestock production is also the livelihood system of pastoral communities. There are an estimated 50 million pastoralists spread throughout Africa from Senegal and Mauritania in the West to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia to the East; and to the San people of Southern Africa (Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa). In some countries, pastoralists constitute a majority and some countries are predominantly pastoral by origin. Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia are 100% pastoral by origin. Pastoralists constitute one huge section of the population in the continent.

However, pastoralists are very much misunderstood and/or viewed with negative perception. The misconception or prejudice towards pastoralism emanated from the conflict they always had with farming/highland communities because of competition over grazing land. Colonization fueled the prejudice further. Colonialists were resisted by pastoralists in many parts of the continent. As the colonial construction has it, pastoralism is a backward way of life that has to change and pastoralists have to become farmers by changing their livelihood system from livestock rearing to farming. Decolonization has not undergone a thorough deconstruction in Africa that the colonial construction on pastoralism (like many ideological, religious, social, political and economic constructs for that matter) is taken as the gospel of ‘development’ and ‘modernity’.

In Ethiopia, similar prejudice towards pastoralism was constructed partly due to the fierce rivalry between the kingdoms based on pastoral communities mainly the caliphates that reigned in Harrar, Afar and Somali regions and that of the Christian kingdoms based on the highlands. The infamous conflict that went in history as the “religious war” of the 16th century between Ahmed ‘Gragn’s’ caliphate and Libnedingil’s Christian kingdom can be cited as an example. Now, the various anti-pastoral constructs that emanated in the highland has their origins in these conflicts. In the final analysis, pastoralism is baptized as ‘nomadism’ and the common Amharic word for pastoralists is zelan, which is derogatory through and through. There is a great deal of prejudice among the highland population towards pastoralists and the typical depiction of pastoralists is ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilized’. Even the radical revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s who emerged on the political scene in Ethiopia all postulated development and modernity from the Eurocentric point of view which includes Marxism and still shared the prevailing prejudicial perception on pastoralism. Woyane, that swung ideologically from Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought of the Albanian brand (during the struggle) to the neo-liberal Washington consensus (now), undoubtedly shares this prejudicial construct on pastoralism as Meles Zenawi’s infamous subterfuge attests below.

Pastoralism in Ethiopia is strongly related to pertinent issues of development such as environment and climatic change mitigation, rural development, macro-economic growth, conflict resolution and governance. Seen from these perspectives, pastoralism occupies a crucial position in the development process in Ethiopia. In this regard, needless to say that the policy perspective at the macro level equally occupies a crucial position in the development process of our country and the type of governance that we need. Pastoralists are important components of the category of communities referred to as indigenous that is increasingly assuming huge importance internationally for whom various instruments of rights (indigenous, pastoral) are already in place the latest being the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), Agenda 21 (Rio Summit, 1992), ILO Convention 169 (1989), the 2003 Report of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and many more. In Africa, post-Apartheid South Africa is the first to recognize indigenous people’s rights and accord them with legal and constitutional protection. Lately, the Central African Republic has become the first African country to ratify ILO Convention 169 (2010) and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) has become the first African country to come up with a special law to protect indigenous people’s rights (February, 2011). In addition, the African Union’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has set up a working group of experts on indigenous issues to specifically focus and work on the protection of indigenous peoples rights in the continent. We can see that indigenous peoples issues and their right in particular is increasingly attracting attention internationally. But, the governments in Ethiopia have never ratified any of these international instruments despite the fact that Ethiopia is still the seat of the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa. [We have no idea whether or not Meles Zenawi is aware of these developments. But, let’s see what he says.]

I. “Civilization” and Modernization”: Referring to the pastoral areas of South Omo, Meles Zenawi flatly states, “… this area is known as backward in terms of civilization”. Now, what makes pastoralism “backward” and what is this gibberish that Meles refers to as “civilization”? Is he really aware of the impact of his statement? I doubt it but, typical of him, he asserts that pastoralism constitutes backwardness and secondly it is backward “in terms of civilization”. The paradox is, however, in the very first sentence of his speech, he espouses to distance himself from the erstwhile positions of his predecessors, Mangistu’s and Haile Selassie’s regime. The fact that he hasn’t moved an inch from his predecessors’ perceptions and policies on pastoralism is clear when he still refers to pastoralists as backward and through his policy of ‘modernization’ that he prescribes to undo this “backwardness”. As an Amharic saying has it, “Amed beduket yisikal” (something like: ash which is worthless compared to grain flour mocks at the latter.)

Harry Truman introduced the term “under-development” to describe all developing countries in the Third World, a concept that was heavily criticized later. Who is to say you are developed or under-developed, you are civilized and/or you are not? What does civilization really constitute? Hat is the yardstick and who set the yardstick and with what right and mandate? Take the case of the capitalist system. It brought the countries it reigned in to the brink of collapse and acute crisis more than three times since the thirties the latest being the current crisis we are in. On top of that, industrialization accounts mainly for the destruction of the ozone layer that caused climate change which in turn put many poor countries in acute shortage of rain affecting their agricultural output. Such is the capitalist system that endangered the existence of the planet earth through industrialization whose sole purpose is money making. This is the state of affairs what Truman called ‘development’ and what Meles calls ‘civilization’. In Meles’ mind, ‘civilization’ constitutes sacrificing the world for greed and if you are not part of it you are ‘backward’.

By contrast, the lives of pastoralists is simple and straightforward. It is a traditional system which protects the environment, owns land communally and lives according to the system of governance defined in their indigenous knowledge system. Because, pastoral livestock keeping depends on availability of water and grazing land, protecting the environment constitutes an important component part of their indigenous knowledge system and traditional system of governance. Some even have traditional customary laws in this regard. In Afar, for instance, the pastoral customary law has it that a person who cuts a tree will be fined with animals depending on the kind of tree he cut. Compared to the greedy system that Meles tries to convince us as “civilization” or modernity, pastoralism is by far human and eco-friendly traditional system that has nothing wrong whatsoever. It is a traditional system like the peasant farming system depending on what nature provides to humans. The only difference is that peasants opt to live by tilling the land while pastoralists opted to keeping livestock.

Meles brags about adopting a policy to “modernize” and “develop” pastoral regions alleging that his predecessors hadn’t done so. As a matter of fact, this is completely untrue. Both Haile Selassie and the Derg had had mega projects financed by the World Bank to “develop” and “modernize” the pastoral regions of Ogaden, the adjacent areas of Afar and Borana. We all know why these mega projects failed. In case Meles doesn’t know, they failed mainly because they were launched to “develop and modernize” and “change” the pastoral livelihood system; because these projects were all planned with the exclusion of the subject, the pastoral community. The World Bank realized its mistakes and adopted a new project called pastoral community development project but was manipulated by the EPRDF government.

In fact, we need to reverse what Meles said about backwardness. Who is really backward? The one that refuses to recognize the livelihood system of a huge community (roughly 15-20% of the population) and fails to come up with the right macro policy on pastoral development? Or is it the pastoralists who only want to lead their lives the way they like and the way they can afford a living?

2. Sedentarization

An extension of the “civilization v/s backwardness” subterfuge is the argument for sedentarization. Both Haile Selassie’s and Derg’s regimes argued that “nomads must settle, otherwise we cannot provide them with services”. It is always with amazement that I recall what a middle level official at the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission who dealt with NGOs once “advised” me about handling “nomads” as the programme proposal that I submitted was on pastoral development. He literally told me to abandon the proposal because “these nomads are completely useless, uncultured and unruly, roaming around the place, pillaging and stealing. If you start a project to help them, they will steal all your stuff and can even kill you.” This was in 1999, eight years after Woyane came to power and this official was also a TPLF cadre. I realized that as far as Woyane is concerned, what I used to hear when I was a child about Afars like “the Adals [Afars] will cut your genitals if they catch you” and all sorts of scary sayings, seem to be still intact in the minds of the new rulers. As far as pastoralism goes, Meles Zenawi and his regime have identical positions with those of Haile Selassie’s and Derg’s regimes despite Mele’s claims to the contrary. The ancient regimes arguments and policy was to settle pastoralists. Is Mele’s policy any different? Listen to this, “The pastoralists’ life is nomadic and relies on cattle-raising; because of this it was difficult to provide quality healthcare and education.” And now? What is Meles trying to do? Exactly the same as the ancient regimes. Pastoralists still have to settle according to Mele’s plan. His plan is to ‘modernize’ the pastoral regions with the grand plans of ‘transformation’ and construction of the Gilgel Gibe dam. The ‘transformation’ is all about large scale commercial farms belonging to foreign companies who acquired large tracts of pastoral land from Mele’s regime through one of the cheapest land lease offers ever. How are pastoralists expected to be ‘modernized’? Through employment and benefitting from infrastructural developments (telecommunications, roads, etc…) and irrigation dams. This is a replica of the failed World Bank/government projects of the 70s and 80s and, in fact, can be worse because the projected ‘modernization’ now is ‘galvanized’ through foreign companies who care less about national development. This projection still aims at settling pastoralists.

Pastoral Development: Meles Zenawi accuses those who advocate for pastoral rights as wanting “pastoralists and their lives to remain as a tourist attraction forever.” Is this true? We don’t expect any truthful statement from Meles who is well reputed for not blinking to tell lies on TV. Be that as it may, but what are the arguments of pro-pastoral rights? We say what pastoralist communities need is a policy of pastoral development that starts off from the livelihood system of the pastoralists themselves. Development, social change or whatever change is required must first be defined by pastoralists themselves. No highland do-gooder with an ingrained prejudice towards pastoralists can come and tell them that he is the one who knows best for them. That is where Meles goes into one direction while pastoralists go to the other. What pastoralists want is not abstract. They still demand the same things that they have been demanding the ancient regimes for the past 50-60 years.
During the Ethiopian Pastoralist Days, i.e. before they are hijacked by the regime, pastoralists held a meeting one day earlier and set out their demands for development and social change. What they have always demanded were: provision of market mechanisms to sell their animals (because some of them travel for days all the way to Kenya and/or Sudan searching for markets), water development, schools for their children, clinics and so on. These are basic development demands that peasants in many parts of Ethiopia also demand. But, the governments argue that they have to settle first. And the pastoralists argue back that if they settle they will all perish, and that if they have to settle the government has to provide them with land to be tilled to sustain life because the land they inhabit now is arid and semi-desert unsuitable for farming. At that point, the governments have no argument. This is just the narrative aspect. There is also the social development aspect to this.

What should pastoral development constitute? When Meles came up with his infamous strategy of Agricultural Development-Led Industrialization (ADLI), the idea was that peasants will work hard, produce more and accumulate wealth and some of them can become millionaires (like in China, sic!) to invest in some kind of industry. That way industrialization in Ethiopia can take off. Twenty years after ill-thought ADLI, peasants are submerged in more pauperization let alone accumulate wealth and move on to invest in commodity production. Now, pastoral development must and can start with little support rendered to pastoralists such as setting up market mechanisms (this involves creating markets at various points in pastoral regions, provide water for animals, and if possible vaccination for the animals), introduce mobile schools and clinics. Pastoralists need little support just to take the process off the ground. Once they have the market, they can have better income and even support the mobile schools and clinics themselves. With the help of the government and/or NGOs working on pastoral development, pastoralists after acquiring a certain amount of wealth can resort to diversifying their livelihood mainly through trade and emerge out of the transhumance (mobility) way of life and move on to a settled life all by themselves and in their own pace. The government all have to focus is providing markets, education through mobile schools and clinics.

However, all the three governments proceeded from the arrogance of power and told pastoralists to settle first before they provide any service. That caused the stand-off between the governments and pastoralists. In the final analysis, arguing for pastoral development that starts off with augmenting pastoralists with the structural support they need and arguing against the government insistence for sedentarization (settlement) does not, in any way, indicate that we are for keeping the pastoral system as it is. No. As a traditional system, just like the peasant system, pastoralism has to undergo a social change the way that is not only acceptable by pastoralists but also possible because poverty has to be abolished and development must come. However, in as much as Meles Zenawi is not asking the peasantry to change their livelihood system (because of recurrent drought peasants may need to start moving, who knows?), he should also not ask pastoralists to settle.

Secondly, pastoral development also can lend to the economic development of the country as a whole. With what asset should development or economic growth start? With something that we have at hand or with something that we don’t? What does Ethiopia have, grain or animals? The whole world knows Ethiopia for famine and recurrent food shortage, but in terms of livestock, Ethiopia is second in Africa next to Sudan. In fact, until the latest drought that killed millions of cattle in 2000-2002, Ethiopia used to be number one in Africa in the number of livestock it has. Isn’t it elementary that we need to start the whole process of capital accumulation with the asset that we have, livestock? Why did Mele’s ADLI fail? Because, it banked on something that we don’t have, namely grain. In 2003, at the Pastoralist Forum 3rd national conference on pastoral development, a paper was presented on possibilities for pastoral accumulation and how that in turn can propel the national economy. As far as Meles is concerned, that fell on deaf ears. But, in the subsequent years, the idea was picked up by the World Institute for Sustainable Pastoralism based in Nairobi and it launched a major research in the area in five countries 2007 and reached at a conclusion that pastoral livestock production system can greatly contribute to national economies. In 2011, Meles Zenawi, as we have seen above, reject this finding and still argues the way Haile Selassie and Mengistu did.

One of the most likely ways that pastoral development can contribute to the national economy is that it creates space for other potential industries related to livestock production such as meat processing plants, packing and processing dairy products, tannery and even exporting live animals. Both government and the private sector could bank on these economic activities if pastoral development is given the chance to emerge with the adoption of a right policy.

Incidentally, there is no tourism attraction in Ethiopia as far as pastoralists are concerned except the Hammer community in South Omo and the number of tourists who come to Turmi, Hammer area, South Omo, is too insignificant as compared to the situation of the Massai of Kenya and Tanzania. Mele’s accusation of those who advocate for pastoral rights as “wanting pastoralists and their lives to remain as a tourist attraction forever” is simply groundless and as a born plagiarist, he repeated verbatim what one Kenyan minister said ages ago.

What is the gist of Meles’ ‘development’ plan for pastoralists? “Following the good results we have achieved in the Afar region, the government is planning, and working hard to establish, a 150,000 hectare sugarcane development in this area starting this year” he says, and “When this development work is done, we believe that it will transform the entire basis of the area. This will benefit the people of this area and hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopians, by creating employment. The pastoralists who live around this area will be given some fertile land from this irrigation system, which can be used for their own cultivation. There will be support for the pastoralists to combine agriculture with modern cattle herding”. This was a replica of the cotton farms in Awash that evicted hundreds of thousands of Kereyu, Itu and Afar pastoralists from the Awash valley. [Incidentally, Kereyu elders submitted a plea to Woyane two years ago to be paid the compensation that Haile Selassie promised them some 50 years ago!] This agro-industrial project has never benefitted pastoralists and it will not benefit those in South Omo now. The promise of employment is empty as these commercial farms only hire skilled workers and pastoralists have no chance of being employed. The promise that the irrigation system of the commercial farms will benefit pastoralists is also the same fiction promised to the pastoralists of Awash valley some 50+ years ago when the sugar plantation in Wonji began. Once the farms start operating, pastoralists will be evicted once and for all. What Meles is telling us today in 2011 about pastoralists benefitting by “combining cultivation with modern cattle herding” is the same fiction that pastoralists were told by Haile Selassie’s regime. This is all to pacify pastoralists not to prevent the start of the activities of the farms. Meles’ speech in Jinka avails in the first place, if anything, his ignorance of pastoralism; and secondly the policy that he is following on pastoralism which is consistent with that of his predecessors. No amount of propaganda and lies won’t change this fact.

1 I expect substantive comments, if any, that are reflective and analytical to enrich the discussion on pastoralism. I have no eyes nor ears for those Woyane thugs who are involved in insults and trying to divert the discussion by inserting side issues.
2 Actually, it is useful for members of the Ethiopian Diaspora to know the main issues concerning about the development process in their country. A solid perception on social change requires basic knowledge on the fundamentals of the social and economic structures as well as why the policies followed by Woyane are negative.

  1. Zewdu
    | #1

    This article is one of the most nonsensical and narrow minded articles I have ever read. First let me state beforehand that I hate Meles because I hate dictatorship and corruption and I am not his sympathizer. But no one should deny that most or all of pastoralism in Africa is associated with extreme mobility as opposed to say pastoralism in Latin America. Pastoralists in wet regions like Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay are settled populations able to receive electricity, clean water, education, health services etc. conveniently. This is not elitism at all. Many pastoralist communities in eastern Ethiopia do much better economically than settled peasants. But while the children of poor settled farmers go to school theirs don’t. As education is the transfer of civilization from one generation to the other, and from one part of the world to the another, they don’t get civilized, period. So they are uncivilized. This has nothing to do with bigotry. The same is true to the Amish population in the US who shun education and by the way happen to be very elitist themselves. I myself live a comfortable life today because my father left his pastoralist family and followed missionaries and moved to the town of Yirgalem in southern Ethiopia and attended school. I believe every child in the world deserves comfortable living environment and a chance to make his/her decision to the kind of life to lead. The Gypsies in Europe attend school, have all the amenities of life, and the get to choose how to live. Some choose nomadic life style and others settled life style but all are required by law to keep children in school and provide them modern amenities. That is fine, but rejecting modern amenities and services or making it impossible to provide is not.

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