New evidences & old denials clash over human rights violations in Gambella, as fortified evidences emerge By Keffyalew Gebremedhin
Certainly, the Ethiopian government is not happy with the Human Rights Watch report, which was released Tuesday.
The report accuses the government of forcibly relocating approximately 70,000 indigenous people from the western Gambella region. It is reported that these villages lack adequate food, farmland, healthcare, and educational facilities.
In the past, the government has persistently disputed charges of human rights violations of any sorts, including forced relocations. Not surprisingly, it has now strongly rejected the present report and its overall conclusions.
Nevertheless, it would be recalled that, among others, the feisty State Minister of Agriculture Wondirad Mandefro, confirmed to John Vidal, environment editor for the Guardian, in March 2011 that no one was forcibly relocated, notwithstanding a number of evidences the journalist has collected and informed him of them, which also was corroborated with video clips that speak to the contrary.
During the discussion with John Vidal, the state minister moved from outright denial to scoffing over such allegations and the concerns thereon, as he propounded his government’s position using pretentious arguments that are sound on hearing them but do sinisterly imply any action could be justified in removing dire poverty from the country. In that regard, he said:
“It is their choice…Either to choose to have these basic services come to the villages…It is based on their willingness. But of course, they have to abandon their previous ways of life. [Otherwise] you cannot provide any basic services to the community.”
The Human Rights Watch’s report alleges that state security forces have repeatedly threatened, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested villagers who resist the transfers. Of this disturbing situation, Jan Egeland, Europe director at Human Rights Watch and formerly United Nations Undersecretary General for the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated:
“The Ethiopian government’s villagization program is not improving access to services for Gambella’s indigenous people, but is instead undermining their livelihoods and food security. The government should suspend the program until it can ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place and that people have been properly consulted and compensated for the loss of their land.”
After initial refusal/hesitation to comment on the report, finally Government Communications Affairs Minister Bereket Simon reacted to the BBC on Tuesday, not only denying to Robin Lustig the charges, but also questioning the motives of Human Rights Watch against Ethiopia, as follows:
“First of all, regarding the current report I can tell you that it is baseless – on both grounds – on both the land grab issue and resettlement of the Gambella people. But at a larger picture of the whole, it has been quite few years since Human Rights Watch repeatedly started to report negatively [against Ethiopia] and based on wrong information and deliberate distortion of the facts on the ground.”
BBC World Service’s Robin Lustig interjected:
“Wait a minute, you say wrong information. They [Human Rights Watch] have interviewed many, many people who have told them stories which can lead them to the conclusion that there can be no doubt that there is a policy of forcible removal of tens of thousands of people from the homes.”
“NO, in the first place Human Rights Watch has never been on the ground. They say in their report, for instance, there is no services on the ground. Let me give you the facts on the ground. We have built 22 health facilities for 20,000 people; 19 schools, 72 irrigation water schemes, 128 kms of rural road, 18 animal health clinics, 30 grain mills and 407 water pumps have been put in place.”
Ok, but do you deny that people are being forced to leave their homes against their will?”
“No one is forced. This is an absolute lie. In the first place let me tell you the facts on the ground. People around Gambella are sparsely inhabiting their place in a very scattered manner. They cannot be beneficiaries of the development like electricity, water and telecom. So for all practical purposes of helping those people who are denied in the past such basic infrastructural amenities, the government has decided to settle them. But it is not [just] a decision; we have discussed the issue in a very thorough manner with the beneficiaries; they have accepted it.”
“Do you accept what is being said by Human Rights Watch and others that part of the impetus behind this villagization program is the government’s awareness that this land has commercial value and certainly has value to foreign investors.”
“No. It is true that we are providing access to land on a lease basis for 25 years for local and foreign developers. We have about three million hectares of land which is not inhabited by anybody.”
“You say not inhabited by anybody. So you are saying there are no cases of people leaving their land by their own will or by force in order to enable foreign investors or others commercial use of their land.”
“Absolutely! This is their land. You know this is the land of Ethiopians. They have every right to stay where they are. Government cannot forcibly relocate them. It is only consensual. On the other hand, we have abundant land where we have not used before.”
Why has the government not investigated the allegations internally and release its findings to date?
The problem, as usual, is that the Ethiopian government is claim of only it what it says is true and right — no matter what the victims allege, people in the region say, what experts and journalists write or the concerns of the international community — I mean, anyone, outside their powerful allies.
There is no more dangerous mix than a state firmly convinced about its inexorable capacities to do everything and individuals that are without moral controls. That is the ugly situation Ethiopia finds itself today in terms of governance, where the line between truth and falsehoods and reality and fiction have increasingly become hazy.
In a way, by smoothing the rough edges of past denials with numbers and figures on services points, that exactly is what the minister’s defense is all about. Unfortunately, the line of his argument has been defeated from the start by the credibility gap Ethiopia’s development state has continued to suffer. Thus, the minister’s long list of defenses via ‘infrastructural amenities’ could not convincingly prevail over the eloquence and persistence of the long running allegations coming from frightened people who lack any recourses.
Another intriguing aspect of this question is that at no time has the Meles regime established a mechanism to investigate to see through the charges either to dismiss them or establish their veracity and correct the mistakes thereon. In Ethiopia, growth and politics are increasingly becoming a game for the chosen few, as the investor world is being fooled by projects dangling as national development undertakings. They are only the voodoos intended to fool under the impression that regime is pro-poor, which it is more in its rhetorics.
If denials were an all cure, the government’s could have ended the many censures around the world against itself. Clearly, their denials hardly get dented in the face of wide condemnations; surprisingly, nor do they get discouraged by the banality of their false defenses that have barely had any impact on the global opinion coalescing against Ethiopia’s harsh, repressive and violent developmental state.
People are right in distrusting the regime
In the circumstances, any citizen is within his or her rights to ask why they should trust whatever the Ethiopian government says. After all, numerous are the unfulfilled pledges and promises on delivering their “liberation of Ethiopia”, with a democratic future for its people, where its governance would be characterized by freedom and equality of individual citizens.
On the contrary, under the TPLF/EPRDF the situation has only proved that power itself is such a powerful broker. Instead it has ended up successfully consummating the marriage between Ethiopia’s political aristocracy and big capital. The regime has failed to balance the interests of the people in better life and openness of the country for foreign investment–never at the expense of one or the other.
A tale of two soul mates affirming their protocol of profound gratitude to each other
Is it not now a public knowledge that Minister Bereket Simon, the man who just made vigorous defense of his government’s actions against Human Rights Watch’s allegations on BBC, and Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, the 63rd billionaire in the world and 2nd wealthiest person in Saudi Arabia, are “soul mates”, as the minister described their relations at a lavish party given by the sheik on 22 December 2011 to promote the former’s controversial book on Ethiopia’s 2005 and 2010 elections.
Of course, the tycoon owns agricultural lands in different parts of the country. In Gambella, his was founded on lands cleared of people and natural forests, when he started Saudi Star Agricultural Development, initially on 10,000 hectares of land. There are news reports that he has been planning to expand it to 500,000 hectares, according to Addis Fortune.
Parsing the words of the sheik at that book event at his Sheraton Hotel, actually what he promoted was not only a book but also, as he put it, the wise and friendly leadership of the TPLF/EPRDF from which he has learned great lessons.
The matrix of that teacher-student relations, Al Amoudi has revealed at the party was something very interesting. He said, “ከዋናው ሰውዬ ጀምሮ ወዳጆች ነን፤ ተግባብተን እና ተቻችለን ነው የምንኖረው፤ እኔ ግን አንድ ቀን እንዲህ ሆንኩ ብዬ ቅሬታ አቅርቤላቸው አላውቅም እንደውም እነሱ እንደኔ ሁሉንም የሚጭኑበት ሰው የለም” (Starting from the Number One Person, we are friends. We have good understanding and mutually accommodate each other. However, I never went to them to complain about anything. Nor do I believe there is any other person they encumber for everything more than I.”) This is to show that the prime minister himself is in the palms of his hands.
As to the minister’s wishes becoming the sheik’s command, Ato Bereket openly announced that his book and that of his brother-in-law’s were published in Nairobi, with full publication costs covered from the sheik’s deep pocket on the basis of “the instruction” he gave the sheik.
Not only that. The sheik is also caretaker of the minister’s health, for whose maintenance not long ago he paid a hefty sum in Rands in South Africa, including arranging for the patient to fly by private jet.
Surely, in the eyes of the leadership this would be considered a crime only when someone outside their circle does it or a member outlives his usefulness. Certainly, they would inflict on him or her the full force of the law as a punishment, which Ethiopian law provides up to ten years of imprisonment for influence peddling and kickbacks received by officials.
By all available indications, what we have known all along is that Ethiopia’s political class is determined to defend and promote the interests of the sheik and his category of people. that is exactly what Minister Bereket Simon did on the BBC on 17 January, characterizing Human Rights Watch’s allegations as false and baseless.
It would not require a genius of the obvious to figure out that this is part of the job description of Ethiopian officials! Otherwise alleging that mistakes were made and crimes were committed would only turn the accusations on their head, exposing the collusion between international capital and the Ethiopian leadership in displacing Ethiopian citizens from their lands.
As bad as this is for Ethiopians, unlike Ethiopia’s long history of tolerance, people are now being forced to see that their country is being transformed into practitioner of ethnic discrimination as an official practice — i.e., in breach of the laws of the land. In other words, the state has been fulfilling its duties totally enmeshed in corruption. This has placed ordinary citizens at the receiving end of its ugliness,instead of the new direction and hopeful future the TPLF has promised Ethiopians, even when they have been wary of it from the get go.
This situation now points to the root causes of all its violences against farmers, the free media and independent journalists, teachers, etc., it has been unleashing for a long, long time. Its pervasive sense of knowing it all and being always right that it has been demonstrating speak to the continuing human sufferings in the country, which sooner or later would become the very vortex of its very self-destruction.