Back to the 'Land to the Tiller': Implications of the land grab in Ethiopia

By Fekade Shewakena / December 3, 2009
If you are wondering why the government of Meles Zenawi is doing the secretive land deals with Arab and Asian tycoons and agribusiness corporations in secret and without any public discussion and scrutiny, and why the officials are handling it in much the same way like thieves who sell their stolen stuff on street corners and dark alleys, you have asked a serious question and probably have almost gotten some of your answers. This is pure theft and burglary sugarcoated as investment - only in this case that the burglar has someone to open the door from inside. It is a dangerous venture that has little to do with solving Ethiopia’s economic problems but bound to negatively impact the country’s most strategic resources, land and water, and its posterity. It appears that we have reached a point where we are selling out our last belongings just like the desperate peasants I once saw in 1984 sell their last belongings for scrape as they fled their villages to escape an impending famine.

This land deal, now popularly known as “land grab” among other names, and becoming epidemic in desperately poor, irresponsible and corrupt African countries, is a neocolonial venture where land is being sold to foreigners at bargain prices. The “investors” are salivating over the cheap access to agricultural land, water and cheap labor which would definitely make them even richer in the lucrative food markets whose growing trends they are very aware of. This is in addition to helping them find a solution to the problem of serious food insecurity in their own countries. The Meles Zenawis of Africa are salivating over the quick cash that will go to temporarily solve their hard currency crunch and the opportunity of swelling their individual bank accounts. Those who likened these secret deals to the colonial scramble for African land, where some local chiefs signed and sold off tract after tract of land to colonialists under the influence of alcohol supplied by the colonialist and some glittering gifts, are not very far from an accurate description of these transactions.

The Ethiopian land grab, as we are gradually learning now, is such a huge undertaking, which according to various sources, involves millions of acres of fertile land, nearly the size of the former province of Arsi. The land for sale is spread across all regions of the country except Tigrai and the Somali region. Interestingly, this is being done in the dark, without a minimal of discussion, even a symbolic one, at least in that rubberstamp parliament, or on any national media. It is very ironic that an English-language newspaper in Addis Ababa, namely Addis Fortune, which also has an online version and hardly an opponent of the government, has to raise the more suspicious aspects of the land deal on its gossip column while also reporting on the same day about the activities of Shiek Mohammed Al Amoudi, who is serving as a salesman for his wealthy Saudi friends that are heavily backed by Saudi Royal officials. I also saw an Amharic editorial on the Reporter the contents of which speak volumes about how the authors fear to directly talk about the land deal than the deal itself. But these papers should be commended at least for raising the issue.

I am sure the Ethiopian officials will sugarcoat this venture with such jargons as development needs, poverty alleviation, generating capital, and all the language of development they seem to have mastered. I am also sure many members and supporters of the ruling clique and its ethnic associates who are following the regime blindfolded would call me or any critic of this deal as anti-investment, anti-development or extremist, Tigre hater, as they often do when challenged with serious and substantive questions and criticisms. I know the drill. I am all for investment and opening the country to foreign capital. Our poverty is so real and tragic that I am not even romanticizing that my country, once a place where foreigners were asked to shake of their feet before they leave the country lest they take our sacred soil on their shoes, has come to this level of disgrace; nor am I troubled by the morally reprehensible thought that some of these investors are planning to grow barley to feed their camels when at the same time the children of the Ethiopia are dying of hunger. I believe this venture is distasteful on basic economic grounds and the long term problems it is bound to create.

I am one Ethiopian who feels deeply humiliated by the kind of poverty our people live under and the worsening spread of unmitigated hunger and famine. More importantly, I see the indicators and worry that the worst may be yet to come. So, I am not against investment in Ethiopia. But this secret deal is not an investment in Ethiopia’s interest by any stretch of imagination. For a starter, name me a country that has ever developed or solved a single major problem by selling itself to the highest bidder and I will buy you a pig that can fly.

Granted, some of the money may raise hard currency to buy fuel oil for the country for a year or two. Even some economy may trickle down to make a handful of people wealthy. But it may not also be worth the cost to be paid for the security of the farms which are likely to be targets of angry people that are being fenced off of their ancestral land. It is not difficult to predict that these people will organize and fight back or feed into some of the insurgencies that already vow to fight. In Madagascar, where the regime sold nearly half the country’s arable land for $12 an acre to a Korean agribusiness company, much more than what Meles is said to be ready to sell ours for, it did not take a long time before the people saw both their fortunes and their country going down the drain and rose in resistance, overthrew their government out of power and nullified the shoddy agreements. Responsible, intelligent, and patriotic citizens of that country saw the deal was incompatible with and dangerous to their fragile ecology and environment as well as the country’s posterity. I hate to see our problems solved though violence but I will be one Ethiopian who will not speak against any which may arise as a result of this theft.

A report states that Shiek Mohammed Al-Amoudi is charged by the Saudi King to spearhead and facilitate the venture in Ethiopia and that the shiek has gained the support of Meles Zenawi. His agribusiness company has recently sponsored some 50 Saudi companies to attend an expensive promotional exhibition and party in Addis Ababa though his company, Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc. which is already producing rice for the Saudis. I have seen many people who hated the Shiek for being a supporter of the TPLF regime, for corrupting officials with generous gift, and giving extravagant parties. To be frank, I argued in his favor and considered all of those his rights. As a wealthy person he has every right whatever he wants to do with his money. But buying and selling our country is not one of them. Now this Shiek has crossed the line by turning himself into a salesman of our land to his fellow rich petrodollar swollen sheiks. It appears that he has crossed the Rubicon.

Who are these wealthy individuals and corporations and what drives them into this dangerous scramble on our land? These are basically people and entities from the oil rich Middle East and from rapidly industrializing East and South Asia. Most of the Asians are from countries that are heavily populated. They have virtually little land for extensive agriculture and a huge and growing population to feed. Most have chemicalized their soil to perdition over three decades of green revolution but have fortunately helped themselves to industrialization. The others are from wealthy oil rich Middle East and Arab Sheikdoms that are alarmed by the dwindling ground water in their own countries to support agriculture and a growing population to feed. More importantly they are attracted by the lucrative market and the rising trend of the cost of food products. Over the last several years, they have made their studies and consulted economists who delivered this “innovative” idea of land grab. That is when they began roaming the continent of Africa looking for corrupt and desperate governments that would sell agricultural land along with scarce water and cheap labor to meet their consumption needs. That is how they met the Meles Zenawi’s of Africa. Mr. David Hallam, deputy director at FAO, who I believe is privy to these transactions is quoted in a Washington Post article as saying that the contracts being signed “ are thin” and “have no safeguards” adding that he sees “ statements from ministers where they're basically promising (to the wealthy foreign companies) everything with no controls, no conditions”. This is from the mouth of an expert of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

What is happening in Ethiopia is sad on another very important level. Ethiopia has an economic geographic advantage it potentially enjoys in the part of the world it is located. With its huge agricultural potential it is strategically located in close proximity to reap the benefits of exporting food to these oil rich but agriculturally poor customers most of which survive by importing their food. Their demand and Ethiopia’s potential for supply was a perfect match. In the past, Ethiopia had not had the opportunity to harvest this potential. It is a failure of all past governments including this one. Had Ethiopian rulers were wise and thinkers beyond their political shelf lives, they could have already exploited it. But this potential can be maximized only if we Ethiopians are the producers and sellers of our own agricultural products. What Meles Zenawi is doing now is putting this upside down. He, in effect, made our potential buyers the sellers of our commodity. He is helping them sit on both the demand and supply side of the equation. Have you heard of a saying in Amharic- “kemogn dej Mofer Yikoretal”. This is an economic suicide that no country with rational people living inside it should even think of doing. I think Ethiopians need to seriously discuss impending problem and create public awareness before it is too late and too costly.

Some points we need to understand clearly

  1. The idea of unused land, idle land or virgin land is a complete misnomer. True, there is a lot of uncultivated arable land in Ethiopia. That doesn’t make it unused or idle. Land must not necessarily be cultivated to be classified as utilized. The term I am comfortable with is underused or underutilized. Anybody who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users. In areas where we have more land relative to the inhabitants in the area, it is often that the way of life of the population requires more land per person. Nomadic areas and food gatherers in west and southwest Ethiopia need more land per person to survive for the type of economy they practice. But even in situations where land is least economically utilized, if often helps keep the ecological balance in the area and the region. I should add that these lands are not used to their maximum potential mostly because of the wrong or misguided government policies and interventions and that seems to be where the central problem is located.

  2. Second, for agriculture to prosper, it is not necessary that we have large scale commercial farms. Small holder farms of reasonable size can be economically as effective. If we are, for example, able to produce organic food products by small holder farmers, it is possible to get as much money or even better money than large scale plantations that use chemical fertilizers. In other words, you don’t need billionaire investors to cultivate the underutilized land. It is not difficult to find some 50 Ethiopians that will amount to one Arab millionaire investor. The problem is that the government policies are faulty and unattractive to Ethiopians. There was a time in the early seventies where fresh graduates from Haramaya University were able to start farms in the Awash valley with loans from government banks who did it with brilliant success. Does anybody remember AMBASH, a farm operated by a group of young graduates of Agriculture from Haramaya College? If it was possible thirty five years ago, it should be more possible today.

  3. The land currently under intensive cultivation which is mostly overused and becoming unproductive, as in northern and north central Ethiopia, needs to rest and remain fallow for many years if we want the soil to regenerate and become supportive again. We also currently farm a lot of marginal lands that should not be cultivated at all. Farm lands are running uphill in most parts of Ethiopia as farmers try to bring more and more land to cultivation in response to population pressure. This is a big rational for resettlement programs and developing underused arable lands. Selling more existing underused land apparently means more pressure on existing peasant farms which are already being pressure. So the impact of selling this land to foreigners reverberates throughout the agricultural system and is not limited to the areas where the farms for sell are located.

  4. Water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource and global trends are that it will get more and more scarce and expensive. When we are selling land to these so called investors we are also selling water that comes in the form of precipitation, overland flow and ground water. In some cases the water is more expensive than the land. Allowing foreign investors to engage cultivating water intensive crops such as rice is a bound to create a disaster.

  5. Economic prosperity, even in poor countries like Ethiopia, does not necessarily have to depend on farming land alone. Only stupid minds think that the region of Gambella is more useful when cultivated than left for the tropical forest that it is. Rich people in the west who live in concrete jungles and monotonously humanized landscapes would pay a lot of money to pass weekends in that beautiful wilderness if we do some investment. If we do the thinking as to what we can do with the forest without destroying it, I am sure we can come up with something to generate the hard currency that being worshipped in Ethiopia. If we develop a good hospitality industry and promote it, it is possible to make much more hard currency than what Al Amoudi pays us for his rice farms.


The ultimate solution to the country’s economic woes, to this grinding poverty, to the hunger and famine that is eating down into our humanity, must begin with an honest reexamination of the failed agrarian and all economic policies in the country. It has to be a reexamination that is dispassionate and free of politics. We are a people that have gone though enough hardships to learn from our past. We are a textbook case of how bad governance and misguided policies can crush a country with rich agricultural potential. Unfortunately, we live under a dictatorship that is willing to believe its own lies than learn from these experiences. That we are the original home of some of the worlds cultivated crops and still beg to feed our people should be unconscionable to all decent Ethiopians irrespective of their politics. Meles Zenawi and Bereket Simon do not seem to have any sense of humiliation. Their narcissism is over their head. That we are selling out our land to others to produce their food while parading our own famine stricken bodies is downright shameful but more importantly economically senseless. Yes, there is a need for hard currency and there is a need to plug into the globalizing economy. As others, including the aspiring new colonizers are showing us, financial and capital strength can be achieved in various ways. Some did it by educating their people for the future. If Meles, for example, folds down these jokes he calls universities and chooses to work on having one or two good institutions where you teach good math and science and finds some way of retaining the educated people in the country, we can do much to generate foreign currency than sell our last belonging.

The most crucial policy is one that makes the country attractive first and foremost to its own citizens. This means freedom and the rule of law. The scary regulations being issued by the TPLF and the ethnicization of politics may have served TPLF’s success in staying in power for long, but it is not helping the country and the people a bit.

If we have a government that works extra time to resolve internal conflicts, potential investors would come in droves and will be willing to pay large sums of money. We see them do it on a daily basis in other countries where that is the case. Capital moves to where it gets a higher rate of profit and safe and secure operation zone. Unfortunately, the TPLF is the biggest manufacturer of conflicts in the country and the source of all potential instability.

By providing incentives for Ethiopians at home and abroad to engage in agriculture it is possible to transform the country’s food production and the general economy. Many returnee Ethiopians who open go-go clubs in Addis would not hesitate to take their money to agriculture if they are given appropriate incentives. It is not necessarily expensive to engage in farming at least as compared to engaging in extractive industries such as mining.

When Meles Zenawi landlocked the country and told us that losing direct access to the sea “is not going to affect us 5 cents worth” with a straight face, we sat back and listened and perhaps laughed. Now we are told we are paying a billion dollars a year for the port to Djibouti. The cost is rising every year.

We have seen our beautiful sisters travelling to the Middle East as domestic workers. We are sitting and watching as our sisters are abused and dehumanized in these countries and the government that eats their remittance refuses to say a pip or anything on their behalf. We are watching this unfold under our eyes helplessly.

Now the rich guys from the Middle East themselves are coming to buy our land at bargain prices, suck up our water, fence off our children from the land of their forefathers, in order to produce food for themselves and their camels using our cheap slave labor. All of this while we beg food for 13 million destitute people!

These deals are like dragging your mother by her hair to give her to a rapist for scrape money. I don’t know how many of you would contemplate doing this and for what amount of money. Yet this is what is happening to Ethiopia right now. I was once a kid who was crying “land to the tiller” on the streets of Addis fighting to make life better to exploited peasants. Some of the TPLF people now in power were there singing the same song. How regressive is it that our children are to sing the same song three and half decades letter?

How did we come to this? When is this going to end? And, by the way, what kind of people are we?

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