Ethiopia’s spiralling land grab: adding insult to injury

Written by Mohammed A

by Amane .K. Bedasso

Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, receives millions in foreign aid every year. In 2009, the horn of Africa nation was the third largest recipient of humanitarian aid, next to Sudan and Palestine.

The official development aid from the international community represents 14% of its gross national income making Ethiopia largely aid dependent. Between 2000-2009, the United States, Ethiopia’s biggest donor contributed 63.1% (US$3 billion) of the total foreign aid the country received.

Although these numbers are staggering, no one can conclusively say where the money goes, while millions of Ethiopians die from easily avoidable causes. The economy in this poverty-stricken nation is based mainly on agriculture, which accounts for 45% of its GDP and 85% of total employments in the country.

In recent years, due to drought and government intrusion on the farmer’s estates, the country had little agricultural successes. With GDP of approximated $84.02 billion in 2010, close to 38.7% of the population lives below the poverty line and the country’s per capita income is among lowest in the world.

Aside from the recurring problems of poverty, Ethiopia is also a land of political oppression and other kinds of human rights abuses, which has taken a huge toll on the country’s citizens. Since 1991, when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), under the banner of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), have single-handedly dominated the Ethiopian politics. In order to remain on power, the regime brutally repressed several ethnic groups that were opposed to its systemic oppression.

Following the 2005 poll, the country’s first “democratic election”, the ruling party unleashed an all-out campaign to assassinate or imprison opposition members and those perceived as threats to its power. Although there are no reliable statistics, thousands were harassed and tormented. To avoid similar repercussions as witnessed immediately in the aftermath of the election, oppressed groups simply kept silent.

A series of investigations conducted by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, revealed the Ethiopian government has been systematically targeting certain ethnic groups. Other international human rights organizations have also reported that most of the protesters against the TPLF /EPRDF regime were fairly young, ranging from 18-23 years of age.

At the time of the election, the government detained up to 18 thousand of these outspoken youth. The regime claimed that they were indeed Oromo Liberation Front fighters, but no substantial evidence proved them to be so, rather they were persecuted for simply objecting to the regimes destructive tactics. The report also indicated a widespread use of rape, torture and destruction of property, were used in order to silence any type of opposition against the government.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation, has an estimated 90,873,739 people with a growth rate of 3.194%, the eight fastest growing country in the world. This shows that the population, already hinging by a thread, is increasingly vulnerable to future humanitarian crisis and the country is likely to remain aid dependent.

Most of the international aid to Ethiopia goes to the central government while millions go hungry or battle a recurrent famine. The defense spending saw some decrease following the peace accord with Eritrea in 2000. But spending hiked following increased internal insurgency and the 2006 war in Somalia. In Jun. 2011, Ethiopian Finance Minister, Sufian Ahmed announced a plan to the defense spending to $400 million over the 2011-2012, a move swiftly approved by the nation’s one-party dominated rubber-stamp parliament. The increase reinforces the regime’s lack of care for the millions suffering from starvation and poverty in the country.

Those perceived of harboring sympathy or support for these groups are easy targets for governments secret services. Efforts by the United Nations Committee against Torture to stop the imprisonment and torture of innocent people in the country did not produce tangible results. But the 2008 genocide against the Ogaden civilians and the “Anuak” in the Gambela region proves that the TPLF/EPRDF militias were criminals.

In addition to food insecurity and failed government policies, the country is not adequately meeting the needs of its predominantly young population. For example, there’s a prevalent lack of good education, health, clean water and gender inequality.

Ethiopia faces a near disaster turmoil because the government is not setting aside the resources and other needed essentials to make sure that the people’s needs are met. To counter the legitimate concerns about such consequential policies, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has silenced all dissenting voices by instituting draconian anti-press and freedom laws.

Since attaining power 21 years ago, the concept of “freedom of speech” has increasingly become foreign to the government of Ethiopia. The authorities are extreme and all orders of the regime must be followed. Those who dare speak out against the government are immediately detained and charged with terrorism or related crimes.

Although Ethiopia is bracing for another round of famine, to attract foreign direct investment, the government is leasing out vast expanses of farmland, on a long-term contract – sometimes up to 99 years, to foreign investors adding to the list of obstacles that continue to plague the country’s citizens.

The 2009 land proclamation enabled the federal government to carry out all aspects of foreign and domestic land investments. The biggest problem occurred when the government’s tactic led to inconsistency in the process, lack of central planning, such as coordination and the often-corrupt use of the land.

While millions need emergency food aid, the government is promising extremely high tax-breaks to foreign investors – in addition to leasing the land at bargain price. The only resources the people in the leased areas have is the lands being occupied by foreign investors, who undeniably have no obligation to the Ethiopian people, therefore use the land for as they see fit to their interests.
The government has also ensured the investors an ultimate protection from expropriation, freedom from labor movements and decreased the standards for minimum capital requirements, essentially placing no restrictions on foreign investors.

In Ethiopia, the government owns the land that gives it an absolute power over land use and acquisition. The people, especially in rural communities are completely unaware of the investment deals negotiated elsewhere. They are not only left out of the process but they also can’t speak out against it although their own resources are disappearing. The government simply ignores the patterns of cultivation and communally used areas – calling it unused lands.

As of Jan. 2011 an estimated 3,619,509 hectares of land have been awarded to investors. The people, who’ve lived off the resources in these areas, are told to find home elsewhere. The targeted regions are Oromia, Afar, Gambella, Anauk and Gumuz.

The Ethiopian government claims that commercial investments will increase the rate of food security and create jobs but has no mechanisms in place to ensure any tangible security. Many have lost their most precious assets, the land, leaving them with zero stability. At the current rate, the fast growing population will not have enough land to sustain the current generation let alone laying the ground for future generations.

The investors are vying for this lifetime opportunity to attain as much land as possible, at the lowest cost imaginable. The failure of the TPLF/EPRDF to implement rules on the land lease shows the brutality and corruption that is crippling the nation.

The commercial land deals, with no mechanisms in place to protect the country’s poor, will only leave millions starving while corrupt government cadres invest on personal needs, without the consent of the people.  
There are many reasons why the international community should pay close attention to the land grab in Ethiopia. The government’s disregard for its own people’s needs has a long-term destabilizing and destructive effect. The land grab certifies the growing corruption of government officials where many are already struggling with famine and oppression.

A recent interview with Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture also shows an inadequate concern for the communities whose lands are being sold to foreigners. Mr. Tefera Derbew commented,

How much land will actually go to the Indian investors depends entirely on the interests of the investors, if they come and take all the land they are welcome. So far we have transferred 307,000 hectares of land to foreign and domestic investors; some 79% of this land has been transferred to Indian companies. This land is on a 70 year lease, we are now proposing to transfer another 3.6 million hectares of land to inventors from overseas and I am confident that more than half of these 3.6 hectares will go to Indians.

Already in the midst of a worst humanitarian condition, the land grab is now an added crisis for Ethiopia’s poor. The people have no say in the commercial enterprises. The government has the power to do anything it wants and no one can question its authority.

Commercialization of agriculture and foreign investments are indeed necessary but the government’s strategy is implemented in a very destructive way without involving the people in the process. It’s often said that too much foreign investment does not always have a positive impact on the country’s economic growth. Leasing millions of acres of land every year to foreign investors is absolutely not the best way.

*Amane Bedasso is a Political Science and Economics student and a human rights activist based in the United States. She can be reached at



About the author

Mohammed A

Mohammed Ademo is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He's the founder and editor of, an independent news website about Ethiopia.

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