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‘Britain is supporting a dictatorship in Ethiopia’

Forced Relocation in Ethiopia

One of hundreds of families in the Gambella region who have been forcibly removed from their homes. Photograph: Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “‘Britain is supporting a dictatorship in Ethiopia'” was written by David Smith, for The Guardian on Sunday 6th July 2014 17.00 UTC

“Life was good because the land was the land of our ancestors. The village was along the riverside, where you could get drinking water, go fishing and plant mango, banana and papaya. The temperature there was good and we could feed ourselves.”

This is how Mr O – his name is protected for his safety – remembers the home he shared with his family in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. The fertile land had been farmed for generations, relatively safe from wars, revolutions and famines. Then, one day, near the end of 2011, everything changed. Ethiopian troops arrived at the village and ordered everyone to leave. The harvest was ripe, but there was no time to gather it. When Mr O showed defiance, he says, he was jailed, beaten and tortured. Women were raped and some of his neighbours murdered during the forced relocation.

Using strong-arm tactics reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, tens of thousands of people in Ethiopia have been moved against their will to purpose-built communes that have inadequate food and lack health and education facilities, according to human rights watchdogs, to make way for commercial agriculture. With Orwellian clinicalness, the Ethiopian government calls this programme “villagisation”. The citizens describe it as victimisation.

And this mass purge was part bankrolled, it is claimed, by the UK. Ethiopia is one of the biggest recipients of UK development aid, receiving around £300m a year. Some of the money, Mr O argues, was used to systematically destroy his community and its way of life. Now this lone subsistence farmer is taking on the might of Whitehall in a legal action; a hearing took place in the high court in London last Thursday, but judgment on whether the case can go ahead has been reserved. Mr O and his legal team now await a decision on permission from the judge, who will declare whether there is an arguable case that can go forward to a full hearing.

“The British government is supporting a dictatorship in Ethiopia,” says Mr O, speaking through an interpreter from a safe location that cannot be disclosed for legal reasons. “It should stop funding Ethiopia because people in the remote areas are suffering. I’m ready to fight a case against the British government.” The dispute comes ahead of the 30th anniversary of famine in Ethiopia capturing the world’s gaze, most famously in Michael Buerk’s reports for the BBC that sparked the phenomena of Band Aid and Live Aid. Now, in an era when difficult questions are being asked about the principle and practice of western aid, it is again Ethiopia – widely criticised as authoritarian and repressive – that highlights the law of unintended consequences.

Mr O is now 34. He completed a secondary-school education, cultivated a modest patch of land and studied part-time at agricultural college. He married and had six children. That old life in the Gambella region now seems like a distant mirage. “I was very happy and successful in my farming,” he recalls. “I enjoyed being able to take the surplus crops to market and buy other commodities. Life was good in the village. It was a very green and fertile land, a beautiful place.” So it had always been as the seasons rolled by. But in November 2011 came a man-made Pompeii, not with molten lava but soldiers with guns. A meeting was called by local officials and the people were told that they had been selected for villagisation, a development programme the government claims is designed to bring “socio-economic and cultural transformation of the people”.

Mr O says: “In the meeting the government informed the community, ‘You will go to a new village.’ The community reacted and said, ‘How can you take us from our ancestral land? This is the land we are meant for. When a father or grandfather dies, this is where we bury them.'”

The community also objected to the move because they feared ethnic persecution in their proposed home and because the land would not be fertile enough to farm. “Villagisation is bad because people were taken to an area which will not help them. It’s a well-designed plan by the government to weaken indigenous people.”

Land Grab in Ethiopia

Land grab in the Gambella region in March 2011. Photograph: John Vidal for the Guardian


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