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How Ethnic Violence in Ethiopia Deepens PovertyOver the past two decades, Ethiopia has experienced explosive economic growth, lifting millions out of poverty in the process. Between 2000 and 2016, the share of citizens living in absolute poverty dropped from 40%, the highest in Africa, to 24%. Under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was appointed in 2018, the nation has also opened up politically. However, a persistent scourge for the country that has continued under Ahmed is ethnic violence.

Ethiopia is a melting pot of over 80 ethnolinguistic groups all living under one multi-ethnic federation. Long-simmering conflicts over access to land and political power have frequently boiled over into violence. While ethnic conflict is tragic, it also has tangible and concrete impacts on the economic prospects of impoverished Ethiopians. Ethnic violence in Ethiopia is endemic in Oromia, the country’s most populated region, and the Amhara region, home to some of the poorest people on the planet.

Ethnic Strife in Oromia

Oromia makes up approximately one-third of Ethiopia’s total area and is home to 37 million people. The region has achieved significant food insecurity reductions in recent years. Still, an astonishingly high number of people, especially children, are impoverished. In Oromia, 90% of children under 18 experience multidimensional poverty. This high number of vulnerable residents pairs poorly with the area’s history of ethnic tensions.

Despite being the largest Ethiopian ethnic group, the Oromos have not held power in modern Ethiopia. Consequently, Oromos have banded together within ethnic-nationalist movements, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, in order to push for political empowerment. The narratives promoted by such outfits have often been accusatory and hostile toward other ethnic groups. Ethnic resentment is baked into the Oromia region’s identity.

In 2018, the outlook in Oromia became particularly fraught. In the spring of that year, a scarcity of productive farmland led to an intense conflict between Gedeos and Gujis, two smaller ethnic groups. In the fall, Oromos clashed with other communities in two neighboring provinces. Just in the first seven months of the year, over 800,000 Oromian residents had been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and become internally displaced.

Internally-displaced peoples (IDPs) is a label that covers far too many Ethiopians in Oromia and beyond. Ethiopia was home to 2.9 million IDPs in 2018, the most in any country. Unfortunately, becoming internally displaced is often a precursor for falling into poverty. Farmers who fled Oromia in 2018 left their land behind, abandoning their entire livelihoods and becoming entirely dependent on outside humanitarian support. A World Bank report on the world’s forcibly displaced observed that displacement-induced poverty “condemns generations—mostly women and children—to a life on the margins.”

Luckily, Ahmed’s government has managed to break through some of the major fault lines, including between Oromos and southern Somali groups. The thousands of Gedeos who were displaced within Oromia two years ago have mostly been able to return. Yet to the north, the struggle of one ethnic group demonstrates that a steady home is no guarantee for prosperity.

The Plight of the Amhara

Under the Ethiopian monarchy, Amharas dominated the country’s government. However, since the overthrow of the emperor in 1974, the community has suffered a steep fall from grace. Similar to Oromia, poverty is inescapable for many in the Amhara region with 26% of the population living below the poverty line and 91% of children are multi-dimensionally deprived.

Due to poverty’s catastrophic toll, the Amharans lead the world in one undesirable area: The prevalence of trachoma, a disease that blinds millions of the world’s poor. Spread by flies and poor hygiene, the disease thrives in Amhara, where 84% of the population lives in rural areas and 47% of households lack access to safe drinking water. Entire villages complain of poor eyesight and intense pain that, without treatment, leads to blindness.

Adding to their misfortune, other ethnic groups demonize the Amharas for their involvement in the country’s imperial history, inspiring a sense of victimhood among Amharas that only creates new waves of conflict. In 2018, authorities of the neighboring Benishangul-Gumuz region accused ethnic Amharas of killing 200 people over a land dispute. One year later, Amhara’s regional president was murdered by the region’s own security chief, who had links to Amharan ethnic-nationalist groups, in a suspected coup attempt. This shocking development vastly destabilized the region and emboldened radical ethnic armed groups.

The aftermath of the assassination demonstrates another upshot of ethnic violence in Ethiopia that can worsen poverty: Profound instability. Following the coup attempt, a harsh crackdown on Amhara ensued, including the arrest of 250 people and, dismayingly, a total internet shutdown. Growing internet access across Ethiopia and other African nations have been hailed as a major step forward developmentally, but internet shutdowns reverse this progress and exact millions of dollars in economic losses.

A More Inclusive Future

While the government’s efforts to quell ethnic violence in Ethiopia and its resulting human impacts have not always been successful, Ahmed has inspired hope that peace is achievable. The creation of a national commission focused on ethnic reconciliation is a step forward, as is the prime minister’s promise to reform the country’s federal system. In Amhara, the distribution of antibiotics has led to a major decrease in trachoma prevalence. Hopefully, Amharans who had their vision saved can soon open their eyes to a brighter future ahead—for them and all Ethiopians.

– Jack Silvers
Photo: Flickr

Land Seizures in EthiopiaEthiopia is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, with a growth rate of nearly 10.4% from 2004 to 2018. Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II) has focused on public infrastructure and economic modernizations. The Ethiopian government has encouraged foreign investment in recent years and the construction of industrial parks throughout the country, though land seizures in Ethiopia, especially in Oromia and Tigray, have become common for acquiring space for the developments.

Displacement of Farmers

In order to realize its economic goals, the government has appropriated vast amounts of highly fertile land in the southern region of Oromia and converted it for foreign agribusiness. Dutch, Israeli and Indian companies have gravitated to Ethiopia because of cheap and fertile land. This has created tension in the region as local farmers have been forcibly displaced from their lands in favor of these foreign agribusinesses, many of which sell decorative flowers or pharmaceutical plants. These companies have generally taken the best, the most fertile and the most easily irrigated land in the Oromia region, displacing many farmers.

Most of these farmers, belonging to the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups, which make up more than 50% of the population and are the largest ethnicities in Ethiopia, claim that they were forcibly dispossessed of their land by the local government, even as the government claims that it followed all necessary protocols. These land seizures in Ethiopia have led to numerous protests and demonstrations throughout Ethiopia where development has occurred, largely because few of the jobs that were created went to locals. The focus on non-food agribusiness instead of crop production has exacerbated the food crisis in the country, which originally stemmed in part from droughts plaguing eastern Africa since 2015, as well as the 2018 floods.

In Oromia, at the Adama Industrial Park, heavy machinery and textiles are produced for export. This industrial park was one of the first to be opened in the fall of 2018, and it began its first exports in December 2018.

Land Seizures in Ethiopia Aren’t Confined to Oromia

In the north of the country, there is widespread industrialization, and the government has also been pushing for industrial projects, such as the mine established by the Chinese company Tibet Huayu Mining in association with Canada’s East Africa Metals Inc., meant to prospect and mine for gold in Tigray’s largely untapped mineral fields. Pepsi has also heavily invested in the Tigray region, with a bottling factory near the capital of Mekele. Garment factories, as well as a Turkish industrial manufacturer, have also agreed to set up facilities in and around Tigray as well.

Besides the Adama and Mekelle industrial parks, seven others, including two near Addis Ababa, have opened or are under construction as part of the government’s economic policies.

Evictions are not limited to agricultural areas. In several areas, particularly around Addis Ababa, long-standing towns are being declared as illegal settlements, and the government has described this policy as an attempt to regularize development and bring urban planning and local infrastructure up to international standards.

Why Is This a Problem?

Ethiopia’s industrialization is highly focused on foreign investment. The Ethiopian government has sacrificed long-term growth prospects for the much more lucrative but short-term opportunities of foreign investors, largely ignoring indigenous industrial and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Currently, the government does little for those displaced by industrial development. Land tenure and property rights laws are inadequately and unevenly enforced. Whenever there is a legal framework in place, often it is neither easy nor advantageous for the dispossessed. The average farmer in Ethiopia holds only about 1.2 hectares of land, and just over half of Ethiopia’s farmers subside on less than 1 hectare. Currently, there are plans to develop over 100,000 hectares of land through 2025. Nationally, this will displace hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families, many of whom will be poorly compensated through irregular processes.

As it currently stands, the Ethiopian constitution protects the nominal right of the citizen to private property, while simultaneously permitting the uncompensated land seizures in Ethiopia for the purpose of resource exploitation because these lands “shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange” in Article 40(3). This creates a situation in which the government can forcibly relocate a landowner from his property if it so desires while being obligated to pay only a token price.

What is Being Done?

There is international aid that has been helping to ensure that Ethiopians are able to take advantage of the opportunities that the GTP is designed to provide. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization has a program to combat high youth unemployment rates in rural populations.

The World Bank has also identified that greater educational opportunities need to be available in rural communities in order to help people transition away from agricultural sectors while increasing the productivity of those that remain economically sustainable levels. The World Bank’s plans include increasing agricultural efficiency and crop yields while steering those it can toward education and training to ensure they can participate in a modern workforce.

The high growth of Ethiopia’s economy, particularly in regard to foreign investment, has led to greater economic scrutiny of the country. The International Trade Unions Confederation has criticized the low wages that make Ethiopia so appealing to many foreign investors.

There is also a possibility of reform, as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister has expressed an interest in democratizing and liberalizing the country. It is possible that this could lead to constitutional reforms that fight land seizures in Ethiopia and provide more equitable compensation to any who are still relocated. Of course, this will take time.

– John Dolan
Photo: Wikimedia Commons