In 2007, in his annual conference with representatives of the Ethiopian youth, drawn from all over the country, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was asked why the government doesn’t resettle landless youth from land-scare regions to those with vast unused farming lands, such as Gambella.
Meles replied that the government decided to conduct settlements with-in a region, until such time when “the scar that forced settlements of the previous regime left on the indigenous community heals”. He was referring to the resettlement of hundreds of thousands people in the south and peripheral parts of the nation by the Dergue regime which is widely perceived as seen as a political project to accelerate assimilation and to weaken demands of cultural autonomy.
Shortly, after that conference, however, Meles’s government launched a massive commercial-farming drive by leasing hundreds of thousands hectares land for domestic and foreign investors. Naturally, the primary destinations of investors are those same areas that could have been selected for resettlement.
The process, often labeled “land grab”, stirred debate across the political spectrum and remain to be so. Part of the objection came from confusing the land leases as land sell or from idealist ideological position of “preserving the natural order of life” . Others revolved on more relevant points – that I will save for another day – such as: whether the local peoples’ livelihood was harmed by the leasing process; whether the terms of the land lease contract were sufficient; whether there is capable institutional capacity to supervise irresponsible investors and related issues.
What is conspicuously missing from the public discussion on the matter is the huge labor movement that the commercial-farms will entail. If a quarter of the 4 million hectares that the government earmarked for this purpose is developed, it will attract hundreds of thousands people – day laborers including their dependents. The bulk majority will have to come from other regions as the areas are sparsely populated and the indigenous communities are either paternalist or not used to being salaried employees.
Such mass movement will dramatically alter the demographics of the concerned localities, thereby accelerating the assimilation process and threatening their numerical superiority – the very reason the indigenous elites are opposed to resettlement.
After all the Ethiopian multinational federalism is mostly follows the territorial autonomy approach; i.e., an ethnic group enjoys self-governance where it resides in a geographically well-defined territory and constitutes the majority there.
The commercial-farming drive is likely to affect that , especially in regions with few hundred thousands population – a large segment of which is non-indiginous already.
For now, there is no public discussion on this eventuality.
Western activists – critical of the land leasing process – reflect on the matter either from the lenses of individual rights or from the preservation of “cultural way of life”. But not in-terms of its likely impact on political autonomy.
The Ethiopian right-wing is not supposed to be occupied with the demographic change as it is not yet convinced of the wisdom of the whole federalism project in general and its multinational character in particular.
Opposition politicians from the concerned regions apparently chose to keep the public discourse in sync with the better-organized right-wing camp and the western activists by confining their rhetoric to procedural issues of resettlement process – which the government claims is unrelated to the land leasing process.
Of course, the regional officials are not unconcerned of the eventual demographic change.
But the current and prospective revenue from the leased lands is lucrative, as it has the promise of improving their balance-sheets which highly relies on federal subsidy. Becoming the destination of foreign and local investment as well as source of foreign currency improves their standing in the national politics, besides other side benefits.
What about the influx of laborers which would affect the composition of their constituency, thereby undermining their electoral prospects?
For some reason, the prevailing tendency among the political elites is that such laborers will not “take away” their region because the laborers do not own land nor their parents. In other words, they will be sort of guest workers or “immigrants with a work permit”, without any claim to the region.
The root of this perception could be the lingering feudal mindset of Ethiopians that attaches high value to land ownership regardless its utility. It could also be attributed to the way boundaries were demarcated in this federal system, which followed the rural areas’ settlement patterns, without taking into account the demographics of an urban center in located in that locality.
But, obviously, the majority of the laborers are likely to reside long enough to acquire the right to vote and to run for local offices, which requires two years and five years of residence, respectively. Of course, they also need to know the working language of the local government. But that is not much difficult. At any rate, what matters is they can sway election outcomes.
There is a catch, however.
EPRDF is the dominant party and likely to remain so for the years to come. That means its choice of candidates by default determines the composition of local administrations and their representatives in the federal government.
There is a consensus among EPRDF’s member parties and its partners governing regions that candidates should be drawn from the party representing the indigenous community. The trend influences even opposition parties, as fielding a non-indigenous candidate could affect their image.
But this defacto arrangement is not immune to sudden changes based on political opportunism. Thus, it has limited prospect of convincing the indigenous political elites to leave aside their political concerns and focus on the economic prospects of mass labor movement.
This is not an insurmountable dilemma, nor will it necessitate much deviation from the current constitutional principles.
Yet, the discussion should begin now – before realities on the ground change and escalate a win-loose sentiment that would cloud a discussion on otherwise acceptable arrangements.
* A version of this piece was published on my weekly column at Addis Fortune – on April 14, 2013.