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Ethiopia: When a Traditional Past Collides with an Irrigated Future
Are the government's large-scale developments in southern Ethiopia forcing local populations to move with the times or just move out the way?
21 AUGUST 2013 | BY WILLIAM DAVISON
Kangaton, Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region, Ethiopia:
A short stroll away from the bloated Omo River in Ethiopia's far south, a new type of settlement is forming on the outskirts of Kangaton, a frontier town occupied by Nyangatom people and highland migrants.
The empty domes are traditionally built: bent sticks lashed together with strips of bark and insulated with straw. But instead of the typical handful of huts ringed by protective thorn bushes, hundreds of new homes are clustered on the desolate plain.
This is a site in the Ethiopian government's villagisation programme, part of an attempt to effect radical economic and social change in the Lower Omo Valley, an isolated swathe of spectacular ethnic diversity.
Agro-pastoralists such as the Nyangatom, Mursi and Hamer are being encouraged to abandon their wandering, keep smaller and more productive herds of animals, and grow sorghum and maize on irrigated plots with which officials promise to provide them on the banks of the Omo.
The grass is greener
The government, now rapidly expanding its reach into territory only incorporated into the state a little over a century ago, says it will provide the services increasingly available to millions of other Ethiopians: roads, schools, health posts, courts and police stations. But critics, such as academic David Turton, argue that this state-building is more akin to colonial exploitation than an enlightened approach to the development of marginalised people.
Longoko Loktoy, a member of the Nyangatom people, says all he knows is herding, as he carves a twig to clean his teeth, occasionally glancing behind to check the movements of his sheep and goats. But, he adds, "our educated boys under the government structure" have told him life in the resettlement site will be better.
Longoko says his family straddles two worlds, with some of the children from his two wives receiving education in regional cities and others raising animals in the Omo. In line with his "educated boys", he says security and services will improve in the commune, but wants to retain the option to move to high land or to the Kibish River when the Omo runs low.
"I don't think the government will tell us not to move", he says, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. Nearby, boys hunt doves by firing metal-tipped arrows from wooden bows, while women, their necks swaddled in a broad rainbow of beads, begin a long trudge back from the Omo with jerry-cans perched on their heads.
Longoko is unaware of plans for the under-construction upstream Gibe III hydropower dam to control the flow of the Omo River, ending the annual flood that leaves behind fertile soil for locals to cultivate on when waters recede. The regulated flow will be used for the country's largest irrigation project: 175,000 hectares of government sugar plantations, some of which will occupy Nyangatom territory.
"Even though this area is known as backwards in terms of civilisation, it will become an example of rapid development", was how former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced the scheme in 2011, heralding the final integration of the people of the Lower Omo into the Ethiopian state.
“We are from the sovereign”
In 1896, Emperor Menelik II led Ethiopian fighters to a famous victory over invading imperial Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa – the key moment in the ancient kingdom's successful resistance to European colonialism. A year later, it was Menelik's turn to expand further, as he sent his generals out to conquer more of the lowlands to the east, west and south. An account of the subjugation of the Lower Omo area was provided by Russian cavalryman Alexander Bulatovich, who Menelik, an Orthodox Christian like many Ethiopian rulers, invited to accompany his general, Ras Wolda Giorgis, on the offensive.
The invading highlanders faced little resistance as they marched from the recently-conquered Oromo kingdom of Kaffa, a place Ethiopians claim to be the birth of coffee, according to an account of the trip translated by Richard Seltzer in Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes by Alexander Bulatovich.
“If you don’t surrender voluntarily, we will shoot at you with the fire of our guns, we will take your livestock, your women and children. We are not Guchumba (vagrants). We are from the sovereign of the Amhara (Abyssinians) Menelik”, the Ras told local chieftains when he arrived in an area slightly to the south of Nyangatom territory where the Omo flows into its final destination, Lake Turkana, which mostly lies in Kenya.
“A civilising mission”
Anthropologist David Turton from the African Studies Centre at Oxford University has been visiting the Omo valley and particularly the Mursi people since the 1960s. He sees the current approach of the ruling party to development and state-building in the south, with its "civilising mission" and "racist overtones", as similar to that of previous regimes, going back to Menelik.
Schemes imposed from the centre that force people off their land are bound to create resistance, he believes, although direct, violent forms of protest are inconceivable given the overwhelming power of the state. In the past, there was space for people like the Mursi to move out of the way of the state. Today, he says, they know this is impossible.
“They know that they are practically finished”, he explains. “Their way of life, their livelihood, their culture, their identity, their values, their religious beliefs – all this is being rubbished by a government which sees them as ‘backwards’ and uncivilised. No human being could fail to feel threatened by this, physically and morally.”
At the core of Turton's dismay are the accumulated findings of research on ‘development-forced displacement’. This shows, he says, that people who are forced to move to make way for large-scale development projects always end up worse off than they were before, unless concerted efforts are made to prevent this.
"Ideally the government would have taken them into its confidence from the start, given them full information well in advance, fully consulted them about its plans, included them in the decision-making, and provided proper compensation for the loss of their land and livelihoods" he says.
But instead, Turton claims, none of this has happened, and the result will be increased poverty among the many ethnicities that populate the Omo valley. That was the fate of Oromo and Afar pastoralists when Emperor Haile Selassie applied a similar top-down method to Ethiopia's first major river basin development on the Awash River in the 1960s, he explains.
For the greater good?
Marking a departure from the past, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) argues that since it seized power in 1991, it has empowered rather than oppressed the over 80 ethnic groups that live in the Horn of Africa nation. This is done through an innovative system of ethnic-based federalism that enshrines the right of each group to govern itself and protect its language and culture. Critics, however, counter that centralised policymaking and the de facto one-party system that maintains political control denies autonomy for regional actors. This tension can be seen in attitudes to nomadic people: while Ethiopia's 1994 constitution guarantees pastoralists the right to grazing land and not to be displaced, previously in 1991, the EPRDF adopted a policy "to settle nomads in settled agriculture", according to a Human Rights Watchreport from that year.
In the official narrative, sugar plantations and the new communes in the Omo are consistent with ethnic federalism, as they will reduce poverty and bring some trappings of modernity to minority groups.
"In the previous backwards and biased government policy, there wasn’t a systematic plan and no meaningful work was done for the pastoralist areas”, Meles said in his 2011 speech. “Now we have started working on big infrastructural development."
This stance is reinforced by pro-government media such as the Walta Information Center, which, in a recent article, presented the projects as unanimously welcomed by local people. “We had no strength when we have been living scattered. Now we have got more power. We are learning. We are drinking clean water”, Walta quotes Duge Tati, a local in Village One, as saying. Another villager was said to aspire to own a car.
However, reports from advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and Survival International present a starkly opposing view on recent development in Omo. They contain countless accounts from locals detailing how they've been coerced and beaten into accepting policies that steal their land and ruin their livelihoods.
They are a-changing
The Nyangatom have historically been so peripheral to Ethiopia's highland heart that in 1987 the Kenyan government bombed them with helicopter gunships in the Kibish area after a particularly murderous bout of ethnic clashes. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s nationalist military dictator at the time, allegedly assented to the operation.
Today, officials from Kangaton, the administrative capital, have to take a boat across the Omo to attend meetings with regional bosses. Despite this isolation, the impact of missionaries, traders and government is displayed in aspirations for services and technology, and the adoption of non-traditional dress and cuisine – at least among some people living in or near Kangaton.
Lore Kakuta is a Nyangatom who became a Christian after attending school run by missionaries. He is also the security and administration chief for the Nyangatom-area government. Wearing a replica Ethiopian national football team shirt and a head torch bought in Dubai, he sketches out the plans for irrigated agriculture and a shift to cows that produce more milk.
Lore is uncertain about how much Nyangatom land will be lost to sugar plantations. And he is clueless about the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers that it is said will soon be attracted to the area, and the impact they could have on his people's welfare and their constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Nyangatom culture is strong enough to withstand any influx, he says, weakly.
As a meal of goat stew mopped up with flat bread from the Tigrayan highlands is served, he explains how the traditional culture has changed already, mainly due to the influence of missionaries. So for Lore, the imminent transformation is nothing to worry about.
"There is not anything that is going to have a negative effect", he says, now garbed in a billowing traditional robe after dusk inside his compound. "We are teaching people to modernise."
There are bound to be people for and against the “villagization” no matter how well it is done. In Ethiopia’s current system there may not be the culture/means for the locals to be heard or participate in their own affairs. Most likely some “educated boys” from the tribes will be recruited in to EPRDF and will be sent to the locals to “convince” them of the already decided upon scheme as indicated in… “Longoko says his family straddles two worlds, with some of the children from his two wives receiving education in regional cities and others raising animals in the Omo. In line with his “educated boys", he says security and services will improve in the commune, but wants to retain the option to move to high land or to the Kibish River when the Omo runs low.”
On the other hand the anthropologist David Turton seemed to be threatened more by the loss of “subjects” of interest… the tribes and their ways of life have been preserved for thousands of years. Alas now that is going to change… Sorry but that was going to happen sooner or later.
Those who are concerned about the well being of the people of lower Omo must do something to make the changes that are taking place serve the interests of most of the people in the area. This is best done by dialog and help than by rhetoric and opinions that will disappear into oblivion soon after they are uttered (not unlike this one!!).
I am from the near by OMO valley and this is rubbish article. It did not even say how many tribes are in the valley, where the majority are and what was the fate of the children if this development realized. Rather, the so-called civilized reporter told us we should not have schools, electicity, access for health or in short progress. They want to keep us as monkey’s and less human for European entertainment. The so-called expert Anthropologist David Turton has no right to tell me how to leave with my close friends and not to limit my future. Leave me alone time to change for me and my families so my kinds will have brighter future. Tell us the truth please. This is not about the Omo vallly people but OIL. Yes, there will be oil discovery soon in this part of Ethoipia. This is part of Ethiopia not something fall from the sky ask the reporter tried hard to misinform us. Leave me alone!!!
Addis Gomen, what the hell are you doing in an area “colonized” by Menelik? Are you liberating the people of Nyangatom, Mursi and Hamer? Are you providing them with an endowment fund like EFFORT?
TPLF=Robbers’ Mafia organization
Helping the Mursis and Hamers to enjoy modern agriculture and livestock technologies is of course a good thing .But what’s really happening in this area is that the Agazi Bandits have institued a Land Grabbing Programs
enjoying Foreign Looters and Tigre
Mafiosis .While the local peoples after loosing their own lands are obliged to be parcked into ghettos most of the Times unproductible lands with none Social and Health Services .Worst of all ,an evil program financed by the WB and western donators .
Ethiopian govt.needs to kick this guy out of the country now.I thought we finished the discussion about this so called land grab.
More of a western rhetoric to confuse and devide the region and its people than anything worthy of an article
that helps our impoverished country and its people get a better life. The writer mainly aims at inciting violence amongst people and government to create chaos and mayhem. where was he prior to the gibe projects? How much did he ever wrote articles about western crimes committed to indigenous people around the world. He therefore has heinous agenda on the hind.
GARBAGE ARTICLE is an understatement. Your hidden agenda of anti-Ethiopian development is exposed in your article again.I credit the gov’t for it’s effort in aggressively pursuing educating people of rural Ethiopia.Educated society can easily understand what is good and bad for their community.No brainwashing people as you used to in the past.No pitting Africans against each other as you used to in the past.NO MORE.The projects may have little negative consequences just the same as any big project in the world.The gov’t is handling it carefully and making sure the community is the first beneficiary of the development while trying to help them keep their wonderful culture and history.It is wise not to forget this land and it’s resources belong to sovereign country called Ethiopia.
GOD BLESS ETHIOPIA AND IT’S PEOPLE!!
GOD BLESS AFRICA!!
GOD BLESS THE WORLD!!
i think the writer and his sources are more worried about their proffeession than the well being of the people. they want to preserve these people the way they are so they can be a source of excitement to the west.they are the reason for their employment and their pseudo intellectual case study. as the west evolves from cave man to civilization so will our people transform from primitive african culture to modern civilization.deal with it
Adgi ,how much did your Bandit bosses pay you to post all the
same craps with such childish nicknames (Gesho ,Nebro ,YeArebGebiMintch,Truthmustbehidden)…LOL!!!!
I think the writer Mr.William want to
tell us that how he felt about those two tribes.but what about racisime that is made every day by white people against all human races in every circumstances.
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