Addis Ababa airport. A cargo plane, a C130 Hercules of the Ethiopian Air Force, has landed, Its hinged loading ramp at the rear opens. Hundreds of wretched highland dwellers descend, all clad in earth brown shirts and scarves, many barefoot, gingerly walking down the slope, their faces showing how terrifying the flight was. Behind them the cargo space becomes visible, now empty. They had been flying in standing position, tightly packed without rails or ropes to hold onto. While these poor country people are led to another plane, a fire truck pulls up and the firefighters hose down the inside of the cargo space. A brown flood of human excrements is streaming down the ramp.
Reality in famine stricken Ethiopia in 1985: a glimpse of the government resettlement program for 1.5 million people from the allegedly overpopulated highlands to the "empty" tropical lowlands in the southwest, especially Gambela province.
With ruthless determination, the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam picked up poor highlanders and dropped them in the malaria infested wilderness of Gambela with a few basic tools and bags of seed. Tens of thousands perished, others returned to the highlands walking hundreds of kilometers.
This first resettlement program implemented with Western assistance by the infamous Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission RRC ended in disaster, only to be followed by another resettlement scheme proposed in 2011 by President Meles Zenawi's government and continued by his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn.
Gambela is again the object of the ongoing scheme aiming at "villagization" of the semi-nomadic local population to create free spaces for commercial agriculture.
The inhabitants of Gambela are Nilotic Nuer and Anuak peoples quite different from the highlanders and are related to the Nuer, Shilluk and Luo of neighboring South Sudan and Kenya. The resettlement project aims at grouping the scattered farmer/pastoralists in villages with the idea of offering them better services and education. The project is funded by Western donors, among them U.K. and Germany, and sponsored by the World Bank. From the start, the scheme met with heavy international criticism. In fact, a comparison of old and recent satellite images by a team of the AAAS showed that scattered homesteads of shifting farmers/pastoralists have been destroyed and new ones built around existing agglomerations. However, the analysis suggests that less land per head is now available to the migrants.
Images also revealed the creation of large scale commercial farms on formerly uninhabited land, together with new settlements presumably of farm hands. NGOs and activists claim that local people have been evicted to free their land for commercial use but this is not (yet) proven.
Ethiopia is experiencing a phase of rapid economic growth. The second most populous country in Africa (after Nigeria) is extremely proud of its transition from the notorious basket case to a "tiger" status. Clearly, the government is keen to liberalize the formerly stagnant Marxist economy and attract foreign investment. Gambela, seen from Addis Ababa, is a dormant treasure trove inhabited by the wrong kind of people speaking a foreign language (mostly Nuer), having a different religion ( mostly Protestant), looking different (tall and thin) and being relatively tolerant of malaria. The temptation of driving these people across the border to their brethren in South Sudan -- in fact, thousands have already fled there -- is difficult to resist from an Addis vantage point. Furthermore, there is reason to suspect the existence of oil under Gambela.
As usual in Ethiopia's resettlement schemes, individual interests are disregarded. Anuak farmers complain that they have been forcibly evicted and that the land they were given in compensation was of lower fertility. This is a credible claim because Gambela's low settlement density (10 people per square kilometer) allowed the shifting cultivators to use only prime quality land. With expanding commercial farming and immigration of highland labor (or Chinese farmers?), it is plausible that the average quality of available land will decrease.
As in the 1980s, the government planners and their foreign donors are again underrating the project's most formidable foe: malaria and other infectious diseases. Locally and temporarily, malaria can be controlled. But permanently freeing an entire province of the size of Pennsylvania from this scourge, in a country that is still desperately poor, appears today as impossible as it was in the 1980s. More likely, the scheme will silently be terminated some time soon. The Anuaks and Nuer will leave the villages and South Sudan and return to rebuild their homesteads. Some commercial enterprises will probably survive with a high rate of Artemisin consumption, the currently most popular malaria treatment.
A credible witness: Ethiopia's former Ceremonial President:
"In his unprecedented manner, President Girma Wolde-Giorgis expresses his concern over land grabbing in the Gambella Regional State (Southwest Ethiopia), Mezghnger Zone, Guderre Woreda. In his recent letter to the Ministry of Agriculture, Girma urges the Ministry to stop giving land to an Indian company. Girma told Tefera Derbew, Minister of Agriculture, that giving 3012 hectares of well-preserved forest to Verdanata Harvests PLC, an Indian company, would affect the ecological system of the area. He also underlines that the handover of those land to the Indian company for tea plantation is thoroughly contradictory to the study carried out by experts who work at federal and local levels. The latter have already recommended the forest should be kept in its original nature. Girma went on commenting and said that giving such huge and preserved forests for commercial farming would violate the principles of campaigning against global warming."