Three Indigenous rights activists in Ethiopia could face 20 years in prison under “terrorism” charges as part of a wider state policy of native land grabs and forced displacement piloted by World Bank development aid.
Pastor Omot Agwa, Ashinie Astin and Jamal Oumar Hojele had spent six months detained without charges in conditions widely condemned by human rights observers, until they were finally indicted under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law in early September.
Their crime: participating in an Indigenous-organized food security workshop in Kenya, designated as a “terrorist group meeting” by Ethiopian authorities.
The case, which will be revisited in Ethiopian court on Oct. 22, is not surprising for human rights advocates who have long worked on Indigenous and land rights in the country. They say it is part of an ongoing systematic repression of those who oppose the highly-controversial development projects of the East African state.
Nyikaw Ochalla, director of Anywaa Survival Organisation and the food security workshop co-organizer, told teleSUR English he has been forced to do his advocacy work on Indigenous and land rights from London for the past 16 years, afraid of what would happen if he returned to Ethiopia.
Together with the three charged men, Ochalla has been accused of being one of the founding and leading “terrorist” members of the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement. The GPLM, however, is not officially listed as a “terrorist” organization by the Ethiopian government, nor has it been functional as a political player for a long time. The charges are clearly fabricated, Ochalla believes.
“This is not the first time this is going on. People who are opposed to the Ethiopian authorities’ policy are branded as terrorists and put in prison. Because of that my life has been in danger. That’s why I made the decision not to go back and stay in the U.K.,” said Ochalla.
Both the U.K.-based activist and Pastor Agwa are members of the Indigenous Anuak tribe, many of whom were forced to flee their native Gambella region in southwest Ethiopia into refugee camps in South Sudan and Kenya as a result of mass-scale land grabs and displacement under the watchful eye of the World Bank.
Since 2008, the Ethiopian government started selling off large plots of cheap and fertile land to national and foreign investors, neglecting the native inhabitants of these lands and their primary source of livelihood. A “villagization” program was put in place to make the lands available to investors by “voluntarily” resettling native inhabitants into villages of 400-500 families. The idea was sold under the noble task of bringing “advanced” infrastructure and services to Indigenous people, despite them never being consulted on the matter.
Reports show that not only were those services not provided by the Ethiopian government, but the displacement was also forcibly carried out against the will of Indigenous peoples, stripping farmers and pastoralist communities from their ancestral land and making them dependent on food aid. Up to 1.5 million people, including 225,000 Gambella natives, were planned to be affected by the government’s relocation plans.
In 2012, the Anuak tribe brought to light that this forced and systematic relocation was, in fact, directly funded by the World Bank. The complaint they filed to the World Bank Inspection Panel alleged that their US$2 billion program, Promoting Basic Services Project, was responsible for financing the villagization process and the major human rights abuses that accompanied it.
“The relocation was not voluntary, I was not asked if I wanted to be relocated nor did I give my consent to being moved. My village was forced by the government to move to the new location against our will. I refused and was beaten and lost my two upper teeth. My brother was beaten to death by the soldiers for refusing to go to the new village. My second brother was detained and I don’t know where he was taken by the soldiers,” one of the victims told Inclusive Development International, an NGO that helped file the complaint.
Other victims of human rights abuses have testified to rape, killings, beatings, and arbitrary arrest and detention, all experienced at the hands of the Ethiopian military for refusing to leave their homes.
Followed by other international human right reports alleging abuses linked to the World Bank, the complaint eventually pushed the institution to investigate itself.
In January 2015, a World Bank Inspection Panel report was leaked confirming an “operational link” between the World Bank-funded program and the forced relocation program. While the report concluded that the bank had violated its own policies, it did not find the World Bank responsible for the evictions and human rights abuses.
Ethiopians talk of violent intimidation as their land is earmarked for foreign investors http://t.co/P8Erfy04E5— Rahel Aforki (@reportergirlERI) abril 14, 2015
However, the former governor of Gambella, Omot Obang Olom, confessed in April this year that he personally oversaw the use of US$10 million from World Bank aid directly redirected into the resettlement program.
“If we were not ordered by the federal government to reallocate the World Bank budget for the program, the program would not be possible,” Olom told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Olom left the country last year and is seeking political asylum in the Philippines, one of many dissidents fearing government persecution.
Pastor Agwa, who is facing up to a life jail sentence at home, does not share this privilege. Even though he was hired as a translator for the World Bank report, the bank failed to guarantee to protect his safety. Despite Agwa’s request for anonymity, the bank disclosed photographs of him in the report.
“I think the World Bank and the international community should have a moral high ground to deal with the Ethiopian authorities because they are so dependent on the international financial food aid,” Ochalla said. “But the World bank has even ignored their very employee.”
The World Bank’s neglect of Pastor Agwa’s safety in this sense is on par with its wider policy of development aid that has completely ignored the voices of Ethiopia’s Indigenous peoples. Its selective silence over the persecution of Indigenous activists who seek to bring back power to their local communities makes the bank and its major funders, the U.S. and the U.K., complicit in the wider destruction of Ethiopia’s Indigenous communities.