Locals, Businesses Bear the Brunt of Angry Protest

The Integrated Master Plan may have sparked the recent unrest in many parts of the Oromia Regional State, but underlying issues emerged and continue to fester resentment. DAWIT ENDESHAW, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, has talked to those who witnessed, participated in and suffered from the recent riots that left unconfirmed numbers dead and unaccounted property damage.

For Lelisa Bejiga, a grade eight student, the past week was full of grief and agony. Late last week, he was recovering emotionally and recuperating physically from a gunshot wound sustained during the recent riots in Kimboya, a small village of a 27 rural kebeles in Ejere Wereda, 50Km south-west of Addis Abeba.

Lelisa was lucky to survive. Shootings by security officers had claimed the lives of his friends on December 16, 2015. Residents recount orders given to restrict the movement of people due to a riot that had already begun in the nearby towns of Welonkomi and Ehud Gebeya. These were two of many areas where protests were provoked by a Draft Integrated Development Master Plan for Addis Abeba and surrounding zones of Oromia.

The Oromia Regional State Council, Cheffe Oromia, had also approved a proclamation for integrated urban development, immediately after which one of the first protests broke out in a university campus in the town of Ambo. A few days earlier, students at a junior school in the town of Ginchi, 30Km from Ambo, had a confrontation with local police after protesting the taking of a school plot for construction purposes. Nonetheless, the Cheffe was quick to announce that the protests had nothing to do with the proclamation it had approved.

The subsequent days, however, saw violent protests intensified in many parts of Oromia region, including West Shewa Zone, where Ejere Wereda is located.

Ejere Wereda has 30 kebeles, three of which are designated urban and the remaining rural; with a population of 190,000 people, mostly dependent on agriculture. The law of the region gives any resident aged 18 and above, whose livelihood depends on agriculture, the right to acquire or use rural land, free of charge. The residents’ perceptions, however, do not resonate with this clause. To the contrary, fear of land loss looms large.

On that fateful day, Lelisa and his three friends, all younger than 18, were out in the neighbourhood, where the fields were yellow with the maturing harvest, at a place called Tollo Korma. In the wereda, close to one third of the population falls under this age curve; they had a few shots of araqi, local liquor, at a nearby inn, which they left to have fun on their own, he recalled.

“Four of us were just dancing and singing,” Lelisa told Fortune, recalling the moments before the shooting.

One of the friends left the group, went home and returned with a gun. The gun Lelisa’s friend brought from home was not a unique item, as the locality has nearly 300 registered gun owners who are part of the local militia. At that moment a big crowd, which one resident estimated to be around 200, formed and arrived at the scene, and started chanting. That was matched with a show of force from soldiers, with red berets, deployed in the area. Lelisa remembers his friend who had been shot; he ended up being shot in both arms as he tried to hold his friend. Later on, x-rays showed a bullet grazing the bone.

“We were not part of that tumult,” he said.

But two of his friends ended up dead.

One of the victims, Kusha Alemu, 17, dropped out of school at the fifth grade and was a daily labourer, according to his older sister, Birtukan Alemu, who lives a minute’s walk from Lelisa’s house.

The big crowd on the street, referred to as violent riot by authorities and peaceful protest by leaders of opposition political parties was a common sight during the first weeks of December. By the third week, however, there was no crowd but the signs and footprints of what had happened were vividly visible and felt in the air.

On the way to Addis Alem, Ejere’s main town 48Km west of Addis Abeba, along the Ambo road, local authorities were trying to bring things back to normal. In one afternoon late last week, appointees, cabinet members and bureau heads were inside the wereda’s office, assessing efforts made to calm down the situation. Outside, ordinary folks on the street were very reluctant to talk to strangers, especially members of the media. The presence of federal police force strategically deployed at short distances apart was common sight, and seemed to contribute to the tension.

A large compound with a big black gate that reads Suprafloritech was a spot where men in uniform were unmistakably visible. It was one of those places identified as targets of attack, that needed protection. Extra security services were put in place as a result of attempted looting and vandalism of the company’s property, on December 13, 2015.

Suprafloritech, an Indian company, was not the only such target in the wereda. Three major foreign investments: the Dutch owned Linssen Roses, and Akper Textile, a Turkish company, have secured lands and are at different stages of operation.

These foreign direct investments flocked to the country over the past 15 years, allured by access to land for nominal lease prices, cheap loans, as well as electricity and abundant labour. Indeed, it has been the talking point of federal authorities to sell the country as an oasis of political stability in a region that has otherwise earned notoriety for its hotspots of turmoil.

The Oromia region, covering a 366,000 square kilometer radius, 31.17pc of the total landmass of the nation, hosts a high number of these investments, although the Gambella region claims the heaviest concentration of investment involving mechanized agriculture, covering 42pc of the total land of the regional state. In Oromia, up until August 2009, land used to be given out to investors through negotiations with the administrators of localities. For the subsequent four years, though, zones of Oromia Regional State with land available for lease were required to float bids. In July 2013, the policy came under increased scrutiny, following the establishment of the Land Development & Management Agency.

This Agency, mandated to administer land utilization, hoped to curb corruption related to land management, which was identified as one source of the officials’ vices. It was further endowed with the power of overseeing investments and industrial park construction in the region, including the special zones of Oromia. An investor can use land either on leasehold or rental basis for 30 to 99 years, with 30 to 40 years of payment after advancing 10pc of the value of the lease contract.

In case of rural land, 20 to 45 years’ rental fees are predetermined based on set development level of zones. The government’s cabinet, however, reserves the prerogative to change the fixed rate on negotiations. Public participation and community consultations are issues dealt in a proclamation issued in 2007, which governs the process for land distributions and expropriations requiring compensations.

Studies, however, found out that this part of the proclamation is often, if not always, overlooked. A study carried out in 2011, “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa Country Report: Ethiopia,” by Oakland Institute found out, “Consultation was not performed with local community members in any of the lease sites covered in the study.”

The study was performed in samples of all regional administrations of the country.

It further claims the lack of transparency in land investment negotiations and agreements, which are perceived as confidential at any stage of the process. Through such challenged processes, prices vary from time to time, and according to place. Various studies on the area and some investment promotion brochures show average prices in Oromia range from 4.30 dollars to eight dollars per hectare a year.

Thousands of local and foreign businesses landed in the region. In 2010 alone, 5,919 local and 1,070 foreign businesses were registered to invest in the Oromia Regional State. Over half of these in both cases were interested in putting their money in agricultural projects, mainly flower farms.

It was these companies which found themselves caught up in the riots, and faced the brunt of rage of the community whose many members were forced to surrender their livelihoods to them.

Supra, the Indian company suffered the most.

On the night of December 13, reports of attack carried out on the floriculture farm began to reach the wereda’s administrative office. The local administration had only enough force to protect the wereda‘s town, Addis Alem, according to Tilahun Mekonnen, communications head of the administrative office. Supra’s security personnel had fled the farm and could not be located, according to one of the police officers deployed to protect what was left of the farm. Neither were the managers available last week for a comment. A secretary who answered calls claimed they were in meetings.

In contrast, Linssen Roses, was left unscratched and there are different accounts of the reasons. Tilahun believes community leaders had intervened to prevent it from damage and pleaded to angry protestors to spare it. Rioters, who had ravaged the Indian farm, were already on their way to the Dutch farm, but the police got there first, according to a federal police officer stationed at the farm site in Kimboye.

For Tilahun, the sparing of Linssen’s 65ha farm was no accident. The company had built a road and health centre for the community.

That was not the case with Supra. Its warehouses and workers’ units were blazed to ashes. Six houses were set on fire and were destroyed, while greenhouse plastic sheets, a cold room for flowers, computers and jars containing chemicals were vandalized, according to reports to the police. Signs of chemicals spilt were still evident last Friday.

At a neighbouring wereda, Dendi, a farm where a local investor had been working, was also burnt down. A tractor and warehouses were set ablaze. Locals said the farm had not been active for a while.

Peter Linssen, general manager of the Dutch farm, declined to comment, while leaders of the Ethiopian Horticulture Exporters Association, of which these two farms are members, also declined to comment.

“The riots are not justified,” Tilahun told Fortune. “But the communities have genuine concerns related to land given to investors in their areas.”

He recalled a lavish promise farmers were given three years ago, when a Turkish textile company, Akper Textile Plc, moved in Ejere Wereda.

“We made a lot of promises to the farmers that this textile company, given its size, would create at least 9,000 employment opportunities,” Tilahun told Fortune.

Farmers were paid 3.2 million Br by the wereda when nine hectares of land were cleared for this company, about 356,000 Br per hectare. There were farmers who were paid as much as 800,000 Br in compensation, according to Tilahun. However, the Turkish company is yet to begin construction, which farmers perceive as a promise broken.

Such deeply held resentments fuelled anger among protesters who had confronted law enforcement; as a result, five people were killed by police fire and one officer was wounded by a bomb thrown from the crowd, according to police reports. Properties damaged included a farmers’ training centre with farm equipment, estimated to cost a quarter of a million Birr, a fertilizer warehouse owned by a farmers’ cooperative, and another property owned by another cooperative in the area. Four health centres located in Kimboyea, Telba, Tollo Korma and Hora kebeles and nine kebele administration offices were among the list of damaged structures.

Wereda authorities have now collected all 298 registered firearms, as well as 74 additional guns, which they believe were brought from adjacent areas, such as Ehud Gebiya and Welonkomi town, where the violence had escalated. On the drive from Addis Alem to these areas, the trails of rocks used to block roads and signs of burning remained evident late last week. At Ehud Gebeya, two kebele offices and a warehouse for storing pesticide were ransacked. The smell of chemicals was fresh in the air on December 24.

Ejere was not alone in having to see private investments targeted for attacks by angry protesters.

In Mugher town, home to the two giant cement plants in the country – Derba Midroc Cement and Dangote Cement – protesters indiscriminately attacked their fleets. Five trucks of Derba and more than 50 trucks of Dangote were attacked; one truck registered to Derba and no less than 10 owned by Dangote suffered complete destruction. They were torched to ashes.

The victims confirmed the attacks but refrained from recounting specifics as they could still feel the tension in the air. The wereda police and other officials were busy last week, in reclaiming the status quo. They have detained 145 people, some of whom had to turn in firearms. Prosecutors are preparing charges against them, Tilahun confirmed to Fortune.

In the meantime, the young Lelisa has been left with his wounds and the traumatic loss of his friends with no statement from the government as to whether there will be an official inquiry to determine whether law enforcement personnel had used excessive use of force in containing the riots.


Published on Dec 28,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 817]



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