Properties of at least 11 factories and farms, mostly foreign owned, have been completely burnt down or severely damaged in the violent protests going on for the last one year in Ethiopia, as angry people mostly from Oromiya, a region at the centre of the government’s industrialisation efforts, accuse the state of seizing their land and offering tiny compensation, before selling it on to companies at inflated prices.
At least 55 people died during the violence last month alone and the total death toll could be as high as 450, according to The Africa Report. The Ethiopian government describes the casualty figures as inflated and accuses local rebel groups and dissidents based abroad for stoking the unrest.
According to Fana Broadcasting, which is seen as close to the Ethiopian government, 11 companies ranging from textile and plastic factories to flower farms have been damaged or destroyed. The Dutch firm FV SeleQt said its 300-hectare vegetable farm and warehouse was plundered. Another Dutch firm, Africa Juice, said its factory was partially destroyed. The manager of one of the Turkish companies, textile firm Saygin Dima, told Reuters that at least a third of his factory was burned down.
The people accuse the government of forcibly acquiring land and offering paltry compensation. They also say they struggle to find work, even when a new factory is set up on property they or their families once owned.
“I went to apply for a job at a steel factory that was built on my family’s land but I was turned away when they discovered I was the son of the previous land owner,” Mulugeta, a local, told The Africa Report. He asked for only his first name to be used to avoid any state reprisals. “Most factories give priority to employees from other regions for fear that local people would one day stage strikes,” he said.
Antagonism between governments riding roughshod on the development path and villagers who are often little benefitted by such development have been increasing in the developing countries all around the world since the last two decades.
Following prolonged agitation in Singur, the Supreme Court of India recently ordered the government to return land, acquired for the TATA’s car factory, to the farmers. People in other parts of the world, however, have not always been so fortunate.
In Ethiopia all land belongs to the state and owners are only deemed leaseholders, even if they have been living or farming there for generations. For the state, it means a swift and legally uncomplicated route to ejecting leaseholders to make way for new factories and construction of highways and railways.
Chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, Merera Gudina, told The Africa Report, “People are demanding change, but the problem is the only language the government knows is the use of excessive force.”
“Economic development has outpaced political change,” said former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and academic David Shinn. “It is less clear, however, whether the Ethiopian peasant farmer, who still constitutes about 80 per cent of the population, has benefited significantly,” he added.
Foreign investors have been attracted to Ethiopia by cheap electricity, cheap labour, improving transport and tax incentives offered by a financially stretched government hungry for foreign exchange. New industries have focused on Oromiya and the nearby Amhara regions, which surround Addis Ababa, a city that now boasts Sub-Saharan Africa’s only light rail metro system and a rapidly rising skyline.
Protests in Oromiya province initially erupted in 2014 over a development plan for the capital city that would have expanded its boundaries, a move seen as threatening farmland. Since then clashes with police have increased.