Land grabbing and forced evictions in the Ogaden


thumbGambella, a province located in western Ethiopia is currently host to Africa’s largest fire sale. Millions of hectares of Ethiopia’s most productive agricultural lands are being transferred to foreign investors at basement prices. Transfer of land has been accompanied by the displacement of hundreds of thousands of native Gambellans – the vast majority of which are forcibly relocated in to settlement camps under the pretext of the government’s infamous Villagisation Program; a program whose alleged purpose is to provide relocated masses with basic resources, infrastructure and government support.[i] Instead, communities whose livelihoods once consisted of small-scale subsistence farming are now forced to depend on food aid and government hand-outs. Any opposition to land acquisitions is met with intimidation, often in the form of imprisonment, beatings and torture.

In the South East, the Ogaden, is home to a different resource – oil. Ethiopia has at many times in its recent history attempted to coerce access to oil reserves, often prematurely inviting foreign drilling companies to begin the extraction process.[ii] It is no surprise then that similar to what has occurred in Gambella, reports are emerging of the forced displacements, beatings and torture of Ogaden residents residing near demarked oil fields.[iii]
This piece carries two primary purposes: the first is to outline the relevant law regarding the illegal forced displacements; whilst the second purpose is to look beyond the law and explains conceptually, why it is so difficult to truly accept any assertions or promises made by the Ethiopian government.

Part One: The Law
Ethiopian Law
One who considers Ethiopia and its recent domestic human rights record will find it considerably ironic that nearly all her breaches of international law are in most cases also breaches of her domestic law. While emphasis is usually placed upon international instruments, pragmatically, one does not need to look any further beyond the Ethiopian Constitution.
Accordingly, it is important to look closely at what Ethiopian law actually establishes. Below is a brief summary on some of the relevant articles of law and the extent of their application:
Article 40 outlines the general rule regarding the ownership of property. It essentially states that every Ethiopian citizen has the right to ownership of property.[iv]
The article then continues by listing the recognised exceptions and subsequently, the ‘exceptions to the exceptions’ of this rule. Section 3 of Article 40 states that the Ethiopian government maintains an indefeasible title to all land (both above and below-ground).[v] It follows that:
The right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia.[vi]
The exceptions to section 3 are in the form of sections 4, 5 and 8. Generally, Ethiopians have a right to obtain land without payment; this is most often the case where plots of land have been passed down through generations. Such transfers are generally considered legal. Therefore, (where this transfer is deemed legal) title-holders have the right to protection against eviction from their land.[vii] Similarly, Ethiopian pastoralists who utilise such land for cultivation, have an express right against displacement from their lands.[viii]
Article 40 concludes with sub-section (8):
Without prejudice to the right to private property, the government may expropriate private property for public purposes subject to payment in advance of compensation commensurate to the value of the property.[ix]
Supplementing sub-section 8 is article 44 which outlines that in instances where a forced eviction has occurred, persons displaced have the right to means of compensation, including relocation with State assistance.[x] Such compensation is to be measured as the cost of the property expropriated (including any additions or improvements made to the property) plus 10 times the average annual income for the least 5 years.[xi]
Summarising the above, we can comfortably establish the following: the Ethiopian government holds ultimate title over all land; however this title is not unconditional. Citizens who possess legal title over private property have the right to freedom from arbitrary eviction except in rare circumstances relating to public policy. The test for public policy is narrow, but in circumstances where public policy is invoked, the evictee has the right to compensation the calculation of which is stated above.
To date, there has been no significant note of Somalis receiving anywhere near the sums of compensation they are entitled to under the Ethiopian Constitution.[xii] Nor have there been any examples of locals receiving alternative means of redress. Even if some compensation had been made available, it is difficult to contextualise how this will actually compensate for the irreversible damage suffered by forced displacements.
Furthermore, the requirement that prior consent is obtained or meaningful consultation occur, has been virtually bypassed. Orders to relocate are immediate and final, with some villagers forced to leave that very same day. There is no room for questioning and certainly no place for dissent. Any signs of disapproval are met with force and quelled with violence. Sadly, where reports of abuses have been lodged, they’ve almost always fallen upon deaf ears.[xiii]
Part Two: Lessons To Be Learnt
Ethiopia’s track record of fulfilling promises of infrastructure and access to resources is relatively poor. Governments in the past have attempted almost identical resettlement schemes and their failure to provide the agreed upon services proved to be catastrophic for the indigenous populations effected.[xiv]
It has been suggested that overseas investment in oil and food production is a ‘win-win’ situation for Ethiopia, the Ogaden and investors alike.[xv] This statement draws on the belief that direct foreign investment will help boost the Ethiopian economy and consequently, Ogaden locals will benefit from an increase in employment opportunities and potential technology transfer. Realistically however, the parties who benefit from this investment are not the same parties who shoulder the costs. Take the Gambelans as an unfortunate example. Historically, the Gambelan people’s roots lay in farming and agriculture. The land which is currently being given away to investors is the land they have owned and worked on for centuries. Gambelans who have been evicted are often unjustly forced to return to the land they once owned as labourers for the investors. It is laughable to believe that a group of people would swap the fertile land they have independently owned for centuries in exchange for working on the same land but this time not as owners but as employees and for wage that represents cents on the dollar.

The Ethiopian government will always attempt to propagate the belief that acceptance of their policies is for the most part voluntary. However – where the Ethiopian government and the uneducated working class are involved, the power imbalance is such that rarely can any acceptance of government actions be considered voluntary. Land in the Ogaden already transferred to Ethiopia by Great Britain without the knowledge of Ogadenis now was earmarked for commercial development long before any of the locals were apprised and certainly prior to the mention of any ‘voluntary’ villagisation program.[xvi] It is a perplexing thought that Ogadeni Somalis, being a traditional people who’ve successfully sustained a particular way of life for many centuries would almost overnight decide to voluntarily exchange this for what can only be described as a wholly unfamiliar way of life.
So question arises: what would prompt an individual to voluntarily exchange his or her own plot of land for a destitute, overcrowded, make-shift encampment?
Force would.
Ethiopia’s version of ‘voluntary relocation’ involves sending a small unit of ENDF personnel to a rural Ogaden village with orders that the people evacuate within the week. Orders enforced by the barrel of a gun and the threat of imprisonment. Ethiopia’s version of ‘voluntary’ involves promises of central schooling, medical centres, clean water, guaranteed employment with a relatively handsome remuneration package; all of which are bait intended to lure people away from their lands; for even the Ethiopian government understands the old legal maxim ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law’.

And what if you disapprove?
As history has evidenced, the Ethiopian government does not tolerate dissent. Anybody who holds the belief that Ethiopia will provide them with an open platform to air their grievances has in actual fact believed wrong or rather criminal. The Ethiopian regime is notorious for indiscriminately placing limitations on free press, where draconian laws are in place with the sole purpose of muzzling free speech and legitimate political dissent.[xvii] If the Ethiopian government is prepared to militarily enforce a blanket media blockade, arrest and detain journalists representing the world press, persecute and torture members of the democratically –elected opposition party; where does it leave the common, pastoralist Somali who, compared to the above, doesn’t even register on the Ethiopian social ladder?
To highlight this point, on March 2011, 114 people – including human rights activists, members of the state opposition party, independent journalists and other people known for their open commentary of government practises, were arrested under Ethiopia’s anti-terror laws. The Ethiopian government has used counter-terrorism as a pretext to silence individuals who legitimately critique government policies in the course of their vocations as opposition MPs and journalists. The implications of these acts are a lot more significant than most are willing to accept. These arrests are intended to dissuade others from openly professing their dissatisfaction with their government. The arrests carry a simple yet disturbing message: remain silent or face persecution.
It would be mistake to believe that the Ethiopian government will relent anytime soon. In its confiscation of private property and its forceful upheaval of indigenous populations from their traditional lands, the Ethiopian government has contravened whole portions of its own constitution. The most documented of these contraventions have occurred in Gambela. That being noted, such acts are not only characterised by one particular region, as there have been reported instances of similar forced displacements occurring in other parts. One such example is the dubious ‘Master Plan of Addis Ababa’. Undeniably one of the more infamous land grab programs implemented by the current Ethiopian regime, the proposed expansion of the capital, Addis Ababa, will have the effect of incrementally swallowing almost 1/3 of the Oromo region.
It is tragic to witness a government on the one hand purport to be a proponent of human rights, while on the other completely disregarding all public duties it owes to the ethnic populations it has forced under its dominion. Such actions can only be deserving of the highest form of international censure. Consequently, these actions should be on the minds of every foreign donor and investor whose financial assistance and technological investment has helped to directly promote the government’s illegal policies and infringe upon other people’s human rights.
Through the arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, beating and torture of its citizens, the Ethiopian government has silenced any legitimate criticism of their policies. While the Ogaden possesses a healthy and profitable reserve of oil – the Ethiopian machine is destroying entire populations for much, much less. Therefore, we predict it is only a matter of time before the Ethiopian government ramps up its efforts to wholly dispel the local Ogaden populations in search of this oil.
Do we not feel it is time for the human rights of the defenceless, the poor and the unrepresented to take precedent over the greed of a few?

[i] Human Rights Watch, Waiting Here for Death: Displacement and Villagization in Ethiopia’s Gambela Region (Human Rights Watch, 2012) 25-27
[ii] Kaleyesus Bekele, ‘The Saga of Oil Exploration in Ethiopia’, 4 May 2014 <>
[iii] Ed Mckenna, ‘Humanitarian Crisis for Ogaden Living Near Ethiopia’s Oil Fields’, 23 February 2014 <>
[iv] Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 21 August 1995, art 40
[v] Ibid, art 40(3)
[vi] Ibid
[vii] Ibid art 40 (4)
[viii] Ibid art 40 (6)
[ix] Ibid, art 40 (8)
[x] Ibid art 44 (2)
[xi] A Proclamation to Provide for the Expropriation of Land Holdings for Public Purposes and Payment of Compensation,
Proclamation No. 455/2005, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
[xii] Oakland Institute, ‘Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa’, 2010, <
[xiii] Above n1
[xiv] Thomas Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry, Ethiopia: A Country Study (Washington: USGPO, 1993, 4th ed)
[xv] Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, “From land grab to win-win: Seizing the opportunities of international investments in agriculture’, 4 June 2009 <ftp://>
[xvi] Above n2
[xvii] Amnesty International, ‘Dismantling Dissent: Intensified Crackdown On Free Speech In Ethiopia’, December 2011 <>
Interestingly, there is legal precedent on this exact issue in the form of African case law. The landmark decision of Endorois Welfare Council v Kenya[xvii] heard by theAfrican Commission on Human and Peoples Rights concerned the forced eviction of the Endorois people. The Endorois people were forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands to an area unsuited to their traditional way of life and were only allowed infrequent and irregular visits back to principal religious and cultural lands. Additionally, promises of compensation were never realised. The Commission held that the eviction, in addition to the failure to provide sufficiently appropriate compensation breached a number of the Endorois’ indigenous rights, including the rights to freedom religion, property, health and culture under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.