Will Deceit “Generate” Food Security?
Last August, the EPRDF government came out with a “policy of transformation” to ensure food security for Ethiopia in a span of just five years. For foreign observers, this sounds a bold policy and no doubt they will try to find out what resource Ethiopia has recently discovered to venture on such absolute, i.e. 100%, certainty to abolish food dependency. Five years is not such a long time from the development perspective that to ensure food security in five years Meles Zenawi must have found some ‘hot cake’ somewhere as untapped resource to generate income/revenue or boost agricultural production in a very short period of time.
From the conventional perspective, this ‘miracle’ has to galvanize the rural sector by heavily investing in agriculture, massively support peasant agriculture and pastoral livestock production, enable a substantial section of the rural population to disengage from agriculture [both from the age-old small peasant farming and deteriorating pastoral livestock production] and diversify its livelihood system, aggressively move into creation of rural industrialization and small scale industry in the towns to absorb the rural population disengaging from agriculture and so on. In this sense, it is indeed obvious that ensuring food security in such a short span of time involves not only a massive investment but also a massive social mobilization [in the scale comparable to Mao’s Cultural Revolution] and people’s movement that can’t be actualized without the independent political will of the rural population. For any development specialist or rural economist, these are the questions that come to the fore when reading EPRDF’s latest adventure that espouses to “ensure food security in five years”. The miracle that can tickle such changes in a traditional society such as Ethiopia could be a discovery of a huge deposit of oil, gas or minerals or the potential, public or private, to invest domestic capital in agriculture massively, strategically and carefully crafted planning. None of these preconditions exist in Ethiopia when Meles declared this ‘transformation’. Then, what is all this talk about ‘transformation’ for?
I have worked for ten years in the development sector in Ethiopia and have observed very closely the factors and issues related to the reality of poverty there [please, see my work Why Ethiopia Remains Poor ]. Knowing the TPLF [EPRDF] and Meles, I rather incline to question the motives of such propaganda. In the normative sense, it is hugely subjective and improper to question motives, but we are dealing with an institution [TPLF] and a man [Meles Zenawi], who has a long history and tradition of deceit, lies and treachery. As the title of this article suggests, I believe deceit is behind the rhetoric about ‘transformation’. But, why resort to official and indeed risky campaign of deceit now? For one thing, between the two ‘selections’ of 2005 and 2010, Meles had been busy making sure that all opposition and critiques were silenced and dissolved all their institutions openly and deceptively [such as the NGO law] so that there is nobody in that country who will challenge or criticize his regime. He did that successfully with donors’ complicity and in the 2010 ‘selection’ in which he dared to claim victory with 96% in a country where his regime is the most hated institution. He planned it so well that the noise only comes from the Diaspora that does not have much impact on donors. The time of “thinking twice before speaking once” is gone as there are no outspoken opposition, advocacy groups and the private press. It is now time to tell lies openly and even resort to such deceitful ‘strategies’ of transformation that we mentioned above.
Let’s first glance at what Meles’ strategy is all about? In a nutshell, the strategy is to stay in power for as long as possible. The crucial instrument is this strategy is the strength of the police ‘state’ it set up. It has a strong army, air force, police and a massive spy network to quell any uprising or rebellion whether it is urban or rural. As a paranoid regime, it is extremely sensitive to any kind of people’s revolt. Its special strategy in this respect is to spy on where any seed of rebellion may spring. This constitutes a preventive strategy.
The second aspect of the preventive strategy is to dissolve political organizations with the potential to mobilize or cultivate mass following. The political repression falls in this category; harassing the opposition and putting their leaders in prison on flimsy excuses, incapacitate them from doing any substantial political work, clamping down on civil society organizations and the private media. The clamp down against civil society organizations is to prevent any possible alliance with the opposition and as NGOs are closer to communities, it is necessary to break the umbilical cord of this relationship. As part of this strategy, deceit and outright lies prevail and the closure of the private media is to prevent any alternative source of information and medium of expression. The regime and Meles Zenawi in particular publicly tell lies and there is no one to challenge this lie. This is similar to the reign of terror institutionalize by Stalin in the 1930s where sheer lies as government policies were declared as the ultimate ‘truth’.
The third aspect of the preventive strategy involves the Diaspora and the opposition outside the country. To prevent any start of armed struggle from rural areas using neighbouring countries as rear areas, its spy network is very active in Sudan [both North and South], Kenya and Uganda. It maintains good relations with the governments in these countries and kidnaps or even assassinates Ethiopian opposition elements such as the few journalists it assassinated in Kenya a few years ago.
The fourth category targets the Diaspora as a whole. The main objective in this strategy is to prevent recruitment to opposition parties particularly to those who urge for armed struggle. The objective is to divide the Diaspora on grounds of ethnicity and political persuasion as well as on any possible reason. To prevent the unity of the opposition elements, it uses all means to keep them divided. One method it uses is writing “very informative” articles on Diaspora websites. In this undertaking, Meless Zenawi himself takes part in writing some of these articles. Such is Meles’ strategy to stay in power. [It goes without saying that a corresponding strategy to dismantle this despicable regime requires a counter-strategy that takes into consideration all these elements. As the Chinese proverb has it, “Know your enemy and you can fight one thousand battles.”]
It is extremely important for the Diaspora to realize this strategy, particularly the strategy aiming at dividing it. Whoever plays the tune of ethnicity and other divisive agenda plays into the hands of Meles thereby prolonging his days. It should be clear, then, that the dismantling of the EPRDF regime cannot be but a protracted process that takes time even if it is hated by 99% of the population. This is crucial because no matter what masses of people want, so long as they are not organized well enough to overthrow it, no regime can collapse just with hatred and condemnation alone. Woyane is not just a despicable regime, it is also cunning extremely sensitive to its power that it is well organized on the security front. A counter strategy should take this into consideration.
Prolonging the chance for the Diaspora to get united and organized and start feeding into the armed struggle is also part of this strategy. As such, keeping the Diaspora bogged down with arguments and debates on relatively trivial issues on end constitutes one of its strategies. Meles also engages the Diaspora’s lobbying efforts with hired lobbyists paying a huge sum of the public money. It also attempts to utilize the weaknesses of the opposition and even infiltrating it and dividing it further. [This should also come as warning to opposition groups.]
Now, we are coming to the essential element in Meles’ thinking, which I think is sheer wishful and condescending towards the Ethiopian people. Meles’ strategy to stifle democracy is not only by generating outright repression and other elements that we mentioned above. In fact the most important part of his thinking is that by generating development/economic growth, he can make the demand for democracy irrelevant. But the fundamental dilemma or contradiction in this strategy is he espouses development and economic growth without freedom. In actual fact however, there can be no development or economic growth without freedom and democracy. Meles’ strategy goes contrary to this scientific construct. In his view, by generating development or economic growth he can confront donors with fait accompli. Besides, it has the command of a horde of economists such as Joseph Sitglitz on his side and these economists serve him as intellectual mercenaries. They openly defend his policies and say that there is change taking place in Ethiopia. On the basis of this support and after silencing everyone inside Ethiopia, Meles has finally come with a strategy of official deceit. His target? Donors.
Thus, Meles came out, just out of the blues, with a new five years strategy of transformation. According to this strategy, Ethiopia will be food secure and self-dependent on food in five years time. The basis of this grand forecast is the “economic successes” recorded particularly in agriculture. He claims a far greater increase in agricultural production and successes in other sectors as well. Now, here comes the crux of the matter. Where in hell is this increase in agricultural production coming from? From what we know, Ethiopia is still bogged down in small peasant agriculture where the scarcity for land has become so acute that thousands and thousands of peasants had to leave their farms to the urban areas. After thirty years of land distribution, the average land area that an ordinary farmer tills is less than 0.6 acre according to a 2003 study by the Ethiopian Economic Association. The trend was further parcelization of peasant land implying fewer yields per acre meaning production is less and less. As a result, many peasants, particularly from Gojjam, have left their farms to the towns because they can no longer feed their families with their produce. This is the reality of contemporary Ethiopia lending to the fact that Ethiopia is still food insecure and so long as the conditions of peasant landholding system remains, this trend will continue. The writing on the wall testifies to the fact that Ethiopia is still food insecure and will remain so for some time to come. If, according to Meless, agricultural production has increased, why still stretching the begging bowl to donors? The paradox is that, not even months have passed after this grand strategy to make Ethiopia food secure was proclaimed when Woyane renewed its food aid request. Not even two weeks after the infamous strategy of transformation, the Birr was devalued against the dollar by an extremely high rate. Prices have skyrocketed and beyond the reach of the ordinary person. How come a sick economy generates agricultural production? Aren’t the modern sector and the agriculture sector connected and inter-dependent?
Now, the secret to Meles dreams seem to come from the “large scale mechanized farms” that are going to be “mushrooming” particularly in the western lowlands of the country with foreign investment. His government ‘generously’ gives out land in lease with the cheapest rate available in the international market to foreign investors, Indian and Saudis in particular, to start mechanized farms producing grain but rice in particular. Will the problems of Ethiopia’s agriculture be solved through foreign investment in a form of large scale farms? No. Will Ethiopia be food secure as a result of these large scale farms? Not the least. But, Meles thinks these foreign-owned farms will do the trick to food security. Let’s ponder a few lines on the irrationals of Meles’ grand plan.
The whole world knows that some countries which have been hit hard by the food prices increase of the last three years are embarking on a strategy of food security through large scale farms in other countries with the capital they invest. Some European countries, India and a few states in the Middle East have adopted this strategy and are out in a shopping spree for land grab mainly in African countries. The whole idea is to produce grain in Africa and ship it to their own countries through a long term land lease contract. From its inception, this is the strategy, nothing more and nothing less. Produce food outside their country and ship it back to their country for local consumption. Period!
Now, let’s return to Meles’ dream about being food secure and try to see if this objective of these countries really supports Ethiopia to be food secure. The only condition in this regard that can be beneficial to Ethiopia is if they produce it to the local market in Ethiopia proper and sell it at affordable prices. In such scenario, we can really say that agricultural production will boom and can contribute to the country’s quest to become food secure. But, that is not the case. The whole idea is to export the produce to their own countries.
If this is the possible scenario, then what can TPLF do to make the grain produced in Ethiopia by these foreign investors available in the country? They can only enforce a clause in the lease contract to ensure that a large amount of the grain produced, say 60%, to be allocated to the Ethiopian market. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense giving out Ethiopia’s land in lease with the cheapest price to foreign investors in the first place. Let’s assume that these capitalist farms accept these terms and agree to sell 60% of their produce inside Ethiopia. Then, the big question is the price that they will set to sell their produce to the Ethiopian public. Let’s not harbor any illusion. These are farms run by capitalists whose motto is not just profit but profit maximized. To them, it can only makes sense if the price they set for Ethiopia is profitable than the money they will make in India or Saudi Arabia. The Ethiopian public badly hit by colossal poverty can never afford to pay the price that a Saudi or Indian would pay. They simply cannot afford it. One thing for sure is these capitalists will never invest to help the poor in Ethiopia; this is not charity but business. Undoubtedly, this option is also out, Woyane cannot make these capitalists accept to sell their produce in Ethiopia. No way. Otherwise, they would not come all the way to Ethiopia to invest in a non-profitable enterprise.
So, why would Meles capitalize on these farms as a vehicle for agricultural production and food security? Is it to show that Ethiopia is doing economically well because of the existence of these farms? Once again, to have the record books that the GNP is going up and meet donors with fait accompli and make them forget the issue of freedom? Unfortunately for Meles, all indications are to the contrary.