The embarrassing Interview of Deputy PM Haile Mariam Desalegn

Ephrem Madebo | There is a grand colorful flag hanging in my living room right above my TV set, a flag that united our fathers to the only African victory over white supremacists and a flag that transcended the tumultuous history of Ethiopian politics. A flag that is not artificially decorated and a flag that my dad told me- “Son this is your real dad, not me”. So where ever I go, this flag follows me because I always want to be with my dad. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but if it is true, each time I am reincarnated, I want to appear as an Ethiopian behind the Green, Yellow, and Red . . .  Nothing else!

As I always do during Christmas, I took days off from work and here I was all decked out in my worn out jeans, long-sleeve T-shirt, and flip-flops. My 12 years old son who just started his Christmas break was still sleeping so the television was all mine.  I turned on my TV and glanced through my favorite channels- ESPN, CNN, EuroNews, France 24 News, Aljazeera and the home town stations. Once I got my daily dose of the news, I grabbed my laptop and checked my e-mail box.  My incoming box was full, but the subject of one particular email from Ethiopia took my attention and made me forget the rest.  Here is how the exact thread of the email read: “Shaka please read aigaforum” yours as usual <name>.  Shaka was my nick name among my close friends in Ethiopia.  

There were two new posts on aigaforum. The first was the usual lamentation from MoFA on the recent BBC story of Land Grab in Ethiopia. The other was Deputy PM Haile Mariam Desalgen’s interview with Bahl Vickram of ITMN.  I listened to the interview over and over again with utter disbelief, and when I was done, I took a deep breath and said – Oh Ethiopia not again!

Ethiopia’s top diplomat starts the interview by clearly contradicting himself. He starts by saying “we do not agree with the word “land grab” because that has no impediment for our small holder agriculture peasants”. Then he quickly negates the above statement by saying “This is how the economic process goes so it means that the number of small holder farmers will diminish and the large scale farming process will continue”

I am not sure where he got the information, but Mr. Haile Mariam starts his interview by praising India as the oldest democracy on earth. As the top diplomat of the nation and as an individual who visited India for a number of times, I do believe Mr. Haile Mariam should know that India is the largest democracy, not the oldest. This silly slip of the tongue didn’t bother me at all because days before he got elected as the 43rd president of the United States; President George Bush didn’t know who the leader of Pakistan was. What bothered me and what got me sick to my stomach is Mr. Haile Mariam’s lackluster handling of the interview and his insensitivity to the most sensitive and discordant issue in Ethiopia today.  In fact, Mr. Vickram’s knowledge and understanding of the land grab problem in Ethiopia and the related public displeasure and resentment duped me that he was the Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia than the man he was interviewing.

One of the lowest point of Ethiopia’s top diplomatic gun came when he answered questions related to the current “land grab” in Ethiopia.  Verbatim, this is what he said: “You know Ethiopia is a very huge country and it is a very big country and we have ample land at this moment…”  I started laughing hesitantly, but the more I tuned to Haile Mariam’s despicable words, my hasty laughter quickly changed into a lingering hysteria.  I sat back on the couch and asked myself – Is absurdity contagious?  

With a total land area of 3,287,263 sq km, India is almost three times larger than Ethiopia.  Yes, India is fifteen times as populace as Ethiopia, but it has as much capital and educated people.  India feeds its people, Ethiopia doesn’t.  Indian farmers own land, Ethiopian farmers don’t.  Besides, India’s agricultural GDP is 10 times larger than the entire GDP of Ethiopia. So Mr. Haile Mariam – do you still think Ethiopia is big enough to sell land to India, China, or Saudi?  Look Mr. Haile Mariam, we all love to see green revolution transform Ethiopia’s agricultural sector and grant food security in Ethiopia- something that India did half a century ago. But, during its green revolution, India did not distribute its land to foreigners; it distributed land to its own farmers and opened its door to research, development, and technology transfer initiatives.

In the beginning of the 1960s, rice yield in India was about two tons per hectare; the price of rice was $550 a ton, and India was on the doorstep of mass famine. Today, the price of rice is much less than it was in the 60s and India is among the major rice exporting countries of the world. Mr. Haile Mariam, this is the success story we Ethiopians want to emulate.  If you are a wise person eager to learn from India, this is the best lesson from India. Instead of selling their land, please empower your own farmers by providing them the same opportunities India provided to its farmers.  

According to Mr. Haile Mariam’s analysis of economic development, I think a new agro-industrial development theory is in the making. Thank you and good job Mr. Deputy Prime Minister! The ‘ABC’ of Haile Mariam’s new theory starts by stating: “I think the notion is that people do not understand how the economic process going on [verbatim].   It seems that Mr. Haile Mariam’s new development theory is based on Arthur Lewis’ classical two-sector model. However, unlike Arthur Lewis’ model that assumes unlimited supply of labor from the subsistence economy, Haile Mariam’s model assumes unlimited supply of land. The Lewis model argues that the injection of capital and technology transforms the agricultural sector and forces the agricultural sector to release labor to Industry.  

Haile Mariam’s new model argues that large scale land sale diminishes the number of small holder farmers, triggers industrialization, and the growing industry creates demand for labor. Mr. Haile Mariam, you are absolutely right that your large scale land sale diminishes small scale farmers by uprooting them and destroying their livelihood, but how in the hell does this process trigger industrialization? Besides, with a large number of farmers uprooted – who will produce raw materials for your growing industry, and most importantly; with a large number of poor uprooted farmers floating in the economy, who will buy your industrial output?

I think one of the most bizarre moments of Halie Mariam’s interview came when he answered the following question:  You are looking at a fifty years winnow, so if someone is investing on land for fifty years [the italicized part is modified by me], how will you give him a guarantee that for the next fifty years there will be no backlash and there will be no cancellation of policy or reversal of policy where foreign investors in land will be asked to leave perhaps because of domestic sentiment being heard that land has been given to foreigners.

[His Answer] I think this is not domestic; first of all, you have to correct the statement that it is a domestic…domestic  statement, is not domestic, it is usually…usually it’s a push form  the Diaspora which has little knowledge about …. about the Ethiopian situation and some NGOs which are foreign based.   It is not a domestic issue; in any way it is not because this…our development processes are transparent and everybody knows what is happening and all the farmers know what is happening even though that land is not occupied by anybody else. By the way, this is because our policy of land policy is totally different that it is owned by the people and government there is no private ownership of land, so we are giving them in the lease term.

By the way, anyone who tuned to his interview can easily sense Halie Mariam’s naivety and at times his lack of understanding of the questions. The interviewer asks him about “domestic sentiment”, but Haile Mariam who has only the Diaspora in his mind misuses the word “statement” for “sentiment” not once, but twice. I noticed that there were questions that the interviewer has to ask him over and over again.

Mr. Haile Mariam, I know you are an engineer with little knowledge of history and sociology, but how dare you forget the sentiment that Ethiopians have for land?  Look Mr. Haile Mariam, land in Ethiopia is not just an economic resource. It has cultural, sentimental, and political meanings, and land represented one of the strongest symbols of dispossession during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. The origin of the Ethiopian Diaspora is every tiny locality in Ethiopia including beautiful Wolayita [your place of birth]. So why would you think the Diaspora knows less about Ethiopia and have a totally different feeling, sentiment, or attitude that does not have its root in Ethiopia? Besides, even the Indian interviewer knew about the sentiments and political problems of the land grab in Ethiopia; in fact, that is precisely why he asked you about government guarantees for his native Indian investors. You are the highest diplomat of the nation- how can you not know a national reality that a foreign TV anchor knows? Mr. Hiale Mariam, before you point your finger on the Diaspora, do your homework first and please know the difference between “sentiment” and “statement”.

The Ethiopian Diaspora knows unequivocally that the land grab has sparked fear and anxiety in Ethiopia and the Diaspora is worried that there are many troubling questions raised by the land acquisitions, particularly in terms of impacts on small farmers, their land, and their livelihoods. The Diaspora also knows that there is a lopsided power relation in Ethiopia that small farm holders have no political voice, making them vulnerable to exploitation. They lack organization, bargaining power, credits, access to markets, and wealth. So this being the case, when the government dispossesses and sells the only property they own; this will definitely lead to a loss of national identity. Mr. Haile Mariam, as you shamelessly said during the interview, you may argue that Ethiopia has a transparent political system and an informed peasantry. Well, my advice to you is – please read about the political conflict and violence as exemplified by the public outcry in Madagascar over its proposed 99 years land deal with South Korea. If you listen to me and read the story of the people of Madagascar, you will get a life time lesson that you will never get from Civil Service College or “Dingay Mamrecha”.   As to where to get the reading material, don’t worry, you’re the big-dog now –let the little guy suffer, send him/her to the Korean or Madagascar embassy.

Mr. Haile Mariam, you also said that “Ethiopians will not remain as farmers forever”. Well, not a totally true statement Mr. good wisher. All Ethiopians have never been farmers and some Ethiopians will always be farmers. Otherwise, who will feed Ethiopians unless you’re planning perpetual mercy flights from India?

Look Mr. Deputy PM, the Ethiopian people and the entire Diaspora understand that large-scale operation of mechanized farming is necessary for internalizing gains from investment in infrastructure needed for opening vast tracts of unused lands. However, this operation must not be embarked-on at the expense of millions of small farmers. Empirical studies around the world show that communities of family farms are equally or more efficient producers of export crops using low costs family labor. In fact, this advantage of family farms rose as population density increased and rural infrastructure improved.  The naked eyes of the author of this article have seen a much higher per hectare yield of wheat among the Chilalo [Arsi] small farmers than large scale wheat producing mechanized farms in the same area. So if you want to see a transformed agriculture in today’s Ethiopia, instead of supporting the post colonial latifundia initiatives, please give land to the tiller. As a policy maker, I’m sure your best alternative will be to support the initiative of large-scale farms and at the same time support small farmers, and make sure small farmers get credit extension, marketing services, fertilizer, and price information. If you do this, both large scale farming and small farmers will flourish. You don’t have to kill one to nurture the other.

Look Mr. Haile Mariam, the rotten ethno-dictatorial policy of your regime has left my country between rock and a hard place, and on top of this, your recent interview with ITMN has caused another damage leaving the nation chilled to the bone for a long time. In spite of your uncalled attack on the Diaspora, I am a member of the Diaspora who really misses Ethiopia when something is troubling me because Ethiopia understands my troubles so well. I miss Ethiopia when I laugh or cry because only Ethiopia can make my laughter grow and my tears fade away. I love and I miss Ethiopia when something really good happens to me, because I feel indebted and I want to share my good with Ethiopia.  I miss Ethiopia always, but I miss her the most when I lay awake at night and think of the miseries she is going through- the killing, the mass arrest, the beating, and the despicable torture perpetrated by the regime you and your boss supposedly lead.

Mr. Haile Mariam, cheating the nation and yourself out of love or respect for a dictator is the most terrible deception; it is also an eternal loss, a loss for which there is no restitution. Sorry to say, but you are a true hypocrite who ceases to perceive his own deception. I am not second guessing you; I’m just letting you know your own implausible attitude, i.e. the love you have for dictators. I hope the Deputy PM understands that betrayal of a nation can only happen when one is in love with enemies of the nation. Let me say good bye to you by quoting Aung San Suu Kyi- “It is his capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes man from the mere brute”.  Mr. Deputy PM, if you want to redeem yourself, I think it is good enough if you understand and convince your TPLF masters that the immediate remedy to Ethiopia’s economic problems is not selling land; the effective remedy is the psychiatric treatment of you and the entire EPRDF leaders. May God Bless Ethiopia!

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Posted by on December 28, 2010. Filed under VIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.