I may seem an unlikely person to document the reality of current-day Ethiopia. However, the truth is that many paid reporters who are supposed to cover East Africa are failing miserably. In an ideal world, there would be no need for me to deplore the lack of rigorous reporting despite the abundance of newsworthy stories out of East Africa. Instead, East African correspondents choose to hobnob with overly-compensated NGO executives in emerging African capitals, enjoying exclusive bars and restaurants and serving as mouthpieces for East African dictators. Meanwhile, young Africans make the risky journey to Europe in hopes of escaping a hopeless existence at home.
Members of the African Diaspora who love their country and have a vested interest in the future of their homeland are discouraged by the corruption and bureaucracy of African governments and their capitulation to Chinese corporate interests at the expense of the well-being of the Ethiopian people and their environment.
I want to share with you the experience of an Ethiopian/Oromo woman who migrated to Italy at a young age and studied and worked there for years before returning to Ethiopia to transform her country through her passion for sustainable farming. After overcoming many hurdles, including government bureaucracy and corruption, she was able to obtain a plot of land and build the infrastructure needed to start her farming business. But before she could start work, the Ethiopian government awarded an area of land to a Chinese cement company just 500 yards from her farm, in an area designated for agro business approximately 75 kilometers east of Addis Ababa. The cement factory polluted the environment, making it impossible to do any farming. Pollution from cement production is known to cause cardiovascular and respiratory complications and local farmers soon reported respiratory problems.
After having invested her entire savings in the farming project, Agitu received no explanation from the Ethiopian government why they allowed construction of a Chinese cement factory in an area zoned for agribusiness. Ethiopian media covered the issue and the public corroborated the existence of extreme concentrations of dust particles in the air in the vicinity of the Chinese cement factory, which is on the main highway to Hawassa, the capital city of the Southern Nations and Nationalities. Despite public outcry and opposition from a coalition of local businesses, government officials refused to investigate.
In response to national media coverage of this debacle, the Oromia environmental agency claimed that it had advised the Chinese cement factory to minimize pollution levels. However, officials at the agency conceded that they had no power to dictate to the factory, even though they were clearly violating Ethiopian environmental law. Agitu then approached the Oromia investment agency, where she was told that the issue was “beyond their power.” Her story is that of countless Ethiopians who have returned from overseas to take part in the sustainable economic transformation of their country only to find themselves betrayed and deprived of their rights at every turn.
Today, Ethiopian farmers who have lost their land in the name of mechanization and industrialization are left with the toxic results of this irresponsible experiment. Agitu left Ethiopia vowing never to return to a country where there is no regard for the rule of law or respect for its citizens or its environment. She had wanted to bring sustainable farming to a place where her ancestors had cultivated animals from the beginning of time. But she came up against powerful interests who had other ideas. Agitu is one of the fortunate few who are able to leave and escape the atrocities committed by irresponsible foreign companies aided and abetted by the tyrants in Addis Ababa.
Even though Agitu was denied the opportunity to transform farming in her homeland through sustainable farming, she was able to realize her dream in her adopted country. Agitu became a sustainable farmer in Northern Italy, where she has many goats and makes phenomenal organic goat cheese which has won praise and recognition in her community. She even participated in a convention attended by Michelle Obama promoting healthy and sustainable food. The irony is that Agitu had come full circle: her quest to achieve sustainable farming in her homeland had been blocked by an authoritarian government supported by the Obama presidency and its unlikely partner China but in the end was encouraged by the president’s wife on a visit to Italy. Clearly, there is something wrong with US policy. On the one hand, there is rhetorical support of poor people in general and Africans in this particular case, while actual US foreign policy prolongs the suffering of poor subsistence farmers and continues the degradation of the environment in places like Africa.
US and European policy encourages record-level government debt, maintaining a devastating environmental policy that is pushing young Ethiopians over the cliff of economic and environmental disaster. As a direct result of this policy, Ethiopians are leaving their country in droves. Despite the mortal risks of the voyage, people are choosing hope over never-ending poverty and brutal government control over all aspects of life.
Meanwhile, the majority of the news media seem oblivious to the suffering of the urban poor and subsistence farmers in Ethiopia, choosing instead to jump on the propaganda bandwagon and help promulgate a picture of widespread contentment.