Exploiting farms Ethiopia: a case from Meki town


Thousands of farm labourers being whipped at work

By De Birhan Blogspot’s Staffer 24/12/10

Genet Ayele’s book on Ethiopia’s former president Mengestu Hailemarim quotes Mengestu. Mengestu as he spoke of his conversation with HIM Hailesellasie just after the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. Mengestu and HIM Hailesellasie converse about the student’s movement, peasants, serfdom, feudalism and the revolution. Mengistu might consider himself as the liberator of the peasants and tillers and workers, anyways in the middle of this conversation HIM says “that system had gone long ago. We have dismantled it. It is dead and will not come back’’. The Emperor was referring to feudalism, peasantry and enslaving mode of governance and system. However both the Emperor and Mengestu were wrong. Albeit both considered they uprooted feudalism, serfdom and peasantry; none did.

According to Colin Darch (1976), in 1963 the University (Addis Ababa University) was closed down for two weeks by student disturbances and in 1964 further student demonstrations were held under the slogan ‘Land to the Tiller!’ A Presidential Commission was appointed and reported on student unrest. In 1965, the Ethiopian Student Union in Europe held its fifth annual conference in Vienna, and condemned feudalism, the Orthodox Church, the Imperial family, the nobility and the landed gentry, while advocating land reform and the establishment of an independent trade union movement. In a parallel development, the Ethiopian Students’ Association in North America, at its thirteenth annual congress in Cambridge, Massachusetts, condemned the IEG as a “festerng dictatorship”. These two groups were the major overseas opposition groups at the time, although splinter groups also existed.’’

The then student movements, some of them bad and the rest; blessings were the trailblazers’ of Ethiopians socio-political consciousness. Not only consciousness, they were the real beginners of the unending fight for the freedom of the Ethiopian peasants, serfs and workers. Today, that struggle and those strugglers seem to be out of the course. Now, all University students unions are fully controlled by students loyal to the ruling party. The sufferings, troubles and enslavements of Ethiopian farmers and their children are forgotten. Nobody gives them ear or hand. Elite politicians are engaged in intra and inter party competitions and fight while slave serfdom and feudalism are intensifying in full swing all over the country.

This sort of serfdom is now ordinary in today’s Ethiopia. Ethiopia of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front‘s (EPRDF). Although for some time, the Derg announced its land reform program and nationalized rural land without compensation, abolished tenancy, forbade the hiring of wage labour on private farms, ordered all commercial farms to remain under state control, and granted each peasant family so-called “possessing rights” to a plot of land not to exceed ten hectares, it didn’t enable the farmer to be a real landholder.

In today’s Ethiopia, ruled by EPRDF that believes to be the “product and outcome” of Ethiopian peasants and framers, slave serfs are sold and traded like nothing; land is government’s possession thus the farmer still remains in a peasant hood. Today farmers are dislocated and their land is given to foreign investors and returning Ethiopian Diaspora.

Exploitation Serfs in today’s Ethiopia: the Case of Meki Town

The story begins from today’s geographic location of Semien Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region(SNNPR) specifically from Wolayeta, Kembata and Hadya Zones. This region and the zone particularly, is the most densely populated area in Ethiopia. Family planning is almost unknown or ineffective in these areas. Nuclear families are almost unimaginable. Its worth consulting Peter Gill’s criticisms of Meles Zenawi’s failed population policy, in Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, 2010. In this region of multiple births and unplanned families with dozens of children as a normalcy, feeding and nurturing all the children have become hard nuts to crack in recent years. Especially, following the recent man made and natural hungers that occurred in the region, families have resorted to a new mechanism family reduction of selling their children to Oromo and other farmers and nomads. In fairer terms the natives call this process “adoption”, “transfer” or “promotion to a better life”. However, in its true sense the act, it is ‘sell or slavery.’

Manahelot (not a real name), has been to the area various times .He calls this process “a hunger induced internal enslavement or refugehood ”. According to him “when a Wolayeta or Kembata area born boy reaches the age of five or six, his parents make a deal with better off farmers from neighbouring regions such as Oromia to ‘ buy’ the boy. The farmer ‘buys’ the young boy, making sure that the only payment or salary the boy will be given is his daily food and that the boy works for him’’

These boys start a new life in a newfound land. They will be hired and adopted to their new families working as herders and maids. Most of these young boys abscond as they reach their adolescence and return to their families while others get assimilated into the new families and will be disconnected from their biological parents. Most of these boys that escaped the life of herding have revealed that they have worked their heads off and were treated slavishly.”

Mahider Bitew, Children’s Rights and Protection expert at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Ethiopia once said that some remote studies conducted in Dire Dawa, Shashemene, Awassa and three other towns of the country indicated that the problem of child trafficking was very serious. According to a 2003 study about one thousand children were trafficked via Dire Dawa to countries of the Middle East. The majority of those children were girls, most of whom were forced to be sex workers after leaving the country. The International Labor Organization also had identified prostitution as the Worst Form of Child Labor.In Ethiopia, children trafficked into prostitution, to provide cheap or unpaid labor and to work as domestic servants or beggars. The ages of these children are usually between 10 and 18 and their trafficking is from the country to urban centers and from cities to the country. Boys are often expected to work in activities such as herding cattle in rural areas and in the weaving industry in Addis Ababa, and other major towns. Girls are expected to take responsibilities for domestic chores, childcare and looking after the sick and to work as prostitutes.

The “sell’’ of children from the SNNPR for cattle herding to neighbouring regions is not trafficking, but enslavement and is still practiced in this hour and date.


Move to Meki: life of ‘salve serf’

Mekiis a town located in the East Shewa Zoneof theOromia Region, Ethiopia. Based on figures from theCentral Statistical Agencyin 2005, Meki has an estimated total population of 36,597 of whom 18,422 are men and 18,175 are women. News sources reported in March 1974 that, as part of theEthiopian Revolution, peasants near Meki rose up against local landlords, settling old grievances. At least 15 persons were reported killed: about ten victims had been hacked to death with knives and spears, and the bodies of three people were found in wells. The police regained control after killing a dozen peasants and arresting hundreds.

Large scale farming and irrigation have been practiced in the area sincetimes of the Derg regime. EPRDF’s land reform allows land leasing to a third party and transfer rights within families, specifically towards off-spring, are also allowed. Using this policy as convenience farmers have been renting out their lands to individuals investors and companies to till the land and sell their produce .Thousands of individual investors and companies now farm and sell their produce such as onion, tomato, pepper, mango, cabbage and other vegetables in Meki. Most of the produce is locally consumed while the rest is exported. Many of the irrigated agricultures in the Meki area are based on shallow (up to 10 m deep) groundwater accounting for 25% of the total irrigated area.

Adolescent kids of SNNPR that escape from their ‘masters’ and return to their families will be received with a cold smile in their native home and by their families .He will be awaited with more young babies, no bed or place to sleep and food to eat or a land to farm. Hence, he will be advised to move to the nearest commercial farming area, Meki and work as a “labourer”. The young teens of Wolayeta that deserted their ‘masters’ finally end up in Meki irrigation farms to work as daily labourers, or technically as ‘slave serfs.’

“I was exploited and mistreated by my adoptive families. They fed me only twice a day. Ultimately, I have decided to escape from them and join my families in Hadeya. But my families were not ready to welcome me. One of our villagers advised me that we better go to Zeway town and look for work’’ says Bocha (not a real name) who works as a daily laborer in one of the individually owned Meki commercial farms. Scarcity of job in Zeway town led Bocha to the next town of Meki. He has been working as a daily labourer (slave serf) for various individual investors for the past three years now in this town.

Defining slave serfdom, Wikipedia puts it in the following way “The last type of serf was theslave. Slaves had the fewestrightsand benefits from the manor and were also given the least. They owned no land, worked for the lord exclusively and survived on donations from the landlord. It was always in the interest of the lords to prove that a servile arrangement existed, as this provided them with greater rights to fees and taxes. The legal status of a man was a primary issue in many of the manorial court cases of the period. Also, runaway slaves could be beaten if caught. ”

Bocha typically meets the above definition. Bocha has no right, benefit and survived on meagre donation. Every morning approximately 15 to 20  thousand “slave serfs’’ living in Meki town originating from all regions of Ethiopia Amhara, Oromia and mostly Southern region queue in Meki city center looking for employers (feudals) to take them to their farms in the town and the vicinities of Sembo. These labourers work in the nearby villages of the town and in the city. A private investor pays 4000 birr land rental fee per hectare for one year to the native farmers. Compared to the current rate a one hectare farmland is leased to foreign farmers ($1), the rate in Meki to local investors, is a staggering one.

The ‘slave serf’ is contracted officially to work for the day when he receives one Ethiopian birr for ‘breakfast’ in the form of a deposit. Soon after, begins the exhaustive, dehumanizing and exploitive work in the farms. They dig the ground, tile and water the soil, weed, pick and do all sorts of jobs in the farm. Around 20 labourers work in one hectare. The investors hire one Kaboo (flogger), who whips those labourers that are weak, lazy or stopped working for a minute for 20 labourers. These Kaboos are paid 20 birr per day for just standing and whipping the weak and tired labourers. This makes the work an absolute slavery. These ‘superintendents’’ acted the same way as African slaves that worked in American plantations superintended another slave man who carried a whip, and frequently cracked at them, permitting no dawdling or delay at the turning. In the then USA it was emphasized by a tall and powerful Kaboo, who walked to and fro in the rear of the line, frequently cracking his whip, and calling out in the surliest manner, to one and another, ‘Shove your hoe, there! Shove your hoe!’ and striking them with the whip, as in today’s Meki.

The labourers have no insurance, bonus or protection or right. Their livelihood is insecure.Living conditions are cramped with as many as ten people sharing a hut. There are many cases where some labourers who resist whipping or work less harder and make mistake were corporally punished to go with no payment.

What makes the work worse and racist and feudalistic is the scale used to pay the labourers. In Meki farms, all labourers are not equally paid and treated .The wage is based on their ethnic origins.The justifications for this are weired,so I better not say them here.

An Oromo farm laborer is paid 18 birr per day.

An Amara farm laborer is paid 17 birr per day.

A Wolaeyeta,Kembata,Hadaya farm labourer is paid 16,15 and 14 birr per day respectively. Whereas ,Weretegna’s,(permanent labourers) are given 25 kilo maize and 2 kilo shiro(peas) per month and are paid from 350 to 550 birr as a monthly salary.

“I was beaten like a donkey many times just because I was tired and wanted a break or talked with my workmate.’’ Bocha laments.

A private investor in the Meki farms that this writer talked to said that he is aware that daily labourers in Meki farms are slavishly treated, “I understand that we treat the labourers inhumanly but as the practice is taken normal and best way of getting good output, we apply it”. He says in this same scenario, most of the around 5000 individual investors and companies leasing the land from the farmers are individuals or companies affiliated or supported by the Tigrean Development Association (TDA) and Dedebit Microfinance.

Howard Dodson (2008) said that the slave trade was back in full force, “This modern slave trade, however, is not limited to just young Africans; women and children are also being enslaved in almost every continent. It is estimated that there are over 27 million enslaved persons worldwide, more than double the number of those who were deported in the 400-year history of the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas. What is remarkable is that this unprecedented trafficking largely goes unnoticed. The 27 million victims of the modern slave trade are more invisible to the world’s eye than were the 10 million to 12 million Africans who were forcibly sent to the Americas during the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.”

The situation and enslavement in Meki is not part of the above categorisation, I believe. The Meki case is a replica of the 19th century United States of America’s Southern farms. The Ethiopian serf or slavery is a result of poverty, ethnic federalism, unfair land tenure system, governance and so on. The peasants, serfs and feudalistic exploitation and manipulation have reappeared in different forms and colours in Ethiopia. Although, Meki is taken as a case in point in this article, there are possibly similar cases in other regions of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian students need to take up this issue on board, learn from their predecessors, political parties should also; above all, if there is openness and readiness from the government side, all these need to be taken into consideration and measured. It should change its policies, approaches and principally ideology.