Following the order from the Office of the Prime Minister, Gambella Regional State has started returning the farmlands of 186 commercial farmers who were evicted from their leased properties after being accused of underutilization of the farms.
Out of the total 600 developers in Gambella, 296 were made to evict from the area in February 2016. The decision came after the findings of the assessment report that was commissioned by the order from the Office of the Prime Minister following allegations of mismanagement of loans, favouritism and impropriety on the part of recipients that surfaced in the region.
The three-month long assessment was made by a technical committee composed of 13 members, comprising experts from three ministries, the regional state, the Development Bank of Ethiopia (DBE), the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE), and two experts from the then Agricultural Investment & Land Administration Agency.
The technical committee was under the supervision of another state body, holding seven high-level government officials designated by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, in May 2016. Alemayehu Tegenu, state minister for Agriculture & Industrial Policy & Planning Implementation Supervision at the Prime Minister’s Office, chaired the investigative committee.
The report stated that productivity in private farming is not profitable; it takes many years to recover the loans, and its contribution to the national economy is insignificant.
The report also disclosed that of the 229,755ha of land granted to commercial farm developers in eight Weredas of the region, only close to half began their initial operations and preparations with an investment capital of two billion Birr even though they remain in the project stage.
And the process ended with the repossession of the land of farmers who were accused of delaying in developing the lands.
Disappointed with the verdict and questioning the legitimacy of the reasons for the seizure of the lands, the investors filed a grievance letter to the Prime Minister’s Office on April 9, 2017.
In response to the grievance from the farmers, the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the formation of a subcommittee composed of officials from the Office, the Ethiopian Horticulture Development & Agriculture Investment Authority, officials from the regional state, and the investors. The order from the Office came on May 6, 2017, directing a reassessment of the cases of the repossessed farms.
The subcommittee informed the investors to submit their grievances individually to the committee. And out of the total developers, 190 submitted their letter of grievances.
The remaining did not submit grievances due to their own reasons, according to Yemane Seifu, head of the Gambella Agricultural Investors’ Cooperative.
Rejecting the claims of only four of the complaints, the committee accepted the grievances of the 186 investors and submitted the findings of the reassessment to the Office in June 2017.
The findings stated that part of the farms was not developed due to various reasons, which was out of the control of the investors, such as overlapped land allocations and having a pending court case which blocks them from developing the farms.
The committee also discovered the lands of 88 investors were repossessed before their five-year grace period had expired and 21 of them could not be operational because of lack of good governance in the region.
As the region is mandated to administer issues with land lease contracts, the Prime Minister’s Office directed the Ethiopian Horticulture Development & Agriculture Investment Authority to execute the return of the farm lands to the investors with the administration of the region, according to Alemayehu Tegenu.
“Most of the farmers obtained the lands in 2014,” said Yemane. “Only four of the farmers were found out for not developing the land with reason, even their grace period has already passed,” said Seifu.
The smallest seized land taken back by the government was 400ha whereas the maximum was 3,000ha. The investors took the farms for the cultivation of oilseed and cotton.
So far the region has returned the lands of 27 investors and is in the process of returning the rest, according to Gatluak Tut Koat, president of Gambella Regional State.
“The recent decision has saved many investors,” said Tadesse Haile, state minister for Exports & Investment in the Economic Section at the Prime Minister’s Office.
These developers also have another problem since the Development Bank of Ethiopia (DBE) has suspended pledging loans for commercial farms, according to the Gambella Agricultural Investors’ Cooperative. The Cooperative is claiming that the Bank has frozen the approval of 200 million Br of working capital for member investors. They have submitted their grievances to the Office of the Prime Minister, and are awaiting a response for their claim.