Ethiopia: River Defenders Kidnapped While Mines and Dams Advance

Main road in Awassa
Main road in Awassa
Oliver Benson
It’s been more than a week since anyone has heard from three students kidnapped from the Awassa University campus in southern Ethiopia by government security forces, according to the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA). Whereabouts of the students, Nagga Gezaw, Dhaba Girre, and Jatani Wario, is still unknown. The students were part of a local movement in southern Ethiopia which has called on their government to address river contamination, unpaid compensation and other problems caused by the Lega Dembi open pit gold mine. Several student-led demonstrations in early December brought promises to address the issues, promises now left empty by the extra-judicial kidnappings. (For more info on the demonstrations, see Addis Fortune and Voice of America.)

The gold mine belongs to MIDROC, a company owned by billionaire Mohammed Al Amoudi, believed to be the largest foreign investor in Ethiopia. It is the only industrial gold mine in Ethiopia, though the government has signed dozens of mineral exploration licences and recently approved MIDROC's Sakaro gold mine near Lega Dembi. Gold is Ethiopia’s major mineral, and the government is counting on a six-fold increase in production. MIDROC has reportedly earned $466 million from the Lega Dembi mine since 1998.

According to the HRLHA, the kidnapping is part of a recent wave of arrests and extra-judicial actions against students in southern Ethiopia. It comes on top of other human rights violations related to the government’s use of Ethiopia’s natural resources, and ahead of elections planned for later this year. Elections in 2005 were followed by a wave of arrests and kidnappings of activists. Last year saw two new laws enacted which immobilize local advocates. The new Charities Law criminalizes human rights work by most local organizations while the new Anti-Terrorism Law gives new, unrestrained powers to the government. In July, 42 NGOs were suspended by the government reportedly in response to their connection to a US report on human rights.

We have been following the massive dam-building in Ethiopia, which has also witnessed gvernment retaliation against local voices. The government plans to invest $12 billion in large hydro dams and sell the power to other countries. But Gibe 3 Dam, the largest so far, will devastate the downstream ecosystem which supports half a million people. Last April, community members who were believed to have spoken with the BBC about Gibe 3 were harassed. The government has generated a culture of fear that keeps nearly everyone from disagreeing with official positions on issues of huge consequence.

With communities silenced, the government's agenda moves forward. A high-level Italian delegation is in Ethiopia this week for the official commissioning of the Gilgel Gibe 2 project, a massive hydropower scheme marred by delays and cost overruns. Italy provided €220 million for Gibe 2 despite internal recommendations against funding the project. The controversial decision triggered a criminal investigation in Italy.

Italian construction giant Salini built Gibe 2 and is now building the US$1.55 billion Gibe 3 Dam. Both lucrative contracts were given to Salini without competitive bidding. Ethiopia is hoping that Italy will back Gibe 3 with €250 million, an aid package essentially to pay Salini. Salini began construction of Gibe 3 in 2006 despite the government’s failure to complete project studies or community consultations.

Companies like MIDROC and Salini are clear winners in Ethiopia's hurried push to develop big mines and big dams. Communities are forced to remain silent while they lose their resource base. When the brave few who do speak out disappear, it sends a loud message – and leaves Ethiopian society the poorer.