"Isn't This My Soil?" Land, State and 'Development' in Somali Ethiopia

Conventional development discourse generally does not incorporate a historical perspective, instead it uses a project, or at best, program-oriented approach. In contrast, a historical and openly political framework is present in the Somali Ethiopian village of Hurso. Land, or the lack of it, was the central issue of Hurso testimonials about the life of grinding poverty that I collected in 1996 and in 1998. The absence of any sustainable means of production is considered the core problem, leading to hunger, disease, lack of social cohesion and cooperation, and both individual and collective demoralization. However, while the problems attributed to lack of land are immediate, their origin and resolution are historical and political. `Development' emerges as an important pragmatic and rhetorical strategy in this community's struggle for survival. Underlying their appeals for development and development assistance, is the memory of their dispossession and an unresolved claim for justice -- for land.

Hurso, in eastern Ethiopia, is home to about 5,000 Somali of the Gurgura clan, formerly fruit farmers and agropastoralists. Hurso's lands were seized by the Derg, the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991 in the aftermath of the 1977-78 Ogaden War. In this war, Somalia unsuccessfully attempted to annex the ethnically Somali lands of Ethiopia. These lands consisted of the semi-arid Ogaden, the rich pastures of the Haud, and other lowlands off the eastern edge of the Ethiopian highlands.

Hurso is now known (if it is known at all), as the site of a large military training center of the newly refederated Ethiopia. It is remembered by its inhabitants as an almost heavenly place of permanent water, good grazing, and bountiful orchards. Today, it is a desolate stop on the railway from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, where people eke out an existence gathering and selling firewood (considered one step above begging), running tiny shops and teahouses, and selling meager amounts of onions, potatoes, and bananas. According to one elder:

"Hurso was a big village, with many, many kinds of fruit -- lemons, oranges, papayas, mangos. We have a proverb: `Hurso-the Rome of the Gurgura.' Today the people are returnees and refugees. Women sell firewood. The life of the children is so hard. I was born here and lived 25 years before I left here. Today I see only empty land."

The story of the peoples' flight and return was told by men, women, elders, as well as youth who had been infants at the time. Most villagers fled into the surrounding country side during the Ogaden War and then returned to their lands. In the aftermath of the war, the Ethiopian government decided to expand the military base near the village and began to expropriate farmlands. Some families were offered compensatory lands in Sodere, hundreds of kilometers away, but the majority refused to leave. One day, the military arrived and surrounded the villagers. They were told to evacuate within 12 hours. Bulldozers arrived and destroyed homes and shops. People fled, some to Djibouti, others to Somalia, depending on their contacts and available transportation at crossroads towns. A few stayed in the area and lived in the scrub forest or stayed with pastoralist kin. These individuals would return to their lands and attempt to farm them. They were repeatedly beaten until, according to the villagers, the army concluded these individuals were mad and harmless. A few families were allowed to stay to service the military base and the train that stops in the village; these faced very strict controls on travel, visiting, and other activities between 1979 and 1991. The majority fled to Djibouti, where they stayed in UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) camps.

Beginning in 1986, there was increasing pressure from the Djibouti government for Ethiopian refugees to leave the country, or at least the camps, as food aid from overseas had decreased dramatically. Some Hurso residents returned to Ethiopia in 1988, but the majority stayed in Djibouti, either in the capital, Djiboutiville, or in the border area with Ethiopia. When the Derg fell in 1991, they hoped the lands would be returned. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, including some Hurso residents, stayed in Djibouti until a final repatriation program was completed in 1996.

With the fall of the Derg in 1991 came promises from the new government under the leadership of the the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), that farmlands would be restored and most of the refugees returned. To this day, the population is still waiting, negotiating, and trying to survive. The main sources of income are gathering and selling firewood, petty trade, and portering bundles of goods for traders who board the train at Hurso. A wood-seller spends one day collecting and carrying firewood, which he or she can sell the next day for about 5 birr -- less than US$1; a day laborer can earn 7 birr per day; and women selling tiny amounts of vegetables in the marketplace earn about 5 birr per day. In comparison, the one way fare to Dire Dawa, on a decrepit pickup truck which carries 24 passengers at a time, is 7 birr. Most people eat one or two meals a day and chronic malnutrition is endemic. During the rainy season, epidemics of malaria regularly break out and the health workers at the clinic do their best to manage in the face of sporadic delivery of medication and long periods without receiving their government-paid salaries.

The military base itself is critical to the village's survival; it is the main source of demand for the shops. Behind the clinic is a string of huts, separate from the rest of the village. These are the brothels -- home and workplace to about 50 women frequented by the soldiers at the base. These women need to eat and cook and they buy a significant proportion of the food and firewood that Hurso residents try to sell.

Claiming Rights to Land, Claiming a Human Life

According to Gurgura tradition, firm claims to farming lands can be established on two grounds: traditional use over several generations and cultivation by individuals or lineages. This method of claiming land corresponds to the Somali, whose traditional use of lands for grazing and as a source of water are the two main sources of legitimate claims to territory. The lands around the village of Hurso are claimed by the Gurgura on several grounds: traditional use over at least seven generations, grants by various Ethiopian and Italian governments, military conquest, and extensive planting of mango, citrus, papaya, and other fruit orchards. The farms were held by families, although the individual whose name is mentioned as `owner' of the larger farms or gardens, are trustees of land considered to be available for the subsistence purposes of extended families or entire lineages.

People speak of the land as if they still own it; "This is Ahmed's garden;" "This is Amina's garden." Although the lands were taken almost 20 years ago, the community is still intensely loyal and passionate about them. People cling to the lands both because they are good, fertile lands, and because they still consider them to be their lands. Until there is an option for creating ties to other lands or other livelihoods, both identity as well as survival are associated to them. I asked dozens of people why they had returned to Hurso. People patiently told me that the government had changed and they were promised the lands would be returned; there was no longer a way to make a living in Djibouti and lands surrounding Hurso could not support a significantly larger population -- the land looks empty, but is in fact, full to its carrying capacity. Also, the original owners of the lands near Sodere (where some Hurso residents had been resettled) had returned after the fall of the Derg and had thrown out the resettled Hurso families. One man was less patient:

Q: "Why did you return to Hurso?"

A: "What do you mean? Isn't this my soil?"

Survival, Development, Identity, and State

The relationships among and between community members, government, military, and the workers hired by the military to guard the expropriated lands are complex. Resentment against the military base and the workers was minimal; the community's anger is directed not at the soldiers, but at the government. Some Gurgura men from the village itself, former members of the Gurgura Liberation Front, were also being trained at the base. The men guarding the farmlands chewed a mild stimulant, chat, (also an appetite or hunger suppressant) to maintain cordial relationships with the villagers in case of an eventual return of farmlands.

Responsibility for the initial dispossession and current poverty is placed on the government and the Ministry of Defense -- believed to be holding on to the lands out of greed -- both for revenue, (which a local member of the federal parliament estimated at US$3-4 million per year), and simply possession. However, the district and regional governments shared some of the blame because it was felt they mishandled the negotiations for their return. Two trips to Addis by Hurso elders exhausted funds that could have been used for direct negotiation by the community Future progress depended on action by district, regional, and federal officials.

Relationships between Somali Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state are ambivalent -- clearly illustrated in Hurso. The history of relations between Somalis and the Ethiopian state is long and generally negative from both the Somali and Ethiopian perspective. The current Hurso situation is clearly the result of acts by the Ethiopian state against a predominantly Somali population. In the newly refederated Ethiopia, however, Somalis now speak and go to school in Somali, have their own regional government (albeit corrupt and inefficient, in the view of many), and are for the first time, potentially equal to other Ethiopians as citizens. Many of my Somali interlocutors were cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for Somalis in the new Ethiopia.

Loyalty and identity, however, were invested in the clan, land, and Somali ethnicity. What becomes clear through examining the history of land claims in Hurso is that the state is not seen as an oppressive and unitary force, but rather as a feature of the environment, currently a powerful actor with a tendency to swallow all other players, but with whom it is possible to make certain tactical alliances. In Hurso and elsewhere among both men and women, national politics are now seen as crucial to development and survival.

Currently, both necessity and the tentative opening of the Ethiopian state to regional autonomy and full participation by all citizens lead Hurso and other Somali Ethiopian communities to conclude that the potential benefits are worth the risk of aligning themselves with the state. Nevertheless, it is always better to keep as many options open as possible. `Development' puts the state's role into a broader framework, where it is often the de facto final arbiter, but where the poor also have other potential advocates.

In 1998, a UNICEF-funded water project was working well, a new district government was in place, and other ties to the state and regional economy gave Hurso more power to press their claims for survival and restitution. International relief assistance where the refugee relief system is the dominant organizing institution, is no longer the only tie between the community and the rest of the world. However, the channels of communication represented by both humanitarian aid and development must be kept open, in part as a check on the abuse of power by the state.

In his 1994 book, The Anti-Politics Machine, James Ferguson documents how the depoliticizing discourse and practice of development facilitates the encroachment of the state and its bureaucracy into more places and dimensions of life. For example, even though most development projects are deliberately apolitical, building a school, clinic, or agricultural extension office also brings employees who are ultimately responsible, not to the community nor to the donors, but to the government. The interests of the government are fundamentally, political.

In Hurso, this same encroachment is visible, but the current and former residents of Hurso see this encroachment in historical, political, and pragmatic terms. My criticisms of development were greeted with impatient dismissal: "yes there is plenty of corruption, abuse, and ineptitude of which we are well aware, but we want schools, clinics, and a water supply" Villagers openly admitted that they no longer had the skills -- or more importantly -- the desire to live off the land. Development was now integral to their notion of what constitutes a decent, human life. Contrary to the general findings of post-development critics, they did not want less development, but more; not less integration into the state, but more.

Their reasons for wanting more links to the state are pragmatic. In interviews about the larger context of Somali-Ethiopia relations, respondents stressed the importance of the clause in the new constitution permitting secession as a last resort. In the current circumstances, both union with Somalia and outright independence seem decidedly inferior to active participation in the Ethiopian state which offers at least the possibility of political power and economic advancement, while safeguarding Somali autonomy should the situation become unacceptable. However, as the changing Hurso discourse on basic human needs demonstrates, it may not be easy to opt out of new ways of thinking about identity, survival, and what constitutes a human life.

Concretely, development in Hurso means both economic independence, (ideally, by acquiring farmlands), and a combination of standard development and relief programs that address health care, water supply, education, childcare, and nutrition problems. Criticisms of these same programs were sharp. For example, Halcho, a community where 58 of the poorest families were resettled, needed extensive and expensive irrigation systems that involved drilling deep wells. But in the meantime, what were the farmers supposed to eat? Women involved in a revolving funds program stated that while it was a great idea, there were a number of basic problems: the market was already saturated with petty traders in milk and vegetables and there was no accessible market for other goods at the moment. Cash, especially this small a sum, was problematic because in Hurso, there is tremendous social pressure against refusing outright requests for financial assistance. If it were known that you had received 500 birr, then relatives and neighbors would approach you to repay small loans they had made to you, or to `lend' them money to take a sick child to the hospital; the money would soon be gone. The best development program of all would be to allocate land, making survival possible with fewer direct ties to the state or to development agencies. Nevertheless, promises of development programs -- health care, clean water, and education -- are likely to remain important for this community, even if the lands are returned.

Ultimately, development in Hurso means a sustainable and decent livelihood, and unfortunately the state's involvement is also essential for this to occur. To achieve a decent, human life or nolol adaaminiimo, it is necessary to have avenues through which to press claims -- for justice, restitution, and short term assistance. Hence local, regional, national, and international politics, and telling the story of dispossession and its implied remedy, restitution, have become very important. Development was also a rhetorical strategy to possibly diversify the range of groups and individuals on whom one could make justice, compassion, or rights-based claims.

Story telling and history are valued for their own sake among Somali, so it was generally easy for me to talk to people. However, given what 1 knew about the political importance of story telling, poetry, and history in Somali societies, it was clear that I was meant to hear these stories with a view to action.

"The owner must fight for his property."

-Muusa Omar's gabay (poem)

"I am asking you -- what are you going to do for us?"

-Ali Yusuf's testimony

"The main point is to help each other. To talk is fine, but let's get to the main point. You see our problems with your own eyes, as an eyewitness -- they don't need much explanation."

-Haawa Omar's testimony

History, politics, development, and the state are key elements in this community's story of dispossession, poverty, and living an inhuman life. However, although the state is accorded a certain legitimacy and even respect as a worthy opponent, it should not be confused with the loyalty and sense of belonging that was built by using the land and maintained through the story of dispossession. Human life, a decent life, is not only a matter of calories and clean water, human life implies justice, beauty, and belonging. Aasha, the midwife, summarizes their passion towards the land, and the bitterness, sadness, and contempt that characterize the Hurso view of the state: "They are not careful of the land. It becomes hyenas' houses." This suggests a love relationship with the land, and hence an imperative to tend it and care for it. "Hyena's houses" suggests barren land, wasteland, even a rubbish heap, in implied contrast to the beautiful, fertile, beloved land that it was.

The story of Hurso, then, is a love story as well as a story of injustice. The Hurso Somali were ejected from their land during the war. They returned as refugees, their lands still in the hands of the Ministry of Defense. They survive, but are far from what they consider to be a decent, human life. Development projects and development rhetoric are important ways of coping, but the fundamental problem, in their eyes, is not a question of charity, but of simple justice.

"I am 45 years old. I was born in Turkaylo, near Hurso village. I had farmland in Hurso before 1977. After the Derg took my farmland I went to Serkama. Hurso! Before the Derg, there was no place better than Hurso. Anybody who knows how it was before will be in wareer [mad with worry and distress] when he sees it now. And still now I think it is the Derg or those who remained from the Derg government who are eating our gardens. Now my morale is not good, because still my properties are in the hands of the enemy. I think Hurso seems as if it is getting some air, but unfortunately the Derg remainders are still present. Hurso people need to get a balanced life, nolol adaaminiimo -- food, health, education and so on. And to get their farmlands. I think if the government wants to develop Hurso's life, they have to give back their farms. I wish to add: you asked me many things and I am asking you, what are you going to do for us?"

-Ali Yusuf


Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lewis, I.M 1961. A Pastoral Democracy. London: Oxford University Press.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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