September 6, 2005

On September 3, Norwegian fertilizer giant Yara International awarded its first-ever African Green Revolution Prize to Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi. To the amazement of many Ethiopians, Yara had identified Meles as being at the vanguard of what it calls “a revolution to end hunger that also empowers people with a voice, and the opportunity to create their own future.”

But this is a disturbingly naïve statement. Indeed, Prime Minister Meles has poured more resources into agricultural development than most African leaders. But as Human Rights Watch has found, the prime minister’s government exploits its control over fertilizer and other vital agricultural inputs to keep the country’s huge rural population under tight political control.

Since Prime Minister Meles came to power 14 years ago, his security forces have imprisoned, tortured and harassed thousands of people who have criticized the government. But in the countryside, such heavy-handed methods are often not necessary. Local officials are able to use their control over much-needed rural development schemes as leverage over the people they govern.

Human Rights Watch traveled to Ethiopia’s vast and overwhelmingly rural Oromia region in March and interviewed dozens of farmers from communities throughout the region. Almost all of them complained that local authorities in their communities punished political dissent by selectively imprisoning critics for unpaid debts and withholding vital agricultural inputs from them.

The Ethiopian government distributes fertilizer on credit to poor farmers throughout the country in an effort to boost their productivity. Many farmers welcome the help, but it comes at a very steep cost. The fertilizer is so expensive that farmers often find it difficult to repay their debts. Local officials routinely throw farmers into prison for days or weeks at a time if they fail to make debt payments. Some farmers told Human Rights Watch how their neighbors were forced to auction off livestock or household goods to get out of prison.

Despite the risks, most farmers buy the government-provided fertilizer in the hope that it will make their tiny plots of land more productive. Farmers who openly criticize the government or its policies often find themselves denounced in public meetings as “troublemakers,” “anti-development” saboteurs or even as members of dangerous “anti-people” organizations. And in many cases the authorities then withhold the much-needed fertilizer from them. In the eyes of many ruling party cadres, such people have no right to expect any kind of agricultural help from the government.

While local authorities often single out farmers who criticize the government by rigorously enforcing their debt repayment obligations, they will allow pro-government farmers to carry their debts over from year to year. In one small town, we met an elderly man who had fled his village several days earlier because he faced imprisonment over an unpaid fertilizer debt of roughly $30. He complained that almost no one in his village had been able to pay off their debt, but that he alone was being punished because he had publicly criticized the village authorities. Other farmers made similar allegations; one man said that, “The men they send to take us to prison have also not paid for their fertilizer.”

Control over fertilizer and agricultural inputs in general have given Meles’s government a remarkably effective tool for quashing dissent in rural Ethiopia. Most of the farmers said that they simply tried to keep quiet at community meetings rather than risk angering the local authorities by expressing their opinions. One man went so far as to say that “even if he comes and says, ‘I will take your wife,’ I might just keep quiet.”

The irony here is obvious. Yara, one of the world’s leading producers of fertilizer and a champion of the participatory ideals of the “green revolution”, is honoring a man for policies the company says “empowers people with a voice.” In reality, Meles’s government does quite the opposite: it uses its own control over fertilizer to discourage and punish dissent in rural communities. One can only hope that next year Yara will be more careful in selecting the person they choose to honor.

Chris Albin-Lackey is the Leonard H. Sandler fellow at Human Rights Watch, where he covers Ethiopia.

More reporting on: