- Four million people forced off their land by security forces while their homes and farms are sold to foreign investors
- ‘Mr O’ said by suing British Department for International Development he fights on behalf of Ethiopian people who are being relocated
- Questions raised about British role in atrocities as annual payouts continue
- When he refused to leave his land, he was taken to military barricks and tortured
- Refugee camp over Kenyan border overflowing with Ethiopians is now largest in the world
There are even rich seams of gold running under the verdant fields of fruit and vegetables, panned for centuries by the tribes that lived in the area.
As my bearded companion describes his homeland to me in his deep voice, he whips out his mobile phone to show me pictures that remind me of the more bucolic parts of Britain.
‘We lived in a village alongside the river where you could grow anything – maize, sorghum, lemon, bananas, oranges, pineapple. We were so happy growing up there and living there in our village.’
‘I wish I could take you to see my home,’ he adds. ‘It is so beautiful.’ Instead, this man is stuck in the living hell of the world’s largest refugee camp, forced to abandon his family when he fled in fear over the border to Kenya after vicious beatings and torture.
Yet he was lucky to escape with his life. Friends and relatives from his village of Pinykew and others nearby have been butchered, the women subjected to mass rape by gun-toting soldiers and gangs armed with machetes.
Now he is fighting back on behalf of his Anuak people, instructing lawyers to confront the paymasters of the repressive regime that ripped apart his life. Those paymasters are the British Government.
In a landmark case, he aims to issue proceedings against the Department for International Development (DFID), arguing its money supports a Stalin-style programme of brutal forced relocations driving large numbers of families from their traditional lands.
The London law firm he has instructed to look at launching the case, Leigh Day, says the aid breaches the department’s own human rights policies. In effect, the case challenges the way Britain hands aid to some of the world’s most despotic regimes.
In response, the Government must spend taxpayers’ money defending itself from charges it is destroying the lives of some of the world’s poorest people, rather than helping them.
If it loses, it might have to abandon key aid projects and pay compensation to thousands of exiled Ethiopians. This could cost millions of pounds.
The test case marks the culmination of long-held concerns over Ethiopia. It has become the biggest recipient of British aid, despite being an autocratic one-party state, run in similar style to the old Soviet Bloc countries.
Britain is giving £1.3 billion to Ethiopia over the course of the Coalition, the annual handouts rising by nearly two-thirds between 2010 and 2015 as the DFID struggles to find places to spend its soaring, ring-fenced budget.
Yet this is a regime that shoots street protesters, locks up dissidents and jails more journalists than almost any other country in the world.
The ruling party uses foreign handouts to strengthen its tyrannical grip, giving food and vital farming aid only to supporters, even in regions suffering hardship and hunger.
This is why the friendly man I met insists on only being known as Mr O; he is terrified taking this case could lead to fatal reprisals against his family. ‘I am very angry about this aid,’ he said. ‘Why is the West, especially the UK, giving so much money to the Ethiopian government when it is committing atrocities on my people?
‘The donations have not gone on development but on supporting the government and the army. We would be happy if it really went on development; instead, the very opposite has happened with your money.’
At the centre of the case is Ethiopia’s ‘villagisation’ of four million people in the west and south of the country, areas that have opposed a government dominated by northern Tigrayans. Among them are 225,000 Gambellans, Protestants living in a former British enclave the size of Belgium.
They are being forced from their farms and homes into new villages, just as Stalin did with such disastrous consequences in the Ukraine.
The lucrative land they lived on for generations is being sold off to foreign investors or given to well- connected Ethiopians.
Mr O learned of these plans at the end of 2011 when officials from the ruling party turned up one day in his village and ordered them to move.
‘The government was pretending it was about development, but people refused straight away,’ said Mr O. ‘They just want to push the indigenous people off so they can take our land and the gold.
‘At the meeting I said this could not be allowed to happen. We were under a big mango tree and I said we’d been living under this tree all our lives, working the fields and living along the rivers. Our parents and grandparents were buried nearby.’
The response was instant: he was arrested, taken to a military barracks and tortured for several hours at a time over the next three days.
‘It got to the point where I could not feel the pain, since I had been beaten so much. I thought I would die – indeed, I thought it would be better to die than to suffer like this,’ he said.
Finally he cracked and agreed to move. Only then was he given food and water. After three more days in a police station, he was sent to a new village, which did not have water, food or productive fields, and ordered to build a house.
When work went too slowly for the liking of local militia, he was taken to another army camp and beaten; afterwards, he fled over the border for sanctuary.
There he joined the hundreds of thousands of refugees – mainly Somalians but now joined by several thousand Gambellans and other Ethiopians – at the vast Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest.
His wife and young children remain. ‘I miss my family so much,’ he said. ‘And I don’t want to be relying on handouts in a refugee camp – I want to be productive.’
I heard similar stories from other Gambellans. One blind man said he was beaten in the face after resisting relocation; his sister was raped by soldiers and now has HIV.
A 39-year-old mother told me she and her husband were taking a sick child to hospital when armed soldiers and highlanders from the north confronted them. Her husband was shot dead and she was beaten in the face; the scars were clearly visible.
Officials then told villagers to move. ‘Our first question was about the water but they said move first, then we will supply water pipes. But we had all these rivers in our home village and their new village was six hours’ walk away from water.
‘So we put conditions on the move, saying we would go if you put water pumps in, schools and a health clinic. But the government, despite saying it was all about development, refused the deal.’
Instead, the army and gangs went on the rampage, burning homes and killing people. Three soldiers grabbed her and raped her; one teenage son was abused with an electric prod then taken off to prison. ‘Thankfully he managed to escape,’ she said. ‘After that, we knew the next step was to kill him, so we had to leave quickly.’
Like others I met, her life has been devastated. She is exiled in a camp where the majority of refugees are Somalis and the Islamist terror group al-Shabaab operates, so must wear long clothes and cover her head.
She blames British aid policies for inflaming her misery. ‘If your country wants to help development, stop co-operating with the government that is throwing us off our land.’
Army-led atrocities in the region date back at least a decade, when 400 people were slaughtered in one town and hundreds of homes destroyed.
One village leader was in tears as she told me of seeing her husband shot dead, then being raped by six soldiers and stabbed in the belly with a bayonet. Again, she had scars to verify her story.
Yet Britain gave aid direct to the Ethiopian government until 2005. DFID only stopped after an outcry when nearly 200 people objecting to rigged elections were mown down in Addis Ababa and thousands of opposition activists were jailed.
This happened as former prime minister Meles Zenawi was being entertained by Tony Blair at the GB Gleneagles summit and hailed as an example of good governance.
A few months later, DFID backed a new scheme given the Orwellian title of Protecting Basic Services (PBS), which shifted donations from central government to projects run by regional and local officials.
But this is such a rigid one-party state that in local elections last month the ruling party won all but five of the 3,504,195 seats up for grabs.
The state keeps a firm grip at every level; even foreign diplomats are monitored tightly.
DFID documents reveal that, despite denials of funding forced relocations, British cash pays salaries of officials implementing the programme and for infrastructure in new villages.
As a Christian nation at the heart of the volatile horn of Africa and bordering two unstable Islamic states, Ethiopia is a key Western ally in the war on terror.
It has exploited this to pass anti-terrorism laws that enable it to crush dissent, jail journalists and eliminate free expression through compliant courts – what one exiled dissident described to me as ‘systemic repression by stealth’.
The State Department in Washington is scathing about human rights abuses in Ethiopia. Although the US is a major donor to the country that has become Africa’s biggest aid recipient, it does not give to PBS.
Documents released by WikiLeaks showed its diplomats in Addis Ababa believe direct support is the most vulnerable to ‘politicisation; they also discussed ‘the manipulation of humanitarian assistance for political benefit.’
Zerihun Tesfaye, a leading Ethiopian journalist who fled four years ago after threats forced the closure of his paper, said British-backed projects to aid agriculture were routinely manipulated, with access to seeds and fertiliser used to control villages and crush dissent.
‘The Ethiopian government knows the West, especially Britain, is ready to assist its repression,’ he said.
‘And they play the anti-terror card to get all the money. Sadly, people in the West give money because they have heard these famine stories since their childhood. But the money is not going to the poor – it is going to support a government making things worse in many areas, not better.’
Human Rights Watch issued a series of damning reports highlighting these issues based on scores of detailed interviews, which led the World Bank – another major donor – to launch a formal investigation into its support for PBS.
‘British aid is having an enormous, negative side effect – and that is the forcible ending of these indigenous people’s way of life,’ said Ben Rawlence, Human Rights Watch’s former team leader in the horn of Africa.
‘Yes, the money is going to schools and hospitals – but in places the people do not want to live and in a manner they did not want. Our aid is underwriting repression.’
Despite this growing body of evidence, DFID pledged another £480 million last year to PBS. Just as in Rwanda, it seems so dazzled by rapid economic growth and the desire to find an aid success story that Ministers ignore grotesque human rights abuses.
It made cursory investigations but claims it has been unable to substantiate complaints – although it was told of rapes, beatings, forced evictions and manipulation of aid by nomads forced into new villages.
And one DFID report showed officials were told people did not want to move and admitted promises had not been kept, with poor health provision, inadequate land and ‘limited livelihood options’.
Rosa Curling, the Leigh Day lawyer leading the case, said they were seeking a court declaration DFID was acting unlawfully under its own guidance and policies on human rights.
‘The villagisation programme is not only harmful but it negates exactly what DFID is aiming to do – to encourage the respect of individual human rights and assist good governance,’ she said.
But DFID denies British money is used to force people from their homes and argues its assistance has helped millions in Ethiopia.
‘We condemn all human rights abuses and, where we have evidence, we raise our concerns at the very highest level,’ said a DFID spokesman.
‘To suggest that agencies like DFID should never work on the ground with people whose governments have been accused of human rights abuses would be to deal those people a double blow.’