In his annual conference with the Ethiopian youth, brought from all over the country, in 2007, the late Meles Zenawi was asked why his government does not resettle landless youth from land-scare regions to those with vast unused farming lands, such as Gambella.
Meles replied that his government decided to undertake resettlements within a region; until such time that "the scar that forced settlements of the previous regime left on the indigenous community heals". He was referring to the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people in the south and peripheral parts of the nation by the Dergue regime which was widely perceived as a political project to accelerate assimilation and to weaken the demands for cultural autonomy.
Shortly, after that conference, however, Meles' government launched a massive commercial farming drive by leasing hundreds of thousands of hectares of land for domestic and foreign investors. Naturally, the primary destinations of investors are those same areas that could have been selected for resettlement.
The process, often labeled "land grab", stirred debate across the political spectrum and remain to be so. Part of the objection came from confusing land leases as land sells or from an idealist ideological position of "preserving the natural order of life".
Others revolved around more relevant points, such as: whether the livelihood of local people is harmed by the leasing process; whether the terms of the land lease contract are sufficient; and whether there is reliable institutional capacity to supervise irresponsible investors.
What is conspicuously missing from the public discussion on the matter is the huge labor movement that the commercial farms entail. If a quarter of the four million hectares of land that the government earmarked for this purpose is developed, it will attract hundreds of thousands of people - daily laborers and their dependents. The majority will have to come from other regions as the areas are sparsely populated and the indigenous communities are either pastoralists or are not used to being salaried employees.
Such mass movement will dramatically alter the demographic structure of the localities and thereby accelerate the assimilation process. This could threaten their numerical superiority - the very reason the indigenous elites are opposed to resettlement.
After all, Ethiopia's multinational federalism follows the territorial autonomy approach, i.e., an ethnic group enjoys self-governance where it resides in a geographically well-defined territory and constitutes the majority there. The commercial farming drive is likely to affect this, especially in regions with a population of few hundred thousands - a large segment of which is non-indigenous already.
Eventually, at least for now, there is no public discussion on the issue. Western activists critical of the land leasing process reflect on the matter either from the perspective of individual rights or from that of the preservation of "cultural way of life". None of it comes from its likely impact on political autonomy.
The Ethiopian political right is not supposed to be occupied with the demographic change as it is not yet convinced of the wisdom of the whole federalism project and its multinational character. Opposition politicians from these regions apparently chose to keep the public discourse in synchronization with the better-organized right wing camp and the Western activists by confining their rhetoric to procedural issues of the resettlement process that the government claims is unrelated to the land leasing process.
Of course, the regional officials are not carefree on the eventual demographic change. But the current and prospective revenue from the leased lands is lucrative and it has the promise of improving their balance sheets which highly relies on federal subsidy. Being the destination of foreign and local investment, as well as source of foreign currency, improves their standing in the national politics, in addition to other benefits.
What about the influx of laborers that would affect the composition of their constituency, thereby, undermining their electoral prospects?
For some reason, the prevailing tendency among the political elite of these regions is not that such laborers will "take away" the region because they do not own land, nor do their parents. They will stay as guest workers or immigrants with a working permit, without any claim to the region.
The root of this perception could be the lingering feudal mindset that attaches high value to land ownership, regardless of its utility. It could also be attributed to the way boundaries were demarcated in the federal system, which followed the settlement patterns of rural areas, no matter how different the urban demography in that same locality is.
But, obviously, the majority of the laborers are likely to live long enough to acquire the right to vote and to run for local offices, which requires residing two years and five years, respectively. Of course, they also need to know the working language of the local government. But that is not difficult. At any rate, what matters is that they can sway election outcomes.
There is a catch, however.
The EPRDF is the dominant party and likely to remain so for the years to come. This means that its choice of candidates, by default, determines the composition of local administrations and their representatives in the federal government.
There is a consensus among EPRDF's member parties and its partners governing the different regions that candidates should be drawn from the party representing the indigenous community. The trend influences even opposition parties, as fielding a non-indigenous candidate could affect their image.
But this de facto arrangement is not immune to sudden changes based on political opportunism. Thus, it has limited prospect of convincing the indigenous political elites to leave their political concerns aside and focus on the economic prospects of mass labor movement.
This is not an insurmountable dilemma, nor will it necessitates much deviation from the current constitutional principles.
Yet, the discussion should begin now, before the facts on the ground change, to eventually sway the acceptable arrangements towards a win-lose sentiment.
Daniel Berhane He Can Be Reached At Danielberhane.firstname.lastname@example.org