African Peacebuilding Network: Can you begin by telling us about yourself and your research prior to receiving your APN grant?

Fana Gebresenbet: I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I completed my first degree in plant sciences at Haramaya University in 2003 and my master’s degree in physical land resources at Ghent University (Belgium) in 2008. I then went on to work for the Africa Program of the United Nations University for Peace for three years, mainly as a research assistant for a project focusing on the contribution of climate and environmental change to the conflict in Darfur. After that, I joined the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) of Addis Ababa University in 2012. Between October 2012 and July 2016, I studied for my PhD, and defended my doctoral dissertation on the political economy of land investments—usually called “land grabbing”—based on a case study of Gambella in Ethiopia. Recently, I have been focusing more on the political economy of development in Ethiopia, specifically in the pastoral peripheries or the fringe territories of Gambella and the Lower Omo Valley.

APN: You are a 2017 APN Individual Research Grant recipient. Could you tell us about your project and give us a brief snapshot of your experience doing research in the field?

Fana: My research focuses on the Ethiopian developmental state and the dynamics it has created in the Lower Omo Valley. The case I am looking into relates to the construction of dams, mainly the Gibe III Dam, which became operational in 2016, as well as another flagship project of the developmental state: the sugar plantations in the Lower Omo Valley. So I’m mainly studying the impact of these on the local community in the Lower Omo Valley in Salamaga District. In the literature and discourse, there is this argument that pastoral conflicts are products of poverty, and state-building and development will be the panacea for reducing conflict and building peace. But what we see in the Lower Omo Valley is development—if we can call it that—coming at a huge price of increasing insecurity and conflict as a result of which many lives are being lost.

To start with, the communities were not genuinely consulted about these state projects, they were simply told that the land will be taken and resources will be put into sugarcane plantations and were pushed to agree to government resource demands. There have been many deadly car accidents in the areas around the plantations involving speeding trucks. These are interpreted by the local community as intentional killings of children and cattle by the government or truck drivers rather than as accidents, which leads to revenge killings of labor migrants from the highland parts of Ethiopia. There is also demographic anxiety; the ethnic groups in the district number less than 10,000 according to the 2007 census—by now the population should be about 13,000 to 15,000. The incoming labor force is already huge; at least 30,000-40,000 new laborers have arrived in their district. So they feel dominated by the settlers (“outsiders”). All this contributes to a feeling of insecurity among indigenes, which is also material in the sense of alienation from the land, market pressures, and the stronger presence of the coercive apparatus of the state—the police and military. Rather than development or state-making/state-building contributing to peace, we see it leading to the deterioration of the peaceful coexistence of the local community and countering the state’s stated objective of building peace.

APN: You frequently speak about “developmentalism.” What exactly do you mean by “developmental state”?

Fana: In Ethiopia, the current government, led by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, came to power in 1991. At that time, the grand project was to build a federal state. So they federated the country along ethnolinguistic lines into nine regional states and promoted the recognition of ethnicity, culture, and language as the main project of the state. Following the end of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in 2001, the government became more inclined toward promoting development. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi claimed that the root of Ethiopia’s problems was poverty and the solution would be development. In 2001, this was captured in Ethiopia’s foreign policy and national security documents Ethiopia which indicated that Ethiopia’s greatest national security threat was poverty—an internal threat—which had to be eradicated by building a developmental state. This would involve actively trying to build a state-guided economy.

Particularly after the hotly contested elections of 2005, the government embarked on mega developmental projects. Some of these mega-projects were sugar plantations. Others included the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and railway projects. After the 2005 elections, the government became more engaged in the economic sector; large state-owned enterprises and state-corporations invested in the economic sector, including hydroelectric power, generating dams such as Gibe III. As of 2010, the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation was working on the establishment of eleven new sugar factories with plantations. About a third of the factories and plantation acreage are located in the Lower Omo Valley.

I am interested in the politics of development—how these policies are made and what political economies are mainly at play—and how development plans made by the elite from the politically and economically dominant parts of the country conceive of pastoral communities as irrational, unproductive, backward, and traditional.

APN: How do you see your work on the developmental state in conversation with other literature on the subject? You’ve talked about your interest in globalization and this subject also seems to intersect with some of the critiques of neo-liberalism. How are you seeing what’s happening in Ethiopia as part of a bigger picture?

Fana: The Ethiopian government argues that neo-liberalism is a dead-end for Africa and that the new approach should involve building a developmental state. But the problem is that Ethiopia is unlike Korea, Taiwan, and other developmental states that had conducive international economic climates and the support of the US, at least in the form of preferential access to their markets. Their politicians followed the guidance of the professionals and technocratic elites. In a way, their economic systems and public service institutions were meritocratic, which is not the case in Ethiopia where it’s still the “big men” from the liberation struggle who make the major decisions regarding economic planning and development. The impact of this is that positions and promotions are not usually based on merit but rather influenced by neopatrimonial and clientelist considerations.

APN: What has been your experience been with the APN over the past year, particularly, the APN workshops?

Fana: I was very pleased to find out in early May that I would be one of the grantees. To be very frank, I knew at the time of applications that it was very competitive and the chance of receiving a grant was very small. I simply applied to test the waters so I could improve my application and reapply next year.

I found the training workshops to be eye-opening in many respects. I particularly liked the focus on the theoretical and normative underpinnings of the different terms and concepts in the debates about peacebuilding, and the care we as Africans have to take when using particular lines of argument, as well as the positionality we have to advance in terms of promoting welfare and knowledge at the grassroots level.

Another benefit is the exchanges with grantees from different parts of Africa. For example, I am focusing on center-periphery relations, pastoral conflicts, and state-society relations and I would say that at least thirty to forty percent of grantees are working on more or less similar themes. For example, Tamer Abd Elkreem is working on a similar case in Sudan; Mary Setrana and Patience Adzande are working on similar cases in Ghana and Nigeria respectively, and so is Noah Echa Attah. This helps you understand the similar dynamics being studied in different socio-political contexts across Africa’s regions. We have already started talking about how to collaborate in the future.

I also feel that as Ethiopians, and as Africans generally, we are mainly concerned with cases within our own countries. Even when we go beyond our country of origin we mainly stick to our immediate region. As an Ethiopian, my research mainly focuses on cases in Ethiopia or the Horn of Africa but I wouldn’t know much about West Africa beyond what I see on the news. But this experience is giving me a deeper understanding of politics, state-society relations, conflict, and peacebuilding dynamics in all parts of the continent.

Finally, what advice would you offer to people who are applying for APN grants in terms of writing a strong proposal and making the best of your time in the field?

I would definitely advise taking time in writing the proposal and highlighting the major contributions that the proposed study will make. Also, do not waste the limited space on unimportant matters but rather focus specifically on why your project is important and situate it in the broader literature. You should work toward making it something relevant not only for Africans or your country or region alone but rather to a global audience. Engage the established Western scholars as well.

What outputs are you working toward with this project? What are you hoping to publish as a result of the data you’ve collected?

My APN-funded research built on my previous field research experience in the area. I plan to present it at international conferences and publish the findings as journal article(s) and/or book chapter(s).

Fana Gebresenbet is an assistant professor at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University, where he coordinates the Institute’s PhD program in Peace and Security Studies. In 2017, he was awarded an APN Individual Research Grant. He received his PhD in Global and Area Studies, with special emphasis on peace and security in Africa, from the University of Leipzig and Addis Ababa University. His dissertation was on “The Political Economy of Land Investments: Dispossession, Resistance and Territory-Making in Gambella, Western Ethiopia.” His research interests include resource politics, politics of development, climate security, and pastoralism in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. He has published journal articles and book chapters on these themes. He is a Research Fellow at the Center for African Studies, University of the Free State, South Africa, and was a Southern Voices Scholar at the Wilson Center, Washington, DC in 2014.