Letter from Gambella — From the July 2014 issue

The Man Who Stole the Nile

An Ethiopian billionaire’s outrageous land grab

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His article “The Food Bubble” appeared in the July 2010 issue.

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  • Eckart Woertz

    The central claim of the article that Al Amoudi exported a million tons of rice out of Ethiopia is bogus. Unfortunately another sensationalist piece that does a disservice to a more sober and credible discussion about land grabs. For some context and numbers see http://oilforfood.info/?p=652 .

  • Kaddis

    Abay is the name of the Nile in Ethiopia. The word comes from Abat, meaning father in Amharic which tries to show Nile is the father of all other rivers ..Not betrayal as the writer says. Its the most biased article I struggled to finish. I wish they have exported rice but not yet. Investment in Agriculture is what Africa needs and I am glad your negative campaign is falling miserably.

  • T. Alem

    My Observations on Frederick Kaufman’s Recent Piece in Harper’s Magazine

    Where does one begin? In style, this piece written by one Frederick Kaufman for publication in Harper’s Magazine and reproduced on several Ethiopian news websites, comes across as a journal that might have been kept by a commander of one of Her Majesty’s expeditions to some fly infested tropical hell hole in a bygone era. He presents the locals as stuffy bumbling idiots who, in spite of their best
    efforts, could not stop his mission to locate and expose a sinister plan which
    might bring an end to the way of life of the free world. As if the poverty of the land needs any embellishment, he paints the capital as a city of a million shacks and a grand hotel where all of the spies, gun runners and the wives of the diplomatic corps hang out to drink and copulate with each other and with the local hookers. Indiana Jones would feel at home in the setting he depicts.

    For a magazine article, the piece is rather long. The verifiable and substantive elements in this piece could easily fit into a single paragraph. “A Saudi-Ethiopian billionaire is developing a large rice plantation in Ethiopia with the grain destined for export to Saudi Arabia even though Ethiopia is still food insecure. Given the huge
    water requirements of rice paddies, Saudi Arabia’s demand for rice threatens the
    flow of the Nile to Egypt more than any dam the Ethiopian government might
    build”. This could have and should have been the end of the story. Instead,
    the author takes up seven long magazine pages to tell us how he outwitted the
    best efforts of Ethiopian government officials and Saudi Star farm managers and
    engineers and managed to discover in the heart of the dark continent the evil
    designs of a billionaire sheik who has co-opted or hoodwinked the government of
    Ethiopia into endorsing his evil scheme.

    By his own admission, everyone in authority whom he had an occasion to meet admonished him to be a good journalist, with one telling him “Write what you see, don’t write what you feel” and another asking him to “Inform the public correctly”. He might have confused the peculiarities of Ethiopian communication styles for obstruction and obfuscation. Otherwise, no one he writes about in this story appears to be trying to hide anything. He tells us an official of Saudi Star offered him a ride on a flight to the farm site. They then left him and his fixer to poke around the plantation by themselves, with ample opportunities to speak and socialize with unhappy foreign workers at the farm.

    Except for his sense of entitlement, he should have recognized that they could have left him in Addis to his own devices: for him to find his own way to Gambella on a 3 day bus ride, to arrange for his own accommodations in the wild, perhaps to pitch a
    tent in the bush and go behind a big tree when nature calls. Instead, they provided him not just a plane ride, but a comfortable place to stay and Asian curry any good colonial would appreciate. But this man mistook Ethiopian courtesy for an imagined deferential treatment of an European by African natives and believed all of their hospitality to be the result of his persistence, his persona or his stature.

    Had he read some background material, he would have come across of one of the many reports of journalists, foreign and Ethiopian, who have gotten in trouble with the law for pocking around for stories the government would rather they do not. Nearly half a dozen foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country when the government did not like where or what they were sniffing about. A few of them
    have even spent time in Kality prison. In spite of his effort to make his time in Addis sound like the work of James Bond, my sense is that folks in Addis quickly figured out that Mr. Kaufman is a clueless and harmless hack who could be left alone. So, they allowed him to tag along when they went to Gambella.

    His piece actually proves them to be right. If the government or Saudi Star had something to hide, Kaufman did not find it. The essence of his article and the elements which might be considered sensitive by some, are those which I summarized in the two sentences parenthesis above. And these facts have been known to the public for years. He spent a few days drinking good beer and enjoying the soul stirring lights of the African savanna. What he reported at the end of his excursion told us nothing new. I suspect that Harper’s editors published the piece more for its entertainment value than for any insight into any environmental, geopolitical or economic issues.

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