The Man Who Stole the NilePublished Posted on | By TZTA News
Forget about diamond heists, bank robberies, and drilling into the golden intestines of fort Knox. In this precarious world-historic moment, food has become the most valuable asset of them all – and a billionaire from Ethiopia named Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi is getting his hands on as much of it as possible, flying it over the heads of his starving countrymen, and selling the treasure to Saudi Arabia. Last year, Al Amoudi, whom most Ethiopians call the Sheikh, exported a million tons of rice, about seventy pounds for every Saudi citizen.
The scene of the great grain robbery was Gambella, a bog the size of Belgium in Ethiopia’s southwest whose rivers feed the Nile.
I wanted to get to Gambella to see the Sheikh’s plan in action. A friend of mine at the State Department suggested I contact a fixer she knew once I got to Addis Ababa. When I met Aman on my second morning there, he looked the part—blue jeans, black button-down, pin-striped jacket, dark glasses. (He asked that I not use his real name for fear of retaliation by Al Amoudi.)
The backstory was good, too: Aman had been raised a devout Muslim but had grown out of religion. Now he was a writer, an editor, and an entrepreneur; his résumé included a year at an English-language business weekly, where he had been schooled in the ways of Ethiopian banking, manufacturing, and real estate. Plus, he knew Fikru Desalegn.
Fikru, explained Aman, ran the Sheikh’s rice operation in Gambella, otherwise known as Saudi Star farm.Fikru could get us onto the farm. Where, I asked, could we find Fikru? “He’s in town,” said Aman. We were speeding past Meskel Square in his black subcompact, cutting between the mule carts, charcoal sellers, and groups of beggars. I figured we were heading straight to Fikru’s office for an interview, but Aman pulled into the muddy parking lot of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture, a six-story concrete relic of the country’s sixteen years of communist rule, which ended in 1991. We walked up the ministry’s marble stairs to the fourth floor, home of the Agricultural Investment Support Directorate. Aman had made an appointment to discuss Sheikh Al Amoudi with the bureau’s director, Esayas Kebede, but after announcing our presence in Amharic he reported back in English that unfortunately Esayas Kebede was in a meeting somewhere else.
As we waited, I read a pamphlet, Ethiopia: The Gifted Land of Agricultural Investment. The government owns all the land in Ethiopia. They cannot sell it, but they can lease as much of it as they want. By leasing to the Sheikh, the directorate had given Al Amoudi’s food grab the federal stamp of approval. Though the terms of the deal have never been released, the annual price per hectare has been estimated at no more than seven dollars. In Zambia, by comparison, the average hectare leases for about $1,250 a year.
The sun was low in the sky when Esayas arrived, and without looking up from his BlackBerry he led us into a small conference room. I wanted to ask him why the bureau had given the Sheikh preferential treatment, figuring he would reveal a few things I could use when I talked to Fikru. But before I could begin, Esayas launched into a speech. Agriculture accounted for 42 percent of Ethiopia’s GDP, he said. More than four out of five people work the land, and Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan, introduced in 2009, had laid out a five-year strategy for the country’s farmers.