• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Cruel Ethiopia

epstein_1-051310.jpg
Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Addis Ababa, July 2008

1.

Parts of southern Ethiopia resemble the scenery in a Tarzan movie. When I was there last fall, the green forested hills were blanketed in white mist and rain poured down on the small farms and homesteads. In the towns, slabs of meat hung in the butchers’ shops and donkeys hauled huge sacks of coffee beans, Ethiopia’s major export, along the stony dirt roads. So I was surprised to see the signs of hunger everywhere. There were babies with kwashiorkor, a disease caused by malnutrition, which I’d assumed occurred only in war zones. Many of the older children were clearly stunted and some women were so deficient in iodine they had goiters the size of cannonballs.

This East African nation, famous for its ancient rock-hewn churches, Solomonic emperors, and seemingly intractable poverty, has a long history of famine. But I had always assumed that food shortages were more common in the much drier north of the country than in the relatively fertile south. Although rainfall throughout Ethiopia had been erratic in 2008 and 2009, the stunting and goiter I saw were signs of chronic malnutrition, which had clearly existed for many years.

What was causing it? Ethiopia’s long history of food crises is shrouded in myths and political intrigue. In 1984, famine killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions destitute. At the time, the UN attributed the famine to drought. But most witnesses knew it had far more to do with a military campaign launched by Ethiopia’s then-Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam against a rebel group based in the northern province of Tigray, known as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).1 Government forces isolated the peasantry, destroyed trade and markets, and diverted food aid to their own troops.

Western governments were slow to respond to this humanitarian crisis, but a global charity campaign led by the rock singer Bob Geldof’s Band Aid concerts and albums raised more than $100 million for relief organizations like Christian Aid and Oxfam. Because Tigray was under assault, these organizations established bases in neighboring Sudan. They handed food shipments over to the TPLF, which was supposed to deliver them to starving peasants in Tigray. However, it now appears that the TPLF may also have been using some of the aid to feed its soldiers and purchase weapons. In a March 2010 BBC report, a former TPLF fighter described masquerading as a Sudanese merchant and selling bags of “grain”—many containing only sand—to the aid workers, who then passed the sacks on to other TPLF cadres, who returned them to the “Sudanese traders,” who resold them to the aid workers, and so on. In this way, bags of grain/sand circulated back and forth across the border, as money poured into TPLF coffers. The CIA apparently knew about the scam.2

The TPLF’s political leader at the time is now Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi. Since it ousted Mengistu and took power in 1991, Meles’s government has received some $26 billion in development aid from Western donors including the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the European Union, and Britain’s Department for International Development. Meles, along with Geldof, has vehemently denounced the BBC’s report and demanded a retraction. But many aid workers who were around then have indicated that there is probably some truth to the story.3 Either way, it’s worth asking where Ethiopia’s development aid is going today, bearing in mind the theatrical inclinations of its prime minister.

2.

Shortly before its victory in 1991, the TPLF joined several other groups and changed its name to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Meles was an instant success with Western leaders including President Bill Clinton, who hailed him as a member of a “new breed” of post–cold war Africans who would bring stability and prosperity to their troubled continent. In 2005, Meles was a coauthor with Tony Blair of the report of the British government’s Commission for Africa, entitled Our Common Interest,4 which argued that reducing poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and the spread of AIDS and other diseases would create the foundation for economic growth, political stability, and democratic governance. The report, released amid a huge publicity campaign known as “Make Poverty History” led by the rock star Bono, called for sharply increased levels of foreign aid, which the authors referred to as “the big push.”5

Meles’s Ethiopia is now the subject of an informal experiment to see whether “the big push” approach to African development will work. Its foreign aid receipts, which have tripled since 2000,6 amounted to some $3 billion in 2008, more than any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa.7 A nominally Christian country surrounded by largely Islamic Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya, Ethiopia is also a key Western ally in the “war on terror,” and this is certainly a factor in how much foreign aid it receives—though most of the money goes not to the military but to development programs, especially health, education, and agriculture projects.8 The big push has financed 15,000 village health clinics, seventeen universities, countless schools, and the beginnings of a new road network that will bring trade and services to many previously isolated rural areas.

Unfortunately, this aid is also subsidizing a regime that is rapidly becoming one of the most repressive and dictatorial on the continent. During Ethiopia’s most recent parliamentary elections in May 2005, the government suspended the vote count in some areas when it seemed that the opposition was winning more seats than expected. When the results were eventually announced, Meles’s EPRDF, to no one’s surprise, had won. European Union observers criticized the conduct of the elections, and opposition supporters organized demonstrations that soon turned violent. Security forces shot into the crowds, killing some two hundred people, and thousands of others, including journalists and human rights activists, were arrested. Seventy opposition leaders were charged with treason. Although most were later pardoned, several, including the leader of the opposition party Unity for Democracy and Justice, Birtukan Mideksa, remain behind bars.9

On May 23, Ethiopia will hold its first parliamentary elections since 2005, but the results seem foreordained. Opposition groups have been prevented from opening local offices and some opposition candidates have been assaulted by EPRDF officials or arbitrarily detained by the police.10 The government uses Chinese spy technology to bug phone lines and Internet communications, and countless journalists, editors, judges, academics, and human rights defenders have fled the country or languish behind bars, at risk of torture. New laws passed since 2005 have made political activity more difficult than ever. The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 makes hearsay admissible as evidence in court, and one of Ethiopia’s few remaining independent newspapers recently closed after its editors learned that charges against them were being prepared under the act. Voice of America and other international radio programs are routinely jammed before elections, including this one.11

These events are unfolding as billions of dollars in foreign aid pour into the country. Foreign aid is important. It helps needy people, it creates allies for our causes and markets for our products, and redeems some of the damage inflicted on the third world during the cold war. But aid agencies need to ensure that their programs don’t exacerbate the political problems that are keeping people poor in the first place.

When I asked aid officials why Meles, who seems so committed to poverty alleviation, seems so antagonistic to human rights, most pointed to the nation’s volatile ethnic politics. Ethiopia’s roughly 80 million people are divided among some ninety different groups.

A quarter of the population is Amhara, historically the most powerful tribe, with origins in the northern highlands where traditions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity date back to the fourth century. Closely related are Prime Minister Meles’s Tigray people, who make up about 7 percent of the population and whose grip on power is increasingly resented by others. The largest tribe, comprising some 40 percent of the population, are the Oromo, who traditionally herded livestock in the southern, central, and western regions of the country. Other groups include the Somalis, the Afar camel herders, and the Mursi and other southern pastoralist groups famous for their lip rings and colorful body paint. About half the population is Muslim, but at present, ethnic, not religious, tensions are central to the nation’s politics.

As a Tigrayan, Meles would face challenges from parties aligned with the far more numerous Amhara and Oromo no matter what he did, but his repressive policies have often made things worse. In November 2009, a group of military officers, furious that over 90 percent of Ethiopia’s generals are Tigrayan, were convicted of plotting a coup. Ethnically based rebel groups, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), are engaged in violent antigovernment insurgencies, and dozens of local conflicts have erupted among various tribes and clans in recent years.12 But these problems have often been exacerbated by a government that allows no genuine opposition or even constructive policy debate. The OLF fought alongside the TPLF against Mengistu, and in 1991 it attempted to transform itself into a peaceful political party. But after facing widespread vote-rigging and harassment of their candidates, its leaders soon returned to armed struggle.

As this vicious cycle of repression and rebellion has escalated, Western officials have tended to express a diplomatic sense of optimism that Ethiopia’s political problems will iron themselves out. In 2007, former US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer praised Ethiopia for the “monumental advancement in the political environment” since the bloody 2005 election.13 At the time, the US was backing Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia, on the belief—largely mistaken at that time—that it had become a haven for al-Qaeda terrorists.14

At first, the Europeans threatened to cut off aid until Ethiopia made more progress on human rights, but then reconsidered. The Europeans had their own security and strategic interests in the region, and may have reasoned that without American cooperation, an aid boycott of Ethiopia would have little leverage over Meles’s human rights violations. These were also the days of Our Common Interest, Bono, and “Make Poverty History,” and cutting off aid to one of the poorest countries in the world might have been seen as a bad PR move. However, the Europeans resolved to channel their aid directly to local district authorities, bypassing the central government. This would prevent its use for political purposes, or so it was hoped.

The plan was not a success. As local elections scheduled for 2008 approached, opposition groups, mindful that so much money was now flowing into district coffers, feared widespread rigging. Local government officials earn meager salaries, but are enormously powerful because they control access to food aid programs, fertilizers, educational opportunities, jobs, plots of land, small business loans, and even health care.15 The opposition groups unsuccessfully petitioned the US and other donors to fund independent poll monitors, but when the EPRDF won 99.99 percent of the seats, US officials said they could not comment on the fairness of the elections because they hadn’t monitored them.16

  1. 1

    Alexander de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Indiana University Press, 1997). I wish to acknowledge helpful discussions with John Ryle, Leslie Lefkow, and Ben Rawlence.

  2. 2

    See Martin Plaut, “Assignment: Aid for Arms in Ethiopia,” BBC World Service, March 7, 2010, available at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p006dyn3.

  3. 3

    See Mark Colvin, “Aid Dogfight: Geldof and the BBC in War of Words,” The Drum, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Online, March 17, 2010.

  4. 4

    Available at allafrica.com/sustainable/resources/view/00010595.pdf. See also UNCTAD, “Economic Development in Africa: Doubling Aid: Making the Big Push Work” (United Nations, 2006).

  5. 5

    See Tom Porteous, Britain in Africa (Zed, 2008).

  6. 6

    See Jason McLure, “The Troubled Horn of Africa,” CQ Global Researcher, Vol. 3, No. 6 (June 2009).

  7. 7

    See the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Statistical Annex of the 2010 Development Co-operation Report,” Table 25, December 2009, available at www.oecd.org/dac/stats/dac/dcrannex.

  8. 8

    See OECD, Aid Statistics, Recipient Aid Charts: Ethiopia, available at www.oecd.org/dataoecd/21/7/1880804.gif.

  9. 9

    According to the US government 2009 Human Rights Report, we don’t know how many political prisoners there are in Ethiopia. See www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/af/135953.htm.

  10. 10

    See Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia,” March 24, 2010.

  11. 11

    See “Ethiopia Admits Jamming VOA Radio Broadcasts in Amharic,” BBC News, March 19, 2010.

  12. 12

    See Jon Abbink, “Ethnicity and Conflict Generation in Ethiopia: Some Problems and Prospects of Ethno-Regional Federalism,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3 (September 2006).

  13. 13

    Testimony by Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Jendeyi E. Frazer, “Ethiopia and the State of Democracy: Effects on Human Rights and Humanitarian Conditions in the Ogaden and Somalia.” House Committee on Foreign Affairs Africa and Global Health Subcommittee Hearing, Rayburn House Office Building 2172. October 2, 2007.

  14. 14

    See Bronwyn Bruton, “In the Quicksands of Somalia—Where Doing Less Helps More,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2009). The 2006 US/Ethiopian invasion of Somalia was extremely brutal (see Ethiopia’s Dirty War, Human Rights Watch, August 4, 2007). This helped radicalize the Somali population, and provided an opening for Middle Eastern jihadis to increase funding for the militant al-Shabab group that had previously been marginal in Somali politics, but would soon control much of the country.

  15. 15

    See Sarah Vaughan and Kjetil Tronvoll, The Culture of Power in Contemporary Ethiopian Political Life (Stockholm: SIDA Studies, No. 10, 2003).

  16. 16

    See Lovise Aalen and Kjetil Tronvoll, “The 2008 Ethiopian Local Elections: The Return of Electoral Authoritarianism,” African Affairs, Vol. 108, No. 430 (January 2009), pp. 111–120.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print