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Cruel Ethiopia

Mike King

Scholars and human rights groups had for years been alerting the international community to the fact that EPRDF officials frequently deny the benefits of foreign aid programs—food, fertilizers, training, and so on—to known opposition supporters.17 When I asked World Bank officials whether they were concerned about these allegations, they said that they’d heard a few anecdotal reports, but had yet to see convincing evidence that political diversion of resources was a systematic problem in their programs.

No doubt conducting a systematic survey would be difficult. A Human Rights Watch researcher was deported last November while attempting to investigate the politicization of a World Bank food aid program, and a journalist who tried to follow up the investigation was arrested and jailed for two days.18 In December 2009, the Western press began publicizing these stories, and the donors finally agreed to conduct a study of the “distortions” in the uses of aid in Ethiopia. However, this investigation will be overseen by the government.

For years, Ethiopia’s foreign donors supported a fledgling human rights community that provided voter education, documented political repression, and advocated for the rights of rape victims, abused children, the blind, deaf, and other vulnerable groups. In response to increasing criticism from some of these groups, the government recently enacted a Charities and Societies (CSO) law, forbidding them from receiving all but minimal funding from non-Ethiopian sources. Since few Ethiopians can afford to donate to charity, numerous human rights programs have shut down. The donor agency officials who once supported these programs have protested in internal reports and private meetings with the prime minister, but their public pronouncements have been conciliatory. On the day the EU announced a new €250 million aid package for Ethiopia, it expressed the hope that the CSO law would be “implemented in an open-minded and constructive spirit.”19


Western aid officials seem reluctant to admit that there are two Prime Minister Meles Zenawis. One is a clubbable, charming African who gives moving speeches at Davos and other elite forums about fighting poverty and terrorism. The other is a dictator whose totalitarianism dates back to cold war days. During the early 1970s, when Meles was a medical student in Addis Ababa, he joined a Marxist study group that eventually became the TPLF. Meles’s military performance was undistinguished, but he had a talent for speech-making, and was appointed head of the TPLF’s political wing. In the training courses he ran for recruits, he celebrated Stalin’s achievement in modernizing Russia, but didn’t dwell on the blood that was shed in the process.

In 1985, Meles founded a unit within the TPLF known as the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray, which was guided by the Leninist principle of “Democratic Centralism.” In pursuit of revolutionary socialist goals, the peasants were to be mobilized by a “vanguard elite,” which would exert total ideological and economic control over society.20 But after taking office in 1991, Meles downplayed his Marxist past and even enrolled in a correspondence course in business administration at Britain’s Open University. In discussions with US officials and journalists, he indicated that his Marxism extended to antifeudalism, equality, land reform, and teaching farming skills to women, but not to the nationalization of private enterprises or one-party rule.21

At first, Meles’s government allowed a degree of press freedom, multiparty democracy, and privatization of some state-owned enterprises. But as rigged elections and arrests of journalists continued, some observers wondered whether Meles’s political change of heart was genuine.22 In official English-language documents written for the World Bank and other agencies, his government expressed a commitment to human rights and democracy,23: but Ethiopian-language documents intended for internal government or EPRDF consumption told a different story. These documents outlined a policy known as “Revolutionary Democracy”—essentially the same Leninist program that Meles taught to his TPLF cadres in the 1980s, involving top-down decision-making, regular sessions of “self-criticism,” and single-party rule for generations. Revolutionary Democracy would be promoted through the gradual EPRDF takeover of all organs of “propaganda,” including schools, the civil service, the press, and religious institutions.24 “When ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ permeates the entire [Ethiopian] society,” Meles wrote in 2001,

individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by “Revolutionary Democracy.”25

Consistent with this aim, the EPRDF has used World Bank funds to purge much of the senior civil service of opposition supporters and replaced the independent Ethiopian Teachers Association with a party-affiliated body.26 Meles concedes that a Leninist economic program would not be possible as long as Ethiopia is dependent on foreign aid from capitalist countries,27 but his government still controls all land and telecommunications, and much of the banking and rural credit sectors. According to the World Bank, roughly half of the rest of the national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT).28 EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.29 Ethiopia is not a typical African kleptocracy, and there is no evidence that Meles personally benefits from these businesses. Rather, they are part of a rigid system of control that aid agency officials, beguiled by Meles’s apparently pro-Western exterior, have only recently begun to recognize.

There is a type of Ethiopian poetry known as “Wax and Gold” because it has two meanings: a superficial “wax” meaning, and a hidden “golden” one.30 During the 1960s, the anthropologist Donald Levine described how the popularity of “Wax and Gold” poetry provided insights into some of the northern Ethiopian societies from which Prime Minister Meles would later emerge. Even ordinary conversations frequently contain double entendres and ambiguities. Levine theorized that this enabled the expression of satire, humor, and even insults in an otherwise strictly controlled and hierarchical society of all-powerful kings, peasants, and serfs.

However, he worried that this mode of communication would hold Ethiopians back in their dealings with Westerners, who tend to value concreteness and rationality. Double meanings and poetry provide no advantage when drafting legal contracts, filling out job applications, or designing nuclear reactors. It didn’t occur to Levine that “Wax and Gold”–style communication might give Ethiopians like Meles an advantage in dealing with Westerners, especially when the Westerners were aid officials offering vast sums of money to follow a course of development based on liberal democracy and human rights, with which they disagree.


I first traveled to Ethiopia in 2008 to study the country’s new public health strategy. Nearly every government and aid agency official I met expressed enthusiasm for the many programs underway. Rates of AIDS, malaria, and infant mortality were falling,31 and Ethiopian health officials told me that there was no corruption; medicines were always in stock, even in faraway rural clinics; and community health workers were trained, efficient, and never absent from their posts. The government newspaper kept readers abreast of development news with such headlines as “Reinforcing UNDAF to meet PASDEP, MDGs”32
(UNDAF is the UN Development Framework, PASDEP is Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty, and MDGs are the Millennium Development Goals).

Most of these programs were in rural areas far from the capital, Addis Ababa, where my interviews took place. I wanted to see them for myself, not least because I knew that some of the claims I was hearing weren’t entirely true. Government officials claimed that in 2005, 87 percent of children had received all major vaccines, but an independent survey suggested that the figure was closer to 27 percent.33 Similarly, the fraction of women using contraception was 23 percent, not 55 percent as government officials claimed. The annual growth in farm production was also probably nowhere near the government’s own figure of 10 percent.34

One day, I heard an aid official give a lecture about a small nutrition project in one of the poorest regions of the country. She showed pictures of the area and that’s when I noticed how green it looked. “It’s called ‘Green Famine,’” she said, but when I asked her what caused it, her answer rambled from rainfall patterns to soil erosion to local preferences for nutrient-poor root vegetables and made little sense.

Nevertheless, a few days later I visited the region myself. I was amazed by what I saw there. Roads were under construction, a university had recently opened, and crowds of children were on their way home from a new school. Health workers spoke enthusiastically about the malaria bednet program, the immunization program, the pit latrine program, and the family planning program. I attended a village meeting at which some fifty “model families” who had followed all the government-prescribed practices of a “healthy household” were awarded diplomas. Local officials gave speeches, everyone cheered, and a basket of popcorn was passed around.

But when I went to visit the nutrition project, my enthusiasm faded. It was intended for children, but many of their mothers were also malnourished. Several had obvious goiter, and a few were so anemic they nearly fainted while they were speaking to me. When I asked these women why they could not adequately feed their children or themselves, most replied that they didn’t have enough land, and therefore couldn’t grow enough food either to eat or to sell.

There is a long history to their predicament. During the nineteenth century, as the European powers were carving up the rest of East Africa into colonies, Amhara rulers from the northern highlands extended their power southward and established the boundaries of what would become Imperial Ethiopia. As they did so, they seized land, exacted tribute, and turned the once independent peoples of this region into serfs. When the last emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in 1974, the new regime immediately enacted a land reform program that assigned each former serf a plot of his own. This was fine for one generation, but in rural Ethiopia, women have on average six surviving children. Now, thirty-five years later, millions of peasant families live on plots too small to support them.35 The government retains all property rights, so if the poor leave their tiny plots, they lose their only asset. Most remain where they are, living on the verge of starvation.

Half a dozen food security programs existed in the area, but for reasons no one, including the aid workers who managed them, could explain, they were having little effect. According to a government survey, half the families enrolled in the largest food aid program had, in order to feed themselves, been forced to sell what few assets they had, including goats, chickens, pots, and buckets.36 One household in eight had lost a child to hunger. Even so, competition for a slot in the program was so fierce that when the food trucks arrived, riots sometimes broke out. The truly destitute received barely enough to survive. One woman I met said that her family of five was somehow living on five kilos of cornmeal a month.

Francesco Zizola/Noor/Aurora Photos
A center for children suffering from severe malnutrition, Sembete, Oromiya region, July 2008

There is no simple solution to this crisis, but as the Ethiopia expert Siegfried Pausewang has long argued, only the peasants themselves have any hope of finding one. Working with agronomists and other experts, they could confront such issues as security of land tenure, the onerous rural tax regime, political favoritism, the low prices offered by party-run cooperatives, and compensation for those whose tiny land parcels can no longer support them. However, there are no independent organizations or other forums in which peasants can openly discuss these issues, air grievances, or advocate for their rights. Under the CSO law such forums are unlikely to emerge.

Ethiopia has an agricultural extension program, but it only gives orders. “They make a plan, they take over, they command us to do this, do that,” a farmer told Pausewang in 2001.37 If the peasants openly disagree with the plans the government has for them, they risk being denied fertilizers or credit, or even losing what land they have. As one farmer, who keeps his support for the opposition party a secret, told Human Rights Watch in 2009, “I am a member of EPRDF because I need relief assistance…. The list of receipts—the proof that I am paying my dues to the party—are required to get [it].”38 While aid officials may lecture about how hunger in Ethiopia is due solely to climate change, soil erosion, and the preference of poor people for root vegetables, this crisis, like the 1984 famine, is also primarily caused by politically motivated human rights violations.


Before I left Ethiopia, I visited an old church in the Amhara highlands. Orthodox Christian traditions in this part of the country date back 1,600 years, and it’s astonishing to think that these impoverished people had a written language and a sophisticated clerical hierarchy that long ago. I was shown a beautifully illuminated set of liturgical manuscripts created in the 1700s, in which images of almond-eyed saints loomed amid the gospels written out in Ethiopia’s ancient Ge’ez script. In some of the paintings, you could see the artists’ struggles to reconcile their turbulent cultural heritage by combining the doctrinal power of the sacred word with the abstract flourishes more typical of the cultures of the African interior.

Outside the church, I noticed that some of the small children hanging around had leather pouches tied around their necks. “That’s to protect against ‘evil eye,’” an Ethiopian friend explained. “The pouches have fragments of scripture inside. They believe the Bible is ‘the word made flesh,’ and those pieces of paper will prevent their children from getting sick.”

In 2007, Meles called for an “Ethiopian renaissance” to bring the country out of medieval poverty, but the Renaissance he’s thinking of seems very different from ours. The Western Renaissance was partly fostered by the openness to new ideas created by improved transport and trade networks, mail services, printing technology, and communications—precisely those things Meles is attempting to restrict and control.

The Western Renaissance helped to democratize “the word” so that all of us could speak of our own individual struggles, and this added new meaning and urgency to the alleviation of the suffering of others. The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the “backward masses,” rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.

April 14, 2010


Cruel Ethiopia’ June 24, 2010

  1. 17

    See Aalen and Tronvill, “The 2008 Ethiopian Local Elections,” and Siegfried Pausewang, “Ethiopia: A Political View from Below,” South African Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 1 (April 2009); Jon Abbink, “The Ethiopian Second Republic and the Fragile ‘Social Contract,’” Africa Spectrum, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2009); Human Rights Watch, “Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region,” 2005; US State Department Human Rights Report: Ethiopia, 2009, 2010.

  2. 18

    Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure.”

  3. 19

    Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure.”

  4. 20

    See Paulos Milkias, “The Great Purge and Ideological Paradox in Contemporary Ethiopian Politics,” Horn of Africa, Vol. 19 (2001), pp. 1–99. Aregawi Berhe, A Political History of the Tigraya People’s Liberation Front, 1975–1991 (Tsehai, 2009).

  5. 21

    See Gayle Smith, “Birth Pains of a New Ethiopia,” The Nation, July 1, 1991.

  6. 22

    Vaughan and Tronvoll, The Culture of Power in Contemporary Ethiopian Political Life; and Paulos Milkias, “The Great Purge and Ideological Paradox in Contemporary Ethiopian Politics.”

  7. 23

    See the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED), Ethiopia, Building on Progress: A Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) (2005/06–2009/10), Vol. 1, September 2006.

  8. 24

    TPLF/EPRDF, “Our Revolutionary Democratic Goals and the Next Step,” internal EPRDF document (June 1993).

  9. 25

    See Meles Zenawi, “Perspectives and ‘Bonapartism,’” in “The Gimgema Papers,” 2001; referred to in Milkias, “The Great Purge and Ideological Paradox in Contemporary Ethiopian Politics.”

  10. 26

    HRW 2010, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure,” and discussions with HRW researchers.

  11. 27

    TPLF/EPRDF, “Our Revolutionary Democratic Goals and the Next Step.”

  12. 28

    John Abbink, “The Ethiopian Second Republic and the Fragile ‘Social Contract,’” Africa Spectrum 2009, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 3–28.

  13. 29

    See Paulos Chaine, “Clientism and Ethiopia’s Post 1991 Decentralisation,” Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2007), pp. 355–384.

  14. 30

    See Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1965). The name refers to the process sculptors use to transform a wax model into gold. They first cover the model with a clay mold, then they melt out the wax and replace it with gold.

  15. 31

    See Sandro Accorsi et al., “Countdown to 2015: Comparing Progress Towards the Achievement of the Health Millennium Development Goals in Ethiopia and Other Sub-Saharan African Countries,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 2010.

  16. 32

    The Ethiopian Herald, June 26, 2009.

  17. 33

    Compare Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey 2005 (Central Statistical Agency/ORC Macro, September 2006), available at www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/FR179/FR179.pdf, and The Health of Ethiopia: An Update by Ethiopia’s Health Minister (Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 20, 2008) available at csis.org/event/audio-health-ethiopia-update-ethiopias-health-minister).

  18. 34

    See Stephan Dercon et al., “In Search of a Strategy: Rethinking Agriculture Led Growth in Ethiopia,” Synthesis Paper prepared as part of a study on Agricultural and Growth in Ethiopia, Oxford University, May 2009.

  19. 35

    The average per capita landholding fell from a quarter of a hectare to less than a tenth of a hectare between 1970 and 2000, and per capita food production fell by nearly half. See Todd Benson, “An Assessment of the Causes of Malnutrition in Ethiopia,” IFPRI, 2005.

  20. 36

    See Dessalegn Rahmato, “Ethiopia: Agriculture Policy Review,” in Taye Assefa, Digest of Ethiopia’s National Policies, Strategies and Programs (Addis Ababa: Forum for Social Studies, 2008), p. 148.

  21. 37

    See Siegfried Pausewang, “No Environmental Protection Without Local Democracy? Why Peasants Distrust Their Agricultural Advisers,” in Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below, edited by Bahru Zewde and Siegfried Pausewang (Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikaininstitutet/Addis Ababa: Forum for Social Studies, 2009).; see also Kaatje Segers et al., “Be Like Bees: The Politics of Mobilizing Farmers for Development in Tigray, Ethiopia,” African Affairs Vol. 108, No. 430, pp. 91-109, and Tewodaj Mogues et al., “Agricultural Extension in Ethiopia through a Gender and Governance Lens,” IFPRI Ethiopia Strategy Support Program 2 Discussion Paper, No. ESSP2 007, October 2008.

  22. 38

    Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure.”

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