Mengistu Haile-Mariam
Mengistu Haile-Mariam; drawing by David Levine

The Friends of the Ethiopia vs. the Friends of the Dergue

We are all friends of Ethiopia but we are not all friends of the Dergue, the group that rules the country. The friend of Ethiopia sees a people in distress and wishes to do something about it. It seems a simple issue—people are starving and should be fed. The friends of the Dergue are a different lot—the object of their identification is a politburo, the former Provisional Military Administrative Council which overthrew Haile Selassie and set up Mengistu Haile-Mariam in his place. The friends of the Dergue need an ability to identify with an apparently omnipotent regime. People have this fantasy, and to a striking degree. It gives the fantasy a particular piquancy if you can feel not just that you are a friend of power, but that, through no fault of that power, you happen to be the only true friend it possesses.

The friends of Kim II Sung are like that. And the Maoists in West Germany were similar. They used to turn out in serried ranks to chant their immense slogans in public places. They were not trying to convert the passer-by. They seemed more or less unaware of their surroundings. But they were out to say to the Chinese themselves: look, you are not friendless; few we may be, and persecuted, but we have kept faith. The friends of Enver Hoxha saw themselves as the lone connoisseurs of socialism. Even Pol Pot had friends of this kind, lone supporters from afar.

“From both a non-Western and a socialist perspective, Ethiopia has taken a correct ideological position in its domestic policies. The entire range of its economic and social policies contain within their frame the politics of equity. Political rights and economic and social rights have a common core and cannot be separated one from another.” This is a friend speaking. It sounds as if he is reading from a Dergue handout. He tells us that “the lives of Ethiopia’s poorest citizens have been improved” and that “it is remarkable how quickly the population as a whole has come to accept the radical changes that have taken place.”

The voice belongs to Professor Peter Schwab of the State University of New York. He is, on his own authority, a reputed Ethiopianist. “Only Marina and David Ottaway, Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, and this author,” he tells us, “among reputed Ethiopianists, have seen the revolution as a positive step despite some of the excesses.” But it is hard to see what, in the professor’s terms, would count as an excess. Purges of conservative and bourgeois opponents were fine because “the violence of the executions served as a cleansing agent. As Fanon so well put it, the destruction ‘is the preliminary to the unification of the people.’ ” “In 1984,” says Schwab, “Ethiopia is cleansed of opponents and everyday life is peaceful and largely nonviolent.”

Ethiopia: Politics, Economics and Society, from which these quotations are taken, was published this year in London by Frances Pinter Ltd., the first of a series of monographs on present-day Marxist regimes.1 (The list of future titles is wide-ranging, including Grenada.) Although Schwab believes that everyday life is peaceful in Ethiopia, he has heard of the war there:

That the Soviet Union, Cuba and Ethiopia had national and international interests that converged in time and place was beneficial to Ethiopia. It allowed it to strengthen its ties to the socialist commonwealth while at the same time permitted it to maintain its territorial integrity.

Professor Schwab is also aware that there is a large and vocal exiled opposition to the Dergue, “particularly so in the United States where some 30,000 students, many of them Eritreans or former members of the EPRP [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party], reside.” These get little sympathy.

What is so ironic about their insistence for “democracy” in Ethiopia “is that many of these individuals were the same persons who held positions of dominance prior to the revolution, who held tenant-farmers at their mercy, and who lived off the fruits of oppression” (Schwab, 1982, p. 198). Thus their claims are somewhat hollow.

Thus Schwab, citing Schwab, dismisses them.

But there is a danger in this argument about people who held positions of dominance before the revolution, as Schwab perceives. He may be a friend of the Dergue. He may be happy to dismiss the rebel movements in Eritrea and Tigre out of hand. He may think of socialism as essentially a society without opponents. He may tell us that the EPRP “acted like spoiled academics and almost asked to be crushed by the revolution.” Yet there are issues on which this (unspoiled) academic is prepared not only to warn the Dergue of trouble ahead, but even (heroically, I think) to tell Colonel Mengistu what to do. One such is the question of Amhara chauvinism.


As Ethiopia had developed under Selassie and his predecessors, the Christian Amhara-Tigrean section of the population, which represented between 35 and 40 percent of the total, dominated more than eighty other linguistic-ethnic groups, including the Oromos or Gallas who alone accounted for 40 percent of the total. (Figures from Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution, Schocken, 1982.) This ethnic domination was much resented. But what if it continues today? “It is clear,” says Schwab,

that the Amhara are once again represented in central officialdom far out of proportion to their numbers in society as a whole. In and of itself this may be meaningless; but given the historical tradition of Ethiopia the perception is as important as the reality. It must be made clear to the population that despite their numbers they wield no undue influence.

(That is, it must be made clear that the Amhara, rather than the population, wield no undue influence.) The psychological technique here is almost endearing. Schwab starts by assuring the Dergue that the problem may of course be illusory, then he insists that even illusory problems might be problems:

It must be transmitted to the population by Mengistu that individuals are in the arena of authority because of their talents and politics, not because of their ethnicity. If the Dergue and COPWE [the Commission to Organize the Party of the Working Peoples of Ethiopia] are seen as too conciliatory to the once-oppressive Amhara (as it seems they currently are, Halliday & Molyneux, 1981, p. 165) it could lead to upheavals against the socialist government. It is important for Mengistu not only to speak on the subject, but to ensure that the Amhara do not re-emerge as the primary political actors solely because of their ethnicity. If this were to occur it would violate the ideals of the revolution and Lenin’s thesis that ethnic distinctions must be obliterated.

This may be, according to the professor, an area of serious conflict. So what is to be done?

If the Amhara representatives in the Dergue and COPWE continue to dominate, then a policy statement must be issued that emphasizes their value to the state and reduces the importance of their ethnic composition.

A policy statement must be issued! The professor has started kicking ass in Addis Ababa. In the eye of his fantasy he has intervened, and not just like the USAID official who says his intervention allows the government to change its policies and not fall. Schwab is delivering an ultimatum:

Ethnicity is not important in a socialist revolution and should not be, but it must not be seen by the people to be important, otherwise there is certain to be trouble. This is a sensitive issue but it must be confronted.

If we think of the friend of the Dergue as the man in love with an omnipotent regime, rather than as the man with a personal taste for power, this issuing of ultimatums might seem a little out of character. We have to remember that even the friend of the Dergue has nightmares. He needs to be sure that, somewhere in the world, there exists an omnipotent regime; but what if, for some essentially idiotic reason, that regime was overthrown? (It couldn’t be for a good reason, because the regime would obviously be immune to any rationally foreseeable attack. The friends of Hitler wonder why he was overthrown, scratch their heads, and come up with the essentially contingent fact: for some odd reason, Britain could not see that, objectively, it was the natural ally of the Reich.)

The friend of the Dergue admires the revolution from above: it will institute socialism and in turn socialism will institute communism and there will be no opponents; even the revolutionary committees, the kebelles, are seen as a useful tool, rather than as an expression of socialist emancipation—they “have proved their value as a judicial, social and political instrument of the state.” The Dergue is admirable because it goes the whole hog:

Chile under Allende and Sandinista Nicaragua were both in the nature of social reform movements with a very limited trace of true radicalism, while the case of Zimbabwe points to a New Deal type of Marxism that only recently has moved toward violence. Both Benin and the People’s Republic of the Congo are examples of socialism via the coup, neither incorporating the radical anti-feudal and anti-traditional nature of the Dergue. And the lengthy anti-colonial struggle in Indo-China led by Ho Chi Minh, a political example in and of itself, was totally unlike the Ethiopian revolution. Ethiopia, then, stands alone…

although it is now moving “ever closer to traditional and orthodox socialism.” It is unique, but it is also becoming orthodox—an admirable object for fantasy.

Professor Schwab does not have much to say on the subject of famine, although he recalls the attitude of Haile Selassie’s court to the drought of the early Seventies, and quotes from Kapuscinski’s book The Emperor as if it were a bona fide historical source (surely it is a fable in the Kafka tradition, and not to be taken as straight reportage). He tells us how the 1973 and 1974 famine was first covered up, and then, “when some relief supplies did finally reach Ethiopia further scandalous activity took place: ministers first demanded customs fees from overseas donors and then appropriated the food shipments, and then sold them to those who could afford to buy.” Ten years later, it has been the task of the present regime to rebut similar attacks on its probity. Following are extracts from two recent statements by the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), given to me in Addis Ababa:


While we understand the wishes of the donors that relief goods should not be subject to charges, we must point out that if Ethiopia could afford to pay all the costs involved in port handling and clearance, it would not need all the help it has been requesting of the international community…. Our levying of port charges is not a starvation tax. On the contrary, the more of our own resources we have to pay for port costs, the less will be available for urgently needed interventions in shelters and feeding centers.

And again:

The allegation that “a portion of international aid finds its way into the market” is another misleading point…. It must be understood that such conclusions are drawn, more often than not, by people who fail or do not bother to see the use and reuse to which the sturdy grain bags from the donors are put. More to the point, in any relief operation of this magnitude, is that a certain amount of bartering or resale by recipients on the commercial market is normal.

At the time when he was writing, Professor Schwab could surely have seen that the regime was appealing to the international community for food aid. However, famine features very little in his account. Like the donor countries themselves, he ignored the appeals of the Dergue, preferring to say that “the lives of Ethiopia’s poorest citizens have been improved.”

The Dilemma of Sympathy

The organizers of a recent London fashion show called the event “Fashion for Famine,” but the fashion, if that is what it is, has lasted longer than could have been predicted a year ago when the BBC report showing people dying in the Ethiopian camps of Makalle and Korem was first shown around the world. People have scratched their heads to think of comparable phenomena, and have come up with comparisons such as the student protest movement, or everything that comes under the rubric “1968.” But the usefulness of such comparisons dwindles the more you look at them. The response to the famine in Africa has been unique, perhaps not because the problem has been unique but because, for once, it seemed as if the problem was soluble.

Whatever the follow-up reports have said, it was the simplicity and speed with which the money was raised by individuals, from individuals, and for individuals, that impressed people. Unlike a mass gesture like linking arms around the Pentagon (whose appeal lay in its pointlessness), the linking of the pop radio and television stations around the world and the electronic approach to fund raising was intended to succeed. It was breathtakingly simple. It seemed almost to cut out the role of governments. But it had its element of fantasy too.

“I have a new client and it is Africa,” said Ken Kragen, manager of Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie and president of USA for Africa; “I treat Africa just like I treat any of my clients.” And he went on to explain in detail how he had sustained careers longer than anyone had thought possible. “When something is this big, as Africa is now, it can cool off quickly. The way I am going to keep that from happening—it’s the same thing I do with careers—is every couple of months there is an event that keeps the Africa thing alive. I always think long-term. I have never gotten into any career for the quick buck. It is the same for Africa” (The Washington Post, June 19, 1985).

Keeping the Africa thing alive, preventing Africa from cooling off—the music-managerial approach is only one of a series of omnipotent modes of reasoning that have been brought to bear on Ethiopia. That such an approach works well with fund raising has been amply demonstrated. It is, in general, when the funds reach Ethiopia that reasoning stubs its toe. Suddenly there is a government blocking the way. Suddenly there is a war. Suddenly, where once there was only the pure impulse of sympathy, there are politics and frustration. And suddenly there is a seven-day walk to get the food from A to B.

The war is the most galling circumstance, and in much of the writing about Ethiopia there is an attempt to wish it away. Thus an Economist editorial of December last year is entitled “Make Ethiopia stop shooting,” and subtitled “so that food can get through to the starving.” The idea behind the piece was not that givers of aid should attach political strings, but “It is a matter of their right to insist that, in such an emergency, the Ethiopian government should match western help by a readiness to make the relief programme work. That means a cease-fire, and full access for aid agencies to the hungriest areas.”

The reasoning here is quite contradictory: the giver of aid, while not attaching strings, somehow manages to achieve a cease-fire, and by the end of the article is even envisaged as achieving some deal with the rebels. Mengistu is really being asked to give up any advantage he might have, indeed perhaps to give up Eritrea, in the cause of feeding the rebels and the affected populations. But at no point is it explained why, having gone into such enormous debt for the sake of pursuing the war, the Dergue should give up because the rebels are starving. Traditionally, warfare has always sought to starve people into submission. Why should the Dergue’s war be different?

The point is that the war in question is of no great importance to the writer of the Economist editorial, while it is clearly of major importance to the Dergue. It is a war, as Mengistu put it, “to affirm Ethiopia’s historic unity, and to safeguard her outlet to the sea, and to defend her very existence from being stifled.”

Graham Hancock, in his book Ethiopia: The Challenge of Hunger,2 treats the Dergue to a certain amount of criticism; there is a credit side and a debit side, but in the end his arguments tend to work in the Dergue’s favor. There is no overt ideological interest at work here. Hancock’s chief interest is in the question of the famine—anything that tends to resolve the famine is good, anything else is bad.

The famine, Hancock says, is an Act of Man rather than God:

The particular Act of Man that has had at least as much to do with the severity of the current famine as the failure of the rains is referred to within Ethiopia as “the regional problem,” a neat euphemism that disguises an extremely complicated social and political mess which the country must solve if it is ever to realize its full potential for progress and development.

And he goes on to underline the ethnic diversity of the country, and to explain some of the background to the three principal regions of armed conflict: Eritrea, Tigre, and Ogaden. It is the last named that provides him with the model for what should happen in the other two areas. The Somalis in the Ogaden recognized in 1978 that they had been defeated, and gave up. He quotes one of their leaders:

After the war we came to the conclusion that enough was enough. Sure it would have been nice if we’d won but the fact was that we were beaten. We did our best, we put in everything we had, and they still beat us. So we decided, no more fighting. We looked around and saw that the government was keen to promote this idea of the equality of nationalities within Ethiopia and we made up our minds that we were going to go out and get our share.

According to Hancock the Somalis in the Ogaden did indeed get a good deal in development projects. I have no reason to doubt him, but still there is an “if only” quality to his reasoning which fails to convince. The Somalis were decisively defeated and this was “perhaps their good fortune.” Their attitude today is one of “commendable pragmatism.” If only the Eritreans and Tigreans had been decisively defeated. If only their rebels shared some of that pragmatism.

In the case of Eritrea, Hancock traces the long history of the dispute in this century, from the Italian colonization of Eritrea to the UN decision in 1950 that the country should be federated with Ethiopia as an “autonomous government” to Haile Selassie’s suppression of that autonomy in 1962, which began the present war. Around 1977 and 1978 it is argued that conditions were favorable to an Eritrean victory, but the independence movement was fragmented and failed to seize the advantage. Since then, the choice has been between admitting defeat or continuing with no prospect of victory. “Regrettably, if understandably, this is the choice that the guerrillas have opted for.” Hancock has a message for the rebels:

It is my personal belief, from talks with many highly placed Ethiopian officials, that Eritrea and Tigre would not be oppressed if the EPLF [Eritrean People’s Liberation Front] and TPLF [Tigre People’s Liberation Front] gave up armed struggle and came to the negotiating table. On the contrary I believe that the central government would go out of its way to accommodate the demands of the two groups.

If only the groups in question saw things the same way. But there have been other examples of what the Dergue does to its defeated opponents besides the Somali one. For his argument to convince, Hancock needs to explain why the Eritrean and Tigrean rebels will not be considered in the same category as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, ending up (vide Schwab) “with most of its membership either dead, in jail, or in exile.” He would also be more convincing if, when discussing these movements, he did not insinuate that these things tend to have an appeal for Western intellectuals, as if this meant that the Eritrean cause must be mistaken. Finally, the case rests on the inability of the rebels to win militarily. But if the Dergue too is unable to win, that argument cuts both ways.

Hancock is not like Schwab. His book was written last Christmas after a horrifying trip through some of the famine areas, and where it seems soft on the Dergue you can understand the reasoning. If everybody fell in line behind the Dergue, certain problems might very easily be sorted out, the famine and the resettlement program among them. Resettlement has been the great point at issue between the donor countries and the Ethiopian government. The government claims it is the only sensible approach to the long-term agricultural problems in areas like Tigre and Wollo. The donors tend to take the view that resettlement from these areas amounted to a political solution to the rather different problem of the Tigrean Liberation Front presence in these areas. Before his visit last year, Hancock had inclined to the view that there might be something in these suspicions.

It seemed to me, I suppose, rather too convenient and neat that the very provinces in which the security problem posed by the TPLF was most serious—Tigre and Wollo—should also be the provinces scheduled to provide the largest supplies of human fodder for the resettlement programme. First starved half to death, then divided up in scattered communities all over southern Ethiopia, the contumacious northerners would no longer be in any position to oppose the government.

However, what he saw of the land itself convinced him of the agricultural arguments.

To be sure, one motive behind the resettlement might indeed be to deprive the TPLF of grass-roots support—but whether or not this is the case is a matter of purely academic conjecture. The more important fact is that vast areas of the north have become uninhabitable wastelands.

With all due respect, the issue is not as purely academic as that. A recent report in the London Times3 cited figures from an internal document of the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission in Addis Ababa. These showed that Wollo was receiving less than a quarter of the food it needed during the first four months of this year; and the report suggested that the government was either neglecting or deliberately maltreating Wollo in favor of resettlement areas and an attempt to win hearts and minds in other parts of the country.

Merely by falling in behind the Dergue we do not guarantee that the famine will be sorted out in the swiftest possible way. It might be that a part of the famine has a purpose of its own.

The Victim of Charity

We made a big mistake, said the Ethiopian official in Addis Ababa, we went too far. We opened our hearts to the world and we showed them our dying people. You know, he said, there were some Japanese here recently and they agreed with me: they said that after the Second World War, after Hiroshima, even then they never opened their hearts to the world. But we, well, we trusted people. We let them in, even though we knew that they wouldn’t understand things from a socialist point of view. And when they wrote bad things about us, we just bore it patiently. We had to do the best we could for our people. We trusted the world, but people just took advantage of us.

Ethiopia was being taken for a ride, he said, it was being fleeced by the charity effort. People were using the country as a means of furthering their own careers. Politicians would suddenly announce their arrival, and without consulting the government would say that they were going to visit such and such a camp on such and such a day. They had to be looked after. People were using the name of Ethiopia to raise funds that the Ethiopians never saw. The aid agencies were bringing more and more people into the country to do jobs that could equally well be done by Ethiopians. And then they kept bringing in journalists to look at their projects (journalists such as me) so that they would get more money for their agencies. Minders had to be found for the journalists, but there weren’t enough minders to go around…and so on and so forth.

As the lecture progressed, I began, once again, to study my shoes. Once, ill-advisedly but mildly enough, I asked whether what he was saying meant that I might just as well go straight back to England. “I’m not even talking to you,” said the official, witheringly. I resumed the study of my shoes. The Amharic idea of public relations appeared to be (for the official in question was a public relations officer) to be as rude as possible. It was in this man’s office, I reflected, that the British pop singer Bob Geldof had put his feet on the table. Put his feet on the table! I’d rather die. I was wearing the Italian suit I had bought, on instructions, for the occasion. (The Dergue favors Italian tailoring, and this chap liked Pierre Cardin ties.) I was wearing a tie too. But I had to admit that I had skimped on the shoes. After patiently hearing out the lecture, and realizing I was getting nowhere, I humbly took my leave. As we shook hands, the official reached forward with a triumphant smile and fastidiously removed a loose thread from my jacket pocket. Perhaps after all I had skimped on the suit as well.

It had been going on for weeks, this attempt to get permission to visit the areas of the famine, and while I had expected an obstructive bureaucracy I hadn’t quite foreseen the sense of deep grievance among the government officials. It wasn’t just a hatred of journalists, pop stars, and politicians. It was an intense dislike of the aid workers themselves. It was as if every dollar given had been an insult to be borne, a stab wound, a humiliation. And the argument presented, as it developed, looked like the mirror image of every criticism leveled from abroad at the Dergue. You call us corrupt—what about your corruption? You insist on monitoring our activities—very well, expect us to monitor you. What are you up to? How dare you come strutting around our country telling us what to do? How dare you treat our famine as a bandwagon? How dare you pretend (this last being the subliminal argument) that you want to save our people, when what you really want is to destroy our government?

For of course it is natural to except not only a sense of loss of face among the Dergue, but also a paranoia about its prestige. Ten years ago, when Haile Selassie fell, the Dergue used revelations about his indifference to the famine as the final stage of their demystification of the emperor. They cannot have forgotten this. Indeed a point that they have stressed is that they predicted the current famine and begged the world to take notice of the coming crisis. But when the world did finally take notice, and the food arrived in those sturdy grain bags, Ethiopia became flooded with advertisements for other governments, advertisements for God, advertisements for charity. The Dergue hates advertisements (all the shop signs in Addis have been removed for this reason). That is why the official I spoke to could fail to distinguish between an advertisement by a charity asking for people to give money to Ethiopia, and a soap ad. While I was in Addis I spent much time with a man who was trying to make a fund-raising film for American television. I think if he’d told them he was making a snuff movie he would have been treated better.

There is a curious habit in Ethiopia of referring to the foreign aid workers as expatriates, making them sound like white farmers in Happy Valley, or bored wives from Somerset Maugham. We expatriate journalists eventually realized that the reason we were getting nowhere was that the Dergue had just told the RRC, and the RRC were just about to tell the agencies, that there were far too many expatriates working in Addis with relief agencies, some 450 of them. There was to be a crackdown. All expatriates’ jobs would be reviewed, and the idea was that they would be reduced to one expert per agency.

One may wonder whether this is a matter of paranoia, or whether some real security risk is involved, or whether the secrecy has a more sinister justification. A diplomatic report is quoted in the London Times article referred to above, saying that “the main difference between now and April is that the Ethiopian authorities are taking greater precautions to hide what is being done.” It was in April that the authorities tried to empty and burn down a relief camp. More recently, the attempt to empty the camp of Ibnat has been repeated:

World Vision people are terrified by what they think is going on around them…. They report screams in the night and believe that people are being forced out of the camp when there are no witnesses…. Officials from the RRC go through their hospital and arbitrarily pick out men, women, and children they say are healthy and order them out of hospital. These officials have gone so far as to order that World Vision nurses take away the nasal-gastric tubes being used by children whose condition is so weak they cannot take food by mouth.

When I read stories like this now from Ethiopia, I think of the angry denials xeroxed and in piles on a shelf in the RRC, and of that Ethiopian sense of injury, of being misunderstood. In post-revolutionary Russia and China, famines were kept secret, and it was decades before the facts emerged. A famine is an insult to the omnipotence of a regime—which is one reason, no doubt, for the Dergue to regret all the publicity it has received. I wondered for a while whether it was worth hanging around in Addis in the hope of reporting on the famine. Then a bout of malaria settled the question for me. I see that Glenda Jackson has since been to Wollo, and in her advertisements says that the time has come to stop appealing and begin demanding. I wish her campaign well.

This is the second of two articles.

This Issue

November 7, 1985