How Zenawi ‘Weaponizes’ Famine in Ethiopia
AFRICA, 29 Aug 2011
“Why are Ethiopians starving again? What should the world do and not do?” These are the two enduring questions Time Magazine of December 21, 1987 asked in a cover story. The reply in short was couched as a question: “Is the latest famine wholly the result of cruel nature, or are other, man-made forces at work that worsen the catastrophe?” Something that should strike as déjà vu 24 years later.
In 2011, Ethiopia is the second poorest country in the world despite fanciful claims of 15 a percent annual economic growth and fantasies of building the largest hydroelectric dams in all of Africa by dictator Meles Zenawi.
According to official statements of the Zenawi regime, 4.5 million of the estimated 90 million Ethiopians need 380 metric tons of food at a cost of USD$400 million. Jason Frasier, mission director of USAID in Ethiopia recently cautioned that Zenawi’s regime “may be underestimating the country’s needs in its drought crisis, even as the government announced that 4.5 million Ethiopians need food aid, 40 percent more than last year. We are concerned that we are underestimating the situation, especially in the southern provinces.” We are back to the future in 1984!
On August 17, 2011, Wolfgang Fengler, a lead economist for the World Bank, weighed in with a definitive answer to Time’s question: “The [famine] crisis is man made. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.” In other words, it is bad governance that is at the core of the famine problem in Ethiopia, not drought. This is a rare and refreshing departure from the all-too-common bureaucratic mumbo jumbo about the causes of famine often spouted by international aid agencies and multilateral organizations.
Reason 1: Famine is not merely a humanitarian catastrophe in Ethiopia; it is a powerful political and military weapon.
There is a long and ignoble history of political and military weaponization of famine in Ethiopia. In the mid-1980s, the military junta government of Mengistu Hailemariam used famine to punish civilian populations perceived to support rebels in the northern part of the country. The junta prevented delivery of food aid in rebel-held areas (as did the rebels themselves) and implemented a cruel policy of forced migration of civilians in an effort to drain recruits and deny support to the rebels.
Zenawi’s regime pursued the same policy to defeat alleged rebels in the Ogaden region and has further used humanitarian aid to consolidate power and starve out his opposition as documented recently in a BIA/BIJ report. Mao Zedong taught that “Guerrillas are like fish, and the people are the water in which fish swim.” Both Zenawi and Megistu understood that by militarily and politically weaponizing famine, they can poison and drain the water in the lake. No water! No fish! No problem!
Reason 2: Famine is a recurrent fact in Ethiopia because that country has been in an endless cycle of dictatorship for decades.
Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen argues that “there has never been a famine in a functioning multi-party democracy.” In a competitive political process with a functioning free press, there is a much higher degree of political accountability. No freely elected government could afford to ignore famine or abstain from doing all it can to prevent it. Opposition politicians will make famine a major political issue to win elections. A free press will mobilize public opinion to hold those in power accountable for letting “famine occur on their watch.”
In Ethiopia, opposition political parties are non-existent. In 2005, Zenawi jailed the entire leadership of the opposition for nearly two years. He even jailed the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, Birtukan Midekssa, and with sadistic indifference declared, “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” No opposition, no multiparty democracy, no free press, no accountability equals recurrent famines.
Reason 3: Famine in Ethiopia is an annual crisis because dictators do not give a damn if the people die one by one or by the millions.
The current rulers of Ethiopia, like their junta predecessor, continue to derive spiritual guidance from their patron saints: Stalin and Mao (Chinese financial support today is one of the cornerstones of Zenawi’s regime). Stalin was blasé and arrogantly dismissive of the Ukraine famine of the early 1930s. He said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In 1959 during China’s Great Famine, Mao was equally matter-of-fact: “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
Mengistu said there was no famine when millions of Ethiopians dropped like flies from starvation in 1984-85. But Zenawi is more cunning and pretty slick when it comes to public relations. He said there are emergencies, but no famines. “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch – emergencies, but no famines.”
Reason 4: Famine is a structural part of the Ethiopian economy because the “government” owns all the land.
It is said of the golden rule that he who controls the gold makes the rules. The same can be said of land in Ethiopia. Those who own the land make the rules for those who till the land. Article 40 (1) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides that “the right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia.” For all intents and purposes, that means the ruling regime and its supporters own the land.
The regime controls who gets what plot of urban or farm land. The regime sells, leases or otherwise traffics in land without any accountability. Recently, the regime sold a large chunk of the country’s most fertile land to Indian companies for pennies: “For £150 a week (USD$245), you can lease more than 2,500 square kilometres of virgin, fertile [Ethiopian] land – an area the size of Dorset, England – for 50 years, plus generous tax breaks.”
Reason 5: Famine persists in Ethiopia because massive human rights abuses persist.
The Zenawi regime is well-known for trashing the human and constitutional rights of Ethiopian citizens. Perhaps unknown to many is the regime’s flagrant violation of its affirmative legal duty to provide a “standard of living adequate for the health and well-being… including food for its citizens.” Weaponizing hunger to decimate one’s opposition is a crime against humanity. But hunger is the new weapon of choice in human rights violations in Ethiopia. Those who oppose the regime are not only denied humanitarian food and relief aid, they are also victimized through a system of evictions, denial of land or reduction in plot size as well as denial of access to loans, fertilizers, seeds, etc.
Reason 6: Famine persists in Ethiopia because Zenawi has succeeded in keeping the famine hidden.
Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 pretended there was no famine until “The Hidden Famine” by Jonathan Dimbleby was aired to a shocked and angry Ethiopian public. Former junta leader Mengistu was arrogantly dismissive during the 1984-85 famine. He asked, “What famine?” Zenawi is far more cunning. His solution is to clampdown on the press and shut the country down to all foreign journalists and media representatives. If any foreign journalists should somehow manage to get through, jail them. That is exactly what he did recently to two Swedish journalists, photojournalist Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye, who were arrested in the Ogaden region where the regime has committed massive human rights violations for years.
Reason 7: Famine persist in Ethiopia because there is a “conspiracy of silence” by Western aid agencies and timid NGOs.
Zenawi has made it clear that anyone who disputes his claim of 15 percent annual economic growth and rosy picture of the country will be thrown out of the country, vilified or not allowed to operate. Recently, when Ken Ohashi, the World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia said Zenawi’s economic plan (‘Growth and Transformation Plan’) is unsustainable, Zenawi unleashed his legendary vitriol on him: “The World Bank [country] director is used to having other developing nations simply listen to his orders and is not used to nations refusing implement policy based on their wishes. He left here after we refused to let him tell us what to do and wrote this article to get back at us.” In other words, attack the man’s integrity savagely to divert attention from the man’s message.
But all NGOs and international aid agencies know never to use the “F” word, unless of course they use it to deny there is no famine. That is precisely what USAID Deputy Administrator Gregory Gottlieb did last week (33rd week) on a VOA broadcast. He said, “There is no famine in Ethiopia.” The strange thing is that it does not seem Gottlieb had spoken about the “situation” to Jason Fraser, mission director of USAID in Ethiopia, before making his glib declaration.
Fraser said, “We are concerned that we are underestimating the situation, especially in the southern provinces [in Ethiopia].”So the conspiracy of silence goes on to keep the famine hidden by using euphemisms. It is not FAMINE, it is the “situation”, severe malnutrition, food insecurity, food crisis [when Zenawi recently visited China, Premier Wen Jiabao called the famine “crisis”], green drought and so on. The “crisis” is not the result of lack of preventive or long-range planning, official incompetence, corruption, criminal negligence, etc., but the effect of “erratic rains damaged or delayed crops, deforestation overgrazing” and other ecological, environmental, and climatic disasters.
The international poverty mongers are so slick that they have even invented a “scientific” classification system for famine: “Acute Food Insecurity, Stressed, Crisis, Emergency and Catastrophe.” They want us to believe that famine is some sort of neatly-staged transitional process. For a mother and child who have not eaten for days or scrimp on ten kilograms of grain a month, the famine taxanomy is meaningless. It would be interesting to hear what famine victims would say when they are told that they will not be in a famine state until they drop dead! The fact of the matter is that a famine by any other name is still famine and just as deadly!
On the other hand, the international agencies and NGOs have a manifest conflict of interest because by revealing the truth about the famine, they are likely to run the risk of a severe tongue-lashing, exposure that their programs are a waste, or if an NGO, decertification and expedited removal from the country. They would rather turn a blind eye and remain silent than use the “F” word.
Reason 8: Famine persist in Ethiopia because the regime in power for 20 years has failed to devise and implement an effective family planning policy.
Reason 9: Famine in Ethiopia is good business.
There are many who profit from economic emergences created by famines. There is much money to be made from trafficking in famine relief aid. According to FAO’s Global Food Monitor for August 2011, in Ethiopia and other Horn countries “prices of cereals have reached record levels… well above their levels a year earlier, substantially reducing access to food by large numbers of population and aggravating the food insecurity in the subregion.”
Reason 10: It is true “a hungry man/woman is an angry man/woman.” Is it not?
The great Bob Marley sang:
Them belly full, but we hungry;
A hungry mob is a angry mob.
Cost of livin’ gets so high,
Rich and poor they start to cry:
Now the weak must get strong;
Now the weak must get strong.
Alemayehu G. Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, CA, USA. He is a lawyer specializing in American constitutional law, and the Senior Editor of the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, a leading scholarly journal on Ethiopia. This is an abridged version of the author’s commentary on August 22 under the headline ‘Why are Ethiopians Starving Again in 2011?’.
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