A Glimpse of the Creeping Famine in Ethiopia

News Politics

Behold the rider of the Black Horse (famine) eyeing Ethiopia once again

A boy stands outside his tukul as his mother arrives home with the body of his four-year-old sister who died of malnutrition near Sheshemene, southern Ethiopia
A boy stands outside his tukul as his mother arrives home with the body of his four-year-old sister who died of malnutrition near Sheshemene, southern Ethiopia

By Alemayehu G. Mariam,

Last week, NBC News aired an investigative report by Martin Geissler on the creeping famine in Ethiopia:

[Ethiopia] is the face of the world food crises. In a village in Southern Ethiopia, mothers cue with their malnourished children for emergency rations of food. They can’t afford to feed their babies and now it seems neither can the outside world. The distended stomachs, a symptom of the hunger so many here are suffering after two poor harvests in a row, and there are more new cases everyday… They were given food rations ten days ago… The government reserves ran out long ago, and now the U.N. supply is thinning too. They were given food rations 10 days ago… These people get a monthly handout; July’s [2013] was cut by a third. The rising price of grain worldwide means an extra one hundred million pounds need to be raised just to keep this up… 400 miles north near the Somali border, we found a changed landscape but the same crises and the rains are late here too and half the population needs food aid… They have been given a stark option [by regime representative Omar Abdi] ‘I have two options for them: to die or do the land.’ But across this country just now outside help is keeping millions alive. Malnutrition figures continue to rise and show no signs of slowing. This global food crises may be raising food bills in the West but the people here [in Ethiopia] are paying a far higher price.

Rang the Alarm Bell on the Looming Famine

In October 2012, I rang the alarm bell in my commentary “ Ethiopia: An Early Warning of a Famine in 2013. I claim no special knowledge or expertise in the economics of famine. However, by carefully piecing data, analyses and findings  from various sources including the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), Oxfam, the U.N. World Food Programme, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and reports of the New England Complex Systems Institute, [NECSI] (a group of academics from Harvard and MIT who specialize in predicting how changes in environment can lead to political instability and upheavals), it became clear to me that 2013 was likely to be the threshold year for the onset of famine or “catastrophic food crises”, as they euphemistically call it, in Ethiopia.

By late 2012, there was general consensus that reductions in the exports of grains from producing countries could trigger increased prices on the global commodities markets in 2013. I demanded to know how the “government of PM Hailemariam Desalegn expected to deal with the effects of the inevitable global food crises in light of its depleted foreign reserves and how his government will avert potentially catastrophic famine in the country.” I warned, “Planning to panhandle more emergency food aid simply won’t cut it. Relying on ‘Productive Safety Nets Programmes’ simply won’t do it. If the government of PM Hailemariam Desalegn cannot come up with a better answer or alternative to the looming famine over the horizon, it should be prepared to face not only a hungry population but also an angry one!”

For the past year, neither Hailemariam nor his puppet masters have done anything demonstrably constructive to deal with the “looming famine”. As usual, they are sitting around twiddling their thumbs and swatting flies waiting for American taxpayers to bail them out for the umpteenth time. There is a joke going around about the time Hailemariam was asked if he was worried about the poor rains and looming famine in Ethiopia. “We are not worried about the rains in Ethiopia; we are worried about the rains in America and Canada.” In February 2014, Hailemariam and Co. are polishing off their begging bowls to make a beeline to the U.S. and Canadian embassies to do their annual panhandling rounds.

In 2011, when Hailemariam was a “foreign and deputy prime minster” he was cocksure that his regime could lick famine and take a big bite out of poverty in no time. In an interview with  Africa Confidential, Hailemariam boasted, “For the last seven years, Ethiopia has witnessed double digit growth and this is a sign that our economic policy is working very well. If we continue this pace of development, we can double our economy in the next five years. This means that we will double our income for our community and so we will reduce poverty by 50%.” Hailemariam’s predecessor, the late imperious  Meles Zenawi, “in his first press conference in Addis Ababa, in reply to a question about his goals, declared that he would consider his government a success if Ethiopians were able to eat three meals a day.” ( See video here ) In 2011, Meles pompously declared, “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.”

“Three meals a day” in 2014 is pie in the sky for the vast majority of Ethiopians; and there is no chance that Ethiopia will feed itself “without the need for food aid” by 2015 as Meles “devised”. In fact, Ethiopia today is 123 out of 125 worst fed countries in the world. According to a new Oxfam food database “while the Netherlands ranks number one in the world for having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy and affordable diet, Chad is last on 125th behind Ethiopia and Angola.”

The tragic irony is that as millions of Ethiopians starve, Saudi Arabian, Indian agribusinesses commercially farm Ethiopia’s most fertile lands to export food to their countries and China stealthily implements its plans for the penetration of Ethiopia’s agricultural sector. What a doggone crying shame! So much for “double digit growth”, “doubling the economy”, “surplus production” and “three meals a day”!

Uncovering the hidden famine in Ethiopia

A malnurished child sits up in her bed in the Intensive Care Unit of a medical center run by Medecins Sans Frontiers in Kuyera, Ethiopia, 02 Sep 2008 (Photo: AFP)
A malnourished child sits up in her bed in the Intensive Care Unit of a medical center run by Medecins Sans Frontiers in Kuyera, Ethiopia, 02 Sep 2008 (Photo: AFP)

Over the past few years,  I have written over a dozen commentaries specifically on famine in Ethiopia or other related matters (see footnote in link). I have railed time and again against official secrecy in keeping famine stricken areas off limits to international and local journalists as tens of thousands die or suffer excruciating physical pain from food deprivation. The Meles/Hailemariam regimes have followed their predecessors lockstep in keeping famines secret. H.I.M. Haile Selassie in 1974 pretended there was no famine until the documentary the “Hidden Hunger” by Jonathan Dimbleby was aired provoking  shock and anger among Ethiopians. Former junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam was arrogantly dismissive during the 1984-85 famine. He casually asked, “What famine?” Meles, Hailemariam and those behind Hailemariam’s wooden throne today are far more cunning. Their solution is 1) to clampdown on the local press and shut the country down to all foreign journalists and media representatives who are interested in reporting on the impending humanitarian disaster, and 2) stand outside Western embassies with their shiny begging bowls.

It is interesting to note that the imperial government, the Derg junta and the current regime, like Nero who played his violin as Rome burned, continued their extravagant lifestyles as millions of Ethiopians starved. In 1974, before the overthrow of H.I.M. Haile Selassie, the Derg televised documentaries showing the excesses of the royal family as they fed their pets expensive morsels of meat and enjoying supposedly fancy imported cakes from Europe while tens of thousands died from famine in the northern part of the country. In 1984, on the tenth anniversary of the Derg’s seizure of power, the haughty soldiers let the champagne and whiskey flow like a river stream. Tens of thousands also died in the great famine of 1984.

In 2014, the situation is far worse. Those in power, their relatives, cronies, partners and cadres are spending tens of thousands of dollars on exclusive designer clothes, shoes, handbags and perfumes, hundreds of thousands of dollars on fancy cars and sports utility vehicles and living in multi-million dollar mansions furnished with the most expensive European furniture and kitchen appliances. They are stashing billions of dollars in foreign banks and secret investment schemes as documented in a report of Global Financial Integrity. In 2014, millions of Ethiopians are doomed to famine. Such is the sad but true story of Ethiopia today. By intimidating the press, the regime in power in Ethiopia has managed to maintain a complete news blackout on Ethiopia’s hidden famine. Thanks to the courageous Martin Geissler, ITN and NBC, we now have a glimpse of the human catastrophe that is taking shape.

The international conspiracy to keep Ethiopia’s hidden famines hidden

For over two decades, there has been a well-orchestrated conspiracy of silence between the regime in Ethiopia and the international donors, aid experts, international bureaucrats and NGOs not to use the dreaded “F” word in Ethiopia. They have gone to great lengths to hide the human face of famine by masking the truth with bureaucratic doublespeak and media newspeak. They talk about stages of “food insecurity”. Hungry and starving people are said to experience “acute food insecurity”, face “stressed” food situations, go into “crises” mode, graduate to “emergency” status and in the last stage undergo “catastrophic” food shortages. Nowhere  will they mention the word “famine” or “starvation”.

There is a reason why the word “famine” is banned among the hordes of international poverty pimps and the regime in Ethiopia. Famine conjures  up images of hordes of skeletal Ethiopians walking across the parched landscape, curled up corpses of famine victims under acacia trees and fly-infested children with distended bellies clutching their mothers at feeding camps. Geissler’s report last week does not show curled up corpses, but his video shows children with distended bellies clutching their mothers who are woefully resigned to the fact that their children will be dead in a day or two.

Talking about famine in Ethiopia openly is dangerous to the donor/NGO communities and the ruling regime because it portends political upheavals. In their analysis of recurrent famines in Ethiopia, Professors Angela Raven-Roberts and Sue Lautze noted, “Declaring a famine was also a complicated question for the Ethiopian government. Famines have contributed to the downfall of Ethiopian regimes… Some humanitarian practitioners gauge their successes, in part, according to ‘famines averted’.”

The conspiracy of silence serves the interest of all involved in dealing with the problem of famine in Ethiopia. To acknowledge the existence of famine by the regime, donors, NGOs and aid bureaucrats is tantamount to pointing an accusatory finger at oneself. If there is famine, it is proof positive that the donors who dumped millions of dollars in food aid, the NGOs involved in the distribution line and the highly overpaid international aid bureaucrats have failed. They have failed to produce a workable plan for food self-sufficiency in Ethiopia despite billions in aid. They have also failed to use their leverage against the regime in Ethiopia to deal with the famine bull by the horn.

The ruling regime in Ethiopia would rather have its tongue cut out than utter the word “famine”. For instance, in January 2010, Mitiku Kassa, Meles Zenawi’s agriculture minister declared, “In the Ethiopian context, there is no hunger, no famine… It is baseless [to claim hunger or famine], it is contrary to the situation on the ground. It is not evidence-based. The government is taking action to mitigate the problems.” Meles was equally dismissive: “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.” No famines. No political prisoners. No human rights violations. No dictatorship. No problems!

But the conspiracy to deny the existence of famine in Ethiopia implicates the U.S. itself. In 2004, President George W. Bush “challenged his administration  to ensure that famines were avoided during his tenure, a policy known as ‘No Famine on My Watch’; declaring the existence of a famine could be seen as a political shortcoming and, therefore, a political vulnerability.” The one exception to the official embargo on the use of the word “famine” is Wolfgang Fengler, a lead economist for the World Bank, who on August 17, 2011, definitively declared, “This [famine] crisis [in Ethiopia] is manmade. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.” In other words, the fundamental problem with famine in Ethiopia is poor governance, not drought; incompetent and indifferent governance, not environmental factors. The recurrent famines in Ethiopia are manmade; that is, they are “made” by corrupt, indifferent,   incompetent and clueless regimes that lack political will to deal with the recurrent problem. Those in positions of power in Ethiopia have a petrified “bush mentality” impervious to rational planning and policymaking.

The ruling regime in Ethiopia blames “drought” for the deaths and suffering of millions of Ethiopians year after year. Yet that ne’er-do-well regime has done next to nothing to deal with the underlying problems aggravating the conditions leading to endlessly recurrent famines (see my July 2010 commentary “ Apocalypse Now or in 40 Years? ”). They have done nothing meaningful to control the country’s high population growth and food prices, improve environmental degradation and low agricultural productivity caused by state ownership of land and subsistence farming on fragmented small plots and have yet to undertake comprehensive agricultural planning. The regime’s solution has been to give away the most arable land in the country to so-called international investors who “lease” the land for commercial agriculture and exports to their home countries or for sale on the international market while Ethiopians starve. Hailemariam believes Saudi and Indian land grabs will transform Ethiopian agriculture. He recently told the New African, “We have subsistence agriculture and that’s now changing into commercial agriculture.”

The moral hazard of U.S. food aid to Ethiopia

There is a mindboggling irony and disconnect in U.S. food aid to Ethiopia. Every year for decades, the U.S. has provided food aid to Ethiopia with certain knowledge that it will be providing food aid again to the very same people year after year.  Except for feel-good-we-are-doing-something show and tell projects like “productive safety nets programmes” (which the ruling regime uses to extort political support from rural farmers and residents), the U.S. has imposed few conditions on the regime to deal with the famine problem. Yet millions of Ethiopians are in dire straits year after year; and millions of American tax dollars targeted for famine relief are lost to fraud, abuse and waste.

The fact of the problem is that U.S. food aid policy itself must be scrutinized to determine the extent to which it has contributed to keeping starving Ethiopians teetering on the edge of catastrophe. As Paul Hebert, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia recently observed, “The problem we face [in Ethiopia] is that more and more people are living on the edge… It doesn’t take very much to push them over that edge. The fear is that if we do have another large drought in this country and we haven’t made significant progress in addressing the chronic food security that could set things back significantly. Because of the precariousness of many people, you can easily slip into a very serious famine situation.”

Is the U.S. a silent accomplice watching on the sidelines as millions of Ethiopians living on the edge slide off the edge? As the recent NBC report documented, several millions of Ethiopians in the southern Ethiopia’s Somali and Oromiya regions are today facing “catastrophic severe food shortages”, commonly known as famine. Other areas expected to experience famine-like conditions in 2014  include northeastern Amhara and eastern and southern Tigray regions and the lowlands of East Hararghe Zone in Oromia. Between 12-20 million Ethiopians are estimated to be “living on the edge”; it will not take much to push them over the edge into full-fledged famine. Is the U.S. a silent accomplice?

The regime’s old panhandling tricks to hustle hundreds of millions of dollars in annual American taxpayer handouts may have already come to an end. U.S. Food for Peace contributions have been on steep decline for the past several years: 451.7million (2010); $313.3million (2011); $306.6million (2012); $235.5million (2013) and $86.9million for 2014. If Hailemariam and Co., believe they can wing the current “food crises” or solve Ethiopia’s “chronic food shortages” by panhandling the U.S. as usual, they had better think again. It seems even Obama now wants to see a change in the fraud, waste and abuse of U.S. food aid in countries like Ethiopia. Donor fatigue is spreading and setting hard throughout America, particularly outside the Washington beltway. Hailemariam and his puppet master should take note of that.

Annual harvest of famine: The fierce urgency for official transparency and accountability

The problem of “food shortages”, “food insecurity”, or whatever euphemism one chooses to use, in Ethiopia cannot be solved by food handouts. After corruption, panhandling is the lifeline of the regime in Ethiopia today. For over two decades, the regime in power in Ethiopia has been harvesting famine and shame. The regime is so accustomed to food handouts, it is now hopelessly addicted to food aid. The poor Ethiopian famine victims have no confidence in the ability or capacity of those in power to care of them. They cast their gazes upon the U.S. and other Western donors. How long must American taxpayers dole out their hard earned dollars to a regime that could not care less for its population? How long will American taxpayers tolerate their tax dollars being wasted, abused and defrauded in the name of humanitarian aid by corrupt regimes?

As I have often said, talking about the rule of law, accountability and transparency to those in power in Ethiopia today is like preaching Scripture to a gathering of deaf-mute heathen or pouring water over a slab of granite.  It is an exercise in total futility. After twenty-three years in power, they still cling to the politics of secrecy they practiced in the bush. They suffer from arrested development unable to transition from bushcraft to statecraft. That said, we must never stop insisting on transparency and accountability.

The role of press freedom in attaining transparency and accountability cannot be overstated. Investigative journalists in the past have saved the lives of millions in Ethiopia. They are the unsung heroes who exposed callous official indifference and saved millions from starvation and famine in the 1970s and 80s. When junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam denied the devastating famines, investigative journalists stepped in and let the world know what was happening leading to a massive global grassroots response. The same held true for the imperial regime in the early 1970s. It is no different now. Hailemariam and his puppet masters must come clean and let the world know the extent of famine and starvation in Ethiopia. Donor countries should insist on strict accountability by making sure that the truth about the looming famine is laid bare to the world, and insist on effective remedial measures. The alternative is that the U.S and other Western donors must accept co-responsibility as silent accomplices of the regime for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in the looming famine. In the end, Ethiopians will remember not only the depraved indifference and criminal neglect of those claiming to be their leaders but also the inaction and silence of the bleeding heart do-gooders who give them lip service but are morally indifferent to their suffering. Perhaps they should all heed Bob Marley’s message in a song: “A hungry man is an angry man.”

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.

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Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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