Famine and the Noisome Beast in Ethiopia

Alemayehu G. Mariam | November 2nd, 2009

Alemayehu G. Mariam

It is hard to talk about Ethiopia these days in non-apocalyptic terms. Millions of Ethiopians are facing their old enemy again for the third time in nearly forty years. The Black Horseman of famine is stalking that ancient land. A year ago, Meles Zenawi’s regime denied there was any famine. Only “minor problems” of spot shortages of food which will “be soon brought under control,” it said dismissively. The regime boldly predicted a 7-10 percent increase in the annual harvest over 2007. Simon Mechale, head of the country’s Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency, proudly declared: “Ethiopia will soon fully ensure its food security.” For several years, the regime has been touting its Productive Safety Net Programme would result in ending the “cycle of dependence on food aid” by bridging production deficits and protecting household and community assets. Famine and chronic food shortages were officially ostracized from Ethiopia.

But the famine juggernaut could not be stopped. Recently, Mitiku Kassa, Ethiopia’s state minister for agriculture and rural development, was panhandling international donors to give $121 million in food aid to feed some 5 million people. The United Nations World Food Programme says a much larger emergency fund of $285 million in international food aid is needed to avert mass starvation just in the next six months.

Zenawi’s regime has been downplaying and double-talking the famine situation. It is too embarrassed to admit the astronomical number of people facing starvation in a country which, by the regime’s own accounts, is bursting at the seams from runaway economic development. USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network in its September, 2009 Situation Report indicated that there are “an additional 7.5 million” individuals to those reported by the Ethiopian government who are “chronically food insecure.” Regardless of the euphemisms, code words and rhetorical flourish used to describe the situation by politically correct international agencies, between 15-18 per cent of the Ethiopian population is at risk of full blown famine, according to estimates of various international famine relief organizations.

Many Ethiopians view the recurrent famines as an expression of divine wrath. Successive governments have evaded responsibility for their failure to prevent or mitigate famine conditions. In 1973/4, Ethiopia’s “hidden famine,” exposed to the world by the BBC’s Jonathan Dimbleby, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Ethiopians. Emperor Haile Selassie said he was unaware of the magnitude of the famine. He lost his throne and life in the ensuing military coup. In 1984/5, the Soviet-supported socialist military junta known as the “Derg” denied the existence of a famine which consumed over 1 million Ethiopians. Today, the regime of Meles Zenawi shamelessly presides over a third apocalyptic famine in 40 years while boasting to the world an “11 per cent economic growth over the past six years.”

Every Ethiopian government over the past four decades has blamed famine on “acts of God.” The current regime, like its predecessors, blames “poor and erratic rains,” “drought conditions,” “deforestation and soil erosion,” “overgrazing,” and other “natural factors” for famine and chronic food shortages in Ethiopia. Zenawi’s regime even has the brazen audacity to blame “Western indifference” and “apathy” in not providing timely food aid for the suffering of starving Ethiopians.

Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s international director, after her recent visit to Ethiopia observed: “Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution. If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores, and wells to harvest rains then they can survive despite what the elements throw at them.” Martin Plaut, BBC World Service News Africa editor explains that the “current [famine] crisis is in part the result of policies designed to keep farmers on the land, which belongs to the state and cannot be sold.” So the obvious questions for Zenawi’s regime are: Why is all land owned by a government that has rejected socialism and is fully committed to a free market economy? Why has the regime not been able to build an adequate system of irrigation for crops, grain storages and wells to harvest rains?

Indian economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argued that the best way to avert famines is by institutionalizing democracy and strengthening human rights: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy” because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.” Ethiopia’s famine today is a famine of food scarcity as much as it is a famine of democracy and good governance. Ethiopians are starved for human rights, thirst for the rule of law, ache for accountability of those in power and yearn to breathe free from the chokehold of dictatorship. They are dying at the hands of corrupt, foreign-aid-profiteering and ethnically-polarizing dictators who cling to the Ethiopian body politics like blood-sucking ticks on a milk cow.

Sen’s democratic network of “famine early warning systems” do not exist in Ethiopia. Opposition parties are crushed ruthlessly, and their leaders harassed, persecuted and jailed. Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopia’s recorded history, today languishes in prison doing a life term on the ridiculous charge that she had denied receiving a government pardon in July 2007 following her kangaroo court conviction and two year incarceration. The free press is silenced and journalists imprisoned for exposing official corruption and offering alternative viewpoints. They do not dare report on the famine. NGOs, including famine relief organizations, are severely hobbled in their work by a law that “criminalises the human rights activities of both foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations,” according to Amnesty International. All along, Zenawi has been hoodwinking international donors and lenders into supporting his “emerging democracy.” After two decades, we do not even see the ghost of democracy on Ethiopia’s parched landscape. All we see is the specter of an entrenched dictatorship that has clung to power like barnacles to a sunken ship, or more appropriately, the sunken Ethiopian ship of state.

Images of the human wreckage of Ethiopia’s rampaging famine will soon begin to make dramatic appearances on television in Western living rooms. The Ethiopian government will be out in full force panhandling the international community for food aid. Compassion-fatigued donors may or may not come to the rescue. Ethiopians, squeezed between the Black Horseman and the Noisome Beast, will once again cry out to the heavens in pain and humiliation as they await for handouts from a charitable world. Isn’t that a low-down dirty shame for a proud people to bear?

Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.