Opinion

Ethiopia: TPLF’s Politics of Famine, War & Elections

By Tuji Jidda

Background

As an Ethiopian, I feel deeply humiliated by the abject poverty our people live under and the worsening spread of unmitigated hunger and famine. When I look at the indicators and I worry that the worst is maybe yet to come. All the while, the TPLF government is doing everything to cover up this unfolding potentially devastating famine and is preparing for the world climate summit in Copenhagen.

While international attention is useful in leading to temporary relief measures, it fails short to address the fundamental problems that cause the recurrence of such emergencies. This brief article will analyze whether all the gloom and doom is imposed by nature alone or whether human interactions gave added impetus for the destruction.  The working assumption here is that while it is easy to blame nature, the problem at hand is as much a man-made.


Much of Northern Ethiopia has a long history of famine. Through the ages, they have faced frequent natural disasters, armed conflicts, political repression, and in the process they have suffered from hunger, social disruption, and innumerous death. For example, a thorough internet search turns up about 30 known big famines that hit the country from 1535 to 1885 some caused by a prolonged drought while most are the result of endless war and massive plunders.


Basically, drought does not translate directly into famine if government takes appropriate and timely measures in collaboration with the people. Especially green famine has nothing or little to do with lack of rain or the existence of drought. Famines occur as the result of bad government policies, lack of basic human rights protection, and at the absence of democratic platforms. This is certainly the case with the consecutive Ethiopian regimes that cares merely to maintain grip of power to loot, not help the people.


Recent history shows that Tewodros and Yohannes’s repeated raid and plunder exposed the country to famine in the first half of 19th century. Menelik’s devastating war against the south was also accompanied by a Great Famine of 1896 and a misery. Haile Selassie had a badly reported case of famine in his records with Ogaden, Wello, Tigray, and Eritrea when nearly a million people perished in 1929, 1954, 1973 and 1974 respectively. Clearly, the places that famine struck hard, including Wollo and Tigray, were not the regime’s favorite areas.

The famous 1984/85 famine that affected 7.7 millions came after a protracted war in different parts of the Ethiopian empire: Ogaden, Eritrea and Tigray, war with other oppressed nations in the south, war within the establishment, the white and red terrors, etc.  In “Politics and Famine in Ethiopia”, Clay and Holcomb, presents the country’s endless war as one of the major causes for the famous 1985 and other famines.  The country has been suffering from continuous cycles of war and famine for centuries and is expected to suffer in the future unless certain precautions are taken. Observes and pundits long declared the country to be “the closest thing to hell on earth”. Strictly speaking, most of rural Ethiopia has never fully recovered from the effects of those devastating famines as one brutal regime succeeded the other. Also the most chilling aspect of the current crisis is the persistence of dismal famine despite the generous aid from donor countries.

Famine, War and Election under TPLF

No one knows the gravity of famine and the effect of war better than TPLF.  One of their famous mantras “better to die by bullet than hunger” supports that assertion. Actually, TPLF is created out of and is emboldened by the 1985 famine that affected the whole country. The current TPLF leaders and most of recent TPLF millionaires are survivors of the 1985 famine. Former TPLF Chief of Finance, Mr. Gebremedhin Ara’aya, recently wrote an attention-grabbing piece on the politics of famine played by TPLF leaders.

He writes impassively, ‘…the 100 million dollars donated, for the starving people of Tigray, through Band Aid coordinator Sin. Bob Geldoff ended up in the personal accounts of Meles Zenawi Asres and Sibehat Nega’.

Meles Zenawi, Sebhat Nega, Seyoum Mesfin, Abay Tsehai, Abadi Zemu, Brehane Gebrekristos, Tewodros Hagos etc played major roles in all the fraudulent schemes of hoodwinking major international humanitarian organizations and their star fundraisers whereby millions of dollars was deposited in accounts established by such individuals allegedly for the starving people.

The irony is that since TPLF/EPRDF, the major beneficiary of the 1985 famine in many respects came to power; Ethiopia hasn’t shown signs of improvement except in Tigray region – home to the minority ruling elites. To the contrary, the country has since experienced five major wars and five devastating famines accompanied by five sham elections.

In addition, the mainly agricultural produce export oriented policy of the TPLF regime added fuel to the country’s already prevailing chronic food insecurity. Its misguided strategy of selectively making Tigray an industrialized zone that process agricultural raw products from the fertile green regions further exacerbated the problem. As a result, the frequency of famine and number of victims affected increased from eight million in 1999-2000 to 14.5 in 2003 and 13 million in 2009 (TPLF claims that number to be only 6.2 million). See table-1.

Table-1 five big Famines during TPLF/EPRDF Regime

No.

Year

Affected population

Remark

1

1993

N/A

Not properly reported

2

1996

3 million

Green Famine

3

2000

8 million

Drought, war, election, and forest fire

4

2003

14.3 million

The regime covered it up shortly after declaring the emergency

5

20009

13 million

Government estimates :  6.2 millions

As can be seen from the table below, the surprising difference between previous famines and one under TPLF regime is that the structure and magnitude of the famines changed from the usual drought born famine in Northern Ethiopia to the shrewd TPLF politics born green famine of the fertile South. Without a doubt, green famine is man-made as opposed to a famine caused by a natural drought. Table 2 below shows the spread of famine survivors born famines.

Table-2 Famine Affected population by Region-2009

Rank

Region

Affected population

Reason/Remark

1st

Somali

1,849,473

war, drought, famine

2nd

Oromia

1,370,222

Green Famine

3rd

SNNP

1,061,179

Green Famine

4th

Amhara

1,015,310

Drought, famine

5th

Tigray

747, 4611

Drought

6th

Gambella

80,352

N/A

7th

Afar

75,412

Drought, famine

8th

B. gumuz

35,233

Green Famine

9th

Dire-Dawa

7,644

Drought, Famine

10th

Harari

0

Town state, big budget

11th

Addis Ababa

0

Political capital

Total

6,242,286

Source: A Joint Government and Humanitarian partner’s document Oct-Dec, 2009

If possible, the TPLF government wants to undermine or hide the existence of such famine for the simple reason of defending its discriminatory and ineffective policies. As a matter of fact, Meles Zenawi had been playing down the scale of the current famine until very recently, blaming the international media for exaggerating the number of people in need of emergency food aid.


The minority government in Addis Ababa is more focused on maintaining political power, usurping the upcoming election and building a false image of itself that doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground. Although the government presents global warming and lack of rain as the primary reasons for recurring food shortage, TPLF-made political and social factors are crucial in this pattern. The figures in the above table show how the war ravaged Somali region and the fertile and evergreen regions of Oromia and SNNP top the places most affected by famine while Tigray is at the bottom. Skeptics suspect that the Tigray region is affected by a natural drought, not a man-made famine that is wiping out the rest of the country. The fact that the richest TPLF conglomerates such as EFFORT and REST have more wealth than the government itself, can easily tackle the Tigrean famine without international intervention, proves the above assertion.


A recent article by Mr. Geoffrey York for Saturday’s The Globe and Mail, ‘Ethiopia: Land of silence and starvation’, is an excellent testimony to easily deduce the overall situation of Ethiopian politics and the famine victims’ hostage drama.

I quote “…any talk of drought and hunger is still a highly sensitive issue in this impoverished country … Aid agencies that dare to speak out publicly, or even to allow a photo of a malnourished child at a feeding centre, can be punished or expelled from the country. Visas or work permits are often denied, projects can be delayed, and import approvals for vital equipment can be buried. Most relief agencies are prohibited from allowing visits by journalists or foreigners, except under strict government control.”

Table-3 Five Major Wars fought by TPLF/EPRDF

Wars

Years

Effect

TPLF-Derg

1974-1992

Millions died

TPLF-OLF

1992-Present

Thousands died, millions displaced, disappeared or exiled

TPLF- EPLF

2000-2003

Close to 100,000 died

TPLF-Somalia

2007-present

Hundreds died, thousands displaced and unlawfully incarcerated

TPLF-ONLF

2008-present

Thousands died, 100s of thousands displaced

Other conflicts

1992-present

Tens of thousands perished or disappeared

As can be seen from table-3 above, the continuous cycle of wars definitely worked to aggravate matters. The first TPLF famine occurred in 1999/2000 threatening over eight million people. The calculated blunders committed by Tigrean ethnic minority regime and its inhuman policies of inciting ethnic conflicts among Ethiopians has displaced tens of thousands active labor force adding to the growing problems of famine. On top of that, the TPLF-EPLF human wave war has caused massacre of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, depleting the available resources.

Eye witness accounts of the 1999/2000 famine in East Hararghe

Between 1992 and 1999, TPLF was conducting a vast campaign of ‘rooting out’ OLF military and its supporters from Oromo areas. In the process, multiple members of same households, elders and countless other productive labor forces were illicitly put in jail. Consequently, clear symptoms of famine and hunger started manifesting around 1997 and turning into acute famine by 1999. Animals, chickens, fire woods, and charcoal became cheaper as famine victims started selling everything they were left with.

Expectedly, the government ignored the humanitarian catastrophe, let alone making emergency response. Contrarily, Wereda administrators were ordered to hide the problem and not allow journalists into areas most affected by the famine. By the time the unexpected Ethio-Eritrea war broke-out, the famine situation in places like Babile, Fadis and Metta in eastern Oromia was already out of control. A huge exodus of victims that left their home to seek other survival mechanisms was prevented from entering towns.

Instead of addressing the humanitarian situation at hand, officials around the country were ordered to devote everything to the war propaganda campaign. Despite the chronic famine, the relatively low number of people who were seen as well-off were forced to contribute bulls, sheep, goats, etc to the Badime war. During this time, some states like Harari regional government contributed their share buying up cheap animals from those famine victims. I recall a high ranking official saying ‘what is new with Fadis people starving?’

Eventually, weaker victims started migrating to nearby towns, Harar, Dire-Dawa and few made the treacherous journey in the direction of Somalia and Djibouti. Sadly enough, government officials passed strange warnings saying ‘OLF elements were behind the migration’. I remember the following pitiless exchange between a sad looking unqualified government official and a crowd of famine victims who were pleading for assistance.

The government representative asked: “Why did you folks come here while we are preparing to provide assistance in your area?” And order the victims, “All of you should return back to your villages and wait for aid to come there”.

One elder replied with a very frail voice, “we have been waiting all along and you know hunger doesn’t give you patience”.

The official interrupted and exclaimed “…even if you couldn’t wait, you should have sent a representative!”

Another victim countered “…does hunger have a representative?”

Unable to idly watch the unfolding tragedy, few relatively well-to-do local businessmen were persuaded to help the victims through alms that they would distribute but feared that they will be accused of association with the OLF. A restaurant and grinding mill owner from Fadis expressed his frustration by saying;

‘I closed the restaurant and mill…everybody became poor… there are no grains to grind…people don’t have money …no one here affords to buy food even at cheaper price.’

The paradox of it all was that those people dying of starvation were ashamed to engage in practices such as begging or did not know how to join the relatively privileged prison population in the country in order to save their lives.

TPLF’s Five wars, five famines and five fake Elections

As Mr. Tesfaye Gebre’ab testified in his famous book “Yegazetegnawu Mastawesha”, TPLF was not ready or planning to give up the power it clanged by bullet through a ballot contest from the very beginning. That is primarily because any democratic change would reduce TPLF share of the country to only the six percent they deserve. During the period of transitional government, TPLF diverted all the resources of the country to its constituencies in Tigray using both covert and overt policies. For instance, it allotted a big budget to Tigray region under the pretext of ‘priority to war ravaged regions’, by conducting years of  day light and curfew time looting, robbery, confiscation, by promoting discriminatory trade, industry, investment and other policies.

Table-4. Five TPLF war and famine time elections

Election year

War

famine

Remarks

1992

OLF-TPLF War

N/A

–cancelled last minute.

1993

OLF-TPLF War

misery

Uncontested election. Thousands imprisoned & millions displaced internally

1997

Skirmish and ethnic conflicts

Green famine

No meaningful opposition participation

2001

TPLF-EPLF war

Famine

Other major catastrophes

2005

CUD turned the election to rejection

After OLF withdrew itself from the transitional government in June 1992, objecting to TPLF’s massive intimidation and killings just before the district and regional election, the first national election of 1993 was held amid devastating famine without any opposition participation. All MPs were hand-picked. At that time, tens of thousands of active labor forces in the country were detained and millions were internally displaced. The second election was conducted in the middle of 1997 famine in similar fashion. The third election was conducted in 2001 without meaningful opposition participation and while famine, TPLF-EPLF war and many other catastrophes were raging. The fourth election (2005) proved to be a rejection for TPLF by Ethiopian people but the opposition victory was robbed. And the forthcoming election (the fifth since the minority junta came to power) is expected to be no different from the disputed 2005 election. The miseries caused and the resources wasted on all these fake elections were contributory factors to the subsequent famines. This facts show that it is a common tactic/practice for TPLF to conduct fake election during war and famine.

War & famine as most TPLF most lucrative business

Contrary to conventional thinking, successful war and big famines are the most profitable businesses in Ethiopia. It is Menelik who conducted the first ever most profitable holocaust like war of massacre, mass killing, looting, plundering and confiscation of the whole country to become a leading land and slave owner of his time. His successor, Mr. Haile Silassie, following in Menelik’s footsteps created hundreds of Rases, Grazmaches, Dejazmaches, and other low raking officials from among famous war criminals making most of them rich feudal elites at the expense of the suffering majority.

The TPLF has also conducted the most successful business of war and famine in 20th century making its minority constituents the richest ethnic group in the poorest country on the face of earth. They confiscated properties from every town, city or country they controlled. What makes TPLF especially different from its predecessors is that they conducted and are still conducting the most successful famine business ever to become short-cut super rich conglomerates. Some analysts present this marginalized minority richness as Ethiopia’s growth and development.

Measures government supposed to take to address famines

There are menu of things a government should do to mitigate such big famines had TPLF/EPRDF government behaved as a responsible body acting on behalf of the governed. The range of measures that can be taken or its order depends largely on the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis.

  • The customary practice is citizens, especially those living in towns and cities don’t have any idea about famine in their country. Instead of hiding or downplaying the famine, the government should reveal detailed footages of the famine in local and international Medias followed by analysis, commentaries and explanations of federal, regional and local officials and experts until all people know about the situation of their fellow citizens suffering from famine.
  • The head of the government, but not low level officials, should make prime time address to the people about the famine with emergency measures to be taken.
  • Government should encourage religious and civic organizations direct participation and individuals direct intervention both personally and collectively. Especially the huge conglomerates such as REST/EFFORT, that has more capital and power than the Ethiopian government itself, should address the famine even before asking international humanitarian assistance.
  • When necessary, parliament should forward motion to amend government’s plan mainly from domestic resources, reallocate and/or even freeze budget, declare state of emergency campaigns and mourning periods, fly the flag at half staff, impose humanitarian tax on luxury items, hang the flag half way, cancel all extravaganza activities, and promulgate famine mitigating policies. Famine victims deserve to get at least the benefits afforded to convicted fellows.
  • The campaign to be waged should look like a fully fledged war campaigns against any one national enemy-like the campaign against national aggression, HIV aids, Polio, etc and it should remain in the headlines the famine declared over.
  • Implementing disaster/famine prevention mechanisms and early warning systems that should end the custom of hiding and eventually declaring famine like unpredictable other catastrophes such as earth quake, flooding, etc.

 

  • All government policies should be harmonized focusing on first mitigating the humanitarian crisis. Accordingly, grain export oriented policies should at least be postponed until the country achieves food security. Also land to grab policy should be stopped especially if the products are intended for export.

What donors should do?

At present, donor countries give Ethiopia over two billion dollars in development aid annually, amounting to nearly 60% of the government expenditure. As it has done during its eighteen years in power, the TPLF government diverts much of this donor largesse towards maintaining a tight grip on power through systematic repression, political imprisonment, and human rights abuses. This means, parts of the political responsibility for the exacerbated famine and other TPLF human rights abuses lies in the hands of donor countries.

Therefore, donors, should intervene only when the people and top government officials fully and practically acknowledge the magnitude of famine, and the concrete/appropriate domestic measures of resource mobilization has been undertaken by the government in power. That means donors should give ownership of the famine to the government by putting domestic efforts as a precondition for international aid. Experience shows that a mere international reaction to famine is one of the major causes for existence of continuous and vicious cycles of famine that keeps irresponsible governments in power.

Conclusion

The major difference between TPLF regime’s famines and that of Ethiopia’s past famines is that the current one is a man-made green famine and that TPLF uses all the pretexts and precedents to pre-empt and trample alternatives.  The past rulers of the empire are not too proud to tell the world that people under their, otherwise tragic, rule do starve in fact.  Menelik had a pretext to hide the great famine behind the war with European fascism.  Haile Selassie hid the destructive famine with the connivance of the western powers.

Mengsitu had a project to finish before accepting his policies were ruthless and that it contributed to famine.  Meles Zenawi was the first to tell the world all is well and sooner than later he will admit that it’s worse than actually reported.  They cannot avoid today’s media exposure that contrasts with the deafening silence of the past.  It is a matter of time until he admits the inevitable and declares bankruptcy before everything is out of his handling. It is imperative to divert the resources wasted on political manipulation towards tackling the country’s problems.

It is true that politics affects the economic and social conditions in any country.  It is also true that the buck stops at the benches of officials who impose destructive policies and their sponsors.  But the humanitarian disaster does not give much time to spend on the luxury of disputing the rights and wrongs of the regime in power.

In the short term, the international community has no alternative other than looking for ways to help the people, whose saddening images appear on their TV screens, inevitably disturbing people’s conscience.  Such relief aid may help save the dying now. But the real help is a commitment to humanitarian approach that helps people to help themselves.  While relief work is as urgent as ever, the need to see long-term solution is by far much more beneficial to the people affected, to the region, and even to the world.

Successive Ethiopian governments pursued the principle that if urban people starve they will riot; if rural people starve they will die. And they tend to invest their energy on addressing the potential rioting urban problem rather and saving lives. Also they use famine as a manufacturer of a huge army for their endless wars. TPLF is the biggest instigator of conflicts in the country and the source of all potential instability in our sub-region. Yet, nonsensically it holds elections while war and famine are raging.

Green famine is man-made famine that should not be tolerated or compromised in favor of any other policy for the purpose of promoting donor country’s national interest. Donors should, therefore, base their support on the efforts made at a national level. Otherwise, as funders of the TPLF regime, donors must accept not only political responsibility, but also, perhaps more importantly, the moral responsibility for all TPLF regime’s abuses and massive humanitarian crisis. They are morally responsible for all misdeeds and consequences of the TPLF dictatorship, including not only political oppression, but also economic mismanagement, poverty and famine that continues to plague Ethiopia.

I hate to see our problems solved though violence but I will be one of the citizens who will not speak against any counter measures which may arise as a result of not saving starving lives.

The writer can be reached at oceonia@yahoo.com.

Chronology of Famine in Ethiopia:

 

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