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The politics of famine in Ethiopia.

Despite extensive coverage of the Ethiopian famine in the media, few Americans are aware that the crisis, like earlier famines in Cambodia and Biafra, has its roots in war and politics as well as drought.

The northern provinces of Tigre and Eritrea, which have been worst hit by the famine, have also been embroiled for many years in armed struggles against the central government in Addis Ababa. As many as 3.8 million Tigreans and 2 million Eritreans are in danger of starvation, yet the ongoing civil wars have cut off the vast majority of these victims from aid programs run by the Ethiopian gobernment and the international aid agencies operating under its auspices. "Because of the fighting, very little of the food contributed by the United States and other donor countries is reaching the starving in the rebel-controlled areas," says Dan Connell, a former Reuters correspondent in Ethiopia and now executive director of Grassroots International, a relief agency based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Although Connell is one of the few people involved who will talk about it, it is an open secret among relief workers that more than half the famine victims in Ethiopia are not being reached by the government's programs. Ethiopia's ruling military junta, led by Lieut. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, is covering up that fact, and foreign diplomats and relief agency officials have been reluctant to reveal it for fear the government will curtail their operations altogether. Even more disturbing, there is strong eivdence that the government has deliberately withheld food from rebel-controlled areas in Eritrea and tigre in order to starve the insurgents into submission. Thousands of noncombatants there have died from hunger.

Unfortunately, the United States is tacitly abetting this use of famine as a weapon. In an interview last March, Hunter Farnham, a senior official with the Agency for International Development (A.I.D.), said that famine victims in areas not controlled by the Ethiopian government are "really over a barrel in terms of the U.S. being able to help them directly." He added, "I can tell you that we're quite concerned abouit this situation, and we'd like to be more responsive to the noncombatants who are really suffering the most." Although Farnham implied that the problem is a logistical one, it political. The Reagan Administration is attempting to woo Ethiopia away from the Soviet Union, so it has been reluctant to provide direct aid to famine victims living in rebel-controlled areas. So far the United States has pledged 210,000 tons of to Ethiopia, the largest amount of famine relief in our history. But 90 percent of all international assistance to Ethiopia is being channeled to areas under government control and is thus subject to the junta's direction.

Who are the insurgents and why are they fighting? Historically, Ethiopia's forty-odd ethnic groups have been oppressed by the Amhara tribe, which continues to control the central government. Over the past decade, however, a number of armed resistance movements have emerged. The Tigre People's Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.), established in 1975, seeks a decentralized popular government to represent equally all the nationalities within Ethiopia.

Although government troops occupy nine major towns in Tigre, the T.P.L.F. holds more than 85 percent of the rural areas. In the villages under its control, the front has organized People's Councils which have implemented land reform, built schools and clinics, and provided agricultural assistance and local security. Because of those tangible benefits, many peasants in rebel-held areas sympathetic to the front.

civil conflict has also raged for more than two decades in the Pennsylvania-size territory of Eritrea, which is coveted by otherwise landlocked Ethiopia for its coast along the Red Sea. Ever since Emperor Haile Selassie's annexation of Eritrea in 1962, an independence movement has fought against successive regimes in Addis Ababa, but after twenty-three years the conflict remains stalemated. Today, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (E.P.L.F.) occupies about 85 percent of the province outside the major cities, and it has established extensive administrative structures in the areas under its control. Athough massive government offensives have hurled the rebels back temporarily, the army has failed to occupy the countryside.

After a coup ended Haile Selassie's forty-four-year reign, in September 1974, a Marxist junta known as the Derg ("committee") took power, and following a bloody power struggle, Colonel Mengistu became its supreme leader. Because of the Derg's human rights violations and communist leanings, U.S.-Ethiopian relations became increasingly strained, and in 1977 the Soviet Union replaced the United States as Ethiopia's superpower ally and weapons supplier. Since then, the Russians have provided the Derg an estimated $2.5 billion in sophisticated weaponry (including MI-24 helicopter gunships and MIG-23 fighter-bombers), alnog with some 1,400 military advisers, and Cuba has supplied 3,000 troops.

today, nearly half Ethiopia's national budget goes to support a highly merchanized army of 306,000 troops, one of the largest military establishments in sub-Saharan Africa. The civil wars in Eritrea and Tigre are costing the Derg approximately $500,000 a day, accodring to The New York Times, yet despite the huge investment of blood and treasure, victory has remained elusive.

A series of military setbacks have led the Derg to resort to increasingly brutal forms of warfare, including scorched-earth tactics. In the spring of 1983, th eEthiopian Army launched major offensives in Eritrea and Tigre which left massive destruction in their wake. According to Gayle Smith, a freelance journalist who toured Tigre on foot that year, the Ethiopian government deliberately sought to bring about a famine in the north as a way of weakening the rebels. "The 1983 offensive was launched in western Tigre--the only part of the province where a grain surplus was achieved--and it occurred right after the harvest," Smith says. "You can draw your own conclusions."

Government forces burned grain supplies, fields and pasturelands using incendiary bombs, cut down fruit orchards, shot domestic animals and destroyed public schools and health clinics built by the T.P.L.F. A similar military offensive in Eritrea contributed to the famine there by disrupting planting in the southwestern part of the territory bordering the Sudan. The Ethiopian Air Force also bombed towns and villages on market days, terrorizing the inhabitants. "It's basically the old strategic--hamlet theory," Grassroots International's Connell says, drawing a parallel to U.S. counterinsurgency methods in Vietnam. "The government has used terror attacks and hunger to drive the people out of the countryside and into official recpetion centers in the main towns, which are held by Ethiopian government forces. The goal is not so much to control the peasants as to deny aid to the guerrillas."

Evidence has emerged recently that the Ethopian government is also diverting emergency food to the army and militia. In October the government-held town of Lalibela was overrun in a T.P.L.F.-led attack. According to three Western relief workers there, the rebels discovered large quantities of international food aid inside a government military garrison.

The deteriorating security situation, combined with communications and transportation problems, have meant that large areas of Eritrea and Tigre are cut off from famine-relief efforts. During last spring and summer the key roads to the north were often impassable because of fighting. Only a few food convoys got through, accompanied by armed escorts. Moreover, voluntary agencies working under the auspices of the Ethiopian government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (R.R.C.) can distribute food only in official centers set up in the vicinity of government-controlled garrison towns, such as Mekele, the capital of Tigre.

"It's very difficult to reach the rural areas through the regular channels," admits James Deharpporte of Catholic Relief Services, which is working in Eritrea and Tigre in cooperation with the R.R.C. "the famine and the war situation have caused people to come to the urban area where we have set up feeding centers, and they are the major beneficiaries."

The only organizations providing direct aid to famine victims in rural areas of Eritrea and Tigre are two indigenous groups affiliated with the rebels. The Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) coordinates its activities with the E.P.L.F. but is administered independently; the association's officials say they provide food to all people in need regardless of whether they support the guerrillas. So far, ERA has managed an effective but seriously underfinanced relief effort in behalf of the 2 million Eritreans in danger of starvation.

Similarly, the Relief Society of Tigre (REST), a voluntary agency founded in 1978, is the only humanitiarian organization operating in the guerrilla-controlled areas there. REST's administration and personnel are separate from the T.P.L.F.'s, although REST officials cooperate with the front and with the People's Councils in the villages.

Accordingly to Gayle Smith, ERA and REST "are so efficient that they could be models for disaster relief anywhere in the world." The bulk of the food and supplies they allot is contributed by European church organizations and a handful of U.S. private voluntary agencies working through the Sudan, including Grassroots International, Lutheran World Relief (New York City), Mercy Corps International (Portland, Oregon), Direct Relief International (Sacramento, California), the Mennonite Central Committee (Akron, Pennsylvania) and, November, Oxfam American (Boston).

The U.S. government provides small amounts of indirect aid to ERA and REST through those private relief groups and the International Committee for the Red Cross. But although the Ethiopian government reaches about half the famine victims, and ERA and REST the other half, the rebel-associated groups have far less food at their disposla. "International aid is running 20-to-1 in favor of the government," Smith says. Many donors have declined to work with ERA and REST for fear either that the Ethiopian government might restrict the donor's programs or that food given to the agencies might end up feeding rebel soldiers. So far, however, there is no evidence that food aid from ERA or REST has been diverted to the fronts.

Because the amounts of food and supplies reaching the two organizations have been so small, famine victims in remote villages of Eritrea and Tigre must travel to feeding centers in the government-controlled towns. Those who survive the journey are often badly treated, according to Chris Cartter, associate director of Grassroots International, who toured the T.P.L.F.-controlled areas of Tigre in November and interviewed a number of migrating famine victims. He heard accounts of intimidation, harassment and even physical violence suffered at the hands of Ethiopian officials. "Several refugees told me that officials in the government feeding centers asked them for an I.D. card, such as membership in a farmers' union," he say. "Because people fro T.P.L.F.-controlled areas don't have I.D.s, they were told go to the back of the line or to come back the next day. Some were denied food and even beaten."

Another source of the refugees' fear and mistrust of the official famine-relief program is a new government policy. In November, the Derg began implementing what it called "a long-term solution" to the famine, which consists of resettling peasants from Eritrea and Tigre to areas that are supposedly more fertile in the southern provinces of Welega and Ilubabor. More than 70,000 people from Tigre have been moved to the south in trucks, buses and Soviet Antonov transport aircraft, and the Ethiopian government plans to resettle a total of 1.5 million people there by the end of the year. In many cases, peasants have been removed from their ancestral lands against their will. According to a recent report in The Christian Science Monitor, villages in Tigre have been surrounded by troops at night and their inhabitants herded into trucks which take them to the new settlements.

Mistreatment in the feeding centers and forced resettlement polices, together with ERA and REST's inability to provide enough food, have led to a massive exodus from the rebel-held areas. Cartter reports that starving peasants are leaving their villages at a rate of 10,000 a week for the refugee camps across the Sudanese border. New arrivals at the border number around 120,000, and some 60,000 migrants are making their way through western Tigre. Although REST has set up dozens of checkpoints along the route to provide the refugees with food, water and basic medical care, thousands have died.

Meanwhile, the fighting has intensified in Eritrea and Tigre. Cartter, who witnessed a fire fight between rebels and government forces near the Tigrean town of Aresa in late November, notes that 50,000 troops have been added to the Ethiopian Army as a result of the junta's new policy of conscription.

According to the vice chairman of the T.P.L.F., the front expects a major government offensive in the near future and views the Derg's resettlement plan as part of a strategy to depopulate Eritrea and Tigre so as to further weaken the insurgents.

On December 3, Ethiopian government aircraft strafed the Tigrean town of Shellalo, killing eighteen people and wounding fifty-six. "Shellalo lies on the road to Kassala, the principal migration route out of Tigre and the only food lifeline into the province," Cartter says. "If the Ethiopian government seals off the road to Kassala, it will mean certain death for hundreds of thousands of people within weeks."

Officially, the United States allocates food and aid according to need, regardless of the political orientation of the recipient country. "A hungry child knows no politics," A.I.D. administrator M. Peter McPherson said recently. But critics contend that U.S. emergency food aid has in fact been heavily influenced by considerations, with disproportionate amounts of aid going to countries that are either of strategic value to the United States or that align themselves with U.S. interests [see Richard Falk on page 52].

Because of Ethiopia's strategic location on the Horn of Africa, within striking distance of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, it has long been a focus of geopolitical rivalry between the superpowers. Under Haile Selassie, the United States ahd access to the Eritrean Red Sea coast and maintained an important electronic listening post at Kagnew Communications Station in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Thus, ever since the Carter Administration "lost" Ethiopia to the Russians, the U.S. government has sought by various means to lure the Derg back into the Western camp. Now the Reagan Administration is employing emergency relief as a carrot and stick to achieve its foreign-policy objectives.

The Soviet Union has established a naval anchorage on Eritrea's Dahlak Archipelago and is reportedly installing a missile facility in the area. Those moves have aroused concern in Washington about a new strategic threat on the Horn. The famine has also strengthened the Ethiopian government's military position vis-a-vis the insurgencies in Eritrea and Tigre, possibly opening the way for conquest of the rebel-held territories. Such a development would represent a major strategic advance for the Soviet Union.

Although the Administration began sending emergency food aid to Ethiopia in 1983, the quantities were inadequate to the magnitude of the famine. Not until October 23, when a graphic BBC film of the famine was broadcast on the NBC Nightly News, was the American public alerted to the vast human tragedy under way. The shocking images of suffering and death triggered an outpouring of public concern and forced the Reagan Administration to expand its aid program sharply. Yet a plea for increased aid had been made by R.R.C. commissioner Dawit Wolde Giorgis in March, six months earlier. Those months of delay contributed to an untold number of deaths.

The Rev. Charles Elliott, a British relief official, recently charged that the United States and Britain had intentionally delayed large-scale relief assistance to Ethiopia in the belief that widespread famine would trigger the overthrow of the Derg and bring a pro-Western regmie to power. (Indeed, a major cause of the coup that ousted Haile Selassie was the Emperor's cover-up of the severe famine of 1972-73 in which more than 200,000 people died. Apparently he had felt that a request for emergency relief would tarnish his international prestige.) But the current famine has had the opposite effect, helping Mengistu tighten his grip on powre and strengthening his ideological ties with Moscow. On September 12, the Derg celebrated its tenth anniversary with a $100 million gala and announced the formation of an official state Communist Party.

Despite the strength of Ethiopian-Soviet ties, U.S. policy-makers believe that Ethiopia--like Egypt, the Sudan and Somalia--can be induced by large amounts of Western aid to change its political orientation. They contend that the expanded relief effort represents "a threat to Soviet hegemony over Ethiopia," Time reported in its November 26 issue.

On November 2, the Administration announced that instead of channeling all famine aid through third parties such as voluntary organizations and U.N. agencies, it would sent it directly to the Ethiopian R.R.C. The Reagan Administration also launched a propaganda offensive. A.I.D. administrator McPherson compared the United States' generosity with the Soviet Union's meager shipments of food aid and "callous indifference" to the plight of its ally. McPherson's righteous indignation might have been more appropriate if the United STates had been less tardy and more balanced in its response to the crisis. In any event, it was a transparent gesture of salesmanship.

Because of the Administration's desire to improve relations with the Derg and eventually to displace the Russians, it has been reluctant to provide large amounts of aid to ERA and REST or to condemn the Derg's ruthless military tactics against rebel-held areas of Eritera and Tigre. The United States has little incentive to support the movements for self-determination there, since the geopolitical prize it covets is a united Ethiopian Empire with its Eritrean coast intact; a dismembered, weakened Ethiopia would be of little strategic value to either superpower.

To date, Ethiopia has shown few signs of responding to America's courtship. Last month R.R.C. commissioner Giorgis attacked the United States for its belated response to the famine. His remarks drew an angry retort from McPherson, who termed the accusation "a classic example of biting the hand that feeds you." The Reagan Administration may now be hedging its bets--continuing to provide limited aid to ERA and REST in order to apply pressure on the Derg.

Another important variable in the complex political equation is the stability of the Sudan, America's closest ally in the Horn. The regime of President Mohammed Gaafar el-Nimeiry is shaky, and the country is beset by severe drought, a renewed civil war in the south, severe tensions with Ethiopia and the burden of some 700,000 refugees. The influx of an additional 500,000 to 1 million refugees from Eritrea and Tigre could well destabilize the Sudan, creating another opening for Soviet gains in the region. If the United States wishes to stem the massive exodus from Ethiopia, it must provide more food aid to Eritrea and Tigre.

Geopolitical considerations aside, as a first step toward alleviating the enormous human suffering in the two rebel-controlled provinces, all donor governments should send more aid to ERA and REST. "I would never tell the U.S. not to give famine assistance to the Ethiopian government," says Dan Connell, "but if it's really humanitarian aid, you have to work where the victims are, and that includes rebel-controlled areas." Most urgently needed are trucks to deliver food that has already arrived. REST has forty trucks, with which it can transport only 1,000 tons of food a month; in order to meet the need, hundreds more are required.

Even with increased relief, however, the suffering in Eritrea and Tigte cannot be dealt with until the fighting stops. One million people in central Tigre are so weak from hunger that they are unable to migrate to the Sudan. They have sold their seeds, tools and oxen, and have no means of production. Unless relief aid can reach them, most will die.

Several aid agencies have proposed an internationally supervised cease-fire that would permit large shipments of grain, medicine and relief supplies across political and military boundaries, including emergency airlifts of food and supplies into the rebel-held zones. Although guerrilla leaders in both territories have offered to negotiate a cease-fire, the Ethiopian government has refused. R.R.C. commissioner Giorgis told The Washington Post recently, "Ethiopia will never . . . make a deal with terrorists and secessionists."

Thus it will take an international outcry to pressure the Derg to permit aid to reach the forgotten people of Eritrea and Tigre. "The Ethiopian famine has become caught up in global politics and can only be solved at that level," Cartter says. "If something is not done soon, a lot of people will have blood on their hands."
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Author:Tucker, Jonathan B.
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 19, 1985
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