The Politics of Famine in Ethiopia

By Tucker, Jonathan B. | The Nation, January 19, 1985 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Famine in Ethiopia


Tucker, Jonathan B., The Nation


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. …

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