Ethiopia: Famine as an Amoral Problem and a Crime Against Humanity

By Henok Y. Tessemma

The ruling party in Ethiopia has always had a very troubling relationship, at best, with famine. In an interesting video from his guerilla days, young rebel leader Meles Zenawi looks dejected and almost tears up while speaking about the historic, devastating famine of 1984/85 that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, especially in Wollo and Tigrai provinces. He was fighting at the time for an independent Tigrai. And that very same year, according Meles’s former fellow rebel leaders Aregawi Berhe and Giday Zeratsion, Meles was insisting that the rebels allocate 95% of an aid money worth $100 million for party expenses, while a paltry 5% for Tigrian famine victims. The proposal was implemented after some debate.


Having assumed state power in Addis Ababa years later, Meles was asked—during an Ethiopian get-together in the U.S. in 1994—what progress he hoped to see in ten years in Ethiopia. He said he wished all Ethiopians would be able to get three meals a day. It was a clever and impressive response that induced applause and laughter in the audience; the response was an instance of the characteristic charm and wit Meles exuded, which endeared him to the scheming West for decades to come. He was visibly basking in the glow of attention and admiration at the gathering. Alas, that moment was arguably the beginning of an incessant campaign of vows and pledges by the late prime minister and his party to eradicate famine completely, if possible, and if not, to be transparent and honest about it should it ever happen again.

But there has always been something fishy about the relentless expression of commitment by EPRDF to do away with famine—something that is reminiscent of the outrageous appropriation of aid money in 1985. Even though there hasn’t been any aid money or resources to be exploited using colorful pledges, it is hard not to notice the moral opportunism. “We are a caring, scrupulous, and responsible party, unlike our monstrous predecessors!” That was the intended message. The hypocritical bashing of former regimes aside, there is nothing wrong with an avid and relentless declaration of devotion to achieve something as noble and praise-worthy as getting rid of famine. Indeed, it might even be commendable. Here is the disturbing part, though: EPRDF (the government of Ethiopia) always knew they didn’t necessarily mean what they were saying.

This is no doubt gross, but unfortunately not the worst part. A grand narrative began following the split within TPLF (the dominant party within the so-called EPRDF alliance) and the momentous 2005 general election. The election unmistakably demonstrated to anyone who cared to notice that EPRDF had little interest in democracy and too much desire for power. The only way to claim a semblance of legitimacy, after an election that left nearly two hundred innocent civilians massacred, was a narrative of a Developmental State that can “pull Ethiopia out of the perennial poverty and famine”. Then began an avalanche of developmental mantras, such as “persistent double-digit growth” and, well, “accomplishment of food security”.

Fast-forward to 2010. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the BBC reported that the Ethiopian government routinely weaponized food aid to punish opposition supporters and civil society activists, including starving rural residents. The government was—quite understandably, albeit disturbingly—really, really furious over this astounding revelation. However, manipulation of aid and other coercive activities by government were not news to many ordinary Ethiopians; it has always been part and parcel of their everyday life for many years, even before EPRDF came to power. The HRW report posed a serious image problem for the government, and officials tried everything in their power to quash the news. And they kind of did somehow.

The report couldn’t have come at a worse moment, nonetheless. The government had had significant success convincing much of the international community (including donors and lenders) that, to use a tired catch phrase of the EPRDF apologists, “Ethiopia is rising”. Food security? That should be the least of the worries of an African “tiger” with “the fastest growing economy in the world for several years”. But at least Ethiopians knew starvation was normally just a bad winter away. Abhorrent as it is to pledge to destroy famine, vow to be honest about it if it ever happens, and not meant it, weaponizing it to punish starving citizens and their children is simply beyond the pale.

Famine has been both an opportunity and a challenge to the ruling party in Ethiopia. The party has been famously using famine both as a resource and as a weapon. Yes, for EPRDF famine has been a problem, too. It has been a bit of a policy problem; it might also have been a kind of a political problem; it has surely been a huge and embarrassing image problem; but it has hardly ever been a moral problem. It has hardly ever been a human problem. A perfect example: the BBC reported a few days a go about a young mother—Birtukan Ali (she is already famous now)—in southern Wollo who said she had lost her son to famine. Following the national and international outcry, the government, as expected, swiftly forced Birtukan to retract her words and made her say that her son had died of a disease—on national television. As if the terror and unbearable grief of a starving mother is not enough, she is being used as a weapon of a wicked propaganda.

God Has Nothing to Do with It!

 Implicit in the desperate attempt of EPRDF and its functionaries to show themselves in a flattering light by their constant and vocal declarations of war against famine is that famine is primarily a political/policy problem. There is overwhelming evidence that the government’s agricultural and population policies have failed on many levels to prevent famine. For instance, the much touted and infamous Agricultural Development-Led Industrialization (ADLI) has effectively collapsed, and it is now quietly being pushed to the sidelines, in favor of massive industrialization plan. After continuous talk for years of “miraculous economic growth” and “triumph over famine and starvation”, we have now 15 million Ethiopians on the brink of starving to death. Some have already died, while others are fighting for their lives, even as we speak.

The Ethiopian government, having failed in its effort to hide the catastrophe as usual, has now bitten the bullet and acknowledged the problem, thanks to local and international pressure. The half-hearted acknowledgment, however, proves, beyond dispute, the alarmingly heartless apathy and insensitivity with which the government treats its citizens. The most common response coming from government officials and supporters alike is to say: “Nobody has died!” But such a response, even if true, is a clear indication that they don’t pay attention to the fact that millions of poor farmers and their families have to go through countless days and nights of indignity and terror before the word of their suffering gets out. Or even if the authorities do pay attention, they don’t really care. Whatever the case, we can’t escape the tragic fact that to the Ethiopian government famine is either an opportunity or a threat to its power. It is an amoral problem. That is it.

The Crime

Obviously there is nothing criminal about famine as a natural disaster precipitated by declining availability of food. Nevertheless, Jlateh Vincent Jappah, of University College London and Danielle Taana Smith of Rochester Institute of Technology argue in their recent article State Sponsored Famine: Conceptualizing Politically Induced Famine as a Crime against Humanity that famine becomes a crime if either one of the following conditions obtain:

…when a state has the capacity to foresee and plan for a famine-related disaster in order to minimize its impact but fails in disaster preparation and in its ensuing response to mitigate the catastrophic effects, conceals relevant relief information from humanitarian agencies and/or donors, blocks humanitarian corridors, or engages in other faminogenic [famine-causing] practices with an aim to exterminate or cause mass starvation of a group of people.

In other words, the authors contend, “negligence or apathy on the part of the state that results in its failure to respond to the crisis can be considered criminal, based on its technological capacity for early identification and early response, its level of mobilization of resources, and its prioritization of the situation”. EPRDF would pass this “easy” test with flying colors, as it were. Not only can these capacities and resources be developed in Ethiopia, but also the government has been constantly and proudly announcing having done so. The criminalization of famine as policy- or state-induced problem is not a fringe position propagated by few, as EPRDF cadres would be quick to counter, “anti-development” intellectuals. There is a general consensus among scholars studying poverty and human rights that famines like the ones that recur in Ethiopia are criminal. Moreover, the Nobel winning economist Amartya Sen’s famous claim that democracies with functioning free press don’t starve has been widely acknowledged, though with some modifications and caveats. If Sen’s thesis is right, Ethiopians are certainly in for a devastating double whammy for an indefinite period: stifling repression and recurring starvation. The Ethiopian authorities are probably not going to stand trial, as they should be, for the famine their policy mostly engendered and their callous obsession with power worsened, but they should know that they are committing crime against humanity.

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