Ethiopia: Land of silence and starvation – Geoffrey York (The Globe & Mail)

November 7th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

A famine is growing across Ethiopia, but the government is clamping down on information – even ejecting aid agencies that could help bring aid for fear of provoking unrest and losing their grip on power. (more…)

A famine is growing across Ethiopia, but the government is clamping down on information – even ejecting aid agencies that could help bring aid for fear of provoking unrest and losing their grip on power.

On market day in the dusty town of Meki, the few cobs of corn sold by the hawkers are scrawny, pale, scabby and pockmarked. Yet the price of this meagre food has doubled since last year – because so many farmers have seen their corn harvests fail.

“We are between life and death,” says 50-year-old farmer Geda Shenu, who was forced to buy corn at Meki market after most of his crops failed in this year’s drought. He shows the empty weed-filled fields where he planted corn and beans, crops that never grew when the rains never came.

To survive, he is selling one of his two oxen and giving his family just two sparse meals a day. He and his neighbours have marched down to the local government office to sign a petition pleading for government help. “If we don’t get any aid, we will die,” he says. “How can we feed our children?”

It’s a story the Ethiopian government does not want told.

On the 25th anniversary of the famine that killed nearly a million Ethiopians in 1984, any talk of drought and hunger is still a highly sensitive issue in this impoverished country, subject to draconian controls by the government. Two regimes were toppled in the 1970s and 1990s because of discontent over famines, and the current regime is determined to avoid their fate.

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.

After a disastrous series of crop failures, the number of Ethiopians needing emergency aid has jumped from 4.9 million to 6.2 million in the past 10 months. Yet most journalists are barred from travelling to the countryside to document the drought. Relief workers avoid any public comments about the rising malnutrition, and none will talk candidly to journalists except on condition of anonymity.

Another restriction is even more damaging: Foreign agencies are not permitted to do their own independent assessments of malnutrition this year. Instead, they must be accompanied by government officials in joint teams that are difficult and time-consuming to negotiate, delaying the response to regional emergencies.

Aid agencies have known since July that at least seven million people will need emergency aid in Ethiopia this year, based on detailed assessments across the country. But the government delayed the release of these figures, continuing to insist publicly that only 5.3 million people needed help.

Finally, after months of mystifying delays, the government announced in late October that 6.2 million people needed emergency aid – still below the true figure, and too late to trigger a large-scale fundraising effort this year. Another estimate is due to be released in mid-November, unless it too is delayed.

Why such heavy-handed controls from a government that is seen as a U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa, a country that is still viewed sympathetically by most of the world? One reason is the election scheduled for May. The long-ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is keeping a tight grip on the vote. The last election, in 2005, was widely criticized for vote-rigging and fraud, and about 200 people were killed after the election when police fired on opposition protesters.

Since then, the government has strengthened its control of the country. Maoist-style neighbourhood committees watch over all activity in the villages, with informants appointed for every five families in some areas. Local elections in 2008 were so carefully managed that the opposition ended up with only a tiny handful of the three million seats.

But nobody expects the controls to disappear after the May election. The ruling party has always been sensitive about any questioning of its ability to feed the country. Its own rise to power in 1991 was largely a result of the famines of the 1980s. And it knows that the long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie was brought crashing down after the globally televised images of the 1974 famine.

Relief agencies say it is harder to make a global appeal for help for Ethiopia when the official estimates are politicized, minimized and delayed. By the time the 2009 appeal was released in late October, only two months were left in the year.

“This year’s fight is over,” said an aid worker at one of the biggest agencies. “The children who were at risk of death in the summer have died by now.”

In some of the hardest-hit regions, foreign relief agencies have extremely limited access. Their movements are tightly controlled, partly because of military operations against rebel groups in the Somali region. Several of the biggest international agencies were expelled from the region or withdrew under pressure in 2007 and 2008.

In another region, Tigray, aid agencies are heavily restricted, because Tigray is the traditional base of the ruling EPRDF. “It’s a black spot, because it’s supposed to be a model of success,” one aid worker says. “When people are starving, the information doesn’t get out.”

The government is widely suspected of using the foreign aid shipments to reward its supporters. Up to 20 per cent of the aid is “lost” before it reaches the neediest people, but the diverted sacks of food are often noticed at military barracks, according to one aid worker.

When Ethiopia is hit by cholera outbreaks, as often happens, the government prefers to call it acute watery diarrhea because it dislikes the bad publicity that cholera attracts. The latest cholera outbreak, which began in August, has sickened thousands of people, but the government called it AWD and minimized the numbers. When the true numbers finally surfaced in a United Nations document, the government was so furious that it suspended its co-operation meetings with the relief agencies for a month.

In fear of government punishment, many agencies fall into self-censorship. “There’s a whole layer of anxiety that we’re all operating under,” one veteran worker said. “The obsession with control has been even stronger than last year.”

Some Western diplomats argue that the government’s euphemisms and public evasions are unimportant because the accurate assessment data is known internally to the key agencies that supply emergency aid to Ethiopia. Compared with many other African countries, they say, Ethiopia is relatively efficient in distributing aid and is introducing good programs to expand health care and food delivery in rural regions.

But others say the government’s sensitivities and restrictions are hampering the world’s response to Ethiopia’s emergencies, delaying the flow of crucial aid for months.

“If you delay the life-saving response, lives don’t get saved,” one relief worker says. “People get weaker and less productive. And the response is a short-term band-aid. If you recognize a situation earlier, the response can reduce the chances of needing emergency aid in the future.”

Another aid worker is even more blunt. “The government is locked into a cycle of very significant denial,” he said. “It’s playing with millions of lives.”

Ethiopia has been hit by a series of crop failures and droughts since 2007, and the cumulative effect is taking a heavy toll. In addition to the 6.2 million who are officially deemed to need emergency aid, another 7 million are already getting food aid because they are chronically vulnerable to food shortages, meaning that Fully one-sixth of Ethiopia’s 80 million people are on food aid.

The global recession, meanwhile, is making it harder to raise funds from international donors. Canada has given $54-million to the Ethiopian relief effort this year, but the overall level of global donations is far below what is needed. As a result, the food rations for most Ethiopian recipients are barely half of the needed level.

But instead of redoubling its efforts to seek help, Ethiopia is tightening its controls as the 2010 election approaches. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi repeatedly denies that Ethiopia has a food crisis and accuses the “food aid industry” and the “lords of poverty” of deliberately inflating the number of Ethiopians who need aid.

Relief agencies give troubling accounts of how their work is becoming more difficult. One agency was forced to halt its food distribution for three months in one region because the government was unhappy with a local media article.

Another agency tried to offer help after a massive blaze destroyed 20 homes in an Addis Ababa shantytown this week. At first welcomed by firefighters, the agency was abruptly ordered to leave when security agents arrived on the scene. “Even for something that was so obviously a disaster, where we could have helped, there was suspicion and distance,” a worker said.

Most foreign journalists are prohibited from travelling outside Addis Ababa, the capital. The Globe and Mail twice applied for permission to visit rural regions, but both applications were rejected. In the end I had to travel without permission, at the risk of arrest if I was discovered.

When I asked a government official why I was barred from reporting in rural districts, he said too many journalists were too interested in the drought, which he said was entirely due to climate change and had nothing to do with the government.

The very few journalists who do obtain permission to visit a feeding centre are accompanied by a government “minder” at all times. Feeding-centre staff are sometimes interrogated by security agents after they talk to foreign journalists, making them fearful of saying anything.

The government maintains a “black list” of foreign correspondents who are deemed unfriendly to the regime, and some have been expelled, refused entry, or detained at the Addis Ababa airport when they arrive. Several Ethiopian journalists who work for foreign media have fled the country for fear of punishment.

The Ethiopian government, using technology from its new economic partners in China, has blocked many websites that criticize the government, including those of Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists. The same Chinese technology is allowing the authorities to monitor e-mails and cellphones, making relief agencies and journalists nervous about government eavesdropping on their conversations.

Back in the drought-stricken Meki region, a farmer named Gudeta Beriso points to a field of withered corn stalks, surrounded by empty fields. “In the old days, all of this was covered by corn,” he said.

“Now you don’t see anything. The fields are just rubbish. We haven’t had a good crop for two years. We are worried about the future. We are shouting for help.”

  1. Selemon
    | #1

    Very sad and touching story. This journalist from The Globe and Mail should be commended for doing what all the NGO and media people inside Ethiopia failed to do – because, they were scared of losing whatever benefit they were getting .This is a nice expose of Woyane’s attempt to cover up its misdeeds. Woyane has a hand in exacerbating the effects of the famine. There is no ifs and buts here. All the talk about ‘climate’ do not hold water. How come it was not ‘the change in climate’ that starved the people in 1984. Woyane at the time had claimed it was mis management and hence used it to show that the Derg was not fit to rule. How about now?. The Same with Ats Haile Selasie’s period. The Derg had used the same reason to topple the regime. And how about now?
    It is said that there has never been a famine in modern history of humanity where there is good governance. Period.

  2. true patrio
    | #2

    While ato Meles Zenawi and his cronies are planning to stay in power until Ethiopia is disintegrated and make sure they secure Abay tigray republic so that all tigrayans will have a wealthy state that it built from the blood and sweat of Ethiopians,millions innocent mothers are losing they precious babies.Shame on you Meles you devil and all your followers.

  3. ደምስ
    | #3

    For a change we got un-bias reporting from Canadian Globe & Mail. Unlike the CBC reporter was trying to make a rosy picture for the current gov’t. The only problem is they won’t let him back again. Next time he should get another name, with US or Australian passport can hide himself to tell us the truth before he goes back to Ethiopia.

    The NGO in side Ethiopia afraid to speak out. Wow!!!!!!!If they cannot speak out against this kind of human misery, may be they should leave Ethiopia. This gov’t get all kinds of aids, unlike the previouse dictator. Where is all the money and the aids go? The NGO who do not want speak out are cowards.

    Mengistu was a boogee man or enemy number one when he was in power. Right now Mugabe is enemy number one. They just look the other way for a dictator Melese worest than Mengistu or Mugabe. As long as Melese obeyed to the west; he can get away from all kind of crimes. You won’t see bad news on CNN or other western media.

    The truth will come out no matter what. The current gov’t may not like it; we have all kind of technology to see what’s going inside the country. No amount of spying won’t stop the bad news. The poor farmers instead of starving to death; please go to the nearest town. The Ethiopian people will share what ever they have.

    I’m not sure why our country not blessed with a good leader!!

  4. Ewnetu
    | #4

    Now Compare this to the recent rubbish journalism of CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) by one of its retired reporters who travelled all the way to Ethiopia but came back with praises to the tyrant that is Meles Zenawi, instead of the reality on the ground. You can clearly see who is on the woyane payroll and who is not.

    I commend this reporter for telling the truth.

  5. Joseph
    | #5

    Joseph said,in November 8th, 2009 at It is a tragedy that Western governments embrace their buddy-Zenawi, when independent reporters such as Geoffrey York voice their deep concern on the starving nation of Ethiopia and the arrogance and ignorance of the so called government of Ethiopia.

    Why, at least, they don’t deny Zenawi and his ministers visas and entry to Western countries when he is bleeding the nation to such an extent? He has been starving people to the extent of more than double the magnitude of the 1984 famine. He has killed more than double the number of people Mengisu has. He has imprisoned 10 times more people than the dictator Mengistu, including Birtukan Mideksa who is a symbol of love and peace.

    Why the Western governments are playing the game of double standards? Where are the democratic values and fairness? They have to rethink their position! Zenawi can’t represent Africa on Global Warming and Climate, when he is starving the people that he rules over. Enough is enough!

    The problem with growing crops on the soil also has to do with the TPLF economic organisation supplying the farmers, wrong fertilizers with no prior-study of the soil. The TPLF organisations are interested in profit making but not help the farmers. This has been going on for years! Remember Zenawi had a prize for buying wrong fertilizers from Scandinavian company.

    I would like to thank Geoffrey York for his courage to tell the truth unlike some other opportunist journalists who become corrupt when they arrive in Ethiopia

  6. mateos
    | #6

    What more misery can this beautiful people and country endure in the 21st century? 1- Ethiopia is bleeding with in and out, 2- Ethiopia is being run-sucked by known and unknown foreing agents, 3- Ethiopia is disingrating to pieces due to Meles and his boss Bereket aiga jungle law, 4- Ethiopian people are not being rules by their own people but with foreing agents for foreing benefits, 5- Ethiopia is bleeding to death because the weyane mafia families are looting this beautiful nation like never before, and 6- Meles and his boss Bereket will never give up until their dream is accomplished: MAKE ALL ETHIOPIANS BOW TO THEIR KNEES FOR REASONS THAT ARE KNOWING ONLY TO THEM!

  7. Anonymous
    | #7

    Dear Mr York,

    In the words of Gudeta,’..we are shouting for help..’.Although exposing the intolerable situation this way is a good help,there should be more ways that we can enlist your help in exposing the many unjust ways of the regime and taking it to account.You should perhaps join hands with other similarly compassionate and conscientious individuals from Europe and the States and lobby particularly the U.S administration and the British government to stop supporting the regime even when it cruelly allows the death of many poor,starving and helpless people in order to stay in power.

    At the moment our problem is not really and primarily the regime,if you see what I mean.Our problems are the powerful foreign governments who back it and make apologies for it.A case in point is the so called Ethiopian Partners group-comprising American and European diplomats based in Addis who while pretending to help in the negotiation process are now busily and shamelessly assisting the regime to win the coming election.

    Perhaps it might be a good idea for you once again to pick up your courageous pen and expose this shenanigan as well.

    Thank you for your responsible and ethical journalism.

  8. Basamen zare
    | #8

    1. ቀማኛ ይመስል ማታ ማታ ሜታ ቢራ እየጠጣን ቀን ቀን ደግሞ የፈረደበትን ጥሬ ስጋ በማላመጥ የቆጡን የባጡን በማለት ጊዜያችንን ማሳለፉን ልምድ ዓድርገነዋል በቀላል ዓነጋገር ሃገራችን ከባድ የእኮኖሚ ቀውስ ላይ ናት ጠግቦ ከሚበላው ይልቅ ርቦት ለጥ ጸጥ ብሎ የሚተኛው ይበልጣል .መሰባሰቡን መደገሱን እንደምናውቅበት ቁም ነገሩን ማድረጉንም እንወቅበት እንጂ

    ይህ ሰው ሰራሽ ረሃብ በተለይ ያሁኑ ከበፊቶቹ ትምህርት ያላገኘንበት :ያሁኑ የመለስ ጌስታፖ መንግስት ልመናን ትልቅ የገንዘብ መሰብሰቢያ ድርጅት (Enterprise) በማድረጉ ነው :: የአለም ባንክ ገንዘብ የወያኔን አባላት ትላልቅ የህንጻ አከራይ ባለቤቶች ከማድረጉ ሌላ በስተቀር, ለኢትዮጵያ ገበሬ ሲባል የተደረገ አንዳችም የችግር መልስ አለመደረጉ ይሕውና አይን ያፈጠጠ ልመና ላይ ገባን : BBC በቀጥታ ተጠያቂ ለማድረግ የሞከረው ይህንኑ አገራችንን የፖለቲካ ማሳቂያ ያደረጋትን (Gestapo) መንግስት ነው ::

    አርቲፊሻይል የሆነውን የወያኔን ሻጥር ካወቅን ቆየት ብንልም , አሁን የመጣብን ብሄራዊ አደጋ ደግሞ የግድ አንድ ዲያስፖራ አቀፍ ማአክላዊ, በኮንግሬስ የተደገፈና ሙሉ ትብብር ያልተነፈገው ዓስቸኻይ የእርዳታ አገናኝ ኮሚሽን ያስፈልገናል::

    ለምሳሌ በተቻለን ዓቅም
    1) ሁለት ሃይኒከን በቀን ከጠጣን,ዓንድ ጠጥተን የአንዱን ዋጋ ለዚህ ዕርዳታ ኮሚሽን ብናውል..
    2) 3 በቀን ከመብላት 2ቴ በልተን አንዱን ለዕርዳታችን ብናውል
    3) ብላክ ሌብል ዊስኪ ልማድ ያለብን የመጠጥ ዓርበኞች ለጊዜው ታግሰን (የኢኮኖሚ)ውስኪ ብንል…
    4) ዓንዱ ገንዘብ አስገኚ ዘዴ ደግሞ በየኮሚኒታችን በማንፈልገው የግል ኅብት ላይ የሽያጭ ዘመቻ… (yard sale)
    5) ብዙዎቻችን ካቅማችን በላይ በመኖር ያላቅማችን ልብስና ሸቀጥ ሸማች ሱሰኞች መሆናችንን አትክዱኝም

    ስለዚህ እስራኤልን በዕግርዋ ያቆማት አምላክ ለዕኛም እጆቹን የማይዘረጋበት ምንም ምክንያት አይኖርም; የዕስራእኤል ልጆች ተፈላልገው (ያውም ዓለ ኢንተርኔት) ገንዘባቸውንና ዕውቀታቸውን አሰባስበው እንዲህ ኅያል ለማረግ ያበቃቸው አንድነትና በዕምነታቸው ጽኑ በመሆናቸው ነው ::

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