Ethiopian Love Story: EPRDF and Hunger. By Eskinder Nega.

July 15th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

The older the nation the more the partiality for reserved leaders. And Ethiopia is famously old. The penchant for romanticized leaders who overpower by mere grace and presence is an enduring national fantasy. The standards of public decorum established by Ethiopia’s royal courts remain undiminished as ever in public imagination.

But in the person of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s autocratic leader, now in power for two theatrical decades, are exemplified the mavericks who see no need to be restrained by strictures imposed in bygone ages. And Parliament has been the venue of choice for Meles Zenawi to demonstrate his break with the past. This is clearly a “no-holds-barred” politician, to borrow a phrase from the world of wrestling. He rages at will against opponents, relishes mocking Parliamentarians, and oft-times flings tactless words with startling ease, all on live radio and TV transmissions to the nation. He cares not who is outraged.

It was in one of those melodramatic moments in Parliament that Meles deliberated on what it takes to be a capable member of his cabinet. To be educated is not essentially indispensable, he said. Even an illiterate person could be a member of my cabinet, he told a shocked nation. All it takes to be a competent Minister in this cabinet is a thorough knowledge of EPRDF’s program, he winded down triumphantly.

He was not bluffing.

Meet his long time Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, and presumed heir, Adisu Legese, now retired (pushed aside, some contend) with generous perks since the 2010 elections.

Now, Adisu is no prototype of the illiterate Meles had alluded to. Make no mistake there. He has been to elementary school, and then proceeded to high school. In the 50s this was no small feat. More impressive, he went to college. And he graduated. Undeniably, this is a man with some education. But, alas, as has been extensively reported over the years, he was trained to be a physical education instructor. There was hardly the predisposition nor the need to apply himself to the hard sciences.

Between his graduation and retirement almost four decades were to pass. After a brief stint as a physical education instructor in a public school, he spent roughly a decade and a half as an insurgent. And then a decade as President of the Amhara region, Ethiopia’s second largest. Finally, at the apex of his political career, he was Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The pride of the EPRDF, the ruling party, is its agricultural-led- industrialization plan. This is supposed to be the answer to Ethiopia’s quandary of entrenched underdevelopment, the means to food self-sufficiency and the emergence a middle class in the midst of Ethiopia’s rural majority. Unlike virtually all other developmental schemes the agrarian sector is at the core of this blueprint. Fail there and the entirety of the grand blueprint goes down the drain.

Two ministries, that of agriculture and rural development, were initially entrusted with the primary responsibilities to oversee this plan. They were later merged into a single Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD). The Parliamentary Proclamation that established MARD lists its duties as conservation and use of forest and wildlife resources; food security; water use and small-scale irrigation; monitoring events affecting agricultural development and early warning system; promoting agricultural development; and establishing and providing agriculture and rural technology training.

Unlike some other Ministries, this is a turf where not merely political but also technical leadership from the very top is crucial. Adisu was by no means the professional the Ministry needed during its crucial early years. It was only a question of time before morale was to suffer.

Of course, there is more than misplaced Adisu to explain EPRDF-led Ethiopia’s failure to attain food self-sufficiency. The failure is structural as well as policy. What Adisu’s long tenure at MARD rather explains is an ingrained complacency with the status-quo. There is no sense of national crisis and emergency, despite consistent dependence on food-aid for decades. Food aid is expected and tolerated even amongst policy makers. A distinctive case of food-aid-dependency-syndrome has developed at government level.

Meanwhile, millions suffer. The Ethiopian government on Monday acknowledged that 40 percent more people than last year are in need of food-aid. This means 4.5 million are hungry. USAID estimates many more. Without food-aid there will be devastating famine.

The tolls from past famines are shocking. The worst one lasted for ten years between 1888 and 1892. One third of the populace and 90 percent of herds were lost. Eritrea was lost to the Italians as an immediate consequence. But 60 years were to pass before another major famine was to break out in 1958. Close to 100,000 died in Tigray alone. Tens of thousands more died in the mid-seventies, mostly in Wello. But thanks to food-aid famines have largely been avoided since. Only the “biblical famine” of 1984-1985 was the exception.

And Meles savors any opportunity to point out that there were food shortages not famine under his watch. This is supposed to be the progress that should endear him to Ethiopians. And here lies the mentality that has nurtured not only complacency and dependency but also kind of a love story between the EPRDF and hunger/food-aid.

Ultimately, there is permanent hunger in Ethiopia because there has never been a government accountable to an electorate that could throw it out of office. Only under a dictatorship is permanent hunger possible. Democracies do not go hungry for two decades. Hunger is a political problem in Ethiopia. It requires a political solution.

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Corrigendum:

Professor Tecola Hagos writes:

I have two points that should be corrected or clarified so there be no misunderstanding: 1) You referred to Emperor Yohannes IV as “King Yohannes” that is a gross error if it is intentional. During the period you were referring to, there was a treaty signed by Ethiopia and Great Britain/Egypt on 3rd of June 1884 (Hewett Treaty) wherein Yohannes is referred to as “Negoos Negust of Ethiopia” i.e. “King of Kings.” Emperor Yohannes IV by then had already appointed Kings under him. Emperor Yohannes confirmed King Menilik as King of Shoa in 1878; he also appointed Ras Adal Tesema of Gojam as King Teklehaymanot of Gojam and Keffa in 1881. Thus, referring to Emperor Yohannes IV as “King Yohannes” is inappropriate and must be corrected.

Professor Tecola is absolutely right. My regrets. Thank you Professor.

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The writer could be reached at serk27@gmail.com.

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