Meles Zenawi and the Weaponization of Famine By Alemayehu G. Mariam

August 8th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Author’s Note: On June 16, 2008, I published a special commentary (reproduced below in its original form) explaining the sysetmatic use of disinformation by Meles Zenawi, the dictator in Ethiopia for two decades, to deny widespread famine in various parts of Ethiopia and insidiously manipulate famine as a political and military weapon to cling to power. I wrote: “Famine is not just about images of skeletal children gasping for their last breath of air as their mothers gaze into nothingness in the sun baked landscape. It is also a military and political weapon. Meles today is using denial of food aid to “rebel areas” in the south/southeast as did Mengistu to “rebel areas” in the north back in his day. That is the classic strategic lesson Meles learned from Mengistu. Famine can be used both as a tactical and strategic weapon against one’s opponents…” I offer that commentary which originally ran without a byline to my readers at this time in light of recent revelations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the BBC showing that the U.S., Britain, the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are still providing billions of dollars of aid to Zenawi’s regime despite evidence that it is used as a tool of political oppression in Ethiopia. Shame on them all!

Special Commentary: The art of denial (lying) June 16, 2008

Credit must be given where it’s due. And Meles Zenawi and his crew deserve full credit. For perfecting the art of denial (lying) just like the smooth career criminals who deny everything when caught: “Didn’t do it! Wasn’t there! Didn’t happen! Somebody else did it. Someone stole my fingerprints to make it look like I done it!” Deny, deny, deny!

Famine? What famine? That’s the response of Meles and his gang about the famine that is slowly enveloping Ethiopia, and swallowing its people region by region. A few days ago, the reptilian “Deputy Prime Minister” Addisu Legesse groused: “Institutions that exaggerate the food shortage in Ethiopia and report inflated figures of the needy are intent on belittling the economic growth of the country and calculating their interests.” According to Meles, Inc. Ministry of Disinformation, the whole famine thing is a figment of the overactive imagination of the foreign media and humanitarian organizations: “It is ridiculous and unethical that some media outlets are reporting as if food grain price hike is typical of Ethiopia, though it is known that the existing global price hike is a result of soaring price of oil and ever-increasing demand of food grain among the developing countries. The reporting of some media is very much exaggerated and far from the truth,” concluded the garbled statement of the Disinformation Ministry.

The bottom line from Meles Inc. is: There is no famine in Ethiopia. Just millions of Ethiopians who can’t afford to buy food because it is damn too expensive! But Meles runs a pretty slick disinformation campaign: Blame the international commodities markets for high food prices in Ethiopia, and demonize the foreign media and aid organizations for ruining Ethiopia’s image. Then dish out boldfaced lies to distract public attention from the raging famine, and promptly declare victory: “The country has registered during the last five consecutive years rapid double digit economic growth…”

The fact of the matter is that people in Ethiopia are starving to death, by the thousands every day. There is no question about that: “We’re overwhelmed,” said Margaret Aguirre recently, a spokeswoman for the International Medical Corps, a California-based aid agency. “There’s not enough food and everyone’s starving and that’s all there is to it.” Georgia Shaver, the World Food Programme’s director in Ethiopia, painted an equally bleak picture saying that while up to 14 million people needed food aid across six countries in southern Africa, “in Ethiopia we could have the same number in just one country.”

Now, why would Aguirre, Shaver, the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera… lie about famine in Ethiopia? What would they gain from “exaggerating” the famine?

Famine Facts

For over three decades, Ethiopia has been the international poster lady for famine and starvation. Images of throngs of skeletal children and their starving parents scratching the sun-baked earth are indelibly imprinted in the minds of people around the world. In 1974, mutinous soldiers deposed Emperor Haile Selassie after foreign reporters (“The Unknown Famine” by Jonathan Dimbleby) and some international humanitarian organizations revealed to the world that a famine of biblical proportion was taking place in the north of the country. Just like Meles today, Haile Selassie then denied reports of widespread famine and starvation, and tried to cover it up. When news of the famine shocked the world, Haile Selassie blamed the foreign media for exaggerating the scope of the disaster and for tarnishing Ethiopia’s image.

In 1985, after a decade of disastrous experiments in socialism, Mengistu presided over a famine that claimed the lives of nearly a million people. He also blamed drought and poor rainfall for the famine (but never his disastrous socialist policies) and set out to deal with the problem by putting into place a reckless policy of forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people from the north to the more fertile south. Like Meles today, Mengistu then, sat with his arms crossed waiting for massive international food aid to be delivered to his door. Meles today claims the problem of famine in Ethiopia, if it existed at all, is caused by drought and poor rainfall during successive seasons (but never his disastrous economic policies that give higher priority to growing roses than teff), and now expects delivery of massive emergency food aid from Western nations to rescue Ethiopia. Like Haile Selassie who blamed the famine, the high costs of imported goods, gasoline, and skyrocketing food prices, unemployment, etc., on the international oil crises of 1973, Meles today blames the oil crises of 2008 for exactly the same things.

Meles’ Fine Art of Denial (Lying)

Meles and his gang have perfected the art of denial (lying) and raised it to new heights. They have done it by:

Denial of fact: They deny undeniable facts with a straight face. Example: “Famine does not exist in Ethiopia. It is a story made up by the foreign media and aid organizations. It is all ‘exaggerated and far from the truth’.”

Denial of responsibility: They deny responsibility in the event such a thing as famine should be discovered. Example: “There is no famine, but if, in the unlikely event it exists, it is first and foremost the responsibility of God. He failed in his divine duty to send the rains. He did not. Therefore, there was no harvest, which means famine. God’s co-conspirators include the oil cartels and the greedy manipulators of global food prices. Last but not least of the culprits is the West. They also failed in their duty to supply food aid as they have dutifully done for the past three decades. We had nothing to do with it. We were just minding our own business growing roses and making sure of double digit economic growth.”

Denial of impact: There is really no famine as such in the country, just some pockets of grain deficits. Example: “With the exception of spot shortages in Oromiya and Somali regions, everything is hunky dory. There is plenty of food in the rest of the country, if people have the cash.”

Denial of awareness: We were so busy doing “double digit economic development” and tending to our rose gardens, we were not aware of any famine. Example: “It is impossible to have famine in a country that has been wallowing in ‘double digit economic growth for the past five years’. We’ve been so busy building office structures, luxury villas with swimming pools, world class hotels, exporting roses and importing French wines and champagne, we simply did not know famine was ravaging the countryside. Oops!! Sorry!”

Denial of recurrence: If there is famine, it just happened. Example: “We did not know this famine thing is recurrent. There were no early warning signs. No sentinel events to cause us concern that real famine was going to happen. Anyway, no big deal. We are in ‘double digit economic growth’ and this famine shall be over soon like all the rest. It is just once in a decade type of thing.”

Denial of denial: There is nothing that we must do to deal with the problem of famine, if it exists. Example: “The whole famine thing will take its own course. For decades, there has been famine in Ethiopia. It’s not like this is the first time. Nothing happened in the past from famine. There are a lot more people in Ethiopia today than were in 1974 or 1984. So, famine will have no real effect on the population. It is natural. We don’t need to do anything.”

Denial-by-admission: The whole famine thing is an overblown “exaggeration”. Example: “It is true that millions of people are at risk of food shortage. But what some describe as famine in Ethiopia is nothing more than food insecurity. Those skeletal children that are seen in the international media are just nutritionally-challenged, but they are, by no means, famine victims! Their parents are victims of critical food shortages for extended periods, not famine. At worst, the food situation in Ethiopia points to large-scale chronic food deprivation, which is not the same as famine.”

Why is Ethiopia Stalked by Recurrent Famine?

When Haile Selassie was deposed over the famine, the people asked: Why didn’t he do something to prevent it? When Mengistu celebrated the tenth anniversary of his socialist government and hundreds of thousands of people died in a catastrophic famine, the people asked: Why didn’t he do something to prevent it? Now, the same question must be put to Meles: Why didn’t he do something to prevent the current famine as he enjoyed his Millennium celebration in Pharaonic splendor? The answer to the question is very simple. Meles does not care! He doesn’t give a damn if famine wipes out half the population. (He might even shed a few crocodile tears!) He is concerned only with keeping himself and his gang in power, and making Ethiopia their playground. That is the absolute TRUTH!

We must go beyond the obvious to fully appreciate the severity of the current famine situation. The indisputable fact is that famine in Ethiopia is NOT a natural disaster. Certainly, it is aggravated by certain meteorological phenomena, but it is, and has always been, a preventable man-made disaster. So, we must ask some tough questions of those who have been feasting at the Table of Plenty for the last 17:

Has Meles learned any lessons at all from the Great Famines of 1973-74 and 1984-85 to prevent a famine in 2007-08?

Why isn’t famine prevention given the highest policy priority in the Meles regime?

Why is Meles so adamantly opposed to complete privatization of land, which by all expert accounts is the single most important factor in the food security of any nation?

Why is Meles spending millions upon millions of dollars in Somalia when millions upon millions of Ethiopians are starving?

Why does military spending consume nearly one-half of Ethiopia’s budget?

Why is exporting roses to Europe more important than raising teff and wheat to feed the starving people of Ethiopia?

Why hasn’t the Meles regime implemented a national family planning program in the same manner as those countries experiencing high birthrates?

Why is Meles addicted to international food aid and rescue?

Why is Ethiopia listed 138/179 countries on Corruption Index for 2007?

The Weaponization of Famine

Famine is not just about images of skeletal children gasping for their last breath of air as their mothers gaze into nothingness in the sun baked landscape. It is also a military and political weapon. Meles today is using denial of food aid to “rebel areas” in the south/southeast as did Mengistu to “rebel areas” in the north back in his day. That is the classic strategic lesson Meles learned from Mengistu. Famine can be used both as a tactical and strategic weapon against ones opponents. It could be used to depopulate troublesome regions by creating refugees and eliminating hostile guerilla forces. Like Mao Zedong said, “Guerrillas are like fish, and the people are the water in which fish swim.” When you weaponize famine, it is like draining the water out of the lake. No water! No fish! No problem!

Famine can also be used as a political weapon of control and elimination of any organized opposition. For instance, by controlling and manipulating the supply of grain to the urban markets, the regime can effectively punish and bring that population to its knees while eliminating any capacity for organized political opposition.

But famine is also very good for business (famine profiteering). Regime-allied middlemen buy massive amounts of grains from farmers at low prices (by offering what appears to be a generous price at the time) and eliminate legitimate small businesses that deal in grain. When these middlemen have an absolute monopoly on the acquisition, sale and distribution of agricultural commodities, particularly grains, it not hard to imagine how profitable famines could be. It makes perfect economic sense from the perspective of famine profiteering to place low policy priority on famine prevention and control. It’s the old supply and demand curve. High demand for food and less supply on the market, and complete control on the distribution of international food aid equals to “mo’ money, mo’ money, and mo’ money” for Meles and his gang.

The Real Reasons for Recurrent Famines in Ethiopia

The prime reason for the current famine in Ethiopia is the misguided economic policies of the Meles regime. That is the judgment of the most experienced development economists. As Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate and world renowned welfare (development) economist, observed, “There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy.”

In Ethiopia, drought and other meteorological phenomena are aggravating factors in the causation of famine, but their effects can be mitigated through effective policies, improved planning and better coordination in a functioning multiparty democracy. But there is no way famine could be effectively addressed in a one-party totalitarian police state that places a higher priority on the cultivation of rose bushes, coffee exports, tourism and construction of villas, resorts and unneeded office buildings than feeding its people. There is no way to overcome famine when artificially low prices are maintained for agricultural commodities (so that regime-allied middlemen could make obscene profits) and few incentives are provided to farmers for expanded food production. There is no way to rid famine from Ethiopia when fertilizer is used to blackmail farmers into voting for the regime. It is impossible to avoid recurrent famines when the regime relies on flawed policies promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which ignore the critical role of the private sector in food production. Famine will always rear its ugly head in Ethiopia so long as it is used as a military and political weapon. There will always be famine in Ethiopia so long as privatization of land is prohibited.

Stretching Her Hands Unto God

Let’s face the facts. For well over three decades, Ethiopia has been forced into recurrent famines by reckless, careless, heedless, feckless, aimless and worthless governments whose solution to the structural problem of food insecurity is to stretch out unbending begging hands to the Western countries. For well over three decades, the West has responded with kindness, goodwill, mercy, understanding, charity and compassion. Today, the limits of Western charity and generosity has reached its limits. For the first time, the West has come to the conclusion that it has no moral obligations to save Ethiopia when the Ethiopian “government” is sitting on its hands and doing nothing; or when it does do something, it is only to stretch out the hand that begs.

We must come to terms with the fact that the West is no longer willing to be blackmailed into accepting moral blame for Ethiopia’s famine. That is why it will be different this time. There will be no Bob Geldofs to save Ethiopia. No Live Aid. No Michael Jacksons singing “We are the World.” It will do us no good to stretch out begging hands to the Western Powers. This time Ethiopia must stretch her hands to a much Higher Power, the only Power that can save her. And Ethiopia will be saved — let there be no doubt about that — because we believe, as written in Psalm 68:31, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” And He will hold and lift her tenderly by her hands and raise her from the depths of despair, privation and misery, and deliver her from the plague of oppression! This time Ethiopia’s children must not only stretch out their hands unto God, but they must also hold hands — extend helping hands — from across the globe and embrace their brothers and sisters who are dying simply because they have nothing to eat. No Ethiopian should die from starvation!

Food for Thought: How many Ethiopians died today for lack of food?

Afterword: I have written about famine in Ethiopia on a number of occasions since June 2008. Here are some of my commentaries:

Ethiopia: Dictator With a Conscience? July 25, 2011

Ethiopia: Apocalypse Now or in 40 Years? July 10, 2011

Licensed to Steal March 10, 2010

Ethiopia’s “Silently” Creeping Famine January 11, 2010

Speaking Truth to Strangers June 10, 2010

Famine and the Noisome Beast in Ethiopia November 2, 2009

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and

  1. Hager Wedaj
    | #1

    Two wrongs do not make a right whether you live in Birmingham England or in Birmingham Alabama, but not so in BBC-ville – supposedly home to a cut above the rest investigative journalism.

    Ten months ago to the day, on November 4th 2010, the BBC issued an apology to Sir Bob Geldof for insinuating that Ethiopia’s incumbent party had used Band Aid money to buy weapons for its fight against the Derg. BBC’s apology, however, did not extend to the people and Government of Ethiopia? Why? Does the fact that our nation is caught in perennial draught make us not worthy of a BBC apology? Or has the BBC been swayed by obnoxious neo-colonial sentiments?

    On the 4th August 2011, the BBC aired what it described as “an under-cover investigation” into human rights violations by the Ethiopian Government. But how true are these allegations? Has the EPDRF, which was born and bred in the rigours of drought and famine, really turned so insensitive that it has stooped to the level of withholding food-aid from its political opponents? Or is it all froth and effervescence concocted by die-hard opponents who have become restless in their current state of somnolence? Or is this the latest coordinated attack by unelected and unaccountable HRW to frog-march Ethiopia into accepting neo-liberal policies – policies which are the real cause behind the current economic crises in developed economies?

    I have never had the good fortune of being part of the struggle to free Ethiopians from the iron-grip of Africa’s most brutal dictatorship, but from the wide literature I had read about the 17 year struggle such allegations are anathema to EPDRF. Criticising a ruling party based on irrefragable evidence is one thing, but to turn fiction into fact is mean.

    Here this scribe is not advocating for the Ethiopian Government per se, nor am I launching a damage limitation exercise on behalf of EPDRF. Thanks to EPDRF’s routine “GEMGEMA” if there is any kind of abuse anywhere, I am confident that it will be addressed as swiftly as possible. My sole argument, on the other hand, focuses on the demerit of BBC News Night’s reportage which I found to be tendentious bordering on the fictitious. I emphasize demerit for I discern no merit in an investigative journalist who willingly or naively falls prey to the machinations of our domestic leaders of opposition parties for whom the BBC has provided the much yearned for oxygen of publicity. Besides, how could there be merit in an investigative journalism where in the very words of the journalist “these allegations are difficult to verify.” An allegation which is hard to corroborate indicates that there is something fishy about the whole affair

    Let’s kick off then with the team of under-cover journalists, who having posed as tourists, went about discharging their journalistic duties in a country which in the very words of the narrator has become “a one party state.” One party state are known more for their notorious security services whose vetting of foreigners is an open secret. How is it then that the journalists was seen freely travelling in Ethiopia. Contrary to the journalist’s portrayal of Ethiopia as a closed society, the truth is that it is a destination where visitors from many nations can get their visas on arrivals. Neither is today’s Ethiopia is Burma where foreign journalists are denied visas. As “The Brussels of Africa” hundreds of foreign journalists in Addis Ababa are seen enjoying unhindered access to places and personalities. The phenomenal growth of Ethiopia’s print-media is testimony to the fact that free and unabashed media is very much alive and kicking.

    The gamut of News Night’s reportage is a recycled version of allegations Human Rights Watch had made less than a year ago – allegations to which resident EU Heads of Mission had refuted robustly. There would be no rhyme or reason for the EU Ambassadors to cover up these allegations. Who decreed that this group of men and women are less paladins of virtue than self-righteous members of HRW?

    What makes the reportage even more laughable is the fact the investigative journalist has taken the words of opposition luminaries at face value and tries to place blame for the opposition parties’ poor performance at the last Election on the ruling party. Nothing could be more nonsensical. No amount of re-writing the annals of history would alter the fact that EPDRF managed to win the 2010 Election with a landslide because it had taken time out to look inwards, because it had the humility to draw lessons from its failure to win Addis Ababa in the 2005, because it had transformed itself into a listening party as well as because it was the only party which offered Ethiopians sustained economic growth and durable peace and stability. Our opposition parties on the other hand were either content to rest on past laurels alone or failed to convince the electorate that their alternatives will guarantee the continued flow of dividends from the current diversity-celebrating-federalism and from sustained economic growth.

    It’s high time that the BBC and HRW come to realise that EPDRF was voted into power to lead Ethiopians to greener pastures and not to mollycoddle our frustrated and confounded opposition parties.

  2. Anonymous
    | #2

    Dearest professor, please if you are a grate teacher as your writing suggests please teach your current students the entire “Why’s” as to why Ethiopia continues to be in the hunger cycle; AND THE PRIME CYCLE OF ETHIOPIA’S HUNGER IS CAUSED BY WAR WITH ITS OWN PEOPLE AND NEIGHBORS DUE TO GREEDY AND POWER MONGERING LEADERS. The war with Eritrea should have settled ones and for all back in 1991 but just like the other leaders of Ethiopia and just like your explanation into one of your “Why’s” Meles copy-catted Haile Selasie and Mengistu and mastered it to be at its worst. In the end dearest professor, I do have lots of respect for your thoroughly of inputs into the Ethiopia’s past and present situations but do not forget the chain-reaction of the horn of Africa politics. We all need to sit down and find solutions to our needs; let Meles and his boss Bereket Simon be prosecuted in the courts of law of Ethiopia, by Ethiopians rather by the International Criminal Courts!!!

  3. Jacob
    | #3

    Great article as usual! Prof Al speaks on behalf of millions of Ethiopians. He speaks the truth. We love you man! Keep up the good work.

Comments are closed.