The Color of Famine – By Fekade Shewakena
“They call it the green huger. Four-foot cornstalks sprout from rain-soaked earth, and wind billows fields of teff, the staple Ethiopian grain, goats and cattle are getting fat on lush grasses — but the children are still dying”. Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times, (August 5, 2008)
I have come across many references to the current widespread hunger in Ethiopia as a “green famine”. The term appears to be used to make a distinction between famine caused by the shortage of food due to drought and the kind of famine that occurs side by side with periods of good rains, harvest and grain production. But this is a misnomer that arises from either willful ignorance or a shallow understanding of the famine situation in Ethiopia and only plays into strengthening the narrative that famine in Ethiopia is a function of fluctuations in weather conditions. Some “experts” and members of the aid industry who want to put color on the Ethiopian famine have either limited or colored knowledge of the underlying causes of famine in Ethiopia. I hardly remember a case of famine in Ethiopia where there was no plenty of food at the same time, at least in some parts of the country, even under flawed land tenure policies. Both during the 1974 and 1984/85 epic famines that killed millions, many parts of the country were food surplus regions. In fact, some of the people affected by the famine situation were able to whether the disaster by mass migrating to some of these regions.
The so called green famine that is eating Ethiopia now in some of the greenest parts of the country is in many respects a clear exposure of the canard that famine in Ethiopia is caused by the failure of seasonal rains. Rain or no rain, the Ethiopia people have always teetered on the precipice as it relates to their food security. Professor Misfin Woldemariam and others who studied famine in Ethiopia have shown that there are always famines of smaller regional scale at any one time in Ethiopia before the larger million killer famines worthy of global attention show up in about a ten year cycle. These small scale famines that often hit Awraja level regions and pockets of areas in the country take their toll every year and are not even covered by the media (local or international) and pass unnoticed by people outside of the area. In many places I know in Ethiopia these small famines are given local names. Some are actually used as references to time and history by the local people. I have, for example, heard people relate the birth and death of people to the time of such famines as “Dubalech” or “kifu qen” etc. Drought and rainfall fluctuation have always been immediate triggers of large scale mass death due to starvation but not the fundamental causes of it. People who tend to consider the occurrence of the current famine in green areas as a surprise and anomaly can now learn that they have been eluded all along into thinking that the Ethiopian famine is caused by the failure of the rains.
The most important danger of this narrative, that the Ethiopian famine has to do with the curse of nature of some color, is that it glosses over the underlying structural problems of famine in Ethiopia and the need for devising appropriate strategies to combat it. The strategy that follows this flawed narrative continues to be one of trying to weather the current famine while leaving the solution for the next ones to chances. Rulers in position of power and government policy makers are not asked to make hard choices and fundamental reforms that help eliminate famine once and for all. In extreme cases, as in the case of the ruling TPLF, you can even grow into taking foreign aid and assistance as an entitlement. In some instances as we saw this year in the Ogaden, relief agencies had to plead with the regime to be allowed to help dying citizens. The only merit of the current TPLF government in Addis Ababa as it relates to hunger and famine, if you can call it that, is that unlike its predecessors, it has refined beggary into an art form and has succeeded in averting some famines over the last several years by begging on time. I don’t know how many of you know that there are no less than four million Ethiopian peasants, about 6% of the population, that live on handouts perennially.
Most so called experts and members of the aid industry and donors including the lords of poverty, the World Bank and the IMF, know the problem well but seem unwilling to look into the politically driven socioeconomic structures in the country where the more potent factors of famine in Ethiopia are imbedded. Hence they resort to simplistic and superficial explanations and solutions. The whole shebang and silly debate between aid agencies and Meles Zenawi last month about the number of children under threat of malnutrition is a clear exhibitions of how they are dealing with the problem so superficially and how the argument over this serious tragedy is dragged down to the level of none sense.
The other lame excuse now forwarded for the widespread hunger in Ethiopia is the global rise in the price of food. Now this is another shallow excuse that Meles Zenawi and his accomplices dish out to cover a disaster of their own making. In the first place, Ethiopia’s agriculture is primarily subsistence to be so seriously affected by the demand elasticity in global markets or even be affected significantly by the price of oil. The excuse that Meles Zenawi gave in his rubber stamp parliament saying that the Ethiopian food problem is caused because some countries in Asia have started eating more is very disingenuous.
Ethiopia is a beautiful country endowed with every resource that God has given man so generously and is capable of feeding multiples of its current population size easily. It is a crime for any child to go hungry for a day let alone die of hunger in this country. It is disastrous governments and land tenure policies that lead to disastrous management of land and other resources for the primary objective of absolute political control of people that made famine synonymous with Ethiopia.
To open your eye to the nature of the problem, listen to this simple question by farmer Mohamed Kedir somewhere in Ethiopia to journalist Edmund Sanders of the Los Angeles Times: “But if the government can take my land at any time, what’s the point of trying so hard?” Read here. Now tell me Mohamed and millions of farmers like him are irrational and fool people who cannot feed their children or that their land is unproductive. Meles Zenawi knows that if Ethiopians own their own land and make decisions on their land the way they want, which definitely will be the most rational and economic decision than his government, he knows he cannot control them and his cadres cannot intimidate them into submission any time they so want.
The tyrants ruling Ethiopia have made a choice to better have a starving people than have a people that could possibly feel free and threaten their control. And it is a shame that the millions of us who know better are allowing this tragedy to continue. Any sane people would rebel against such a system and make an end to it than burry its children in mass every famine cycle and beg other hard working people to spare it as another one looms.
This tragedy is going to go on unless we address the underlying causes and make fundamental changes in the nature of governance and the way we do business in Ethiopia. The donors who pump money into the bottomless pockets of Meles Zenawi should also understand that we are not grateful as a people and tell them that they are a party to perpetuating our misery.
The promise by Meles Zenawi that his so called “developmentalist state” would feed us like pigs if we lose all our freedoms, stop asking questions and behave like cattle and accept his one party rule, is only as good as him trying to put lipstick on the pig. It will only worsen the problem. This is only a theoretical cover for absolute dictatorship and, I might add, not a new idea. It is hard to impossible to think Ethiopian farmers can produce enough to avert another hunger and famine as long as the government anoints itself as their baby sitter. This never worked anywhere in the world and it will never work in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is not going to be food self-sufficient unless it decreases the agrarian population in absolute number over time by moving the population to different economic and industrial sectors. This obviously cannot happen under current policies. The TPLF has nearly tied the farmers and their children to the land to an extent that land fragmentation has made holdings economically meaningless. Because of land scarcity people are farming marginal lands that should be left for forests and vegetation cover and endangering the land for more disaster. The ethnic bantustanization of the country has shut out free movement of people and resources from depressed areas to more productive areas. The government with its inflated army, its mass of spies and bureaucracy, is an entire army of locust destroying agriculture and starving children to death.
The truth of the matter is that the Ethiopian famine has no color. Where anybody wants to see a color on this famine, I see the face of Meles Zenawi and misguided policies and greed for power killing people like flies. I also see the shameless face of the do-nothing Ethiopian elite – which in my view is a disgrace to humanity.