By Shewarega Assefa
Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, Op-ed on May 8 on the online version of` NY times titled: Is the Era of great famines over?
A month ago he travelled through the northern and central regions of Ethiopia and was overwhelmed by the effort of the Ethiopian government in dealing with the famine that affected about a fifth of the country’s population. He claimed that Ethiopia has been transformed from a symbol of a country plagued by a recurring famine which saw 600,000 people perish in the 1984 draught that “turned the name Ethiopia synonym for shriveled, glazed-eyed children on saline drips….” to a country that is effectively dealing with a famine that affected about 20 million people. Quite a remarkable progress!
He went in detail how peace, greater transparency and prudent planning helped the regime fend off starvation. The narration seems to have been copied right out of the regime’s image building and deceptive propaganda that fostered humanitarian assistance and development funds keep on pouring into the coffers of the government in an unprecedented scale for the past quarter of a century.
The prevailing famine, for him, affecting close to 20 million people only dealt a dent to the miraculous growth of GDP, by slowing the growth down to a mere 8.5% for 2015 and 2016 from a high of more than 10% growth of 2014. This rosy growth rate –concocted from tortured numbers by the government and echoed by IMF and other donor countries –is a facade retched up by the regime as part of the image building scheme, corroborated by donners. A growth, no doubt, created a few lords of poverty who have enriched themselves at the cost of a vast swath of the population visibly suffering from the corrosive anxiety of poverty.
A polarized growth which can be palpably felt in Addis by mere observation of a flock of beggars that conspicuously swarm the modern buildings mushrooming in the city.
One couldn’t agree more with the writer’s conclusion that “there is no record of people dying of famine in a democracy.” And also with the assertion that “politics creates famine, and politics can stop it.”
An assertion copied from the experience of other countries and pasted to the Ethiopian situation where neither democracy nor a political system capable of stopping famine exist. Experts closely monitoring the situation assert to the contrary: Ethiopia has a totalitarian government lacking the will and the capacity to mitigate the impact of recurring famine endemic to the country.
Ethiopia is not a democracy. Unless, of course, Alex believes the bizarre claim that the regime won the election by a 100% in the last sham election, 96.6% in the previous one, where journalists and opposition politicians have been summarily imprisoned and some brutally tortured and/or murdered. The writer conveniently misses to mention the annual country reports of gross human rights violation by the US state department, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international.
In today’s Ethiopia, a handful of ethnocentric freaks hailing from a minority ethnic group obscenely possess power and wealth running the country with a bandit system. I fail to see how the very undemocratic system where transparency and accountability are missing could effectively help stave off the dire situation of famine that is killing children at worst, or permanently damaging their life by malnourishment, at best.
All the factors mentioned by the writer to have contributed for the government to fend off starvation miserably fail to apply to the Ethiopian situation. Undoubtedly, prevalence of peace and political stability significantly contribute to growth and development, having a cascading effect of augmenting the living standard of the people. However, unless one defines peace to mean solely an absence of war with bordering countries, warranting internal peace has never been the hall mark of the government of Ethiopia. Even border skirmishes continually happen on virtually every corner of the country.
Lasting peace only prevails where freedom exists.
In the absence of freedom to speak, write, organize, and of genuine elections peace would only be a mirage –as is the case in Ethiopia. Obviously, the movement of people to look for a better livelihood is also severely curtailed in the absence of freedom. History tells us that there has never been true peace in a totalitarian government and the regime in Ethiopia is no exception! In today’s Ethiopia the government can only be equated to an apartheid system where a minority from one small ethnic group entirely controls the government. Peace may seem to prevail for those powerful oligarchs who are protected by all the might of the government with full support of the western world –who are blindsided by the service they are getting to fight terrorism in the neighboring Somalia. The case is not true to 90% of the population, though.
Unlike Alex’s claim, the system of government in Ethiopia today is neither accountable nor transparent. The staggering amount of funds that have been pouring to the country to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars have never been put to the full use of their intended targets. Sadly, this has been going on with a full knowledge of the donners and the so called development partners. Despite their awareness of how development funds and of aid money that have been rampantly siphoned off by a corrupt system, donner countries have carried on applying the same policy of catering for dictators –turning a blind eye dovetailed with being part of the corrupt system.
To make matters worse, the Ethiopian government use these abundant funds to hire a lobbyist group like D.L. Piper to project a presentable image through some bought out politicians and experts, including academicians here in the US whose real concern is the exorbitant amount of money that is rolling into their bank accounts, and warranting a constant flow of funding for some academicians to run projects. The writer in question definitely fits in the above category.
Alex has probably been driven to feeding and distribution sites set by the government to show case their best case scenario of providing services to the victims. Upon his return, he wrote on a venerated newspaper editorial exactly what the government of Ethiopia provided him to write. He showed no care at all to do any fact checking from other sources to substantiate what the authorities are claiming to be a fact in the ground. I was dismayed to read an article taken right from the TPLF deception manual, sugar coated by some universally accepted notion that hardly apply to the Ethiopian situation.
In sharp contrast to Alex’s op-ed page in the NYT where he absurdly toyed with a question of the era of famine being over, based on the Ethiopian experience –not quite fitting the caption of the article; another reporter named Christiabel Ligami, visiting Ethiopia probably at the same time has reported ten days ago on equaltimes.org about the emerging hunger stories to the world. Unlike Alex, Ligami wrote unfavorably about the ludicrous effort of the government to censor starvation, lest not to project an image incapable of containing the impending disaster.
How could the two reports be dramatically different after visiting the same country almost at the same time? Where Alex flirted with the idea of the era of famine being over praising the efforts of the government to control the damages of starvation; the other article talked about the glaring drought compounded by the censorship imposed on NGOs and journalists who were forbidden by the government not to report the severity of the situation and the ensuing loss of lives in the affected areas. Ligami stated that journalists were imprisoned for talking to foreigners about the drought.
The variation in the two reports could easily be explained by the sources they used to write the report. While Alex entirely based his observation on the visits he made of food distribution sites that government officials showed him, Ligami gathered his information from journalists and actual victims of the drought.
BBC, The daily Telegraph, NPR, Grham Pebble, the Auckland Institute all seem to concur with Ligami as they have reported that the government has imposed censorship on foreigners, local journalists and even organizations tasked to help the drought victims not to reveal the egregious situation in Ethiopia to the world. In addition, the government’s intransigency, at the onset of the draught, not to accept the advice of UN, FAO and other similar organizations’ request to timely mobilize resources might have also dramatically worsen the situation.
In a BBC interview, one mother was narrating how she lost a son who died of hunger. Immediately after the story surfaced, the regime officials tracked her and forced her to recant her story in the Ethiopian media and said that her son died of an illness, instead. Far from controlling the dire effects of the prevailing calamity and alleviating the deplorable situation from taking a turn to the worse, the government of Ethiopia was obsessively concerned about the image of the country whose economy they have been absurdly claiming to have grown in double digits.
As much as Alex’s extensive dwelling on the prudence of the government in meeting the challenges, he never mentioned the impact of the land policy of the government that has uprooted the indigenous people from their land (without proper compensation commensurate to their loss of a source of livelihood and a sea change in life style) by leasing it at a dirt-cheap price to foreign investors from India and Saudi Arabia. The local people became landless over night without a grazing land for their live stocks or a plot of land to farm, either. Basically, the land was used as a ‘surrogate mother’ where the locals never benefited from such ventures obtained by leasing the womb of their land while Indians and Saudis ship out the produce to their respective country.
Op-eding on influential newspapers like NYT no doubt builds an image that could sway the minds of policy makers by building a false image of facts on the ground. On the flip side, the victims of tyranny lack the financial wherewithal to lobby in the American congress or write the truth on the front pages of those newspapers. But thanks to the pervasive presence of the social media and its wider reach, the conspiracy to silence who are silently dying of hanger has not been successful.
It is a colossal travesty that the writer claims to be the executive director of a world peace organization. My trajectory barely misses its mark, if I predicted the world to remain in turmoil (not at peace) as long as the likes of Alex de Waal continue to do such a shoddy work –warranting the longevity of totalitarian regimes and their own stay at the helm of an organization with no accountability.
By Shewarega Assefa