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Ethiopia’s “Silently” Creeping Famine

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

“Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” said Sir Walter Scott, the novelist and poet. Is there “famine” in Ethiopia, or not? Are large numbers of people “starving” there, or not? Is convulsive hunger a daily reality for the majority of Ethiopians, or not?

Ethiopian famine map

No one wants to use the “F” word to describe the millions of starving Ethiopians. In August 2008, the head of the dictatorship in Ethiopia flatly denied the existence of famine in a Time Magazine interview. Meles Zenawi explained, “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch – emergencies, but no famines.” Last week, the dictatorship’s “Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development”, Mitiku Kassa, reacting defensively to the latest Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) projections, was equally adamant: “In the Ethiopian context, there is no hunger, no famine… It is baseless [to claim famine], it is contrary to the situation on the ground. It is not evidence-based. The government is taking action to mitigate the problems.” This past October, Kassa claimed everything was under control because his government has launched a food security program to “enable chronic food insecure households attain sufficient assets and income level to get out of food insecurity and improve their resilience to shocks… and halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.”

But there is manifestly a “silent” famine and a “quiet” hunger haunting the land under Zenawi’s “watch.” In April, 2009, Zenawi gave an interview to David Frost of Al Jazeera in which he openly admitted that famine is rearing its ugly head once again in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. Frost asked: “Is there any danger that as a result of this [current] crises there could be famine like there was famine in 1984?” Zenawi responded:

Well, the famine of 1984 was precipitated by drought in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in general. The famine that could emerge as a result of this [current] crises is likely to be silent across the continent in terms of not swaths of territory that are drought affected but people suffering hunger quietly across the continent. That is the most likely scenario as I see it.

So, if the famine Horseman of the Apocalypse is haunting Ethiopia and the continent, “silently” and “quietly”, why are we not sounding the alarm, ringing the bells and hollering for bloody help? Why are we quiet about the “quiet” hunger and silent about the “silent” famine enveloping Ethiopia today? Why?

It is mind-boggling that no one is making a big deal about the fact that famine and hunger are back in the saddle once more in Ethiopia. Ethiopians need help, and they need a lot of it fast and now. Of course, nothing more depressing than the sight, smell and experience of famine and hunger. For the second part of the 20th Century, much of the world believed the words “Ethiopia” and “famine” were synonymous. But it is unconscionable and criminal for officials to avoid using the “F” word to describe the forebodingly bleak food situation in Ethiopia today because they are concerned it would cast a “negative image” on them. Even the international experts have joined the local officials in boycotting the use of the “F” word. Just last week, the U.S.-funded FEWSNET declared that the majority of Ethiopians will be facing “food insecurity” (not hunger, not starvation, not famine) in the next six months. According to FEWSNET, because of poor harvests from the summer rains in 2009

as well as poor water availability and pasture regeneration in northern pastoral zones” [and coupled]with two consecutive poor belg cropping seasons… high staple food prices, poor livestock production, and reduced agricultural wages, [there will be an] elevated food insecurity over the coming six months [particularly in the] eastern marginal cropping areas in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia, pastoral areas of Afar and northern and southeastern Somali region, Gambella region, and most low-lying areas of southern and central SNNPR…. In most areas of the country, food insecurity during the first half of 2010 is projected to be significantly worse than during the same period in 2009… Food security in eastern marginal cropping areas will likely deteriorate even further between July and September 2010. Overall, humanitarian assistance needs are expected to be very high.

Is it not a low-down dirty shame for international organizations, political leaders, officials and bureaucrats to use euphemisms to hide the ugly truth about famines and mass-scale hunger? These heartless crooks have invented a lexicography, a complete dictionary of mumbo-jumbo words and phrases to conceal the public fact that large numbers of people in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa are dying simply because they have nothing or very little food to eat. They talk about “food insecurity ”, “food scarcity”, “food insufficiency”, “food deprivation”, “severe food shortages”, “chronic dietary deficiency”, “endemic malnutrition” and so on just to avoid using the “F” word. FEWSNET has invented a ridiculous system of neologism (new words) to describe hungry people. Accordingly, there are people who are generally food secure, moderately food insecure, highly food insecure, extremely food insecure and those facing famine (see map above). Translated into ordinary language, these nonsensical categories seem to equate those who eat once a day as generally food secure, followed by the moderately secure who eat one meal every other day, the highly insecure who eat once every three days, the extremely insecure who eat once a week, and those in famine who never eat and therefore die from lack of food.

For crying out loud, what is wrong with calling a spade a spade!? Why do officials and experts beat around the bush when it comes to talking about hunger as hunger, starvation as starvation and famine as famine? Do they think they can sugarcoat the piercing pangs of hunger, the relentless pain of starvation and the total devastation of famine with sweet bureaucratic words and phrases?

As officials and bureaucrats quibble over which fancy words and phrases best describe the dismal food situation, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are dying from plain, old fashioned hunger, starvation and famine. The point is there is famine in Ethiopia. One could disagree whether there are pockets of famine or large swaths of famine-stricken areas. One could argue whether 4.9, 6, 16 or 26 million people are affected by it. But there is no argument that there is famine; and this is not a matter for speculation, conjecture or exaggeration. It can be verified instantly. Let the international press go freely into the “drought affected” and “food insecure” areas and report what they find. For at least the past two years, they have been banned from entering these areas. Is there any doubt that they would reveal irrefutable evidence of famine on the scale of 1984-85 if they were allowed free access to these areas?

Obviously, it is embarrassing for a regime wafting on the euphoria of an “11 percent economic growth over the past 6 years” to admit famine. It is bad publicity for those claiming runaway economic growth to admit millions of their citizens are in the iron grip of a runaway famine. If the “F” word is used, then the donors would start asking questions, relief agencies would be scurrying to set up feeding stations, the international press would be demanding accountability and all hell could break loose. That is why the dictatorship in Ethiopia reacts reflexively and defensively whenever the “F” word is mentioned. They froth at the mouth condemning the international press for making “baseless” claims of famine, and castigate them for perpetuating “negative images” of the country merely because the international press insists on finding out verifiable facts about the food situation in the country. The fact of the matter is that unless action is not taken soon to openly and fully admit that large swaths of the Ethiopian countryside are in a state of famine, we should soon expect to see splattered across the globe’s newspapers pictures of Ethiopian infants with distended bellies, the skeletal figures of their nursing mothers and the sun-baked remains of the aged and the feeble on the parched land.

Denial of famine by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes is nothing new. During 1959-61, nearly 30 million Chinese starved to death in Mao’s Great Leap Forward program which uprooted millions of Chinese from the countryside for industrial production. Mao never acknowledged the existence of famine, nor did he make a serious effort to secure foreign food aid. Ironically, the Chinese Revolution had promised the peasants an end to famine. The Soviet Famines of 1921 and 1932-3 are classic case studies in official failure to prevent famine.

Why is it so difficult for dictatorships and other non-democratic systems to admit famine, make it part of the public discussion and debate and unabashedly seek help? Part of it has to do with image maintenance. Official admission of famine is the ultimate proof of governmental ineptitude and depraved indifference to the suffering of the people. But there is a more compelling explanation for dictators not to admit famine conditions in their countries. It has to do with a fundamental disconnect between the dictators and their subjects. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argued,

The direct penalties of a famine are borne by one group of people and political decisions are taken by another. The rulers never starve. But when a government is accountable to the local populace it too has good reasons to do its best to eradicate famines. Democracy, via electoral politics, passes on the price of famines to the rulers as well.

An examination of the history of famine in Ethiopia lends support to Sen’s theory. Emperor Haile Selassie lost his crown and life over famine in the early 1970s. He said he was just not aware of it. The military junta’s (Derg) denied there was famine in 1984/85 while it waged war and experimented with the long-discredited practice of collectivized agriculture. That famine accelerated the downfall of the Derg. The current dictators have opted to remain willfully blind, deaf and mute to the “silent” famine and “quiet” hunger that are destroying the people.

The official response to famines in Ethiopia over the past four decades has followed a predictable pattern: Step 1: Never plan to prevent famine. Step 2: Deny there is famine when there is famine. Step 3: Condemn and vilify anyone who sounds the early alarm warning on famine. Step 4: Admit “severe food shortages” (not famine) and blame the weather, and God for not sending rain. Step 5: Make frantic international emergency calls and announce that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are dying from famine. Step 6: Guilt-trip Western donors into providing food aid. Step 7: Accuse and vilify Western donors for not providing sufficient food aid and blame them for a runaway famine. Step 8: Tell the world they knew nothing about a creeping famine until it suddenly hit them like a thunderbolt. Step 9: Put on an elaborate dog-and-pony show about their famine relief efforts. Step 10: Go back to step 1. This has been the recurrent pattern of famine response in Ethiopia: Always too little, too late.

The fact of the matter is that famines are entirely avoidable as Sen has argued with substantial empirical evidence.

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence … they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threaten by famines can have.

There is another question that needs to be answered in connection with the “severe food shortages” in Ethiopia. Why are millions of fertile hectares of land under “lease” or sold outright to foreigners to feed millions continents away when millions of Ethiopians are starving? To paraphrase Sen, such a thing would be unthinkable in a functioning multiparty democracy!

With no pun intended, the “breadcrumbs” of famine (or as they euphemistically call it the “early warning signs”) are plain to see. There have been successive crop failures and poor rainfall; water availability is limited and staple food prices are soaring; livestock production is poor as is pasture regeneration. Deforestation, land degradation, overpopulation, pestilence and disease are widespread in the land. If it quacks like a duck, swims like a duck and walks like a duck, it is famine!

If those whose duty is to sound the alarm and get help are not willing to do their part, it is the moral responsibility and duty of every Ethiopian and compassionate human being anywhere to create public awareness of Ethiopia’s creeping famine and call for HELP! HELP! HELP!

“There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy.” Amartya Sen

(Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.)

3 thoughts on “Ethiopia’s “Silently” Creeping Famine

  1. I really appreciate what Prof. Alemayehu wrote. The problem lies on one thing.The current egotist regime.So, alongside broadcasting the famine to help our people, we have work hard to over-throw the power-lust government.And the pivotal point to start is to work in together for the same cause-public interest rather than ego.As to the famine it’s plain truth that our people are dying. The west should stop being misled by our government and try to see the truth to come up with a help that will save millions of lives.

  2. Hate mongers Abugidawoche(kebetoche) One year Anniversary.



    By Alex Birhanu – [email protected]
    1) Funny enough we are told by Eritrean /“Ethiopian”/ Review article of May 28th 2009 that Andargachew Tsigie the Secretary General of Gunboat-7 Movement is currently on a working visit in Asmara, Eritrea mainly holding talks with Issayas Afewrki’s regime on how to create a united front with Ethiopian People’s Patriotic Front (EPPF), OLF and ONLF. We are informed that Andargachew’s visit followed Issayas Afwerki’s recent interview with “Ethiopian” / Eritrean Review and earlier this month. The Ginbot-7 Secretary General is thereby permitted to setup its temporary headquarters in Asmara; and that Ginbot-7 chairman Birhanu Nega who loves most to call himself as the “legitimately elected mayor of Addis Ababa” to travel soon to Asmara in order to conclude necessary pacts for the forthcoming military operations. By so doing the leadership proved what has been widely talked and speculated about Ginbot-7 thus far.
    Obviously, for as long as they pave the way they see it fit for their dream position in power, the Ginbot-7 leadership simply doesn’t care whether or not what they do in the name of the movement really does affect the integrity and political moral of the Ethiopian people or not.
    The next two quotations taken from the Ethio-Media-Forum (EMF) does attest what is being contended. Firstly a certain Namara on EMF under the title ‘Minority ethnic domination of the military in Ethiopia’ wrote today stating the following: “As an Oromo Ethiopian, who lost my father as a Derg Army Officer during the war against EPLF, I sincerely admire and respect President Isayas Afeworki and the Eritrean People who provided refuge and support to OLF and other anti-Woyane forces – at a time when it was not popular to do so. He has certainly earned my respect and confidence. President Isayas is a true champion and symbol of freedom of all oppressed people from the yoke of tyranny.”
    Likewise under the same topic and in the same tone a certain Aden Farah Hasan said: “As an activist of the Ogaden National Liberation Front I have eye-witnessed efforts done by the heroic and iconic leader Issayas Afeworki for giving not only trainings to people of oppressed nationalities from Oromia and Ogadenia but also assist those who would like to bring change in the current regime of Ethiopia. Indeed President Isayas has demonstrated that he is a great friend of the Horn by his unlimited support not only to ONLF and Al-Shebaab but also to EPPF and Ginbot-7. As a result I hold my highest regards for the people, government and President of Eritrea and wish them all peace and prosperity in their future endeavor against imperialism and against the Amharic-Tigre Colonial Ethiopia.”
    It is with such groups of anti-Ethiopia elements that Berhanu and Andargachew are courting to befriend themselves with in the name of Gunboat-7, a movement that claims as standing for “freedom” and “justice”. Well opposing Woyane is one thing but joining hands with elements standing for Ethiopia’s disintegration and development of Ethiopia’s under-development is totally another thing. These fellows have undermined the Ethiopian peoples’ ability to withstand such shrewdest stand amidst the tough time we are facing under the Woyane regime that is not our liking or choice by any measure. You don’t go to the mother of all troubles under the guise and Ethiopian pretext and give your psychic make-up to the man next door that is waging his fingers warning to hold you tight by the throat till you chock or become breathless.
    I wonder what in the “Hell” Asmara has to come into picture and do with likely outcomes of Ethiopian political events that concern directly Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Isn’t Asmara Issayas Afewerki’s home, the man who never sleeps before he makes sure that Ethiopia is reduced to multiple mini-states? Had there been an inch thick of a heart that worries for Ethiopia under the chest of Issayas Afeworki, at all? Asmara wouldn’t have opened its doors for separatist elements that fight to dismantle Ethiopia, and for EPPF syndical enough an organization that claims to firmly stands for the unity of Ethiopia. If there is anything that the opposition gets from Asmara today, it will definitely be paid back at an exorbitantly high price tomorrow. The question of Assab, the un-demarcated border issue that face the current opposition collectively or individually are problems yet to come as challenges in the future when anyone of them are supposedly to assume power. If we believe that Issayas Afeworki is willing to raise a lion that may ultimately devour him, we’re just simplifying very complex national issues. We should not follow suit and make mistakes just as the Gunboat leadership does. Someone among us must attempt to call a spade as spade at this critical time of Ethiopian politics.
    Andargachew and Berhanu should know the following: For as long as there are foot-lickers and sell-outs that are ready to serve their Eritrean master for the sake of personal gains, it may not matter to them; but it does matter to Ethiopians. We do accuse Meles Zenawi for betraying Ethiopia and Ethiopia’s vested national interests; but we hate and despise Issayas Afeworki because this tyrannical dictator is always ready to kill Ethiopia if he could. He is the mastermind for all the pains Ethiopia is suffering today. Afeworki is a dangerous bandit who is waiting for the day when the wounded Ethiopia falls apart so that he can tear it apart into smaller pieces and dine it too. We hate those fools who try to tell us that, in order to bring down a regime, it is quite OK and necessary to destroy the country first and then try to build it up all over again. We should realize the expertise that one should not burn his house down in order to eliminate the unwanted cockroaches.

  3. Famine in Ethiopia is now one of our cultures, our religions, our traditions, and our common vernaculars; at least that is the way some foreigners look at our country, at our people, and at our systems of government. For example, when a well-fed Ethiopian man meets one person from the Western world, the westerner would immediately say to this Ethiopian person: “If you are really from Ethiopia, how come you are not skinny?”

    And if one wants to go to Ethiopia, a person who has been in Ethiopia and who knows the sufferings and the untimely deaths of many Ethiopians because of a famine or diseases would say: “Don’t you know what they say in Ethiopia?” ወዴት ትሄዳለህ? ወደ በለሳ ሰሌን አልያዝክምሳ? Belesa is east of Gondar if I remember very well, and it is a well-known place for its fertile land and cotton plantation. Every year, people from Debre Tabor, and Gaint would go there to pick up some cotton, but Belesa is also a very frightening place because of its የተስቦ በሽታ some people can easily get sick and die. When they die, the living cover the bodies of the dead with ሰሌን made out of palm leaves. So, when one goes to Belesa, one has to carry his own ሰሌን in case he dies there.

    Any way,Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi), for his own political survival, may have always tried to hide the reality that there has always been famine in Ethiopia since he came to power, but the sad faces, the bulging stomachs, the sunken eyes and the shaking knees of those hungry Ethiopian children who are unable to carry even their own heads would tell the true story that there is indeed famine in their villages. Meles cannot hide such sick and malnourished children for ever; their stories one day will be on the front pages of World News or on the Ethiopian Review: the dilemma is, however, until such sad stories are known to the world, in the mean time, thousands of children may perish because of the severity of the famine they have been experiencing since they were born.

    If a man of compassion becomes a leader of Ethiopia, the first thing he should do, if there is no other ways to help the famine victims of his people, is to put at the entrance of each Ethiopian city a big bulletin board with a big sign that reads: “Welcome to the City of Famine!” So that when foreigners see such humiliating signs, they may immediately report the dire situations of the country to their governments to send plenty of food, medicine, and some doctors and nurses to the Ethiopian victims of famine.

    Of course, Ethiopia needs a leader that would properly use its abundant natural resources and eradicate famine forever from all the territories of this historical Christian country and reclaim its past glory.

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