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BBC Ethiopia Relief Aid Investigation

Ethiopia: Licensed to Steal

Alemayehu G. Mariam

If democracy is a government of the people, kleptocracy is a government of thieves.

Last week the secret world of Meles Zenawi’s kleptocracy, famine aid-sharking and money laundering in Ethiopia was exposed by two of his former comrades-in-arms in the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Gebremedhin Araya, a former treasurer and TPLF co-founder Dr. Aregawi Berhe, detailed the scam used to swindle, hustle and con millions of dollars from international famine relief organizations in the mid-1980s. The two former top leaders accused the TPLF leadership, including Zenawi, for taking tens of millions of dollars earmarked for famine relief in the Tigrai region to buy weapons and enrich themselves. Gebremedhin said he personally handed cash payments and checks in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to Zenawi and Sebhat Nega, the top two TPLF leaders who controlled the cash flow of the organization. Although Gebremedhin was the treasurer, he said he was not privileged to know what happened to the money after he delivered it to Zenawi or Nega. The incriminatory evidence, (including a candid photograph of TPLF cadres counting and recording wads of cash handed over to them by a foreign aid worker from a large satchel on the floor), is shocking as it is damning and irrefutable.

In 1984/5, at the height of the catastrophic famine, nearly a quarter of a billion dollars were raised internationally for famine relief in Ethiopia. Michael Buerek of the BBC who visited the Tigrai region at the height of the famine in 1984 described the situation as “a biblical famine in the 20th Century” and “the closest thing to hell on Earth” (See video[1]).

According to the available evidence, normal delivery of emergency humanitarian aid to the Tigrai region in 1984 was virtually impossible because of rebel activity in the outlying areas and bombardment by the military junta. The road normally used to deliver aid supplies to the Tigrai region from the capital had become unusable because of rebel military activity. The various international famine relief non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had to find alternate routes to quickly deliver relief aid to victims in rebel-controlled areas. Many of these NGOs eventually set up shop in eastern Sudan close to the Tigrai border in an attempt to deliver aid quickly. The large concentration of NGOs and the publicity surrounding the enormous fundraising efforts by various international celebrities for Ethiopian famine victims caught the attention of the TPLF leaders who saw a lucrative business opportunity for themselves delivering relief aid to victims in areas their controlled.

According to the former TPLF leaders, Zenawi and his top cadres hatched out and successfully executed a scam to use a front “humanitarian relief” organization called “Relief Society of Tigrai” (REST) for aid delivery. The TPLF leaders managed to “convince” the various NGOs operating out of the Sudan that REST is a genuine charity organization completely separate from the TPLF, the declared military wing. In fact, REST was the other face of the TPLF coin.

The evidence further indicates that to magnify the severity and extremity of the famine situation for the NGOs, the TPLF leaders ordered the exodus of large numbers of victims into the Sudan creating a mushroom of refugee settlements in the Sudanese border areas overnight. Using different techniques and methods, the TPLF leaders stage managed an elaborate marketing “drama” for the NGOs to buy and deliver aid to the large famine-stricken population inside Tigrai. This was done principally by organizing a small group of their most trusted and inner circle members to pose as “grain merchants” and solicit business from the NGOs.

The deception games, or more accurately the famine aid-sharking scheme, played on the Western NGOs were varied. At the onset of the scam, they used a three-staged process. In stage one, one group of TPLF/REST officials masquerading as legitimate grain merchants would approach the myriad NGOs and offer to sell them substantial quantities of grain for quick delivery to the famine victims. At the time, the TPLF had acquired and stashed in secret warehouses grains from various sources, including NGOs, for use by its fighters. These secretly stashed grain stockpiles were in fact being offered for sale to the NGOs. The TPLF/REST “grain dealers” would complete the sale transaction and return back to their hideouts with the payment from the NGOs. Gebremedhin said he delivered to Zenawi and Sebhat Nega the cash and check payments from the NGOs. He described the scam with mind-numbing simplicity:

I was given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant. The NGOs don’t know me because my name was Mohammed. It was a trick assigned (created) by the top leaders for the NGOs. I received a great amount of money from the NGOs and the money was automatically taken by (the TPLF) leaders. The money, much of it, the leaders put it in their accounts in Western Europe. Some of it was used to buy weapons. The people did not get half a kilogram of maize.

Once the purchase was made another group of TPLF/REST operatives would take over the responsibility of delivering the relief aid inside Tigrai. In the second stage, TPLF/REST officials would facilitate spot checks of grain stockpiles in their own secret warehouses. But the warehouses were tricked out. Gebremedhin said, “if you go there, half of the warehouse was stacked full of sand.” The NGO representatives would perform visual inspections of the stockpiles, give their approval and cross back into the Sudan to conduct additional grain purchases.

In the third stage, the same or different group of TPLF/REST officials would go back to the NGOs and make a pitch for additional sales of grains for delivery in a different part of Tigrai. These offers did not involve any new or fresh supplies of grain. Instead, stockpiles of grain already in secret storage facilities in various locations throughout Tigrai were trucked around to new locations, giving the appearance to the NGOs that fresh supplies of grain were being bought in and delivered. Since the aid workers have no means of independently verifying the grain that is being shuttled from one location to another from completely fresh shipments, they would perform cursory inspections and make payments. In that manner, TPLF/REST was able to sell and resell multiple times the same previously acquired stockpile of grain (and sand) to the NGOs generating millions of dollars in revenue. TPLF/REST used various ways and techniques in 1985 to maximize its business transactions with the NGOs and in selling grain shipments sent by donor countries.

Dr. Aregawi told the BBC that of the $100 million that went through TPLF hands at the time, $95 million was diverted for weapons purchases and other purposes not related to famine relief. He stated that the TPLF stage-managed “dramas” to “fool the aid workers”. A recent BBC investigation identified a 1985 official CIA document which concluded: “Some funds that insurgent organizations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes.” Robert Houdek, a senior US diplomat in Ethiopia in the late 1980s, was quoted by the BBC saying that TPLF members at the time told him that some aid money was used to buy weapons. An aid worker named Max Peberdy stated that he had personally delivered to TPLF/REST officials $500,000 in Ethiopian currency to purchase grain.

The prima facie evidence of massive relief aid diversion by the TPLF is compelling and damning[2]. Those accused of involvement in the wrongdoing have dismissed the evidence as “rubbish”; they have not called for a full fact-finding inquiry to clear their names of such serious and grave charges. Until such inquiry takes place, the evidence of aid-sharking and theft stands unchallenged and unrefuted. To be sure, very little of the famine aid money in 1984/5 channeled through the TPLF went to help the hungry, poor and dying in Tigrai. Nearly all of it (95%) was diverted for military and other purposes. Bob Geldof who organized Live Aid/Band Aid in 1984 collecting tens of millions of dollars in donations recently threatened, “If there is any money missing I will sue the Ethiopian government.”

The systematic plunder and pillage of Ethiopia over the past two decades can now be put in clear perspective.

We now know:

Why Ethiopia’s only outlet to the sea was signed, sealed and delivered, overriding contrary advice by international diplomats;

What went down in the deal to hand over Badme to the aggressor in binding international arbitration following the aggressor’s decisive military defeat at the cost of over 80,000 Ethiopian lives;

How the May 2005 elections were stolen in broad daylight;

Why the missing millions of dollars worth of gold bars from the national bank in 2007 are still missing; Of the secret sweetheart deals that turned over the country’s gold mines to cronies at bargain-basement prices;

How state enterprises were given out to family, friends and supporters for pittance in the name of privatization;

About the secret deals made to demarcate the border between the Sudan and Ethiopia;

About the fire sale of millions of hectares of farmland to foreign “investors”;

About the no-collateral bank loans in the millions of dollars to friends and supporters and the 1.7 billion birr ($141.6 million) loan to Messebo Cement Factory, one of the many companies owned by the “Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray” (EFFORT a/k/a Zenawi, Inc.,), which sent the Development Bank of Ethiopia careening into insolvency);

About the monopoly of the cement business by Zenawi, Inc./EFFORT;

About the multi-million dollar child-trafficking business in the name of inter-country adoptions;

About the secret deals to sole source the construction of the Gilgel Gibe dams to an Italian company;

About the “genocide and interhamwe” scare talk;

About the corrupt procurement and contracting practices that direct state business to cronies, supporters and friends;

About the rampant nepotism, patronage and clientelism;

Why draconian “laws” we enacted to criminalize NGOs and the independent press; and on and on and on.

We know because we now have the blueprint for the perfect kleptocracy!

One must grudgingly admire these con men for their sheer audacity, genius and creativity in ripping off so much money from the charities in the mid-1980s (and for the last two decades from the Ethiopian people). Even Ali Baba and his 40 thieves could not have pulled off such a brilliant scheme to sell and re-sell the NGOs the same sand as grain over and over again. Even Hermes, the Greek god of thieves, would not have been able to come up with such an exquisitely perfect plan to hoodwink and bamboozle gullible NGOs of millions of dollars. They truly deserve the title, “A New Breed of African Thieves”.

The facts are plain to see. We know now that these thieves did not stand for the people of Tigrai at the critical hour in 1984. They sure as hell do not stand for the people of Ethiopia today. They stand for themselves and no one else. They will try to cling to power by creating enmity and polarization between the people of Tigrai and their brothers and sister in the rest of Ethiopia. That is the ONLY way they can stay in power. As an old Ethiopian saying teaches, disorder and chaos creates ideal conditions for thieves (Gir gir le leba yimechal.) The Ethiopian opposition today is in a state of gir-gir (disarray, discord and mess). When the core of opposition political activity revolves around ethnic bashing, finger pointing and finger wagging, the ideal conditions for thievery are created and maintained. But there is a way to deal with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves:

Close ranks regardless of ethnicity or regionality; reaffirm our basic humanity in our Ethiopianity; renounce our old enmity; openly declare our steadfast unity and trumpet our Ethiopian nationality at every opportunity.

When we have done these things, we will have freed ourselves from domination and rule by a kleptocracy — a government of thieves, by thieves, for thieves!

We should all thank BBC’s Africa Editor, Martin Plaut, for his extraordinary investigative work in this affair.


[1] See 1984 BBC video at:
[2] See details of the scam in excerpts from Gebremedin Araya’s Amharic manuscript: Pt. 1,
Pt. 2,

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,, and other sites.