It was at a railway crossing near Diri Dawa, the provincial capital in the Ethiopian Ogaden desert, that I saw them: small children’s hands, blackened by sun, clutching at the slats of a cattle truck dumped on a siding. The year was 1984, the height of the Ethiopian famine that claimed about a million lives. These young things must have expired, hours later, of heat and thirst in temperatures peaking at about 48C, in the truck where they had deliberately been left to die.
I know it was deliberate because I took quick photographs, muttered a few words they couldn’t understand, and headed in to Diri Dawa to get help. The famine relief office officials shrugged and directed me to the military police commander. He cut me short: yes, he knew where they were. They were ethnic Somali kids – Somalis, the majority population of the Ogaden, had been in rebellion against Ethiopian rule for years – and they had been caught throwing stones at a train.
But they would die, I persisted. He lit a cigarette. “So what: they knew the risks and they must pay the price.”
You did not have to be caught throwing stones to “pay the price” in 1984. That famine in the Ogaden, the worst-affected region in Ethiopia, was far deadlier than it need have been because, until the international outcry forced it somewhat to relent, the Marxist Mengistu dictatorship blocked food aid to rebel areas, using it as a weapon of war
What the world saw back then they are seeing again: heart-rending photographs of wide-eyed famished Ethiopian children. What the world did not hear much about then was the criminal exploitation of suffering. What the world will not see clearly, even now, is that disasters like drought can cause crops to fail, but should never, in a half-decently run country, lead to mass deaths from malnutrition. Famines in this day and age are man-made, if not by the sins of commission perpetrated by the thuggish Mengistu regime (and by North Korea’s) then by culpable omission coupled with lousy policies.
Mengistu was overthrown in 1991, fleeing Addis Ababa to retire in the congenial climate of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Because Meles Zenawi, the Tigrayan rebel leader who ousted him, shed some of his Albanian-model Stalinist baggage, he was fêted by Westerners as a moderniser and showered with development aid.
A spot of election-rigging in 2005, followed by the shooting of up to 200 pro-democracy demonstrators, caused some temporary tut-tutting, after which aid quietly resumed and, in Britain’s case, doubled. Not so quietly, the Ethiopian Army is again cracking heads in the Ogaden, burning villages and, according to Human Rights Watch, torturing and publicly executing not only rebels of the resurgent Ogaden National Liberation Front but also civilians sympathising with them. In the Ogaden, famine looms. Plus ça change.
Still, Meles and Mengistu are not la même chose. Meles is a bit of a thug, but he has introduced some judicial and commercial reforms, devolved powers from Addis Ababa to the regions, improved education, curbed child mortality through anti-poverty programmes and, importantly, advocated greater equality for women. He has also ploughed 17 per cent of government spending into agriculture, three to four times as much as most other African governments. He claims that farm production is growing by 10 per cent a year, and boasts that, two years ago, the country actually exported maize (odd, that, when in a “good” year millions of Ethiopians rely on foreign food aid).
After the last big drought, in 2003, the Ethiopian Government worked with donors to create a system designed to make famine history. It includes a Productive Safety Net, a public works programme providing seven million poor Ethiopians – nearly a tenth of the population – with food or cash, and a Famine Early Warning System that measures rainfall, livestock prices, household spending and signs of malnutrition.
Textbook stuff, and in stark contrast with the junta’s attempt to hide the 1984 famine from the world. And yet… how, then, has the failure of the “little rains” this spring, and the consequent loss of a single harvest, translated into a huge emergency affecting ten million people, by the aid industry’s probably inflated account, and 4.6 million by the Government’s defensively conservative assessment?
Why are its emergency grain reserves so depleted that food rations have been reduced by a third, at least 75,000 children are already severely malnourished and hunger affects two thirds of the country and has, this time, spread to the towns? Why is Ethiopia, a country with lush two-crop breadbaskets as well as deserts and eroded hill farms, still so vulnerable that, as Meles himself admits, “one unexpected weather event can push us over the precipice”?
There are two big causes, and drought is not one of them. They are within the power of politicians to tackle, and tackled they must finally be, with the requisite sense of urgency. The first is Ethiopia’s population explosion; with families averaging 5.4 children, it has soared from 33.5 million in the 1984 famine to 77 million now. In a country where 85 per cent of the people rely on farming for a living, this means that, per head, food production has actually fallen since 1984 – by more than a third – and farm plots get smaller and smaller. A fifth of Ethiopian farmers try to survive on areas no more than 20 metres by 40 metres per person, yielding no more than half their cereal needs.
The second is Meles’s purblind refusal to reverse the Marxist folly of his 1995 law that put all land under state ownership. “Land holding certificates” graciously permit farmers to till land that their forebears have farmed for generations; but surveys show that 46 per cent still expect to lose their farms.
The policy is a disaster. It discourages careful land management; it deprives farmers of collateral to raise bank loans to buy fertiliser and agricultural tools; and they cling to plots too small to feed their families because, with nothing to sell, they have no alternative. The coffee and infant rose-growing sectors apart, most Ethiopians farm as their ancestors did, with hoes, wooden ploughs, oxen and an anxious eye on the skies.
Enough food aid is once more pouring in to stave off serious famine; but it will not remedy Ethiopia’s deepening aid dependency and rural despair. With a smaller – because more mobile – landowning rural population, able to access loans to invest in higher-yield seeds, tractors and drip irrigation, Ethiopia could feed itself. But will donor governments champion the farmers’ right to get back their land? On past experience, pigs will fly. And the next famine will be a matter of time.
Rosemary Righter is an associate editor of The Times