Ethiopians affected by drought wait outside a compound to receive maize from the Red Cross in June, 2008..

Once again, the twin spectres of drought and starvation stalk the land of Ethiopia. UN sources suggest that four million Ethiopians now need what they call “emergency assistance,” while another eight million need what is more vaguely described as “food relief.”

Already, thousands of people are dying. The first to expire are the very young and the very old. In some areas of the country, people are dying of starvation and malnutrition while their goats and sheep get fat eating crops that will not be harvested until late September.

Few saw this coming. Two years ago, Ethiopian officials boasted that food surpluses would allow their country to sell corn to neighbouring Sudan. The government has been investing more than a sixth of its budget in agricultural development, far above the average in other African countries. Child mortality has been reduced by 40%, and the agricultural sector has been growing by 10% annually over the last few years.

But in this part of the world, as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said, “one unexpected weather event can push us over the precipice.” Only 1% of Ethiopia is irrigated, meaning that a lack of rainfall can produce catastrophic results for the five-out-of-six Ethiopians who eke out a living through subsistence agriculture.

Famine-relief food distribution is never a straightforward affair in an African country. Those (mostly southern) regions where voters did not support the regime in recent elections typically complain that they are cheated of food aid at the expense of more “loyal’ parts of the country in the north.

Inter-regional friction is no stranger to Ethiopia. Five hundred years ago, Cushitic-speaking Muslim tribesmen from the desert plains of (what is now) southeastern Ethiopia and the borderlands of Somalia declared a jihad and attacked the Semitic-speaking Christian highland kingdoms whose emperors claimed descent from Solomon and Sheba. With the timely help of Portuguese musketeers under the leadership of the son of Vasco da Gama, the southerners were repelled. The next 400 years of Ethiopian history led to a gradual domination and conquest of these southern tribes, who were vanquished once and for all by the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Hailie Selassie.

Selassie himself was overthrown by a group of Marxist revolutionaries, who plunged Ethiopia into a brutal civil war. Then came the famous drought of 1984, which brought us We Are the World.

One of the reasons so many people starved in Ethiopia during that time was that the ruling regime would not let food from food-rich areas go to food-poor areas — because the latter were dominated by opponents of the government. Nor would they allow people to migrate from food-poor to food-rich districts. “Starve or submit” became the watchword of this new regime.

The Derg, as this new regime called itself, was then ousted by a coalition of central and northern Semitic-speaking Ethiopians who considered themselves Marxists. But when they came to power, the Berlin wall had fallen already — so they made peace with the West, joined the war on terror, and started taking baby steps toward liberal democracy and the liberalization of their economy Nevertheless, the country remains riven by old conflicts. The governing elites are suspicious of the southerners, especially their newfound interest in radical Islam.

It comes as no surprise that, in the current crisis, some of the worst-affected and most neglected areas are in the southeast corner of the country, where Muslim peasants have been in open rebellion for over a decade.

According to “Radio Freedom” — operated by the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Army — on July 4, 2008, at least 13 Ethiopian government soldiers were killed; 15 others were reportedly killed in an attack in the Galalshe district. The Ethiopian government claims these rebels get support from sympathetic Arabs, and has accused Qatar of meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs. (Qatar, for its own reasons, supports the neighbouring Red Sea state of Eritrea, which just a few years ago fought a border war with Ethiopia and expresses support for Ethiopian rebels of Somali ethnicity in the southeast of the country.)

Ethiopia has neither confirmed nor denied that such attacks have taken place on its soldiers. But either way, it is understandable that Ethiopian government employees may be less than enthusiastic about personally overseeing food aid in the southern parts of the country.

Exacerbating these regional frictions, and this year’s extreme weather events, are what may be considered the two root causes of the famine: population growth and land tenure.

In 1984, during the height of the drought and civil war, Ethiopia had just under 34 million inhabitants. The population now stands at 77 million: In just more than one generation, the population of the country has doubled. Despite the government’s investment in agriculture, overall investment in education has gone down, which stifles the possibility of rural innovation. And, although overall food production has increased, the World Bank has noted that per capita production has declined. That is to say, each peasant produces less food than he once did. Even during good years, 6% of the rural peasantry is supported by government-and donor-delivered food relief.

After the murder of Hailie Selassie by the Derg in the early ’80s, the government revolutionized the land-tenure system by giving peasants enough land to till according to the number of children they then had. This simplistic tenure system has been kept intact by the present government. Peasants do not have title to their own plots, and there is an incentive to get more land by having more children to till it. But there is little incentive to make that land more productive: Farmers are fearful that if they invest in any aspect of land improvement they could lose their plots to local elites with political connections.

As peasants do not own their own land, they cannot use it as collateral to get loans they need to buy seed or fertilizer, which could in turn be used to create a food surplus to be used in case of drought. They also are denied the right to sell their land and move somewhere else– to a more fertile region or to the city to try their luck in urban occupations.

More food aid will help prevent mass starvation in Ethiopia in the short term. But in the long-run, it needs something else: a peasantry with the same right to own and control their land that most farmers in the world take for granted. Freed from government shackles, they will unleash a green revolution that will feed their families.

gwclarfield@yahoo.com-Geoffrey Clarfield is a Toronto-based writer.

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