The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1984 Remembered
By Alemayehu G Mariam / October 27, 2014
Famine in Ethiopia is a topic that horrifies me. Over the years, I have written long commentaries on the subject often challenging with incontrovertible facts the fabricated and false claims of the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front and its late leader Meles Zenawi that there has been no famine in Ethiopia since they took power in 1991. Of course, there has been famine in Ethiopia every year since 1991. They just don’t call famine, famine. They have fancy names for it like “extreme malnutrition”, “severe under-nutrition”, “extreme food shortage”, “catastrophic food shortages” and other clever misnomers. However, famine in Ethiopia sugarcoated with fancy words and phrases is still famine!
Food is the quintessential human right. All human beings have a God-given right to food. Without food and water there is no life; and those who control food and water control life itself. The problem in Ethiopia for over one-half century has been that the governments and regimes in power who controlled the supply of food have pleaded congenital ignorance when it comes to famine. H.I.M. Haile Selassie said he did not know there was famine in northern Ethiopia in 1973-74. In 1984-85, military strongman Mengistu Hailemariam said exactly the same thing. “Yo no sabía…” Meles Zenawi in 2008 said, “We did not know there was famine in Southern Ethiopia until emaciated children began to appear.” Oh! The curse of know nothing and do nothing governments and regimes in Ethiopia!
Since I joined the human rights struggle in Ethiopia after the 2005 election after the late Meles Zenawi ordered the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters, I have used my pen (keyboard) to hold Meles and his Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF)disciples accountable if not before a court of international law, at least before the court of international public opinion. Their ongoing depraved indifference to millions of Ethiopians facing famine year after year is a testament to their continuing and monumental crimes against humanity.
In his first press conference in Addis Ababa after Meles and his gangseized power, Meles declared that the litmus test for the success of his regime should be whether Ethiopians were able to eat three meals a day. (See video here.) Two decades later in 2011, Meles pompously declared, “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.”
“Three meals a day” in 2014 Ethiopia is pie in the sky for the vast majority of Ethiopians. There is no chance that Ethiopia will feed itself “without the need for massive food aid” by 2015, which is two months from now. In fact, Ethiopia today is 123 out of 125 worst fed countries in the world. According to a 2014 Oxfam report, “while the Netherlands ranks number one in the world for having the most plentiful, nutritious, healthy and affordable diet, Chad is last on 125th behind Ethiopia and Angola.”
For years, the TPLF leaders have been promising to end “food shortages caused by drought” in a very short time. In 2009, Simon Mechale, head of the country’s “Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency”, proudly declared: “Ethiopia will soon fully ensure its food security.” Meles’ “plan to produce surplus” was by “leasing” out millions of hectares of the country’s prime agricultural land to so-called international investors (land grabbers) whose only aim is to raise crops for export. Ethiopia will produce food to feed other nations while Ethiopians starve. Meles and his TPLF gang have adamantly opposed private ownership of land, which by all expert accounts is the single most important factor in ensuring food security in any nation. In 2010, food inflation in Ethiopia remained at 47.4 percent.
The TPLF and the international poverty pimps that coddle and protect the TPLF would like the world to believe in a rosy fairy tale about “double-digit economic growth”, “construction of massive infrastructure” and “leadership in the fight against terrorism”. They will never talk about the famine that has stalked Ethiopia for decades now. Those poverty pimps are so clever that they have invented a whole set of words and phrases not to call famine, famine. The word “famine” is banned from their official reports. It has been replaced by such phrases as “severe malnutrition”, “food deficit”, “acute food insecurity”, “extreme food consumption gaps” and many others deceptive euphemisms.
In its August 15, 2014 report USAID wants us to believe that the thing that walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck is NOT a duck. USAID says, “Despite a fast-growing economy… Ethiopia… experiences high levels of both chronic and acute food insecurity, particularly among rural populations and smallholder farmers. Approximately 44% percent of children under 5 years of age in Ethiopia are severely chronically malnourished, or stunted. The long-term effects of chronic malnutrition are estimated to cost the Government of Ethiopia approximately 16.5 percent of its GDP every year according to the UN World Food Program (WFP).”
What does this bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo actually mean? Many in rural areas are facing famine-like conditions? Babies, toddlers and small children are starving? It makes me sick to my stomach! USAID and the rest of international poverty pimp network members think we are too dumb and too stupid not to see their stupid word and phrase games about famine in Ethiopia. They should know that we are not as dumb as we look. (Are we!?!? Just wondering.) “That which we call a rose, any other name would smell as sweet”, but USAID and the rest of the international poverty pimps should know that they cannot sugarcoat famine in Ethiopia by calling it “extreme malnutrition” and expect to fool anybody.
The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1984
For me the best way to remember the Great 1984 Ethiopian Famine today is by remembering the hidden Ethiopian famine of Ethiopia in 2014. In October 1984, the BBC released a documentary on the “Ethiopian famine that shocked the world.” Describing that famine as “shocking” is a gross understatement of the reality. It was disgraceful, dreadful, ghastly, sickening, monstrous, scandalous and unspeakably horrifying. BBC reporter Michael Buerk described it as a “biblical famine”. His documentary today is considered as “one of the most famous television reports of the late 20th Century.” Watching the video of that famine is psychologically devastating today as it was 30 years ago when it happened.
An estimated one-half million people in northern Ethiopia died as a result of the 1984 famine. Some 600 thousand people were forcibly transported by military truck from their home villages and farms to various regions in the southern part of the country. Tens of thousands of peasants died in the transportation process and at the various settlement camps. The military Derg regime also used the opportunity to depopulate certain areas considered sympathetic to rebels by creating a “villagization” program. The outcome of the Derg’s response to that famine was an unmitigated disaster.
In 1987, Time Magazine wrote about famine in Ethiopia that year questioning what was really going on in Ethiopia. “Three years ago , a famine began to strike Ethiopia with apocalyptic force. Westerners watched in horror as the images of death filled their TV screens: the rows of fly-haunted corpses, the skeletal orphans crouched in pain… Today Ethiopia is in the midst of another drought… Ethiopia, which has earned the unhappy honor of being rated the globe’s poorest country by the World Bank… is on the brink of disaster again. At least 6 million of its 46 million people face starvation, and only a relief effort on the scale of the one launched three years ago will save them… As the cry [for aid] goes out once more for food and money, the sympathetic cannot be faulted for wondering why this is happening all over again. Is the latest famine wholly the result of cruel nature, or are other, man-made forces at work that worsen the catastrophe?”
The end of famine in Ethiopia according to Meles Zenawi and his TPLF disciples
For years, Meles and his TPLF disciples have been advertising their “Productive Safety Net Programme” (driven by foreign aid in the form of budget support supposedly) as the silver bullet against famine. That program presumably “prevents asset depletion at the household level and creates productive assets at the community level accelerating the end of the cycle of dependence on food aid”.
In October 2011, Meles told his party faithful: “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.” His “plan to produce surplus” was to be implemented by “leasing” out millions of hectares of the country’s prime agricultural land to so-called international investors (land grabbers) whose only aim is to raise crops to feed people in India and the Middle East. So much for the TPLF’s hype of “ending the cycle of dependence on food aid.”
The facts speak for themselves. According to the World Food Programme report (WFP) (the branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security), in 2014, 2.7 million Ethiopians need food assistance and that WFP plans to assist nearly 6.5 million vulnerable Ethiopians with food and special nutritional assistance, including school children, farmers, people living with HIV/AIDS, mothers and infants, refugees and others. In 2012, there were 3.76 million people in need of emergency food aid; in 2011, the number was 4.5 million; 5 million in 2010 and 2009 and 6 million in 2008. According to a 2013 U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report, “34 million Ethiopians–40 percent of the population–are considered chronically hungry.” To be “chronically hungry” means to go without food for a very long time. Isn’t that what we used to call starvation and famine in 1984?
In honor and remembrance of those Ethiopians who have died needlessly from famine in Ethiopia
In honor and remembrance of the victims of the Great Ethiopian Famine of 1984 and those who died needlessly since then, I review a few of the many commentaries I have written over the years on hunger, starvation and famine in Ethiopia. I do so not to self-congratulate or to seek recognition for my miniscule efforts to raise public awareness. I do it for the same reason I do all of my human rights advocacy: To speak truth to power and abusers of power.
For years, I have relentlessly criticized the late Meles Zenawi and his TPLF regime for their depraved indifference to the issue of famine and starvation in Ethiopia. In 2008, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The art of denial (lying)”. I argued that Meles and his TPLF crew deserve credit for perfecting the art of denial (lying) just like the smooth career criminals who deny everything when caught. When Meles was confronted by the facts of famine in Ethiopia, his response was, “What famine?” In an interview with Time Magazine on August 7, 2008, Meles flatly denied the existence of famine in Ethiopia: “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.” (“Stupid is as stupid does,” said Forrest Gump, the character in the movie by the same name.)
Meles’ deputy, Addisu Legesse, following his boss groused, “Institutions that exaggerate the food shortage in Ethiopia and report inflated figures of the needy are intent on belittling the economic growth of the country and calculating their interests.” Mitiku Kassa, Meles’ “Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development” 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.”
In An interview with journalist Peter Gill on August 22, 2012, Meles said he was clueless of the famine engulfing Southern Ethiopia. “That was a failure on our part. We were late in recognising we had an emergency on our hands. We did not know that a crisis was brewing in these specific areas until emaciated children began to appear.” For Meles, the proof of famine is “emaciated children”. Everything else is at worst an “emergency”. All of the talk of famine is merely a figment of the overactive imagination of the foreign media and humanitarian organizations.
In November 2009, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Famine and the Noisome Beast in Ethiopia”. I wondered out loud how successive Ethiopian governments and regimes over the past one-half century could blame famine on “acts of God.” The TPLF regime even today blames “poor and erratic rains,” “drought conditions,” “deforestation and soil erosion,” “overgrazing,” and other “natural factors” for “severe malnutrition” and “chronic food shortages” in Ethiopia. They shrug their soulders and say, “It ain’t us. It’s God who did it! He forgot to send the rains.”
In April 2010, in my commentary, “The ‘Silently’ Creeping Famine in Ethiopia”, I vehemently protested the dishonesty of the international organizations, bureaucrats and officials who use euphemisms to hide the ugly truth about famines and mass-scale hunger in Ethiopia. I accused the heartless international poverty pimps of inventing a lexicon 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. The international poverty pimps cannot hide the truth about famine by talking nonsense 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”amine word. They got to call a spade, a spade!
FEWSNET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network”, a creation of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has invented a ridiculous taxonomy to describe hungry people in places like Ethiopia. According to FEWSNET, when it comes to food, there are people who are generally food secure, moderately food insecure, highly food insecure, extremely food insecure and those facing famine. Translated into ordinary English and applied to countries like Ethiopia, these nonsensical categories seem to equate those who eat once a day as generally food secure, followed by the moderately food secure who eat one meal every other day. The highly food insecure eat once every three days. The extremely food insecure eat once a week. Those who never eat face famine and die! The kind of madness that masquerades as “science”!
In March 2011, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Moral Hazard of U.S. Policy in Africa” arguing that the TPLF regime is so heavily dependent on the safety net of foreign aid, massive infusion of multilateral loans and a perpetual supply of humanitarian assistance that were it left to its own devices it will likely behave very differently (more responsibly). Why shouldn’t the donors and loaners leave the TPLF to deal with the consequences of its mismanagement of the economy and debilitating corruption? The fact of the matter is that for over two decades, the TPLF regime has gone out into the international community with bowls begging for food to feed millions of Ethiopians without being held accountable by the donors and loaners. As a result, the regime has been completely indifferent to the plight of the people.
In July 2011, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Apocalypse Now or in 40 Years?” I was and still am concerned whether there will be an “Ethiopia” in 2050. I argued that whether Ethiopia survives as a viable nation in 2050 free of war, disease, pestilence and famine will not depend on an imaginary “double-digit” economic growth or a ludicrous 99.6 percent election victory. It will depend on what is done to deal with the little big 3 percent problem. In other words, overpopulation poses the single most critical problem and decisive issue in Ethiopia today and the years to come.
In 2011, U.S. Census Bureau made the frightening prediction that Ethiopia’s population by 2050 will more than triple to 278 million. Ethiopia’s chronic “food insecurity” is expected to get increasingly worse culminating in a “Malthusian catastrophe” (where disease, starvation, war, etc. will reduce the population to the level of food production). The TPLF has failed to implement a national family planning program which will avert such a catastrophe. The bottom line is that Ethiopia’s population is growing by 3 percent every year. If Ethiopia cannot adequately feed, clothe and shelter 90 million of its people today, is there any way in God’s green earth that she will be able to feed 278 million in just 35 years?
In my August 8, 2011, commentary entitled, “Meles Zenawi and the Weaponization of Famine”, I argued that Meles and his TPLF gang were insidiously manipulating famine as a political and military weapon to cling to power. I argued that famine is not just about images of skeletal children gasping for their last breath of air as their mothers gaze into nothingness in the sun baked landscape. Famine is also a military and political weapon. Meles and his TPLF have used denial of food aid to “rebel areas” in the south/southeast as did Mengistu to “rebel areas” in the north back in his day. That is the classic strategic lesson Meles learned from Mengistu. Famine can be used both as a tactical and strategic weapon against one’s opponents.
My August 15, 2011, commentary entitled, “Starve the Beast, Feed the People!” was a call to action. I urged Ethiopians to stand up to the Western donors and loaners who continue to support the criminal regime of Meles Zenawi and the TPLF in Ethiopia and declare, “Starve the TPLF Beast, Feed the People!” No more aid to a regime that clings to power by digging its fingers into the ribs of starving children. No more aid to torturers and human rights violators. No aid to election thieves. No aid to those who roll out a feast to feed their supporters and watch their opponents starve to death. Let’s shout in a collective voice to the West — America, England, Germany, the European Union, the IMF, World Bank and the rest of them—“Starve the bloated TPLF-beast that is feeding on the Ethiopian body politics, and help feed the starving people.”
In my August 22, 2011, commentary entitled, “Why are Ethiopians Starving Again in 2011?”, I gave ten reasons why Ethiopians are still starving in 2011, (and in 2014 as well): 1) Famine is not merely a humanitarian catastrophe in Ethiopia; it is a powerful political and military weapon. 2) Famine is a recurrent fact in Ethiopia because that country has been in an endless cycle of dictatorship for decades. 3) Famine in Ethiopia is an annual crisis because the TPLF dictators do not give a damn if the people die one by one or by the millions. 4) Famine is a structural part of the Ethiopian economy because the “government” owns all the land. 5) Famine persists in Ethiopia because massive human rights abuses persist. 6) Famine persists in Ethiopia because Meles Zenawi’s TPLF regime has succeeded in keeping the famine hidden. 7) Famine persists in Ethiopia because there is a “conspiracy of silence” or a “conspiracy of turn a blind eye”by Western aid agencies, timid NGOs and a mindless international press. Famine persists in Ethiopia because the regime in power for over two decades has failed to devise and implement an effective family planning policy. 9) Famine in Ethiopia is good business for the TPLF. 10) It is true “a hungry man/woman is an angry man/woman.”
In my August 29, 2011 commentary entitled, “What Should the World Do To Save Starving Ethiopians?”, I offered 10 reasonable recommendations to save starving Ethiopians. 1) Take the moral hazard out of Western aid in Ethiopia. 2) Put humanity and human rights back in Western humanitarian aid in Ethiopia. 3) Promote and support a stable and healthy Ethiopian society through aid, not entrench an iron-fisted and malignant dictatorship. 4) Never bankroll bad actions by dictators with good Western taxpayer money. 5) Make partnership with the Ethiopian people, not the Meles Zenawi TPLF dictatorship. 6) Hold the local paymasters of aid accountable. 7) Condition aid and loans on the implementation of comprehensive family planning programs in Ethiopia. To help the starving people of Ethiopia, help Ethiopian women. 9) To help the starving people of Ethiopia, help Ethiopia’s youth (70 percent of Ethiopians are under age 35.) 10) Starve the (TPLF) Beast, Feed the People.
In October 2012, I rang the alarm bell in my commentary “Ethiopia: An Early Warning of a Famine in 2013”. By carefully piecing data, analyses and findings from various sources including the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), Oxfam, the U.N. World Food Programme, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and reports of the New England Complex Systems Institute, [NECSI] (a group of academics from Harvard and MIT who specialize in predicting how changes in environment can lead to political instability and upheavals), I warned that 2013 was likely to be the threshold year for the onset of famine or “catastrophic food crises”. I also challenged the ridiculous classifications of the international poverty pimps and their pseudo-scientific stages of food deprivation, e.g. “acute Food Insecurity”, “Stressed” situations, “Crises” mode, etc.
In May 2012, I argued in my commentary, African Hunger Games at Camp David, that food has been used as a political weapon in Ethiopia. Hunger has been the new weapon of choice to generate support for the TPLF regime and to decimate their political rivals. Meles and his TPLF have been pretty successful in crushing the hearts, minds and spirits of the people by keeping their stomachs empty. Those who oppose the TPLF are not only denied humanitarian food and relief aid, they are also victimized through a system of evictions, denial of land or reduction in plot size as well as denial of access to loans, fertilizers, seeds, etc. In the case of the people of Gambella in western Ethiopia, entire communities have been forced off the land to make way for Indian “investors” in violation of international conventions that protect the rights of indigenous peoples.
In February 2014, I wrote a commentary entitled, “A Glimpse of the Creeping Famine in Ethiopia”. That month an investigative report by NBC news stated, “[Ethiopia] is the face of the world food crises. In a village in Southern Ethiopia, mothers cue with their malnourished children for emergency rations of food. They can’t afford to feed their babies and now it seems neither can the outside world. The distended stomachs, a symptom of the hunger so many here are suffering after two poor harvests in a row, and there are more new cases everyday… They were given food rations ten days ago… The government reserves ran out long ago, and now the U.N. supply is thinning too.” (In 2008, Meles Zenawi said, he knew nothing about the famine in Southern Ethiopia. They still did not know of the famine in February 2014. They believe there is famine only when skeletal children wander the streets and countryside.) The curse of a know nothing do nothing regime!
I recently challenged President Barack Obama for making patently false statements on September 23 that he knew or should have reasonably known to be untrue when he made them. “We have seen enormous progress in a country [Ethiopia] that once had great difficulty feeding itself. It’s now not only leading the pack in terms of agricultural production in the region, but will soon be an exporter potentially not just of agriculture, but also power because of the development that’s been taking place there.” I should like to believe he was grossly misinformed because USAID’s August 15, 2014 report completely contradicts him. “Despite a fast-growing economy, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It experiences high levels of both chronic and acute food insecurity, particularly among rural populations and smallholder farmers.”
Famine in Ethiopia is TPLF-made
In 2011, Wolfgang Fengler, a lead economist for the World Bank, in a refreshingly honest moment for an international banker said, “The famine in the Horn of Africa is a result of artificially high prices for food and civil conflict than natural and environmental causes. This crisis is manmade. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policy making for that to lead to a famine.”
In other words, it is bad and poor governance that is at the core of the famine problem in Ethiopia, not drought or other environmental causes. For the past 23 years, the TPLF has mis-governed, mis-administered and mismanaged Ethiopian society, politics and economy. Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s international director, after visiting Ethiopia in May 2012 observed: “Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution. If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores, and wells to harvest rains then they can survive despite what the elements throw at them.” Martin Plaut, BBC World Service News Africa editor, similarly explained that the “current [2012 Ethiopian food] crisis is in part the result of policies designed to keep farmers on the land, which belongs to the state and cannot be sold.” The entire responsibility for Ethiopia’s famine (or whatever sugarcoated word they want to use to disguise famine) rests at the feet of the TPLF leaders.
So the obvious questions are:
I find it extremely distressing to see few Ethiopians taking the lead in remembering the great tragedies of the Ethiopian people over the past several decades. I am grateful that the BBC has taken media leadership today to commemorate the Great Ethiopia Famine of 1984. I am ashamed (but eternally grateful to our Western friends) that Ethiopia’s defenders in times of great tragedy are Western institutions and personalities. When our human rights are violated, our defenders are organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House, Genocide Watch and others. When our independent journalists are jailed and exiled, it is the Committee to Protect Journalists that mans the defensive lines. When our rivers and indigenous people are facing extinction, it is International Rivers and the Oakland Institute that come to our defense. The double shame of it is that few of us are even donating members of the very organizations that defend our rights and dignity. (The truth hurts, doesn’t it?!)
Perhaps some of my readers may disagree, but I see few CIVIC-SOCIETY organizations toiling to defend human rights or press rights in Ethiopia. I see few civic organizations standing up to prevent genocide in Gambella, the Ogaden and many other parts of Ethiopia. I see few civic organizations dedicated to the promotion of youth issues or women’s causes. I am aware of only one civic organization dedicated to celebrating the achievements of distinguished Ethiopians. Why can’t we stand for ourselves? What is that our Western friends got that we ain’t got? Is it money, knowledge, commitment….? What? Why can’t we stand and defend out rights against thugs?
As we remember the 1984 Great Ethiopian famine in 2014, I want my readers to be very aware that there is famine going on in various parts of Ethiopia today. Just because the BBC or some other investigative body is not reporting it does not mean it is not occurring. One of the reasons the TPLF regime has clamped down so hard on the independent press is to prevent such reports from going out into the international media.
I also want my readers to be aware that the international poverty pimps that pump billions in food aid into Ethiopia every year have a “conspiracy” of silence not to use the “F”amine word. They want to skin over the ghastly face of FAMINE in Ethiopia with discombobulating bureaucratic phrases and words.
On a personal note, I find it mind-boggling that one person’s voice should be heard week after week for years on so many important topics affecting Ethiopia and Ethiopians when there are so many Ethiopians scholars and men and women of learning throughout the world who could also have their voices heard. People are “amazed “that I have written long commentaries on so many topics every single week, without missing a single week, for years and expressed my voice and views. I do not find that amazing at all. What I find mind-bogglingly amazing is the fact that so many learned and intellectually accomplished Ethiopians have chosen to speak their minds every single week, without missing a single week, year after year, with their thunderous silence.
Commitment and passion for any cause are unique to the individual, but I believe every Ethiopian, particularly those blessed with great learning, have a duty to man up and woman up to the cause of human rights and dignity in Ethiopia, Africa and elsewhere. I am afraid that when future generations of Ethiopians look back at our generation, they will all stand up, point their collective index fingers and resoundingly shout out, “We Accuse!”
La luta continua! (The struggle continues!)
Famine in Ethiopia sugarcoated with fancy words and phrases is still famine!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: