Letter from Ethiopia - December 10, 2002

Tizibt Mezgebu

Dear Readers:

For a change of topic, I had wanted to write on a subject different than the "dirq" situation like the major leak of a top state secret back in 1997 that Meles hardly knows about but that undermines the very core of his and his party's ideology. Let us say it involves a blood supply at the Black Lion hospital, an Italian scientist and more than 175 Ethiopian subjects. More on that in the future as the "dirq" situation is more pressing now.

Each day brings more bad news than good news as we are all wondering if the food will reach the affected people on time. The month of January is crucial, we are told, because that is when the food supply meant for the drought victims will run out. Just the other day, there was a program on Ethiopian Television where all Meles' ministers and commissioners related with food, agriculture and health were present. As usual, it was hardly a convincing showmanship from these bureaucrats as they were giving us more bad news like the famine will exacerbate diseases and so on; hardly breaking news and nothing of an encouragement. But more than the fact that these people on TV had anything new to say, what I thought was missing was the lack of passion, enthusiasm, genuine concern and engagement from their side during the TV program. I imagine some of them were wondering when the TV taping will end so that they could go home. 

Just last Friday, Meles again assembled ambassadors from donor countries and gave a lengthy speech. Officially, the meeting was called the "4th Consultative Group Meeting", a gathering of donor nations that have become our lifeline these days. Some thought that Meles, unlike his ministers and bureaucrats, was more passionate in his appeal about the famine. I had a different opinion. These are days when our expectations for head of a government are so low that when he delivers a talk and begs the outside world to feed the very people that he was supposed to feed himself, we applaud him. The problem is that Mengistu set the bar for a government's responsibility so abysmally low that even when Meles says "a quarter of my subjects are hungry. Please help me feed them", not only foreign journalists but even some of us have started giving him credit. I would have been convinced about the true wishes and concern of our prime minister and his government if more symbolic and, more importantly, concrete steps were taken. 

I have some suggestions with this regard. For example, Meles should host an emergency national meeting. To send a message about the seriousness of the issue, the national meeting should be held outside Addis Ababa, say in Kombolcha, Dessie, Weldiya or Gewane, Bale - in a city smack right in the middle of the famine heartland where food security is not an empty word but the very word that stands between life and death for a 60 year old man, a 5 year old girl and the lifeline of a whole village. I am sure Meles and his ministers will loathe the idea of leaving Addis Ababa and their comfortable lives. Again, for some symbolic but essential gestures, the ministers, member of parliaments, and all the people who run Meles' state machinery should spend a whole day visiting with people in the villages affected by the drought. They should meet with the 50 year old widow in Gewane in Bale who had lost three children to disease just in a matter of few weeks and who begs the rest of humanity to take care of her remaining three in case she doesn't make it.  Then, and maybe then, the whole issue of 'responsibility to feed your own people' before anything else may sink in. Yes, I would like to see Meles, the PM himself, Dr. Mulu Ketsela - Meles' new rising star, Ato Sufian Ahmed, Dr. Kassu Ilala, Ato Girma Birru, Ato Dawit Yohannes of the parliament, W/o Genet Zewdie and all the other ministers and state dignitaries attend this mandatory meeting in Gewane where death is lurking in every corner of every village and where the ominous cries of the "Tinb ansa amora" is the only loud noise heard in the villages of these parched lands. These dignitaries are, I assume, all parents and will feel the pain of this unlucky mother who is a sister to all of us. 

Then and maybe then, our government will finally wake up and realize that its main and sacred duty that surpasses anything else (including Article 39!) should be to make sure that all Ethiopians have food on the table and shouldn't die of hunger anymore. Then and maybe then, we will be assured that the almost 4 billion dollar that the donors promised just this week to Meles' government over the next 4 years will truly be spent on the average people of this land of ours. Then and maybe then words like 'Sustainable Development And Poverty Reduction Program', 'Agricultural Development Led Industrialization', 'Country Assistance Strategies' may start making sense not only at the halls of ECA's office near Mesqel square and the VIP lounges at Bole where our ministers and foreign dignitaries give press conferences but at remote places like Weldiya, Deder, Jijiga, Gode, Arba, Mille, Dollo, and Jinka where some of the people who count towards the 64 million mark cling to dear life awaiting the arrival of food. 

Out of desperation and lack of any other ideas that will somehow bring responsibility and sense of duty to the people who run our country, I hope we do not go to extreme measures. But the truth in the political landscape in our city Addis Ababa from top to bottom forces one to wonder and again wonder if the people in power really comprehend the scale of the government's failure that this drought and famine have shown to us Ethiopians and the rest of the world.  As I write this, I picture, in my mind, the great and unforgettable US congressman Mickey Leland who died in the remote hills of our country on August 7, 1989 in a plane accident after he actually helped unload food donations from US planes in Gambella, just like a regular day laborer - a task none of our distinguished ministers would do. 

Famine has been the great litmus test for the past 3 Ethiopian regimes. It stained the legacy of the country's last Emperor and completely destroyed whatever little credibility Colonel Mengistu had among his subjects. This big one has already established EPRDF's and PM Meles' land tenure policy and priority as a disastrous monumental failure. Whatever little credibility our government has now will be tested by how on earth food is going to be transported to the doors of the 14 million people. As my mother who monitors, in her own ways, the magnitude of the famine in the way it is affecting Teff price in Addis Ababa said to me the other day, 'only the infinite mercy of God will save this country'.

For those of you coming home for the holidays, after you are done with enjoying Addis Ababa - our serene island in the middle of troubled waters - please make sure you travel to at least the Sodore area and if possible as far as Awash and see it to yourself what the real problems of the country are like. You will be overwhelmed; but your resourcefulness that helped you succeed elsewhere is highly sought here.   

Beselam qoyu.


Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa) 

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