Letter from Ethiopia - November 23, 2002

Tizibt Mezgebu

Dear Readers:

More than anything else, the drought and famine situation is what is in my mind, like most people here, as I write you this letter. Judging from the numerous e-mails I received over the past 10 days or so, I assume that it is also on the minds of the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian living abroad. 

"It is just like repeatedly passing through a nightmare", said Meles early last week when some foreign journalist asked him how he felt being the leader overseeing a country where a whopping 25% of the population is at risk of famine. He didn't look neither genuine nor convincing to me and a lot of people here in town. It was just difficult to imagine our respected Prime Minister waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweat in his comfortable living quarters at Arat Kilo thinking "Oh My God, what am I going to do here? 15 million of my brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts, cousins and neighbors are going to starve! How am I going to feed my people? How did this happen to me and to the country? Where did we go wrong? All our efforts in 'capacity building', 'poverty reduction', 'food security', 'tsere-musina' and 'gimgema' has gone to waste!'

Again, however hard I tried to imagine it, it just was impossible to think of the PM "passing through" nightmares where the images of starving children, weak and failing elders trekking through Awash, Mile and Arba to make it to Addis, skeleton of the dead in Ogaden and Afar, empty stomachs in Welo, Tigrai and Gondar, the specter of a human catastrophe haunted him. Of course, as a prime minister and the most powerful political figure in the country,  the responsibility of feeding the country and making sure that there is food for everyone lies with Meles and the wrath of the country is directed at him. For us here in Addis watching the PM daily on ETV always looking well-rested, full and round, and a well-trimmed goatie, there is nothing external to show that the PM is worried about his 15 million subjects. Ato Simon Michale, the soft-spoken, shy, skinny old-man who heads the DPPC (EPRDF's Dirq Commission) may have looked genuine saying these words as he always looks as if tonnes of weight are on his shoulders.  

"Give the man a credit for at least going out in public and telling the world that there is famine and that we need help. It makes him the first leader to do so in more than 30 years", was what my husband said when I told him I am writing about the famine. However, I had found it hard to accept that credit goes to the PM just for giving an interview to a journalist once and saying, "by the way, we need 2 million tons of grains by January; otherwise 'if you thought the 1984 famine was a nightmare, then this will be too ghastly to contemplate'".  What makes me genuinely and sincerely disappointed at the Prime Minister and unwilling to believe that he is really worried about the famine is the fact that he is yet to step out of Addis Ababa and visit any of the drought affected areas in Ogaden, Afar, Harer, Oromia, Wello, East Gojjam, Tigrai and Gondar. We are yet to see him visit just a few of the 15 million people at risk and comfort them and assure them that aid is on the way. 

I work with NGOs (whom I think of as the real government in Ethiopia when you consider the magnitude of their involvement with farmers and city-people alike in all corners of the country) and it is part of our job to accompany foreign ministers and MPs to remote parts of the country our officials will not visit in a life-time. Think about it! Nowadays with the burgeoning NGO involvement in the country, our people in the villages see more of European ministers and MPs than our own ministers. In fact, sometimes, I feel nobody should be surprised if farmers in Welliso and Deder in Harer start thinking that the MPs they 'voted' for a few years ago are actually "Ferenj" people. In most cases, they never saw the EPRDF candidates anyway.

I realize the criticism part is perhaps the easy part.  But to be fair, I think - over the years - there have been many interesting lessons learnt and mechanisms set to avert a catastrophe of this nature. The biggest improvement I see is the massive repair and expansion of road networks being undertaken in the country. I m sure you may have heard that an amount of almost 15 Billion Birr (almost $2 Billion) will be spent on road projects in the country over the next 5 years. The money comes mainly from the European Union, we hear. Already the road to Gojjam is half-way paved, the road to Awassa is widened and asphalted, the road to Jimma is getting expanded and so on. The idea is that one of the lessons learnt from the 1984 famine was roads in Ethiopia are just in the most terrible shape imaginable and the network has to be expanded so that emergency food aid can be distributed efficiently and fast. Further, food from rich and less drought-prone areas like Kaffa/Jimma, Illubabor, Wollega and central/western Gojjam can be actually bought internally by DPCC and distributed to other drought-affected areas. This had worked in 1998 when there was actually a big drought. It would have worked very well this time also, if the government had acted on the alarm early enough and if the attention of donors was not overwhelmingly directed to southern Africa where there is as much threat of famine as Ethiopia. By the way, I think Meles and his EPRDF friend, the able Tesfa-Michael Nahusennay at Road Works Authority (Awra Godana) will deserve a credit if the massive 15 Billion Birr road building is completed on time.

I have no illusion that in this short letter I can address the famine issue but most of you wrote and wanted me to comment if the country could actually break this cycle and be self-sufficient in food. Along with the transportation corridors strategy, early warning systems have been installed where food-security people actually monitor grain production, rainfall amount and distribution, grain prices, cattle prices (falling prices mean bad news) and so on. This has again worked and those of us working in NGOs with interest in food security knew last May that the country was in trouble when the early warning systems showed that the Belg rains came too late and too little. Again, all these are based on the assumption that drought is a part of our region and they all are relief type of efforts.

The real solution - I assume that my readers from South Africa all the way to North America and Scandinavia will agree with me - has a lot to do with with very core priorities and mission of the people who wield power in the country. What keeps Ato Meles and his friends at Arat Kilo awake in the middle of the night, in my opinion, is not food security and the specter of 15 million starving citizens of our country but issues like "gimgema", "kililization", split within the TPLF, and how to stay in power. 

Be Selam qoyu!

Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa) 


As always, your e-mails kept coming and gave me the inspiration to write yet one more letter. In fact, the depth of your concerns and the passion of your e-mails reminded me about the bright future that this country could have if we can have some of you come back here on a regular basis and change things a little bit here. I apologize that I often fail to respond individually because of lack of time and expensive Internet connection from Addis Ababa. But for the college students, the professionals and the concerned Ethiopians who have written me, I say thank you. 

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