Death in Ethiopia: Who's to Blame?


One million people may die in sub-Saharan Africa during the current famine. Hardest hit by the famine is Ethiopia, especially its northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre. The famine is widely perceived to be the result of a severe drought, a perspective nurtured by Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia's self-appointed strongman. Wanting not to shoulder any blame for the current epidemic of death, Mengistu has used an ongoing drought as a convenient scapegoat.

But the vagaries of nature are not primarily responsible for the misery now devastating Ethiopia's northern population. Mengistu would do well to ponder the words of Shakespeare's Cassius: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Mengistu rode into power on a wave of high expectations after ousting Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. His overtly Communist regime implemented land reforms with much hoopla and predicted, as recently as 1981, that food would no longer be a problem. The land reform, initially hailed by peasants who had paid up to 75 percent of their crops in rent to feudal landlords, soon led to disappointment: peasants were now required to give the fruits of their labor to the state at prices set deliberately low. Nor did the peasants acquire any land through the reforms. Instead, most land came under state control.

With the land reforms came other agricultural interventions. Imitating the ill-conceived strategies so prevalent in other sub-Saharan African states, Mengistu imposed ceilings on food prices. The goal: to keep food affordable for the politically powerful urban populations. The result: a stifling of peasants' incentives to produce food. Since Mengistu came into power, agricultural production has virtually stagnated. In 1974, Ethiopia produced 4.35 million metric tons of cereal. By 1981, the figure had risen only slightly to 4.37 million metric tons.

Mengistu cannot be blamed for the drought itself. He can be blamed for the inability of people in the afflicted areas to prepare for drought and respond as they have historically done in the past. The northern regions of Ethiopia have long been subject to periodic drought and low rainfall. Nonetheless, the area was relatively self-sufficient in food until the late 1960s. Inhabitants adapted to droughts with a combination of foresight—hoarding surpluses from good years and saving capital—and mobility.

Mengistu outlawed both hoarding and saving money earned from past harvests. Saving is considered a capitalist, and therefore unacceptable, practice. Transporting food from one area to another is also outlawed as a form of exploitation. This might partly explain the largely unreported fact that some regions within Ethiopia actually had food surpluses this past year while hundreds of thousands were dying in neighboring provinces.

Incredible as it may seem, even the drought itself may be more than an act of nature. The recent frequency of drought in the region may have been at least partly induced by a rapidly growing population that has led to overgrazing, overcultivation, and deforestation. Some of this population growth is the result of high birth rates. But some is also the result of populations increasingly migrating into marginal areas as they escape the ravages of a civil war that plagues their traditional homeland.

Mengistu inherited the civil war, which has been going on for over 20 years. But he has done little to resolve the conflict. Shortly after coming into power, he negotiated a $2-billion purchase of arms from the Soviet Union to bolster his forces fighting northern rebels and ethnic Somalians on Ethiopia's eastern border. Fully 30 percent of Ethiopia's budget is devoted to military expenditures, partly to maintain a 300,000-strong army, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to pushing populations into marginal semi-arid regions, the fighting has taken a toll on farming throughout the northern provinces. Less than 20 percent of fertile land is now under cultivation in some areas where farmers fear working under heavy guerrilla crossfire. To make matters worse, the farming population has steadily been drafted into Ethiopia's army. Soviet-made MIG jets destroy crops through systematic bombing of the rebel provinces.

There is considerable evidence that Mengistu is exploiting the famine to strengthen his own foothold in the rebel provinces. He seized an Australian food shipment bound for the rebel provinces and defended the action by saying the shipment amounted to interference with Ethiopia's internal affairs. Famine victims from the northern provinces who seek help in government relief centers are forcibly resettled in the south or conscripted into the Ethiopian army. According to relief officials in Sudanese refugee camps, Ethiopians arrive in the camps as much to flee from MIG fighters and helicopter gunships as from the ravages of the famine.

Tragically, there is no end in sight to the misery of the Ethiopians. The drought itself may pass. Some even question whether it really has been as severe as the media and government officials have made it out to be. Meteorologist Douglas Le Comte, chief assessor of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and consultant to the World Meteorological Organization, reported in March that there are no meteorological reasons for the magnitude of the Ethiopian tragedy. Rainfall in most parts of Ethiopia is either normal or only slightly below normal. Only one region, which typically accounts for a mere 15 percent of Ethiopia's agricultural production, is experiencing a severe drought.

Le Comte pointed out that, in contrast to Ethiopia, Kenya has been stricken with the worst drought in this century. Nonetheless, people are not dying en masse, because the Kenyan government, unlike Ethiopia's, has not so radically restricted the ability of its population to cope with drought. The real responsibility for the deaths now occurring in Ethiopia lies with its government.

Mengistu is stepping up his plans to convert all agricultural production into state farms or collectives. He has made it difficult for individual peasants to obtain seed, fertilizer, or credit. He has repeatedly rejected World Bank suggestions that he alter his agricultural policies. He continues to pour scarce resources into military operations. Then, when the larder is bare, he unleashes rhetoric accusing the developed nations of stinginess in their aid.

Aid can't solve Ethiopia's problems. Only fundamental changes in policy that would allow farmers the freedom to produce and market their goods without constraints can provide a buffer against drought, famine, and starvation.