Ethiopia rebuilds 'with worse than nothing'

September 25, 1991

By Tony Iltis

Two million people are at risk of famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea, reports David Armstrong of Community Aid Abroad, who recently returned from Ethiopia.

The overthrow on May 28 of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, ending a 17-year civil war and Eritrea's 30-year struggle for independence, raised hopes that the suffering of these countries may finally be over. But conditions are horrific in the aftermath of war, Armstrong told Green Left Weekly.

"In parts of Ethiopia the prognosis is as bad as it was in 1984-85. I spent 10 days or so travelling deep into western Tigray ...

"Seventy per cent of the rural population reportedly have contracted malaria, and there are instances of cerebral malaria. There's a lot of evidence of other famine-related disorders, such as amoebic dysentery, scabies, night blindness ... Anaemia is endemic in the rural population."

Medical clinics are grossly overcrowded. "At Sherre, in western Tigray, the day I was there, 40 TB patients were routinely turned away. Six stretcher cases were turned away that day, and in the previous four days, seven people at the clinic had died of malnutrition or famine-related diseases, mainly children under five.

"The health workers reported to me that in the surrounding villages, the average size of which is 3000 people, roughly two people a day are dying of malnutrition or famine-related diseases — a mortality rate of 25% in a full year."

Stock losses are very high, hampering agriculture. "I saw farmers using donkeys and camels to try to till the land. The smell of dead animals in that part of northern Ethiopia is utterly nauseating.

"In Tigray, only 50.5% of food needed, as calculated by the Relief Society of Tigray [REST], has got through from the West."

AIDS is another problem. Joy Feigan, women's access officer at Kensington Community Centre, who was also recently in Ethiopia on behalf of CAA, told Green Left Weekly, "A woman doctor I spoke to said that, of every 30 patients in each ward, three or four are HIV positive."

But both Feigan and Armstrong were optimistic about Ethiopia's longer term future. They believe the provisional government established by the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is genuinely committed to getting food to the people and what Feigan described as "a miraculous form of democracy".

"There's been a perfect coincidence between the civil war and the food shortages", Armstrong said, "with Mengistu using starvation as an instrument of military policy — shooting farmers, napalming crops and blowing up food convoys".

Because of the Mengistu regime's propaganda, "There was at the outset fear in government-held territory that the EPRDF would rape all the women and pillage the villages and cities when they took control", Armstrong said. "None of that happened. The miracle is that Addis Ababa was taken with the loss, as far as I can ascertain, of less than 10 lives.

"The mood is changing to one of cautious optimism as the local people see that the provisional government is putting its money where its mouth is."

"People were saying", Feigan reported, "that 'We have freedom of speech now'. There were signs the corruption was being slowly — there was a lot of it — weeded out. Peoples Councils had been set up. The EPRDF set up Peoples Councils based on the baito system — it's a very grassroots, locally based form of government.

"A lot of people had guns. There was an amnesty declared on guns — it was the responsibility of the Peoples Councils in each area to collect the guns.

"People on the streets that we spoke to were very optimistic — a bit wait and see, but already feeling a big benefit in terms of their lifestyle."

The baito system is the form of popular democracy that the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) — a major component of the EPRDF — developed in the areas it liberated.

Feigan explained, "There are people elected by the village in charge of agriculture, finance. At a very, very local level decisions are made. There's always a lot of discussion. Anybody can be involved. There's a high proportion of women in the baitos.

"There are still a lot of areas where it is a new concept, so they saw they had a lot of work extending that form of government throughout the whole country."

The involvement of women is particularly significant, given that in the past women have been excluded from public life.

"Women, historically, have been regarded as chattels", Feigan explained. "The TPLF in the '70s and early '80s changed that in Tigray; 30% of the EPRDF fighters, for example, were women. Women play an equal part in decision making at the baito level. So the role of women has been transformed in Tigray, but that has not yet occurred in the rest of Ethiopia."

An immediate problem is ridding the administrative infrastructure of corrupt elements left over from the Mengistu regime.

Feigan explained that the provisional government has been "facing a fair bit of sabotage. They have imprisoned a lot of high officials but they've also kept a lot of people, because they couldn't remove everybody. They're still working out who they can and can't trust.

"The old government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission [RRC] was responsible for the food aid. It was very centralised, bureaucratic ew government issued a People's Charter, intended to serve as a constitution for a two-year period, which allows each province the right to negotiate with aid agencies.

Armstrong estimated that it would take two years to reorganise the RRC.

"There are two positive signs. One is that the ports of Assab and Massawa, in Eritrea, are now open and food can be pushed into the country quickly, if it's available from the West", Armstrong said.

"The other is that in certain parts of Ethiopia there are areas of food surplus. It is possible to purchase food locally."

Armstrong emphasised that large-scale aid projects were not appropriate at present: "The streets of Addis Ababa are filled with white Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicles owned by the famine industry, running around looking for development projects. One senior aid official said to me that his agency was going to, 'water Tigray'. I reminded him that it wasn't a back garden.

"Our experience in Tigray and Eritrea over many years is that the way to go is through small scale community development programs actively involving the local people, using appropriate local technology and experience."

Another major problem is transport. A shortage of trucks is made worse by efforts to reunify families and return soldiers of the former government to their homes. "They're trying to get that over with as quickly as possible so they can use the trucks for food distribution."

Despite all the difficulties, Feigan and Armstrong were hopeful. "It is a really opportune time", said Feigan. "You have got a government that worked for a very long time organising a unique, very democratic form of government.

"It may be the first time the world's seen a form of the government that really is concerned about getting food to the people. The really negative thing is that they've been left with nothing. The country's been bled, bombed and totally stuffed. In terms of resource base, they're starting with worse than nothing."

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