Visafric (Toronto)

12 April 2000

East Africa: Famine, Draught, War and Turmoil in East Africa

Asmara — In a tragedy of Biblical scale, up to 16 million people from a total of 120 million in northeastern Africa face famine. A similar famine in 1974 left nearly one million dead while another half million died in the 1984 famine.

As the world contemplates how to avert this disaster, it is worthwhile to look at the root causes of this and many other ills ravaging this troubled region. There are five reasons why the world community ought to find long-term solutions as opposed to its customary quick fix in the form of "humanitarian response." First, the most affected areas are far from transportation hubs and are hardly accessible. By the time donations reach the needy millions have already perished. Second, the donor community lacks a mechanism of ascertaining that relief has indeed reached the starved.

A loophole that allowed Mengistu to divert aid to feed his oversized army could not be expected to prevent Meles from doing the same. Thus the distribution of food itself becomes a political weapon, a potent one at that, and has to be avoided by all means. Third, what we are talking about is not solely a natural disaster; most of it is man-made. Fourth, the "humanitarian" response ignores the critical role played by undemocratic and shortsighted regimes in creating and exacerbating the calamity.

Fifth, unless the underlying causes of the problem are pinpointed and addressed the problem keeps recurring. Some have already advanced the theory that the current malaise is a natural phenomenon. If this is the case, then the appropriate response is food aid. However, research, including that of Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, shows that shortage of rain alone does not cause famine. The Ethiopian government's position that the famine was made inevitable by the decline in food availability as a result of draught is untenable. Obviously famine haunts many developing countries, but why does it frequent the Horn every decade?

Why particularly Ethiopia? Others cite, albeit tangentially, the role of the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the civil war in Sudan, the lawlessness in Somalia, the corruption in Kenya etc. To the extent that these conflicts and inefficiencies diverted scarce resources away from economic and human development, this is plausible. Nevertheless, unless one believes that of all human beings East Africans are born with an innate tendency towards eternal conflicts, one has to confront the fundamental question of why we have these conflicts in the first place.

I argue, rather strongly, that the famine is made a lot worse by lack of democracy, legitimate and responsible governance, and respect for human rights. That is why I believe it is futile to deal with the current famine on a humanitarian ground alone. If long-term stability and sustained development is to be attained, the donor community ought to go beyond the mere delivery of food aid. The latter calls for a new approach to the whole problem.

What is this so-called new approach? In order to answer this question an evaluation of the prevailing conditions in each of the six countries making up the Horn- Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan- becomes important. Because gaining a better picture of the reality helps in devising appropriate strategies.

Somalia has disintegrated, with no functioning central government since 1990. The warlords could not bring themselves into consensus to form a central government. Nor does each of them wield sufficient influence to go it alone. In an ominous sign very few Somalis hope to see a genuinely national administration in their lifetime. Since its disastrous intervention in 1992, the international community has but given up.

At the heyday of African independence, Somalia was seen as a model state. Unlike many, Somalia was in a sense a true nation state with common ancestry, language and religion. Unfortunately Siad Bare, Somalia's last strongman, desperately clung to power for too long until national unity fell apart at the seams. The 1977 Ethio-Somalian war aimed at reuniting Ogaden, occupied by Ethiopia, into the Somali Republic, ended up destroying Somalia itself. In the aftermath rival groups, backed by Ethiopia, chased Siad away only to turn their guns on each other and sink Somalia into total lawlessness. The current EPRDF regime of Ethiopia perfected the same policy of dividing and weakening Somalia. Past attempts towards national reconciliation have failed. The new Djibouti plan seems doomed as well. Since the civil society is too fragile to step in and fill the vacuum, the exclusion of the warlords was detrimental because although their clout is diminished, they are still major power brokers. In addition, Djibouti itself is too weak to counteract Ethiopia's ulterior motives, let alone dictate its will on the warring parties. Hence prospects for stability in Somalia are as remote as ever.

Kenya has been an island of stability in a sea of chaos. Its economy was spared from the failed socialist experiment in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan only to fall victim to rampant official government corruption. Kenya is flooded with refugees fleeing persecution and war in Ethiopia and Sudan. As Moi nears the end of the rope, no leader is emerging to navigate the country out of trouble. How long could Kenya remain an oasis of stability? Sudan, the largest country in the continent, is locked into a decades old civil war. The conflict pitting North against South, shows no sign of abating.

As a result over two million Sudanese are said to have perished. Many more are facing a similar fate. No side is strong enough for outright victory while neither party is ready for meaningful compromise to break the deadlock. The question is: what does it take for the world to take a more resolute action to knock some common sense into the warring parties? Eritrea, the newest club member, came into being after three decades of bitter struggle to break free from Ethiopia. Post independence, it enjoyed relative stability. Today Eritrea finds itself once again in a bloody border conflict with its former master to the South. Initial hopes for a quick and peaceful end to the conflict are dashed. With 10% of its population at the warfront, the Ethiopian "no war, no peace" policy places Eritrea in a precarious situation. How long could it wait until the OAU peace process bears fruit?

Djibouti, a small former French colony, has a fragile political existence and an economy heavily dependent on maritime income and French subsidy. In 1999 Ismail Gulleh was elected to power, but Djibouti is far from being a democracy. Besides, it still did not mould a viable national identity from the two major ethnic groups, Issa and Afar. Could Djibouti go the way of its neighbors?

With over 60 million people, Ethiopia is the geo-political center of the Horn. Although few imagine of a black colonial power, the Ethiopian empire assumed its current shape through a process of expansion and colonization. Menelik exploited the rivalries of major European colonial powers to conquer the people of the South, who constitute more than 70% of the population. The latter never felt at home inside the empire since their forceful incorporation. Although much is said about the "unity of Ethiopia, " from Mengistu's socialist republic to Meles's "Democratic Federal Republic", the fault lines between the conquerors and the conquered, between the colonizers and colonized survived to this day.

The Amhara, who accounted for about 20%, dominated the political and cultural life of the empire until 1991 when the Tigreans, a far smaller minority group (7%), took the helm. The Oromo, the largest group (over 50%), and other people of the South are at odds with the incumbent regime. The latter waged a ruthless campaign to wipe out OLF, SLF, and ONLF. However, the success of this campaign is very limited. In fact it strengthened the aspiration of the Oromo, Sidama, Ogadeni and other southern nations to completely free themselves from a century of oppression and exploitation by the Northern-based Abyssinians. The latter cannot continue to enjoy such dominance forever.

Official claims to the contrary, the Ethiopian regime is a de facto dictatorship. While holding sham elections and swearing in the name of democracy, it systematically eliminated political opponents. The West should have insisted on strict adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights rather than appeasing it through IMF loans and World Bank money. Today the regime has put the country on a total war footing. It is Western reluctance and the brutal suppression of domestic opposition that emboldened Meles Zenawi to escalate a minor conflict into a full-fledged frontal war in which poorly trained conscripts were used as cannon fodder.

While eight million people face imminent famine, the Prime Minister spends millions acquiring modern warplanes and tanks. In addition, the regime stands accused of setting fire on the natural forest of Oromia. The Oromo are, for the first time in their history, mobilizing in a grand scale and thus whether the current border conflict with Eritrea is solved or not, Ethiopia is headed for implosion unless TPLF stops BLINDLY relying on arms alone to solve internal problems. The clock is ticking on TPLF's grip on power.

According to the above discussion, the Horn region faces grave dangers. Development programs are taking a back seat to the immediate challenge of defeating internal or external enemies. There could be no victors in none of these conflicts. The losers are the people of the region who have already borne more than their fair share of hardship. It is therefore incumbent upon international actors to come up with a strategy of not only containing current famine but also solving its underlying causes. Ethiopia being the heart of the Horn, the absence of democracy and the recurrence of famine have serious regional ramifications. Therefore, the solution should begin by addressing its internal condition in which a minority rules over a substantial majority.

There is an urgent need for a new framework. Politically, there could be no solution short of allowing oppressed nations to democratically determine their fate. The anchor of true and lasting unity is free choice rather than coercion. Exercise of freedom allows people to go past their differences and come together to resolve common problems.

Economically, the region's rich resources won't be exploited until politics gets out of the way. The role of government should be pared down to the basic functions of ensuring law and order, and instituting policies and programs necessary to address acute poverty. No governing party should be allowed to hold the fate of an entire region hostage to its own political ambition as EPRDF does. As to security, no nation can be secure until its immediate neighbors are secure as well.

Since the people of the Horn are economically, culturally and demographically interdependent a new vision, with new models of state, governance, conflict resolution and regional cooperation, ought to be charted.

Therefore, focus on "humanitarian response" at the expense of addressing the core problems of the region is wasteful. The world cannot ignore the cries of the oppressed peoples such as the Oromo indefinitely. The international community has substantial leverage to become a critical element in helping break this unending cycle of famine, war and turmoil.

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