An Ethiopian dilemma

March 31 1986

An Ethiopian dilemma

March 31 1986

An Ethiopian dilemma


Last week Maclean’s National Editor Michael Posner joined a party of Canadian aid officials and parliamentarians touring Ethiopia, where Canadian funds have been used to help resettle farmers from the parched north to the highlands of the south and west. He found that Canada’s aid may also be bolstering the repressive Marxist-Leninist regime of the poorest country on earth. His report:

He was in his twenties, but he did not know his exact age. Barefoot, in rags, missing several teeth, he had travelled south from somewhere in the Ethiopian Province of Wollo— from where exactly, he did not know. His name was Abou Mohammed and he and his family along with roughly 600,000 other Ethiopians had been officially resettled in the past 16 months, moved to a new tukul (hut) on a new plot of ground in Jarso, 900 km southwest. In the presence of ruling Workers Party of Ethiopia officials, Mohammed was reluctant to compare the new sur-

roundings to the old. And when asked directly if he was content with his new life as a communal farmer, he paused, gazed intently at his questioner, smiled and said, “It is my livelihood.”

That discreet ambiguity was repeated frequently last week, as a party of Canadian officials toured Jarso and other resettlement villages. Ethiopia, the world’s poorest nation, is emerging from the great famine of 1984 when tens of thousands of people died. The Ethiopian government has attempted to alleviate desperate conditions in the north with a large-scale resettlement of people to more productive regions. But relief agencies and western donor governments, including Canada, are beginning to confront a difficult issue: whether to support resettlement and, in the process, help to sustain a poorly organized, perhaps corrupt and inhumane Marxist-Leninist regime.

Although Ottawa has yet to adopt a firm line on resettlement, it has already given $1 million to the Irish agency, Concern, for the building of eight new villages in Jarso. Last week Canada’s

emergency relief co-ordinator for the African famine, David MacDonald, four MPs and Lawrence Cummings, national director of Oxfam Canada, wrestled with the issue without reaching a consensus. Said British Columbia NDP MP James Manley: “Some form of resettlement is necessary and we should put our money where we see hope and not despair.” But B.C. Tory MP Mary Collins, Capilano, commented: “I have a lot of serious reservations. I’m not keen about promoting their political philosophy.” Toronto Tory MP Reg Stackhouse declared: “Resettlement is one thing. Resettlement as the initial phase of turning Ethiopia into an Orwellian Animal Farm is quite another.”

The resettlement debate is important to Ottawa. And the Ethiopians themselves are clearly conscious of that. For MacDonald’s delegation, an escort of party officials portrayed resettlement in the best possible light. They said that even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization acknowledges that Ethiopia has no choice but to move millions of impoverished

peasants. Traditional farmland in the northern provinces of Wollo and Tigre has become not only barren but irredeemable. They say that if the government does not move them, Ethiopians will either die or be chronically dependent on food aid. Said Maurice Strong, head of the UN’s own emergency famine operation: “Which is more irresponsible: to move them, albeit improperly and with some human rights abuses, or to leave them there to die in the next famine?”

Ethiopian government officials now concede publicly that many mistakes were made during resettlement. During the transfers, families were separated. Many were moved by force. Thousands died—as many as 100,000, according to Doctors Without Borders, the Parisbased aid agency. “In principle,” said an aid worker last week, “resettlement was fine. But the Dergue (the committee that runs the country) did almost everything the wrong way.” The program is now temporarily suspended, although the government still plans to move another 260,000 more by the end of this year. Said Concern’s Father Jack Finucane: “We were seen as apologists for the government but the question is not ‘Are you for or against?’ It’s not that simple. There’s a huge grey zone. Yes, it happened too fast, without studies, using people weakened by the famine who could not protest. But their people have now been moved and they badly need help. My answer is, give it.”

Some other relief agency officials, not involved in resettlement, express similar views. “The question of the violation of human rights during the transfers is a bit of a canard,” says David Alexander, head of Save the Children’s (UK) Ethiopian program. “Of course there were human rights violations but the entire regime of Lt.-Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam is a violation of human rights. And if you’re here at all, in any form, you’re supporting that regime.”

Still, the criticism continues. Resettlement villages, even those established 12 years ago after the last famine, are not yet selfsufficient in food production. Thousands of the new settlers have, as one relief worker acknowledged, “voted with their feet,” fleeing their new homes for neighboring Sudan. Four unmarried men set out last week from a village in Asosa, described to the Canadian delegation as a model of resettlement.

In the same community, four Ethiopians died last week, testimony to the inadequacy of food allotment of a half-kilogram per day. In fact, very little of what the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) has promised

new settlers has been delivered to them. Out of earshot of hovering officials, Ethiopians, weary of the government’s policy of farm collectivization, repeatedly said they wanted to return home. Others say that unless the settlers adopt new methods of farming and begin to practise soil conservation and improvement, they will simply set the stage for

another great famine in 10 or 15 years. But resettlement does provide Mengistu, the unchallenged strongman of the Ethiopian revolution, with a form of population control—the same motive that guided the late Joseph Stalin in his 1928 collectivization of Russian agriculture.

For officals with the 47 aid organi-

zations now active in Ethiopia the Dergue ’s policies create awesome problems. Nearly all of them are acutely conscious that, while the drought is over, the famine and its effects remain. According to the United Na-

tions, Ethiopia will require more direct food aid—120 million tons in 1986— than any other African nation. But the Dergue is spending more than 50 per cent of its annual budget on the military, equipping the army of 300,000— the largest in black Africa—with Soviet and East Bloc weapons. Mengistu is fighting four wars with guerrilla liberation groups in Eritrea, Tigre and other provinces. Said Peter Hawkins, 24, an Ethiopianborn field director with Save The Children: “Until there is a political settlement—and I see no prospect of that— there really is very little hope for this country.” Older Ethiopians, who remember the feudal reign of emperor Haile Selassie, deposed in a 1974 coup, say that Mengistu has simply replaced one form of tyranny with another. Basic commodities are rationed and in scarce supply and there is a thriving black market economy in the markets of Addis Ababa (often controlled by the same party bureaucrats who administer the official markets). Permits are needed simply to visit another part of the country. And unless the local kebele, or neighborhood association, approves, it is virtually impossible to change jobs.

As a result, nations like Canada face a challenging dilemma—to spend their money elsewhere or try to temper the worst abuses. The Italian government, for one, is about to embark on a $180 million program to support resettlement but with firm commitments from the government on several points. They will insist that no further human rights abuses occur. For the moment Canadian opinion seems sharply divided. On balance, says Newfoundland o Liberal MP William ^ Rompkey, a member of g last week’s delegation,

£ “I think we should continue to deal—the pluses outweigh the negathe other hand, a large interested Canadians

tives.” On number of would likely share Stackhouse’s contention that taxpayers do not want to support “the creation of a miniMaoist China in Ethiopia.”