Ethiopia: Famine of Leadership

Ethiopia: Famine of Leadership

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“One of the remarkable facts in the terrible history of famine is that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.”1 These are the words of the renowned Nobel Peace Prize winning economist Dr. Amartya Sen. His well articulated work establishing the link between undemocratic governance with famine is one of the most significant research findings that sheds light on the causes of famine and starvation.

Sean M. Lynn- Jones, Editor of International Security, the International Security Program’s quarterly journal at Harvard’s Belfer Center, concurs with Amartya Sen’s thesis, and he further elaborates on the link between totalitarian rule and famine. He argues, “Most of the countries that have experienced severe famines in recent decades have been among the world’s least democratic.” Such countries include China, Ethiopia, North Korea, Somalia, Cambodia and Sudan.2

Throughout history, famines have occurred in many different types of countries, but never in a democracy.”3 According to Sean M. Lynn- Jones there are two important reasons as to why democracies do not experience famines. “First, in democracies governments are accountable to their populations and their leaders have electoral incentives to prevent mass starvation.”4 Secondly, “the existence of a free press and the free flow of information in democracies prevents famine by serving as an early warning system on the effects of natural catastrophes such as floods and droughts that may cause food scarcities. A free press that criticizes government policies also can publicize the true level of food stocks and reveal problems of distribution that might cause famines even when food is plentiful.”5

Repeatedly, humanitarian aid agencies and donor nations have appealed for emergency food aid when there has been a sign of rain shortage or total absence of rain in some parts of Ethiopia. Understandably, it is the humanitarian aid agencies’ job to raise the alarm bell so that they can provide what is needed to those who are unable to feed themselves. There is no dispute over the fact that those men and women, children and the elderly suffering from starvation and malnutrition should be taken care of.

The problem, however, is when those on the giving end of the equation fail to understand the causes of famine in its entirety and view it as a single, simple, or uncontrollable phenomenon — the absence of rain. Sadly, as we begin to hear another appeal for emergency food aid by international aid agencies such as the UN World Food Program and others, I am compelled to call upon responsible citizens of the world to consider a few points before opening their wallets and chequebooks and perhaps elevate the discussion surrounding famine beyond rain shortage.


It is perhaps important to provide an abbreviated snapshot of the history of governments and governance in Ethiopia during the last 8 decades in order to assert Amartya Sen’s argument “democracies don’t starve”. In the last 81 years, Ethiopia has changed hands between three rulers: Emperor Hailesellassie (1928-74), Colonel Mengistu H/Mariam (1974-1991), and Mr. Meles Zenawi (1991- Present). In other words, three men have ruled Ethiopia for eighty-one years. Within the same time period in my adopted homeland of Canada, 40 federal elections were called and twenty-two Prime Ministers came to power leading their political parties. Perhaps the most telling reality for me is that since I began my new life in Canada 15 years ago, 5 free and fair federal elections took place and three different Prime Ministers led their parties to victory. In short, I have seen more frequent change of government in the last fifteen years of my life than the people of Ethiopia witnessed in the last eighty-one years. Certainly, it is unfair to expect the same democratic growth or standard from Ethiopia as compared to Canada. What is inferred here is the fact that the struggle for democracy, freedom and justice took so many lives and continues to take more lives everyday. Forty years after the first march for democracy, forty years after the call for an elected government, Ethiopia remains shackled by a ruthless tyrannical regime.

The most publicized famine of Ethiopia happened in 1988 under the watchful eye of the leader of the military junta, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam.The constant recurring famine has continued to kill numerous people under the watch of Meles Zenawi. The common denominator between these two regimes is that they are undemocratic, and they are not accountable and responsible to the people.


It is natural for the reader to ask a question “why?” why do these leaders ignore the plight of their people and expose them to such extreme suffering and even death? The answer is totalitarian regimes are pre-occupied and even obsessed with how to maintain their grip on power. They are trapped by the illusion of their superiority and the knowledge that a population with an empty stomach could not organize itself to challenge their authority. Therefore, one way to stay in power is to facilitate and create favourable environment for famine so that citizens remain pre-occupied with feeding themselves instead of working for democracy, social justice, freedom and human rights.

For example, after the 2005-contested election, which was won by a coalition of opposition parties, the government targeted farmers who supported and voted for opposition parties, denying them access to government distributed fertilizers and other farm support materials and supplying to those who voted for the regime. Such a policy did not only affect food production for individual families, but also it contributed substantially to the decrease in food production at a national level.

The other reason totalitarian regimes starve their own population is the emergency food aid is a valuable incentive to the most important institutions that matters to them: the army, police and security apparatus. It is well documented that the previous regime of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam and the current regime led by Meles Zenawi diverted emergency food aid to strengthen their security institutions because their very survival was and is dependent on how the members of these institutions are fed and paid. They are well aware that any sign of dissatisfaction and discontent by the members of these institutions puts them at risk.

The third reason why totalitarian regimes starve their people is they want to appear caring and concerned about their people by appealing for food assistance. First, they deny that the famine is taking place and when they are confronted with evidence they minimize the scale of it. Finally, they appear to be shaken by the suffering and appeal for humanitarian support. This, in fact, is the pattern that all of us who grew up in Ethiopia witnessed in the last four decades.

The other characteristics of totalitarian regimes are that they try to create a false image by creating ‘projects’, ‘celebrations’, and ‘economic growth’. During the 1988 famine, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam spent hundreds of millions of dollars celebrating the formation of the Ethiopian Workers Party, and the tenth anniversary of the revolution, while millions were starving and tens and thousands were dying. He even bragged about the ‘remarkable economic growth and transformation’, which he attributed to his leadership.

The current regime in Addis Ababa has adopted the same approach as its predecessor in manufacturing ‘economic development’ on paper while millions are starving. Furthermore, the regime’s slick ability to speak donor language and charm policy makers in the west created unwarranted collaboration, which contributed to the suffering of the people of Ethiopia. The current ruler for his part has claimed to have been delivering a 6- 11% economic growth increase for the last number of years and yet tens of millions of Ethiopians can’t even feed themselves. At the same time, the regime is spending millions of dollars expanding Zenawi’s personal residence inside the national palace, while aid agencies are appealing for food aid to provide for millions of starving citizens

Famine and shortage of food for totalitarian rulers is an opportunity of a different kind. They determine who gets assistance and who doesn’t. In other words they decide who lives and who dies. Such ruthless and inhumane food distribution policy is currently being implemented by the regime in Addis Ababa towards the inhabitants of the Ogaden region in Eastern Ethiopia. Using Ogaden National Liberation Front’s (ONLF) armed resistance against the regime as a pretext, Meles Zenawi restricted food aid to the population choosing to use food aid as weapon causing the death of thousands.

As the hunger and famine siren sounds one more time the regime in Addis Ababa is too busy selling farm land to foreign governments from the Persian Gulf to grow food in Ethiopia and transport it back to their countries to feed their population because their climate doesn’t allow them to grow food. Readers of this article might be surprised to hear the fact that Ethiopia is growing food for other countries. However, the information is posted on the Ethiopian government web site, describing the deals: “The investment deals are part of an initiative by the Saudi Arabian government to secure food security for the Kingdom by acquiring fertile land in neighbouring countries with sole aim of providing food supplies for the country [Saudi Arabia].” 6 So, the question is if Meles Zenawi is selling land to foreign countries to grow their food, why is it that Ethiopia is unable to grow food for its own people? Do the Saudis bring their own rain?

Ethiopia has suffered from several famines, and many Ethiopians are chronically

hungry. The reason for famine cannot be traced just to the shortfall of rain. Economic, political, as well as environmental, factors should be included when explaining the causes of famine. Drought occurs frequently all over the world, and doesn’t always lead to famine. Weather is only ever one of several factors causing famine or chronic hunger. The main factor leading to famine in Ethiopia is the continuation of the cycle of poverty through oppression. Poor people do not have the resources to deal with shocks, and are more likely to be pushed into unsustainable ways of coping such as selling equipment, sending children out to work or eating less. Unequal trading systems also contribute to hunger in Ethiopia.

Another factor contributing to hunger is the land management system. In Ethiopia, individuals do not own land; it is assigned according to the size of a family, and redistributed every few years. Every time land is redistributed it is divided between more people, so each farmer gets less. Lack of investment, and the need for large yields from a small area, leads to land degradation.

What can citizens in donor countries do?

Ask questions:

  1. Is the food shortage and famine in Ethiopia simply caused by lack of rainfall?

  2. What is the political environment in Ethiopia?

    1. Are people in Ethiopia free to organize, express their political views with out restrictions and chose their leaders in a free and fair election?

    2. When was the last time the people of Ethiopia participated in a free and free election?

    3. Are there political prisoners/prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia?

    4. What happens to those who dare to challenge the authority of the current regime led by Meles Zenawi?

    5. What is the current regime’s policy toward its neighbours and what is the amount of money spent invading and occupying Somalia? Money that otherwise could have been used to alleviate poverty.

The answer to all of these questions could easily be found from the web sites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Genocide Watch and other human rights and social justice organizations. Furthermore, the roles of these international organizations are now restricted by the new Ethiopian legislation that limits aid and humanitarian agencies ability to practice in the country.

What can policy makers of donor countries do?

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 caused the death of thousands of innocent people and as a result family members of those died were grief stricken. Certainly it is a despicable show of cruelty and ghastly act of violence. Any peace-loving citizen regardless of their geographic boundary felt the pain and shared the grief with those who lost their loved once. People around the world showed their solidarity with the American people. Unfortunately, the militaristic reaction of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney brought known and condemned tyrants in to the fold of “the coalition of the willing” in the name of ‘fighting terrorism” Among the first once to jump on the band wagon was Meles Zenawi.

82 Million People Taken Hostage by “The War on Terror”

One of the regions identified by the Bush administration as a potential regrouping zone for the terrorist group Al-Qaida was the Horn of Africa. Particularly, the failed state of Somalia was identified as a major destination for the jihadists to expand the radical groups’ presence in Africa (though there was/is no empirical evidence supporting this theory).

Like many of the African tyrants, Meles Zenawi confirmed his loyalty to George W. Bush and his willingness to ‘fight terrorism in Somalia’ and in the region. He was invited to the White House to receive a tap on the shoulder for his performance. In return Bush supplied some military training and hardware including Humvees, which were used to fire on opposition rallies in 2005 killing more than one hundred and fifty peaceful demonstrators. Subsequently, the US ‘banned the sale of Humvees’7 after confirming their use against peaceful demonstrators.

For George W. Bush and his Western allies, such as the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the democratization of Ethiopia is not their primary concern. They wanted their so-called “War on Terror” to succeed. One of the strategies developed by the Bush administration was to outsource the mini ‘War on Terror’ campaigns to those who are waiting anxiously to say, ‘Yes Sir!’. One of the leaders willing and ready to sub-contract happens to be Meles Zenawi.

Tragically, the cost of such an outsourcing enterprise is not just the death and injury of young men and women in uniform. The cost is in fact far beyond that. In Ethiopia, the ‘War on Terror’ became an impediment to the struggle for true democracy, freedom, human rights and social justice. The regime of Meles Zenawi, enjoying the tacit blessing by Western governments to its repressive and cruel policy on its own people, has become more emboldened and so much so that it has begun to design it’s own ‘anti-terrorism legislation’ in the name of ‘fighting terrorism.’ It is an open secret, however; the real reason behind the ‘legislation” is to completely neutralize dissent. Most importantly, by associating all potential opposition with ‘terrorism’ the regime wanted to continue winning the support and blessing of the West and subsequently convince Western policy makers that that there is no viable force other than the current regime to effectively fight terrorism in the region. In effect, tacit approval of the West became part of the largest hostage taking in the history of humankind. 82 million people continue to be hostages of misguided Western policy and under cruel, unjust and repressive regime of Meles Zenawi.

Should these unjust policies of Bush and Blair continue even after they themselves are long gone? The answer is an emphatic ‘No’. The only way to effectively curb the potential violence caused by extremists groups is not by strengthening equally violent and ruthless regimes such as the regime in Addis Ababa. Democratization, freedom, rule of law and respect for human rights is the only way not just to defeat violence in a short term but to guarantee sustainable peace for all. The question is, how should Western policy makers partner with the people of Ethiopia in dealing with the reoccurrence of famine? Here are some suggestions:

  1. If they don’t see a good enough reason in joining the people of Ethiopia in the struggle for democracy, at least they should not support tyrants like Meles Zenawi.

  2. Learn from history. The ‘strong men’ approach in Africa never worked and it never will.

  3. Partner with the people of Ethiopia to fight terrorism instead of collaborating with a repressive regime.

  4. Out-line a clear policy statement linking undemocratic governance with food shortage.

  5. Stop merely shipping short-term food aid and instead work with the people of Ethiopia to promote democracy, freedom and development, which in return nurtures good economic policy and deals with poverty and starvation.

In summary, a simplistic understanding of famine as an absence of rain does not hold up to scrutiny. Such an incomplete understanding only nourishes tyranny and continues to promote injustice. Broad, deliberate and long-term thinking is required to pull Ethiopia out of famine and underdevelopment. The answer to the problems of Ethiopia couldn’t be found in the capitals of the Western world. Unfortunately, partial causes of the problems, however, can be traced in the West. Western government financial, political and even military support to the undemocratic regime in Ethiopia has enormously delayed the democratization process of the country. This, in effect, has impacted negatively the potential for economic growth and political transformation. Let’s not see famine in isolation democracy, freedom and hunger linked. In the words of Dr. Amartya Sen, democracies don’t starve. Ethiopia’s problem is not lack of rain; it is the famine of leadership.


The author can be reached at










3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.



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