The Humanitarian Aid-Corruption Nexus in Ethiopia

Seid Hassan- Murray State University  June 21st, 2013


The Amharic version of the Voice of America (journalist Solomon Abate serving as moderator) entertained a discussion on corruption which was broadcast on May 17 and 18, 2013. Participants included Messrs. Mulugeta Aragawi of Addis Ababa University, Abebe Gutta (attorney at law in Addis Ababa), Berhanu Assefa (Ethical Education and Communication Affairs Director of the Federal Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission-FEACC) and I. The first two gentlemen who really knew the sources, extent and potential solution to the rampant Ethiopian corruption politely provided their views, including the approaches that the government has to take to fight the corruption that the government has admitted to be rampant. As expected and is customary of the members of the EPRDF, Mr. Berhanu Assefa of the FEACC was on the defensive and mostly on the attack mode, instead of listening to the complaints and suggestions of the two citizens.  As those who listened to the debate can easily attest, Mr. Assefa spent most of his time talking about unrelated to the topic of discussion –yes, you guessed it right: the same old and tired double digit growth rates that all EPRDFites like to parrot each other ad nauseam.  He also suggested that the current decision to fight against corruption is for real and the arrest of Minister Melaku Fenta, director general of the revenue and customs authority and his deputy Gebrewahed Woldegiorgis along with several officials and businessmen merchants should serve as proof and we ought not to discourage it.  I partially agreed with Mr. Assefa’s suggestion in that all of us have to encourage the fight against corruption, if indeed it is for real while at the same time expressing my serious doubts.

I will perhaps address this issue (whether Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s government is both serious and capable of fighting the rampant corruption in the country) with a separate short write-up. Delay such a commentary also allow us to give the current authorities a little more time and the benefits of doubt to show it to the world, as promised, that they have ended embarked on fighting against the debilitating corruption in the country. This and the next two (probably more) series of short commentaries instead focus on my soon to be published research findings related to the foreign-aid–corruption-nexus as applied to Ethiopia. These two forthcoming articles are included in the upcoming Ethiopian e-Journal for Research and Innovation Foresight-Vol.5, no.1-Special issue on the Ethiopian Economy which incorporates seven professionally written manuscripts. The contributors include Professors Abu Girma Moges (two articles: one on federalism and the second one on the extent of and the sham nature of calculating and indexing of poverty in the country), Minga Negash (on the peculiar nature of corporate governance in Ethiopia and the way forward), Getachew Begashaw (on the effects of landlockedness), Zeleke Worku (on Traditional Financial Structures such as Iqub, etc.) and I (two articles on the foreign aid-corruption nexus).  Both of my research articles are related but the first one tries to exclusively focus on the humanitarian aid-corruption nexus (that is, corruption when the TPLF was a rebel front) while the second one focuses on the development aid-corruption nexus (that is, corruption after the TPLF seized political power). They both are byproducts of many years of my extensive research and fact documentations regarding the nature and causes of corruption in Ethiopia. I expect readers of these articles to find the extensive literature, testimonials and interviews that I consulted to be highly beneficial to them.

The State Capture Onset in Ethiopia: Humanitarian Aid and Corruption. Forthcoming:  Ethiopian e-Journal for Research and Innovation Foresight-Vol.5, no.1-Special issue on the Ethiopian Economy.


The first part of this paper shows that a substantial part of the money that aid agencies gave to feed the 1984-5 Ethiopian famine victims, including those raised by Band Aid and Live Aid were siphoned off by the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) to buy military weapons. I also use newly found evidences, interviews and testimonials accumulated over many years to show that famine aid scamming by the TPLF had gone beyond using humanitarian aid to purchase military weapons and feed the rebel Front’s red army. I show how humanitarian aid, as a resource in the midst of extreme scarcity, has enriched some quarters, fuelled corruption and intensified and prolonged conflicts among the warring factions of Ethiopia and legitimized the rebel fronts’ operations. Humanitarian aid lured the Fronts, particularly the TPLF, to parade hundreds of thousands of peasants to Sudan, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of them (due to overcrowding, disease epidemics, lack of regular food supplies, poor water and sanitation problems, and from being exposed to targets for bombing). The documents I examined, the interviews that I conducted and the testimonials I have gathered over many years indicate that the refugees were abused by the TPLF both during their trek to the Ethio-Sudanese border which took 4-6 weeks and within the refugee camps. According to some ex-TPLF veterans, (and their claims to be indirectly proved by the written work of foreign nationals), a good portion of the humanitarian food aid was not made available to the starving peasants of Tigray. Their statements regarding this issue are indirectly corroborated by the field and research work of foreign nationals. By all these three counts, according to them, the TPLF has committed crimes against humanity (and, the International Committee of the Red Cross –ICRC agrees with them on this front). The documents I examined and the interviews and testimonials I gathered indicate that donors and aid agencies knew that the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) was the flip-side of the same coin- the TPLF and aid agency personnel knew a portion of the humanitarian aid that they were providing was being diverted for military purposes by the Fronts, indicating a violation of the principle of neutrality and impartiality on the part of aid agencies. There are also indications suggesting that the cross-border interventions by donors and aid agencies were against the multilateral agreements such as the Lomé conventions (Duffield and Prendergast, 1994).  This shows that the provisions and delivery of humanitarian aid have been used to violate and perhaps diminish the sovereignty of Ethiopia. Looked in a different way, a good portion of the humanitarian aid provided by donor countries to the TPLF and other fronts fighting the Derg regime was in part for the advancement of the diplomatic and foreign policy goals as well as political and military tools of donor nations and aid agencies.  It may be for this reason why they cared less about how humanitarian aid was spent or abused.  The literature that I examined also provides reasons why the abuse of humanitarian aid would be inevitable in conflict ridden countries such as Ethiopia. The evidence gathered have allowed me to inductively test one of my fundamental hypotheses: that humanitarian aid resources were and still are the sources of predation and capture in Ethiopia and that the culture of corruption and political malaise that we observe in today’s Ethiopia is a byproduct of what the TPLF/EPRDF learned and adopted when it was a rebel front and such a culture of corruption was aided and abetted by humanitarian aid.

Summary, Implication and Conclusion (abridged)   

The accounts of several donor agency personnel and the testimonials of ex-TPLF combatants indicate that humanitarian aid has showered the TPLF with more hard currency than the $100 million it received from Band Aid and similar activities. They include, for example, the millions of dollars that REST and its “employees” and supporters received for providing their services (transporting the donated food and related aid, as guides, etc.), from selling of “excess” humanitarian aid into the Sudanese and Middle Eastern markets, from scamming and defrauding humanitarian agencies such as  the $500,000 that Mr. Max Peberdy of Christian Aid was seen passing to Mr. Araya and others and the $2 million the Australians gave in cash to purchase food from local merchants, etc.)  However, my investigation is unable to determine the exact amount of money that the TPLF made from selling humanitarian aid. Both the fungibility of funds and the secretive nature of the Front also played and would continue to play as huge obstacles in ascertaining if and how much of those funds which have been allocated as described and as decided by the Front’s leadership were actually implemented I am further convinced that no one, including top leaders of the TPLF would be able to ascertain the exact allocations, expenditures and conversions of humanitarian aid for military purposes.

The second part of this article presented an abridged version of both the theoretical and practical case for aid to be a source for corruption and for prolonging conflicts among warring nations. I examined documents and the information obtained from various credible voices already aired by ex-TPLF veterans. I cross-examined previous testimonies provided by high level donor aid officials and aid agencies’ personnel who were deeply involved in the delivery of humanitarian aid at the time. I also sought out and investigated documents written by journalists who happen to report the extent of donor aid flow and to whom they were given. This led me to uncover one of the hard to find non-classified CIA documents, thanks to Google’s search engine, which in turn reinforced the claims made by donor aid officials and aid agency personnel who attested that humanitarian aid was indeed siphoned off to military uses by the TPLF.  The examination of the facts also indicates that both donor nations and aid agencies took a blind eye to the misuse and diversion of humanitarian aid to military uses. Some attribute this to the fact of channeling of humanitarian assistance along the Ethio-Sudanese border in the 1980s being partly political (see, Evil Days, pp. 356-62, for example).

The cross-examination of the documents that I gathered along with the testimonials of individuals also indicates that the TPLF skillfully captured humanitarian aid resources, with full intent. The desire to capture and use humanitarian aid resources motivated the Front to (in large part forcefully) parade already weakened peasants to trek to Sudan, which led to the death of tens of thousands of them (to the tune of 25,000 by some humanitarian agencies’ estimates and calculations and a lot more by ex-TPLF combatants) and to their increased suffering. This article has also presented the case in which the provision of humanitarian aid could have the opposite and damaging (largely unintended) effects on the recipient country and its people using Ethiopia as an example. To the extent that the desire to access humanitarian aid resources lured organized groups such as the TPLF to commit crimes against humanity, and to the extent that these same resources have benefitted the elites and have enabled the TPLF establish a highly corruptive and oligarchic system that we observe in today’s Ethiopia, we conclude that humanitarian aid resources were the basis for the onset of state capture that reigns supreme currently in Ethiopia.


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