Ethiopia: Feeding The Fight


March 26, 2010: There were rumors in the late 1980s that rebels in Ethiopia's Tigray province had stolen food aid from donor organizations. That wasn't unusual; rumors like that proliferate in conflicts around the globe. Military observers who get into these troubled regions report that aid theft happens, and relief workers will occasionally share their suspicions once they are back home and the reporter agrees to treat the information as off the record. In the 1980s northern Ethiopia was a very troubled region, afflicted by drought, starvation, and a long-running civil war. Sad to say, but it was a precisely the kind of situation where aid theft occurs. Take Somalia as a current case study; the US government believes food aid shipments to Somalia are being stolen by Islamist guerrillas. Aid theft rumors and aid theft denials are, in fact, a common propaganda pattern in sub-Saharan Africa. Here's the script: The government accuses foreign donors of supplying rebels, the rebels deny it. The rebels accuse the government forces of stealing food aid and the government denies it. Usually both of the accusations are true and the denials are just the usual diplomatic business. While this pattern is by no means confined to sub-Saharan Africa (you can see it replicated in Central Asia, Afghanistan, for example, and there were many cases in the Balkans), sub-Saharan Africa, with its numerous aid donor groups, just provides a dismal, continual example. Delivering aid is tough in war zones is tough to begin with. Logistics is a huge problem, and long supply lines are vulnerable to both bandits and political disruption (to include bribe demands from corrupt officials). Sometimes separating refugees from rebels is impossible (Darfur is an example). The bandits who strike the aid convoy can be government troops out of uniform (Congo, Sudan, Central African Republic, etc) or a militia working for government forces. World Food Program (a UN operation) workers don't like to talk about this glaring down-side of the do-good business, nor do some of the religious groups providing aid. They have solid reasons; unless their effort is getting a lot diplomatic support from major powers, too many complaints appearing in the press can lead to more trouble for the aid workers on the ground-- trouble from rebels and government forces. Donors don't like to hear about rip-offs, either, but that is another story. Now European investigators (the BBC the main one) have returned to the Tigray story and claim that food aid from a couple of famous international relief fundraising operations (Food Aid is one, which was promoted by several big name musicians) did get filched in a large way. The claim is in 1985 Tigray rebels belonging to the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) conned aid workers into giving them over $90 million that had been raised for food relief. A former TPLF commander reportedly said the money went for military weapons and supplies, and did not reach starving refugees. The rock star fundraisers deny the charges. So do several relief organizations, including highly experienced organizations like the Red Cross and Oxfam. To make the politics even more complex, the TPLF and its allies ultimately toppled the ruling Marxist government. The current prime minister was in the TPLF. The politics at the time were also complicated, and thoroughly ugly. The Marxist dictatorship had been blocking food shipments to northern Ethiopia. Yes, the drought had exacerbated war-time food shortages, but many military analysts at the time argued that the Marxist dictatorship was using starvation as a weapon to kill off rebels, a cruel tool favored by mass murderers like Stalin. A war-waging dictatorship turned a cyclical Sahel drought into a weapon of mass destruction. (Austin Bay)

March 16, 2010: Eritrea once again denied UN accusations that it is supplying Somali Islamist rebels with weapons and claimed there is no real evidence to support the international accusations. The government also condemned the UN sanctions imposed in December 2009.

March 6, 2010: Eritrea has been one of Sudan president Omar al-Bashir's biggest supporters. Bashir still confronts warrants for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Bashir understands diplomacy and he has insistently criticized the UN for imposing sanctions on Eritrea. Bashir repeated his criticisms while on a trip to Eritrea. Eritrea does not recognize the warrants and ICC indictment and refers to them as examples of contemporary imperialism.

March 2, 2010: A major Ethiopian opposition leader was murdered in Tigray province. Aregawi Gebre-Yohannes was a registered candidate in the national elections (scheduled for May 2010). Six unidentified men attacked him and stabbed him to death. A government spokesman called the murder a criminal act. For over a year opposition leaders have been accusing the government of running an intimidation campaign to disrupt opposition parties and suppress the vote.


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