Food and Famine in Ethiopia - Weapons Against Cultural Diversity

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On October 16, 1985, Dr. Jason W. Clay, Director of Research at Cultural Survival, presented the following prepared statement before the Subcommittees on Africa and Human Rights and International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

Five years ago, as Director of Research at Cultural Survival, I began to systematically interview refugees from Ethiopia about the persecution and discrimination that caused them to flee the country. Cultural Survival's intent was to document the human rights violations that were occurring in areas of Ethiopia where outsiders were not allowed free access. Restrictions on the movements of diplomats, journalists and relief workers as well as the presence of government officials or official translators has made it difficult to find out what is happening in these areas.

Since 1980, our interviews with refugees from each of the major ethnic groups in Ethiopia indicate that the present government is attempting to systematically destroy the culturally distinct groups within the country. This systematic destruction appears to be based on the goal of creating a strong central state upon which each community is dependent. By confiscating land, moving dissident peoples from their own areas onto the land or even into the villages of others and imposing, under the guise of state socialism, local organizations which destroy the ability of communities to remain self-sufficient in food production, the government is attempting to achieve their goal. As we have seen in the past year, even though the state has succeeded in making these communities dependent by reducing their productive capacity, it cannot provide food for them. This is the context within which Western humanitarian assistance is being used.

The Ethiopian government's public statements indicate that regional variation in its policies results from the different administrative units' relative autonomy. Our research suggests, however, that while there is considerable difference in government policies, these differences result from the central government's assessment of which policies are necessary to fundamentally undermine the cohesion of the different cultures in Ethiopia's many provinces. Since the nineteenth century, the Amhara ethnic group has dominated Ethiopia's governments. Representation in high government positions by non-Amharas was reduced even further after the present government came to power. The reduced representation by non-Amhara in future government decisions was further ensured by Ethiopia's new workers' party which contains an even smaller proportion of people from other ethnic groups.

The government's policy to create communities dependent upon the state has exacerbated the present famine in the northern administrative regions. Even though rainfall and agricultural production in 1984 were high in the southwest - a region overwhelmingly dominated by the Oromo, the largest group in Ethiopia accounting for more than half of the country's population - as a result of the government's resettlement policies, famine spread to this area. The government has diverted many Western famine relief programs to help ensure a socially and economically dependent Ethiopia.

My testimony today is based on information collected in the Sudan by Cultural Survival in February and March 1985. The objectives of this research were to investigate the causes of famine in Ethiopia by interviewing those directly affected. This research was undertaken by three people - myself, anthropologist Bonnie K. Holcomb and Swiss journalist Peter Niggli. Each of us interviewed Ethiopian refugees in Sudan. I talked with refugees from contested areas of Tigray. Peter Niggli spoke with people from Tigray and Wollo who had been forcibly resettled in the Asosa region and later escaped to Sudan.(*) Bonnie Holcomb also interviewed escapees from the resettlement sites as well as local residents who had been displaced or forced to leave the area due to the taking of their land and the financial hardships they faced as a result of the resettlement program. Nearly 250 interviews were conducted in person or with independently hired translators. Interviews were conducted privately away from Sudanese officials or representatives of the various liberation fronts. People who were interviewed were selected on the basis of a mathematically calculated random sample at each location.

The results of this research are important for two reasons. First, it is the most scientifically conducted research on the largest sample by any government or private agency into the causes of the present famine. Second, it challenges assumptions on which most humanitarian assistance from the West has been based.

While the information collected from these refugees, I have no doubt, is reliable, it is not clear how representative it is for populations still in Ethiopia. Independent sources, however, have increasingly corroborated our data. Clearly, there is a need for reliable, systematically collected information from inside Ethiopia which is independent of the government. Our data, because it draws into question the political purposes of many government famine programs, indicates that the collection of such information would be a responsible course of action for any government or organization considering further famine or development assistance in the area.

With regard to the first question before the subcommittee, "Is the Government of Ethiopia engaging in a policy of deliberate starvation of its own people, particularly in dissident regions of the country?" the answer is complicated, but unequivocably yes.

Government representatives carrying out several different policies have destroyed food supplies, disrupted normal commerce which would have allowed individuals to acquire food, prevented people from reaching food, withheld food from those in need, forcibly relocated people well away from their own ample food supplies, forcibly cleared areas of indigenous occupants to make room for settlers, and imposed crushing tax and contribution levels on peasant producers which force them to sell their food and productive assets such as oxen or even seed for the next year.

The present government is centralizing state authority to an extent that was not even projected under previous Amhara-dominated governments. Peasant producers in the southwest, for example, insist that they now pay more to the Amhara-dominated central government than they ever did to landlords and tax collectors combined in the past. In addition, by allowing local peasant associations to rid dissidents by volunteering them for resettlement, resettling them on lands belonging to homogeneous cultural groups and then promising them positions in the local militia and using 15 percent to infiltrate communities in the south and southwest, the government is establishing a dependent, but loyal, local leadership which will keep most people in the country under surveillance.

I will present only a few of the findings of our research. The full report will be available at the end of the month. In order to demonstrate how government policies vary from area to area I will present our findings in four sections - the contested areas of Tigray, the government-held areas of Tigray and Wollo, the resettlement program, and those in southwestern Ethiopia displaced by the resettlement program.

The Contested Areas of Tigray

* People from contested or TPLF (Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front) areas did not believe that they could safely go to government feeding centers and receive food without being resettled.

* Some people from these same areas indicated that they were denied food at government feeding centers because they did not have the required peasant association or kebele identification cards.

* 77 percent of the famine victims interviewed in Sudan who came from contested areas of Tigray indicated that in 1982, 1983 and 1984, the army burned houses in their village as well as crops standing in the field, piled ready for threshing or stored in granaries or houses.

* 25 percent of those interviewed indicated that the army had stolen their oxen (essential for plowing), their farm equipment and food from their farm within the past three years.

* Everyone from the contested areas indicated that the army attacked during periods of planting and harvesting. They said that this was done to reduce agricultural production and make the areas more dependent on the central government. Delays in planting, for example, do not allow farmers to take advantage of early rains, a critical factor when rains end early as they did in 1983 and 1984. Delays in planting also allow both weeds (striga) and insects (armyworms) to become established in fields before crops have even sprouted. Some 90 percent of those who first fled to Sudan reported that armyworms were the major cause of famine. According to agricultural experts in the United States, the parasitic weed striga, which attacks the roots of crops, can cause crop losses of up to 90 percent. In many cases the farmers would not even be aware of its existence. In the course of the interview, they also indicated that army attacks had delayed planting in their villages.

* 20 percent of those from contested areas indicated that civilians in their village had been killed by the Ethiopian army in the past three years.

* Most interviewees indicated that the favorite bombing targets were collections of civilians - schools, churches, weddings, funerals and markets. The purpose of the attacks, they said, was to demoralize the population and disrupt commerce. Many individuals, for example, reported that they had lived through far worse droughts without suffering, but now they cannot even travel from town to town to trade because most markets must be held at night.

Government-held Areas of Wollo and Tigray

* Peasant associations are required to "nominate" their quota for resettlement before they are given relief grain to be distributed to their remaining members. For example, 75 percent of those interviewed who had been resettled from Wollo indicated that they had been told by their peasant association to go to nearby government centers to get food rations. Instead they were arrested and taken for resettlement.

* Those identified by their peasant associations for resettlement often included young men who were thought to be potential TPLF recruits, or individuals who were suspected or out of favor with local officials. Moslem areas of Wollo also appear to have had more people taken for resettlement.

* Many from Wollo indicated that production from their land can be high but erratic; many years it yields very little. In the past farmers always saved grain from the good years to tide them over when production was poor. Now, the government takes all surplus production so there is famine.

The Resettlement Program

* The death rates reported for the resettlement sites ranging between 33 and 270 per 10,000 per day are extraordinarily high, especially considering few children or old people are in these sites.

* Contrary to government reports, none of those we interviewed voluntarily resettled. They all claim to have been "captured" for the program. They were guarded throughout the move as well as in the new sites. Ten percent reported seeing people killed who tried to escape.

* More than 86 percent said that they had been forcibly separated from some or all of their family.

* As many as 20 percent of the people taken from the same villages died before they arrived at the resettlement camps. Relatives who attempted to bring food to those in holding camps before their trip to the southwest were denied entry to the camps and even beaten.

* More than 60 percent of those resettled from Tigray reported that they had been imprisoned at least once during the resettlement process.

* Some 60 percent of those interviewed reported that they saw people die en route to the resettlement sites.

* Those resettled were given one or two small rolls of bread per day. They were also given very little water. The lack of bread and water, people suspected, was to weaken them so they would offer little resistance and not attempt to escape.

* In the resettlement sites people were given from 5 to 25 kg. of grain per month and expected to work 11-hour days, 6.5 days per week.

* More than 40 percent of those resettled from Tigray and Wollo reported that they had been beaten either during the resettlement or at the sites. An additional 20 percent reported that they only witnessed beatings. They reported that people were beaten if they asked for more food, complained about conditions, urinated without permission or did not fulfill their work quota.

* The number of militia present at the resettlement sites varied from 1 per 12 colonists to 1 per 100 colonists. The ratio varied depending on whether the site was fenced and how far the site was from the Sudan border. Militia who allowed too many colonists to escape were hanged or made to work in the fields.

People Displaced in Southwestern Ethiopia

* A number of distinct peoples in southwestern Ethiopia have been deliberately displaced by the government since it took power. Prior to 1979, Gittan speakers were displaced by the implementation or the original land reform. They moved into the Begi region where they re-established their agricultural systems independently of the central government. Between 1979 and 1982, the Anuak, Dungula/Barta and Komo were all displaced from their traditional lands in southwestern Ethiopia as the government sought to incorporate "uninhabited" lands into its resettlement program. From 1983 to the present, the government has tightened government tax and "voluntary" contribution programs, increased settlement in the area and forced a wave of Oromo refugees to flee to contested areas along the border or into Sudan.

* Half of those who fled Ethiopia to Yabuus indicated that the government had taken the land that they had used for generations. It is the land being used for the resettlement programs, but most of it is not used now.

* Nearly three-quarters of those interviewed in Yabuus indicated that required attendance at peasant, women and youth association and literacy campaign meetings during key periods of agricultural labor significantly reduces production. Crops are not planted at the appropriate time because the land is not prepared. Weeds choke crops and wild animals (pigs and primates) destroy crops.

* 25 percent of those at Yabuus indicated that serving their required time in the militia or in roles appointed by peasant association officials kept them from working in their fields.

* More than 63 percent said that the disarming of the local population left them defenseless to protect their crops from wild pigs and primates.

* More than 40 percent of those in Yabuus reported that high taxes and "voluntary" contributions force farmers to sell oxen or even seed and reduce their productivity. Nearly 15 percent reported that their oxen were forcibly taken by the state as part of collectivization programs or for those resettled in the area.

* More than a third reported that all their production, even seed, had been taken by the government in taxes.

* More than 95 percent reported that the four to five days per week of work required on communal peasant association plots during key periods left them little time to work on their own plots. Contrary to the government's stated policy, interviewees claimed that they never received any payment for the production from communal plots. They could, however, buy the grain at the regular market price.

* More than 86 percent of those interviewed indicated that their imprisonment for such crimes as missing meetings, not paying taxes, fees or contributions, refusing to arrest a friend or neighbor, speaking up at meetings, questioning the local officials' decisions, being Oromo, being accused of assisting the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) or being suspected in general keeps them from their fields. If an individual misses a peasant association meeting he is punished with 10 days in prison. If imprisonment comes during the planting or weeding periods it can seriously reduce total production.

In response to the second question put to me by the two sub-committees, "What is the general human rights situation in Ethiopia?", I think the above examples are sufficient indicators of the human rights conditions in Ethiopia of both individuals and groups. Internationally, there is little agreement about the human rights of individuals, even less about those of groups. At this time, Americans must seriously consider the kinds of conditions they want to perpetuate in Ethiopia through either famine or development assistance programs funded either by the American government or PVOs. The Ethiopian government has made it clear that it is less concerned about the negative impact of its programs on specific cultural groups in the country than it is with imposing its rigid programs to reorganize production and society.

(*) Many of Peter Niggli's interviews are reprinted in German in his report, Athiopien: Deportationen und Zwabgsarbeitslager. Frankfurt, May 1985, 80 pages.

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