Two headlines recently appeared on the same page of a popular African commentary magazine: Grain Storage in Ethiopia and Ethiopias Secret Arms Deal With the U.S. These headlines indicate the tremendously contradictory situation facing this country today. Ethiopia needs alleviation of its enormous starvation and strength to keep the country unified.
The drought which spread throughout Western Africa in the early seventies also was taking its toll in Ethiopia, although without much publicity. The failure of the former regime to acknowledge or deal with the severe starvation affecting millions of Ethiopians became the motivating factor in the overthrow of the government. The new regime, although too late to prevent all the effects of the drought itself, is attempting to lay the groundwork for dealing with such a situation in the future.
While the drought which has plagued Ethiopia for the last six years is an environmental problem, its major consequence: starvation, is a social and political problem. Until 1974 Ethiopia was a feudal state in which the majority of the land was owned by land lords who employed peasants in a serf-type structure to farm their property. The lack of rain seriously affected the production of food and so the pocketbooks of the land lords. But the most serious effect was on the stomachs of the peasants. As less and less good farm land was available, less peasant labor was needed. As a result, migration began, with the men heading off to search for jobs and food wherever they could be found.
International public opinion, stimulated in part by reports from missionaries, church leaders and others, brought to the worlds attention the enormity of the hunger-drought problem that was shaded from the world by the countrys government and also, it has been alleged, by every major international relief agency.
Internal forces, long awaiting the right moment to put bite behind their political bark, mounted an overthrow of the Imperial government and changed a long history of monarchial rule virtually overnight.
Within the first six months of the takeover, the new government in addition to drought and starvation problems had to cope with tensions and uprisings in Eritrea to the north and among the Afars in the east, as well as sporadic outbreaks of violence between feudal land owners and peasants, and continuing tension on the southern border with Somalia.
All of these disturbances hampered the ability of the new government and other agencies to bring food by convoy to the starving people. Raids on convoys containing relief foods and other materials were common. Consequently, although international and local groups made efforts to aid those most seriously affected by the food shortage, the problem was not handled successfully. Ethiopians still are suffering the effects of undernourishment and hunger.
In southern Ethiopia, thousands of nomadic people who historically spent a good part of the year traipsing across the Ogaden desert between Ethiopia and Somalia, are now crowded into villages where they are able to obtain relief foods. However, thousands more are not being reached due to the vastness of the area, and the migratory nature of the nomads themselves.
Most of the southern nomads were reached too late in spite of the efforts of government and international relief agencies. They have lost virtually all their camels and most of their sheep. They have been forced to reside close to where the relief supplies are distributed and where water is available and so their culture has been radically altered. Although an earlier response might have averted the pathetic situation which has made these formerly independent people dependent, the Ethiopian government and international agencies have recognized the social and moral degradation facing the nomads, and have mounted efforts to reinstate them by revitalizing their herds, improving water supplies and extending health services. This revitalization process will not happen overnight. The dignity of Ethiopias poor will be restored only by providing them with the opportunity to control their destiny, which was theirs before they were forced into a position of dependence in order to feed their children, their camels and themselves.
Today the government is in the difficult position of not being capable of mounting a large enough effort to deal with the hunger problem in Ethiopia. Land tenure reforms and government openness to international relief and rehabilitation programs is only a partial answer. As long as the military situations facing Ethiopia from Eritrea, the Afars, (the former landlords), and Somalia occupy the bulk of the governments energies and fiscal resource poverty and hunger will continue to plague the people of this country.
Although the Church played a significant role in this situation early in 1973, it still has an obligation to recognize the immediate needs of relief from starvation which still exist. This can be done by making an effort to restore the dignity of individuals faced with social devastation caused by hunger by providing them with opportunities to rebuild their lives, and by keeping in the minds of government, liberation groups and the world, the devastating effects of a political and military situation which dissipates scarce resources at a time when a large number of Ethiopians tread a fine line between life and death.
It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as Gods will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as Gods will yourself! (Thomas Merton)
Ken Hackett, who works for an International Development Agency, lived in Africa for six years.