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“The government of Ethiopia is establishing a social and economic system that will produce starving people for generations to come”. — Cultural Survival, Inc. 1986

Do I know your face from somewhere—the emaciated child with the sorrowful haunted eyes? Didn’t we meet in 1984? Of course it can’t possibly be the same child, who must have perished in one of those communist “resettlement” camps where peasants died in tens of thousands, yet the picture is almost indistinguishable from one circulated at the height of the famine twenty years ago. Today no less than 1,119 NGOs operate in Ethiopia (that’s the official 2005 figure from its own Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Has nothing changed?

And there’s something else too which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to briskly write out a check for $100 and send it to my charity of choice. This country is Ethiopia—not Mali or Uganda or Mozambique; and isn’t Ethiopia supposed to be historically a very different place? We all know that elsewhere many African peoples experienced long years of imperial subjection, and there the Aid Game and the Blame Game might be at least notionally coupled. But in Ethiopia, aside from a brief Italian episode between 1936 and 1941, there was no serious colonial occupation on which its present dismal condition can be blamed: “Unique among African countries, the ancient Ethiopian monarchy maintained its freedom from colonial rule…” This is the opening sentence of the The World Factbook entry; but it could be from any number of sources.

So if Ethiopia’s background is different why does it look the same? Why are the images of starving children like those from so many other parts of Africa? Why does it need 1,119 charities to look after its people? Can it be that its misery is largely self-inflicted, that its ruling class has for many years suffered from delusions of grandeur, and that what is called “maintaining its freedom” in fact meant maintaining imperial rule over scores of poor and oppressed ethnic groups; that the dominant Amhara elite has always been too proud to work, too arrogant to admit its faults, couldn’t care less whether the stricken and the doomed in famine camps live or die, and is happy to have westerners with tear-stained cheeks attending to them; that the “ancient Ethiopian monarchy” was a Johnny-come-lately affair, that the title of “Emperor” was misapplied, and that only western romantics who love crowns and feudal trappings—however tacky and absurd—could have taken it seriously in the first place?

Romantic misunderstandings

Whether you start with the portrayals to be found in Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief and Waugh in Abyssinia, or go back four hundred years to a much earlier epoch, there is an inescapably striking contrast between the idealised Abyssinia (which Waugh satirised) and the realities described by candid observers on the ground. Whole centuries of wishful thinking went into the legend of Prester John, for example, “one of the most persistent fantasies of the Middle Ages” according to a recent historian, a story “invented to shore up religious morale in a time of frailty, then given new impetus by a literary hoax.”

From the account supplied in Richard Hall’s Empires of the Monsoon the fantasy of Prester John began around 1144, when a tale was circulated about a Christian kingdom somewhere in the East. In the build-up to the Second Crusade of 1147, and with the whole crusading enterprise in doubt, it was reassuring to think that distant co-religionists might be available for help when needed. Soon after this came “a masterpiece of invention”—possibly concocted by Archbishop Christian of Mainz—a letter reporting that in Prester John’s fabulous domain there were “crystal waters, great caches of precious stones and forests of pepper trees. On a mountain of fire, salamanders spin threads for the precious royal garments. Prester John speaks of his beautiful wives, and of how he limits his congress with them to only four times a year; for the rest of the time he sleeps on a ‘cold bed of sapphire’ to subdue his lust”.

Exactly where that cold bed of sapphire was supposedly located remained for a long time obscure, though it eventually shifted from the East to Africa. And in the early 14th century a Dominican priest named Jordanus, who had vainly sought for Prester John in India, decided Ethiopia was a better bet. “Of Ethiopia, I say that it is a very great land, and very hot. There are many monsters there, such as gryphons that guard the golden mountains… The lord of that country I believe to be more potent than any man in the world, and richer in gold and silver and in precious stones. He is said to have under him 52 kings.”

But a Portuguese embassy sent to visit Prester John in 1520 was less impressed by both the land and its inhabitants:

They are a poor civil people with miserable clothes, and they come into the water uncovered, a black, tall people with thick matted locks, which from their birth they neither cut nor comb, so that they wear their hair like a lump of wool, and they carry pointed oiled sticks with which they scratch the vermin which crawl beneath, because they cannot reach their scalps with their fingers, and scratching their heads is their sole occupation.

No doubt this is somewhat severe: even in Ethiopia in 1520 men could scarcely live by scratching their heads alone. Nevertheless, similar reports from a very acute observer 400 years later, of members of the Ethiopian ruling class in the 1930s sitting idly around waiting for others to do things for them, suggest that the picture it offers is by no means fanciful, and it does help to put things in perspective.

Delusions of grandeur

Bernard Shaw said somewhere that “Titles distinguish the mediocre, embarrass the superior, and are disgraced by the inferior.” Perhaps this is so. But there is nothing to suggest that even the most grandiose titles ever embarrassed the late Emperor Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah and King of Kings, or his like-minded Amhara progeny, and the reason for his honorific self-congratulation would have been immediately obvious to Shaw. It is the deep sense of insecurity that afflicts the nouveau riche—nouveau riche royalty included—for in Ethiopia the uncertain legitimacy of a new aristocracy was at the heart of the problem. The current “empire” with its “emperor” and “ancestral throne” only dated from 1889, the year when a local princeling named Menelik embarked on the conquest of the rest of Abyssinia, inspired by the old title King of Kings…

“We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, being in this the twenty-fourth year of our life, summoned by the wisdom of Almighty God and the unanimous voice of our people to the throne of our ancestors, do hereby proclaim…”

This of course is just Evelyn Waugh’s parody of imperial titular pretension under Haile Selassie, dating from 1932, and perhaps apologies are due for including it here. Yet it sounds very like the original; while nothing in Black Mischief could approach the absurdity of the self-proclaimed titles and offices later piled on Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Marxist boss of the country after Haile Selassie was strangled by Mengistu’s minions in 1974. This close ally of Moscow, a man whose collectivization projects turned whole provinces of his country into a wasteland and who starved to death up to a million people, expected to be introduced as follows:

Strength of Mary Mengistu, Chairman of the Military Council of the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia, Secretary General of the Council of Peasants and Workers of Ethiopia, Chief of staff of the Air and Land Forces, General in Command of the Bureau for Armed Struggle against Imperialist Aggression in Tigré and Eritrea, Head of the Security Advisory Committee.

What does all this puffery—these advertisements by a dictator for himself—ominously signify? In Ethiopia especially? Aside from anything else they indicate a strong desire to put the furthest possible distance between the ruler and the common man. Like his predecessor Haile Selassie, the Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam is letting you know that he is an uncommon man, and when his terrified underlings insisted on repeating this nomenclatural mish-mash over and over on the one and only state television channel, they were emphasizing that Mengistu, its new communist emperor, was a leader above the ordinary in human affairs.

So far above, in fact, that he no longer understood the world around him. A Red Cross doctor who wrote about the Ethiopian famine of 1984 provides an unforgettable picture of Mengistu and his entourage helicoptering into a town in Wollo province on an inspection tour of the death camps he had himself created. Here the Chairman of the Military Council of the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia was shown his handiwork—a tentful of dying children. It is possible that not since Marie Antoinette’s legendary remarks about letting the masses eat cake had anyone heard such tasteless comments.

Mengistu looked at the children—shrivelled, skeletal, and dying simply from lack of food—and said to the doctor: “Why don’t you give them all blood transfusions?”

The doctor and author to whom the question was addressed, Myles F. Harris, commented later in his book Breakfast in Hell: “A unit of blood cost one hundred dollars, enough to feed all the children in the tent for a month. The nearest blood bank was in the capital and, besides, produced only enough blood for one person in every thousand in the country. In a radius of two hundred miles from where Mengistu stood there were eight million people starving to death.”

Communist collectivization

On March 4, 1975, the Marxist Dergue nationalised all rural land in Ethiopia. (The “Dergue” was the name of the controlling communist directorate. It means simply “committee”. RS) “All land to the tillers!” had been Lenin’s slogan in 1917, and there was a similar attempt to whip up enthusiasm for the collectivist goals of Addis Ababa. But as Paul B. Henze explained in his 1986 account of communism in Ethiopia, the situation there was very different from Russia. In the African case there were a variety of systems of land tenure throughout the country, and not only that, the country people were generally happy with the way things were. Ethiopia’s “peasants did not need to be placated or to have their demands satisfied. They had, with rare exceptions, been passive onlookers during the revolutionary process.”

Now they were allocated plots for their own purposes; but they had only the use of this land, and no title to it. Henze writes that they were also forbidden to buy or rent additional land or to employ others to work for them. But how was this to be enforced? “Peasant associations” were organised, and these were supposed to serve as the primary instrument to persuade, police, and enforce the process of collectivization in the countryside. “Though tenancy was abolished, all peasants became in effect tenants of the socialist state”.

What followed was a hideous caricature of Soviet collectivization in the 1930s, and soon led to the complete breakdown of agricultural production. Anyone interested should obtain Politics and the Ethiopian Famine: 1984–1985, by Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb, a book which not only describes the whole dreadful business with its forced seizures of grain and livestock, the compulsory sale of grain to the state at below cost, and then, as people began to starve, the deportation of millions to places where many died on arrival—it also provides numerous direct statements from the victims themselves.

On the forced sale of grain to the state:

We were forced to pay tax in a secret way by selling to the government 50 kg of grain for E$25. The same amount that the Agricultural Marketing Corporation (AMC) buys from us for E$25 can be sold for E$80 to the town population. We do not know what the government does with the grain of the AMC, but we heard that it is for the town population of Addis Ababa and Asmara who can afford to pay a high price.

On reprisals against peasants who resist the state:

The army took 500 cows and oxen from my village, they burned people’s houses and took honey, butter, and anything made of leather. They even took old clothes. They didn’t bother to carry the grain; they just burned it. The army burned my grain in 1983 and they took 24 tins of honey which were worth E$7 each… In 1982 the army came through our village and forced me to pay E$400. I had to borrow the money from a neighbor. Because of the money that I had to pay the army and the grain that they burned I had to sell all my animals in 1984. Now I have nothing. That’s why I am here.

On endless political indoctrination meetings:

During the meetings the weeds take over the crops and the wild pigs finish the rest later while we are forced to sit in the peasant association meetings, our wives sit in women’s association meetings, and the children sit in youth association meetings… The government is the friend of the pigs and monkeys. It gives them free access to the fields while we sit imprisoned in useless harangues about paying more tax out of a crop that is being eaten by wild animals while we talk… They should put the baboons in the meetings and let us go to farm the fields. Then we could eat and get fat like the animals do.

Those rounded up for resettlement far from their homes were kept in holding camps where resisters were subject to beating with rifle butts, running and crawling over thorns, rape, and killing. Upon first seeing the camp where he was to be resettled, a peasant said:

When I saw Asosa I thought about committing suicide; I don’t understand much about government matters, but I thought it would be better to die than to live under such a government.

The ruling class pattern

But surely this Marxist government represented a gross aberration in Ethiopian history? Surely nothing like this had been seen before—its policies attributable, perhaps, to the over-enthusiasm of radical intellectuals, to their understandable eagerness for change, to the rigidity of government cadres, to the need to impress their Soviet masters that something was being done, to haste, to poor planning, etc. It couldn’t possibly reflect a deep and endemic Amhara ruling class contempt for the countryside and its people.

If only that were so. What Clay and Holcomb make amply clear in their opening discussion is that the original imperial conquests by Menelik in the 19th century—which “were brutal and involved much killing, property destruction, looting, and abduction of slaves”—were also accompanied by a “destruction of the agricultural base, so extensive in some Oromo and Sidama regions that severe famines followed the military campaigns”. (CH, p14)

Menelik changed land tenure throughout the conquered areas. He declared all conquered peoples his subjects and all land the property of the crown. These decrees, upheld by the military, laid the foundation for the relations of production within the empire and set the stage for the conflict between nations that continues today. (ie, in 1986)

Soldiers from Abyssinia who helped win the military campaigns… were rewarded for their role in state building with grants of land in the conquered regions, as well as the right to use subjugated indigenous peoples as slaves to fulfil labor requirements… Local elites from the conquered populations who collaborated with the conquering power during the formation of the new political system were also given land-use rights in return for their service to the Abyssinian, now Ethiopian, emperor. They could not, however, pass these rights on to their children.”

Land tenure in the south was transformed from a system in which land was centrally allocated by indigenous authorities or regional representatives to one in which most residents became sharecroppers or serfs who were expected to give most of their crops to resident and visiting landlords in addition to other payments and obligations in service or in kind. These northern (ie, Amhara) landlords also served as tax collectors, judges, and functionaries in the state administration of the empire-cum-state.

Throughout the conquered areas in the south the standard of living plummeted. Most new tenants had Abyssinian landlords, many of whom were infamous for their harsh treatment of local people from whom they were to wrest their livelihood. Some were such poor farm managers that large numbers of tenants had to be sold as slaves in order to pay their debts or to acquire currency.

Evelyn Waugh’s report

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. From this we appear to be dealing with a cultural pattern that is profoundly Ethiopian in origin and character, that periodically recurs, and that owes nothing whatever to the outside world. It is the culture of an arrogant ethnic master-class determined to protect its privileges, a class just as contemptuous of the scattered “lesser breeds” within the imperium as the contempt of Khartoum for its southern peoples in neighboring Sudan. In any case, the grim nature and manifold failings of Ethiopia were vividly set down by a rather more distinguished writer than myself 70 years ago. In Waugh in Abyssinia, referring to Menelik and his successors, Evelyn Waugh wrote that in contrast to the generally benevolent consequences of empire elsewhere, Ethiopia’s domestic imperialism was

devoid of a single redeeming element… The Abyssinians had nothing to give their subject peoples, nothing to teach them. They brought no crafts or knowledge, no new system of agriculture, drainage or roadmaking, no medicine or hygiene, no higher political organisation, no superiority except in their magazine rifles and belts of cartridges.

They built nothing; they squatted in the villages in the thatched huts of the conquered people, dirty, idle and domineering, burning the timber, devouring the crops, taxing the meagre stream of commerce that seeped in from outside, enslaving the people.

It was not, as in the early days of the Belgian Congo, that bad men with too much power, too far from supervision, were yielding to appetites of which their own people denied them satisfaction. The Abyssinians imposed what was, by its nature, a deadly and hopeless system…

Waugh went on to describe a westernizing reform movement of the 1920s and 1930s among the more educated younger generation, but he regarded it as shallow, imitative, and too beholden to a thoroughly despicable ruling class ever to have much ameliorative effect:

Even in the Jeunesse d’Ethiopie itself there was little real desire for change; a weekly visit to the cinema, a taste for whisky, toothbrush moustaches in place of the traditional and imposing beards, patent leather shoes and a passable dexterity with fork and spoon were the Western innovations that these young men relished; these, and a safe climb to eminence behind the broad, oxlike backs of the hereditary aristocracy.

Perhaps the Emperor himself thought of something more ambitious; perhaps a handful of his circle vaguely shared his thoughts; but the governing class as a whole were immoveable. Something, it was realised, had to be done to ensure the support of the mysterious, remote, incalculably powerful organization at Geneva of which Abyssinia had become a part (ie, the League of Nations), something on paper, neatly typewritten in French and English.

Tricking the European was a national craft; evading issues, promising without the intention of fulfilment, tricking the paid foreign advisers, tricking the legations, tricking the visiting international committees—these were the ways by which Abyssinia had survived and prospered. (Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia, 25-27. Longmans, 1936)

The situation now

And unless I’m mistaken, tricking visiting foreign advisers, evading issues, making promises never to be fulfilled—these are still the secretive and devious ways Ethiopia survives, even if it can hardly be said to prosper. Recently, in the same week that the usual starving child was being shamelessly exhibited for fundraising on TV, there was an election in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s party, The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (little more than a Marxist factional spin-off of the Dergue) was thoroughly trounced.

Afterwards the Ethiopian premier launched a crackdown on all opposition. According to the LA Times the violent clashes that took place left 36 dead, while “as many as 4,000 people, including journalists, human rights investigators and members of opposition parties, were arrested in massive government sweeps. A newly elected opposition lawmaker, allegedly shot by police, was among the dead.” This of course was quickly followed by demands that Western governments send in troops to sort out the mess.

No—all in all I don’t think I’ll be writing a check for one of Ethiopia’s 1,119 NGOs. Not this time. Not even to help the Second Coming of Bob Geldof. Perhaps never. Because Ethiopia is indeed a different place and a different case. Of Sudan I wrote last December that despite vicious government policies “the front-line workers of the humanitarian agencies must of course be helped to do all in their immediate power for the stricken and the doomed—relieve distress, minister to the sick, displaced, and dying, and save those it is possible to save.” And I still believe that.

But in the case of Ethiopia I frankly don’t know. Last year the BBC reported that in the past 20 years “Ethiopia has received more relief aid than any other country on earth”, that the average income of $190 in 1984 had by 2004 fallen to $108, that food production per head had fallen from 450 kgs in 1984/5 to 140 kgs in 2002/3, and that about six million Ethiopians now have to be annually fed by the outside world.

And the basic reason for this situation is starkly clear. The Dergue may have gone, but a collection of like-minded doctrinaire Marxists remain in control. The original disastrous Soviet development and nationalities policies have never been abandoned—quite the reverse. Nor has the current communist directorate cancelled the nationalisation of land. All land belongs to the state, and 60% of the population lives on starvation plots so small that 7 out of 8 people must survive as subsistence farmers. A London conference last November under the auspices of the Royal African Society, addressed by the editor of the Journal of Modern African Studies, Christopher Clapham, was told that the government remains as centralized and as secretive as ever, and that the ideological assumptions of those in control are indistinguishable from those of the Dergue in 1984-85.

So if Ethiopia’s purgatory is self-created; if after twenty years things are clearly worse; if 1,119 NGOs have not prevented this—what possible sense is there in private citizens in the West throwing good money after bad? My heart is moved; but my checkbook is untouched. And it is likely to stay that way until I see more evidence that those who run the country are doing something useful with the billions they have already received, and show the energy, the political capacity, the economic understanding, and the moral will to drag Ethiopia out of the mire themselves.

Posted in Africana.

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