A historical reflection on famine in Ethiopia

25 Nov

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

by Dawit Wolde Giorgis, former Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner (RRC)(An edited excerpt from my book “Red Tears” which I found relevant to the current drought in Ethiopia)

Drought is a natural phenomenon but it is often the reaction of society and governments that creates a famine. This article examines the reactions of past rulers to food shortages in Ethiopia. One of the gifts of history is that it can teach us what may happen through what has happened so that society and governments learn from them but rarely do. They would rather commit the mistakes and then regret their own decisions because it results in the unnecessary death and suffering of many, or the demise of the regimes.
The current crisis as stated by The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) is summarized:

‘The Ethiopia Humanitarian Country Team (EHCT) has early estimates that 15 million people will likely need food assistance in 2016, around half covered through the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) and the rest through emergency assistance. Needs are likely to be particularly high in July and August 2016 during the peak of the lean season in Meher-producing areas. In many areas of the country, lean season may start early this year.’

Ethiopia’s history is filled with terrible famines, because life for rural Ethiopians has changed so little over the centuries. To understand famine in Ethiopia, it is necessary to understand how the peasants live.

Life for the Average Ethiopian

Less than 20% percent of the Ethiopian population (90 million) is urban. The vast majority of Ethiopians have always supported themselves through subsistence farming or by raising cattle, sheep; or goats. They live on the edge of survival; their methods of farming and their lives are primitive. Each family grows what it consumes. The chief source of power is the draft ox; in some parts of Ethiopia, the camel is used for plowing. Many farmers have to borrow or rent oxen because they are too poor to possess their own. Wealth in the pastoral regions is measured in cattle, valued not for their meat, but for their potential as a source of oxen.

The daily work is quite strenuous. They expend a great deal of energy, but even in the best of times they never have much to eat; consequently they are often undernourished. There are many lean years when harvests are poor, and there is always the threat that a crop could fail completely, affecting not just a few scattered individuals as in the Western World, but entire communities or even entire provinces. Severe famine is, and has always been, within the living memory of every village.

The ultimate irony is that even if nature is kind and harvests are good, the peasants’ lives remain unaffected: they gain nothing from their best years because they are not allowed to accumulate wealth, even in the form of food stores. In times of plenty the state, church, or landlords have always stepped in to seize the surplus, leaving the peasants just enough to scrape by until the next harvest. For the subsistence farmer, regardless of the harshness or benevolence of the physical environment, there are no good years.

This has been the pattern of existence in Ethiopia for centuries. The peasants, survival is so precarious that the least break in the pattern threatens them with shortages and hunger. Once that shortage is upon them, it is the government that will determine the degree of suffering, either helping or hindering the effects of famine. Whether the masses starve or survive depends both on preventive steps before and effective measures after, the onset of trouble.

Early Famine

Ethiopia`s written history dates from the early middle ages, when droughts and plagues of natural pests such locusts, caterpillars, or rates were the most common causes of crop failure. Historical portrayals of famine-stricken regions could easily have been describing the scene in 1984 or the crisis the country faces now. . An observer writing of the northern famine of 1625-6 describes once thriving farmlands left utterly barren, “as if someone had put fire to it“ and starving peasants who “looked more like exhumed people than live ones because all their bones showed on them.

In those days Ethiopians who were spared the effects of deprivation sold their possessions to aid the starving, and the Emperor gave food and cloth to the refugees so many occasions. The Ethiopian people regarded the Emperor as their natural benefactor. His role, from ancient times until the 1974 Revolution, was one of father to his people; he was in the minds of the peasants, a sacred personage, the Elect of God by virtue of his decent from King Solomon. This was the role taken seriously by most Emperors and by none more so than by Menelik a century ago, during the most devastating famine up to that time.

The Famine of 1888-1892

This famine was extraordinary both in its extent and its origins. The Italian nation, joining the rush for an African empire, had chosen Ethiopia as likely prizes. They were already wresting ports from the empire along the coast of Eritrea, where in 1887 they landed a shipload of cattle at Massawa. Unknown to anyone, the cattle were infected with the highly contagious rinderpest (cattle plague) which spread with deadly effect over the entire Horn of Africa. By 1890, fully 90 percent of the cattle and oxen in the country were dead. This disaster multiplied, for deprived of their oxen, peasants were too demoralized or weakened from chronic malnourishment to prepare their fields with hoes. Beginning in 1888, a large percentage of land lay fallow and the famine began.

In the pastoral regions, it was even worse. Food had always been obtained by trading animals and hides. Wealth was calculated in herds, which now were exterminated overnight. There were suicides among the once-rich herdsmen.

To make matters worse, the ‘rinderpest’ was coupled with several years of severe drought and devastating invasions of locusts and cater-pillars. From 1888 through 1892, grain became scarce, prices rose to astronomical heights, and people began to starve in great numbers. Martini, an Italian who later became Governor of Eritrea, records frightening images which could have been taken from any of the shelters in 1984 a century later:

‘The dead awaited the hyenas, the living awaiting death. From a thicket issued a thin murmur of voices…we are accosted for help, and from their death beds suddenly rises a mob of skeletons whose bones can be seen under the taut skin as in the mummified skeleton of saint Bernard. They try to follow us, they also crying out meskin, meskin [alms, alms] …I stumble on young boys searching in the excrement of camels to find a grain of durra. I flee, horrified, hiding my watch chain in shamed of the breakfast I had eaten, of the dinner which awaited me.’

According to this author (Martin) bandits roamed the countryside looting anyone or anything they could find. Parents sold their children as slaves to the Arabs rather than see them starve. Anything remotely resembling food was eaten: cow-hides were ground to powder and baked in to cake; horses, dogs, carrion or even the carrion-eaters themselves were consumed. Cannibalism broke out, and there were appalling stories of mothers devouring their children. Lions, leopards, Jackals, and hyenas became so bold that they entered even the largest cities to feast on the victims lying in the streets. In some villages they would attack the living who, too weak to defend themselves, were dragged screaming in to the night.

Those strong enough to walk quit their homelands in droves, trekking great distances in search of food. Large tracts of land in the North were depopulated, and in some cases completely abandoned, creating in the minds of the Italians the illusion that the land was ripe for conquest-a political dynamic that would continue for the next 40 years. Refugees headed either for the coast where they hoped grain might be imported, or to the cities. The Italians, in control of Asmara, were so alarmed by the number of refugees that they closed the gates to the city and turned their backs on the starving people.

Emperor Menelik, behaved with the fullest humanity and generosity toward those in need. The record of Menelik`s efforts to aid his people portrays a truly benevolent ruler doing everything in his power to bring relief to his subjects. In the first year of famine he opened his private granaries throughout the country, until they were entirely depleted. Many victims flocked toward the capital, Entoto, as the heart always heart of the empire and home of the father protector of whom they had always heard. Menelik, in contrast to the Italians at Asmara, welcomed them and spent part of everyday distributing alms to the needy. When Entoto became filled with refugees, Menelik had an additional building erected to shelter them. He imposed austerity measures at the palace; beef was forbidden and any meat became a rarity. He unsuccessfully attempted to import grain. Aware of the peasants` reliance on their oxen, he encouraged them to hoe by hand. He went in to the fields himself with a hoe, so the entire country might hear about it and follow his example. Hearing that some chiefs and noblemen were hoarding grain in the provinces, he sent his officials to seize it and distributes it among the poor. When his own herds had finally been replenished after the famine, he generously gave away hundreds of cattle to restore the provinces to their former productive state.

Menelik was, in short, an Emperor who cared about his people and their troubles, a leader who faced problems with resolution and imagination. Subsequent rulers, including his nephew, Haile Selassie, could have learned a great deal from his example.

The 1972-1973 Famine

Haile Selassie was not an evil man, but his priorities were misplaced.

He was so concerned with establishing a strong central government and modernizing the country that he failed to meet the challenge of natural disaster. Like Menelik, he viewed himself as the father of the people. He was in fact very religious and was horrified when he learned the true degree of disaster, but he made the error of relying on an untrustworthy bureaucracy. In it’s final stage, the 1972-1973 famine reached such deadly proportions that the emperor`s image of wisdom and fatherliness was shattered, and the people no longer had faith in him. He then made the mistake of trying to cover up his negligence. He and his ministers took the position that they were not to blame. It was this false pride, this lack of courage to admit mistakes that brought about his downfall

Most of the facts about the 1972-1973 famine and it’s cover up were uncovered by a commission of Inquiry set up at the beginning of the Revolution Its Chairman was Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam, whose findings form the basis of this summary.

The 1972-1973 famine caused 200,000 deaths from starvation and its attendant diseases, but it will best be remembered for its political implications: it led directly to the end of the Empire and the rise of Mengistu. Like the 1984-1985 famine it need never have happened; it was brought about by the indifference and disorganization of the government.

As early as 1964 there were reports of extensive hunger in Wollo province; chronic food deficits continued throughout the decade. Warnings and urgent requests for food brought very little response. A trickle of relief grain entered the province sporadically, but no measures were taken to stockpile grain from other areas. No attempt was made to improve agricultural yield through technological innovations, even though everyone knew the region was prone to sever natural disasters.

Consequently, when after years of poor rainfall in Wollo the 1971 rains did not come at all, the government was completely unprepared. In a nightmare of red tape and bureaucratic incompetence, local authorities languidly exchanged letters of concern. The pace was maddeningly slow. Days would go by before replies were made to requests for more information; months sometimes passed before there were answers to demands for food. Despite sharp warnings from some local administrators, there was no sense of urgency in the central government. Not until five months after the failure of the rains was a committee formed to look in to the problem. Not until a year and two months after grain was first requested, did some finally arrive, and that was pathetically inadequate. Thousands were already dead and thousands more would die.

In 1972 the rains failed again in Wollo and Tigray; again there would be no harvest for this region. Now two million people were affected. All the horrors of widespread famine were set in motion, as some victims were driven to stealing, and disease spread through the shelters. The governmental committee felt it needed more time to study the situation. Their study eventually showed that a problem did indeed exist –but only one-tenth of the estimated food requirement was available and even that could not be transported.

By the beginning of 1973 the capital was full of whispers of famine in Wollo. Up to this point the ministries had been indifferent to the problem. Now, with rumors sweeping through the streets and people demanding answers, they resorted to the cover-up: they denied ever having heard of a famine. Through the media they gave assurances that the situation was normal, that there were in fact surpluses. Their lies were exposed and the rumors were confirmed when bands of ragged, starving peasants arrived at the outskirts of the capital in February 1973. Police were ordered to prevent them from entering the city, but it was too late. Small groups from the city were able to talk with the peasants and obtain the first definite confirmation that famine existed.

The government then grew indignant. Like Mengistu a decade later, they claimed that rumor-mongers were fabricating a crisis in order to discredit the government. A high government official appeared on television in February saying that there was no famine, and if there was it was the people`s fault. He reasoned that it was “the obligation of the people to inform higher authorities whenever there is drought. Since this was not done by the people, it appeared that they were not aware of their obligations.”

The university was instrumental in unraveling this disinformation campaign, sending a camera team in to the famine region and exposing the true state of the peasants in a continuing exhibition at the geography department. The people of Addis became convinced that the government was lying and could not understand why the Emperor was doing nothing.

It is uncertain whether the Emperor knew anything about it. His ministers were deliberately keeping news of the famine from him. In their view, their first duty was to protect the ruler from bad news. To understand their reasoning, one must understand the role of Haile Selassie for Ethiopians. He was not just a ruler. He was the oldest, most prestigious ruler in Africa. Any claim Ethiopia could make to greatness was embodied in him. He was a world figure who had been feted by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon. His uncle Menelik had successfully resisted attempts to colonize Ethiopia, and at the battle of Adwa had led Makonen, had been one of the leaders in the battle. Ethiopia`s entire sense of self, the pride that it felt as a nation and a people, were embodied in Haile Selasie. In keeping with that feeling, any blemish, any hint of trouble, could not be contemplated. As far as the officials were concerned, Ethiopia could have no major problems, and the Emperor didn’t need to hear about the small ones.

There was a certain amount of self-survival in the official cover-up as well Government officials were almost invariably aristocrats, members of the ruling class in a feudal society. Their political, social, and economic well-being depended upon the survival of the Emperor and the system which he perpetuated. Protecting him was protecting their own interests.

Another factor was his advanced age. He was over 80 and his mind was not as quick as it once had been.

Finally, however, the rumblings reached even the Emperor`s ears and he decided to act. He sent the Minister of Interior on a fact-finding mission to Wollo. When the minister returned in May 1973, he under-played the severity of the famine in his oral report to the Emperor. Nine days later, in a written report, he described the scene more bleakly; crowds of ragged, famished people were lining the main high way north of Addis Ababa, stopping cars and buses to beg for food.

Throughout 1973 the government was sending some relief grain to the stricken areas, but in inadequate amounts even by their own estimates. At the same time, with grim reports sitting on their desks, the various ministries continued to deny the existence of the famine. In Addis people were so disgusted and distrustful that they took up private collections to aid the starving, and even paid for the own transport to distribute it themselves.

Rumors and denials continued throughout the year, and agitation grew. But it was not until a British journalist, Jonathan Dimbleby, went to Wollo in September 1973 and filmed the horrifying scenes of the unknown Famine (sometimes referred to as The Hidden Hunger) that the situation exploded. The film aired on television around the world, showing the misery in Wollo in all its ghastly detail. Ethiopian embassies were instructed to deny the validity of the film, a tactic that only added to the revulsion felt by the world community toward the Haile Selassie regime. Ethiopian students in Europe wrote home of what they had seen on television; anti-government feeling grew in the capital.

During the civil unrest of 1974, the old regime was discredited by contrasting the sufferings of the people with the opulent lifestyles of the Emperor and his men. Posters appeared showing an emaciated peasant beside a picture of the Emperor feeding meat to his dogs from a silver tray. On the night before the Emperor was deposed, re cut version of Dimbleby`s film was shown, juxtaposing starving peasants against scenes of the Emperor squandering money on banquets. Overnight the people turned against him. No one thought of standing up him when he was jailed the next day.

In late 1974 I became the Deputy Commissioner of the RRC and was involved in relief and rehabilitation efforts in the affected areas. We set out to demystify the Emperor and show the people how ruthless he and his regime had been (and how benevolent and caring the revolution was) Dimbleby’s film was repeatedly shown around the country, and Dimbleby himself was one of the foreigners to be honored by the revolutionary government.

Then history began to repeat itself. Mengistu gradually became the new monarch. He enveloped himself in an aura of awe and terror. In England, Dimbleby spoke out against the Red Terror in 1977; he was publicly condemned in Addis and banned from ever returning to Ethiopia. His film was never shown again. The pictures we had been using in exhibits about the revolution started disappearing. The one of the Emperor feeding meat to his dog was blown up to life size for the opening of the National pictorial Exhibition. Then it was given a sharp look of disapproval by Mengistu, and it vanished from sight soon after.

And indeed for Mengistu they merely generated cynicism. Why hold these past events up to public ridicule when Mengistu was now throwing away more on a high lifestyle than the Emperor ever had?


The famine of the 1980s was the third large-scale famine in one hundred years.

The crisis has shown how little has changed. Far from the benevolence of Menelik, and even worse than the incompetence of Haile Selassie`s regime, Mengistu and a few of his cronies willfully, ruthlessly turned their backs on the suffering of the people. For them the end always justified the means, and that end is the political metamorphosis of Ethiopia to a structured and regimented society. The faster they arrive at that goal, the better they will like it, regardless of who falls by the way side. They were in effect tapping that mystique and aura of divinity that always surrounded the old emperors and rerouting it in to a worship of Marx, Lenin, and Mengistu.

Even as the famine raged, Mengistu declared the creation of a new state structure that made him president of the Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. There was another colorful celebration costing millions of dollars, even as the specter of famine was hovering again over the northern provinces. Meanwhile, in another six-hour speech, Mengistu extolled the glories of the Revolution and it’s achievements under his leadership.

Thanks to the efforts of the RRC the international community responded in unprecedented manner. It became the largest humanitarian operation since the Second World War.

Despite the cold war, East and West joined hands and showed remarkable historic cooperation to save lives. As a result, millions of lives were saved. But far too many perished as a result of Mengistu’s reluctance to receive aid from the West. (For details read my book: Red Tears)

We hope that the drought of this year (2015 and 2016) would not lead to such kind of tragedy. According to the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) there are 15 million people affected by the current drought. FEWS predicts that:

“Delays in humanitarian assistance or in the distribution of PSNB resources will result in increase in the local prevalence of malnutrition as households further reduce their food consumption”.

If this happens it will be another huge catastrophe and the rhetoric of the EPRDF on the so called growth will be deluding itself and will sound hollow when it resonates on an empty stomach.

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