African business, politics and lifestyle
Is food a political weapon in Ethiopia?
Accusations about food aid are very emotive. Especially when they are made in Ethiopia — a country that saw more than 1 million of its people starve to death in the 1984 famine.
So everyone is tiptoeing carefully around recent allegations that food is being kept from the opposition.
A coalition of eight opposition parties called Medrek, or the Forum, accuses some officials of only allowing ruling party members to benefit from a long running food-for-work programme for more than seven million Ethiopians.
Ethiopians go to the polls to vote in national elections next May. And the opposition says food is being used to force their members to stop campaigning.
The government is already furious about the allegations. Bereket Simon, head of government information, told me the opposition statement was “outrageous and ridiculous”. For Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, it was “outrageous and stupid”.
Meles last week asked for proof of wrongdoing.
“I’m not sure what the point is,” he told us at a press conference, with some irritation. “If the point is that somebody, somewhere in this vast network of food aid has one time or another unfairly discriminated against someone … If that’s the allegation, I can’t vouch for every person in the distribution system so all I can ask is give me the proof and the person will be kicked out.”
That’s been the problem with accusations against the government of Ethiopia recently. The opposition tends to talk generally and provide no evidence.
Meles says they are hell-bent on discrediting an election they know they have no chance of winning. He has said some opposition politicians want to weaken his government by provoking the West into cutting back its aid.
Now, sources tell me, the aid community are putting the allegations to the test and are going to investigate the system for delivering food aid in the country.
Whether the results of the investigation will ever see the light of day is another question. Aid groups in Ethiopia, even those of the United Nations and Western governments, tend to be forelock tugging when dealing with the government.
Charities have been kicked out of the desperately poor country in the past and had their movements restricted. They say they worry about what would happen to the millions of people who rely on them if they were to be expelled again.
The Ethiopian government says 6.2 million people will need emergency food this year. That is on top of the more than seven million on the food-for-work scheme, meaning more than 13 million of the country’s 80 million people rely on aid.
A couple of weeks ago I stood at a food distribution point near Jijiga — capital of the country’s troubled Somali region where the government is fighting rebels — and watched as officials wielded sticks to marshal hundreds of hungry people.
They were angry and some of them told me the local officials responsible for distributing food discriminated against families from the “wrong” clans.
I heard that food distribution committees in the region are appointed by the government and the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP). A government official and a military officer sit on every committee. And, when someone has a complaint about the distribution, it goes back to the officials.
The system is different in other regions but still largely controlled by the state.
A company controlled by one of the country’s government parties also owns three of the biggest trucking companies carrying food aid.
Whether there is serious and widespread wrongdoing remains to be proven, but it seems clear that the very structure of the system lends itself to corruption.
WFP officials, however, told me they were mostly happy with Ethiopia and that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing the government so totally controlled the distribution system. The Ethiopian government is now one of the most capable in the world at responding to food emergencies without help, they said.
So what should the aid community do if they do uncover serious fraud? How can they put pressure on the government? Surely cutting aid isn’t an option? And what if the opposition is crying wolf? What hope for Ethiopian democracy then?