By Alemayehu G. Mariam
In October, 2009, I wrote a weekly commentary titled, “Famine and the Noisome Beast in Ethiopia”:
It is hard to talk about Ethiopia these days in non-apocalyptic terms. Millions of Ethiopians are facing their old enemy again for the third time in nearly forty years. The Black Horseman of famine is stalking that ancient land. A year ago, Meles Zenawi’s regime denied there was any famine. Only ‘minor problems’ of spot shortages of food which will ‘be soon brought under control,’ it said dismissively. The regime boldly predicted a 7-10 percent increase in the annual harvest over 2007. Simon Mechale, head of the country’s Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency, proudly declared: ‘Ethiopia will soon fully ensure its food security.’… Zenawi’s regime has been downplaying and double-talking the famine situation. It is too embarrassed to admit the astronomical number of people facing starvation in a country which, by the regime’s own accounts, is bursting at the seams from runaway economic development.
I concluded with a rhetorical question:
Images of the human wreckage of Ethiopia’s rampaging famine will soon begin to make dramatic appearances on television in Western living rooms. The Ethiopian government will be out in full force panhandling the international community for food aid. Compassion fatigued donors may or may not come to the rescue. Ethiopians, squeezed between the Black Horseman [Scriptural metaphor for famine] and the Noisome Beast [Scriptural metaphor for evil beasts that terrify the land], will once again cry out to the heavens in pain and humiliation as they await for handouts from a charitable world. Isn’t that a low down dirty shame for a proud people to bear?
In January 2010, I followed up with another commentary titled Ethiopia’s “Silently” Creeping Famine challenging the “famine deniers.” At the time, Mitiku Kassa, a top official of Zenawi’s regime had declared: ‘In the Ethiopian context, there is no hunger, no famine… It is baseless [to claim hunger or famine], it is contrary to the situation on the ground. It is not evidence-based. The government is taking action to mitigate the problems.’ Kassa issued assurances that his regime had launched a food security program to ‘enable chronic food insecure households attain sufficient assets and income level to get out of food insecurity and improve their resilience to shocks…and halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.’ Zenawi was entirely dismissive: “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch — emergencies, but no famines.”
It is now July 2011 and the Black Horseman is standing at the gate. No more “emergencies”, just plain old-fashioned famine. This time it is the international aid agencies that are frantically sounding the 5-alarm famine. They warn that if donors do not provide substantial emergency food aid to 12 million people now, there will be famine of Biblical-proportions in Ethiopia and other neighboring countries unseen in the last 60 years. UNICEF warns that “millions of children and women are at risk from death and disease unless a rapid and speedy response is put into action.”
The silently creeping famine was visible to anyone who bothered to study the periodic reports of the aid agencies (and read between the lines) and regularly monitored the “famine early warning systems” over the past few years. But until now, no aid agency or donor country could force itself to use the “F” word. Political correctness had trumped the truth and the welfare of millions. The very aid agencies that are now frothing at the mouth sounding the alarm of a doomsday famine were describing the problem for the last few years in terms of “severe malnutrition”, “food shortages”, “acute food security phases” “food insecurity, scarcity, insufficiency and deprivation”, “chronic dietary deficiency”, “endemic malnutrition” and other clever phrases. They simply could not call a spade a spade. But famine by any other name is still famine. The “severe malnutrition” of yesterday has become today’s famine silently spreading to consume 12 million people.
Apocalypse in 40 Years?
Lately, everybody has been talking about facts and figures. It’s been all about percentages. Meles Zenawi says between now and 2015 Ethiopia’s economy will be growing at 12-15 percent a year. Recently, he told his party members: “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.” That plan is anchored in what Zenawi calls “agricultural development–led industrialization” (ADLI), which purports to focus intensively on agriculture by technologically boosting the low level of productivity of small scale farmers and commercially linking them to the non-agricultural (industrial) sector. Zenawi says by 2015 extreme poverty in Ethiopia will be cut by 50 percent along with hunger (“severe malnutrition”) consistent with the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. The Ethiopian currency has been devalued by 20 percent over the past year. The annual inflation rate is galloping at 34.7 percent according to official reports (likely much higher). The International Monetary Fund predicts Ethiopia will likely have economic growth of 7.5 percent in 2011. On the political side, Zenawi said he won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent. But lost in the stacks of fantasy percentages is a little big 3 percent that will ultimately determine the survivability of the Ethiopia people.
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau had frightening predictions for Ethiopia, Nigeria and India. By 2050, India will be the most populous nation in the world, bypassing China sometime in the mid-2020s. Nigeria’s current population of 166 million will explode to 402 million. In just four decades, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world.
Ethiopia’s population growth has been spiraling upwards for decades. In 1967, the population was 23.5 million. It increased to 51 million in 1990 and by 2003, it had reached 68 million. In 2008, that number increased to 80 million. The Census Bureau estimates Ethiopia’s population today at 91 million. Since 1995, the average annual rate of population growth has remained at over 3 percent.
Every government and regime in Ethiopia over the past one-half century has blamed famine on “acts of God.” For the last two decades, the current regime has blamed “food shortages”, “chronic or severe malnutrition”, “food insecurity”, etc., on “poor and erratic rains,” “drought conditions,” “deforestation and soil erosion,” “overgrazing,” and other “natural factors”. Zenawi’s regime even had the brazen audacity to blame “Western indifference” and “apathy” in not providing timely food aid for the suffering of starving Ethiopians. There is not a single instance in which any Ethiopian government or regime has ever taken even partial responsibility for food shortages, extreme malnutriion or failure to act and prevent starvation and famine.
The issue of “food security” aside, the central question is: Does Zenawi have a policy to deal with the little big 3 percent problem?
In 1993, Zenawi’s “Transitional Government of Ethiopia” in its “National Population Policy of Ethiopia” (NPPE) declared that “its major goal [was] the harmonization of the rate of population growth and the capacity of the country for the development and rational utilization of natural resources thereby creating conditions conductive to the improvement of the level of welfare of the population.”
Among the major objectives of the NPPE included “closing the gap between high population growth and low economic productivity through planned reduction of population growth…, reducing the rate to urban migration, reducing the current total fertility rate of 7.7 children per woman to approximately 4.0 by the year 2015… mounting an effective country wide population information and education programme addressing issues pertaining to small family size and its relationship with human welfare and environmental security.”
Among the strategies to be used in achieving these objectives included “expanding clinical and community based contraceptive distribution services, raising the minimum age at marriage for girls from the current lower age limit of 15 to, at least, 18 years, making population and family life related education and information widely available via formal and informal media”, facilitating delivery of population and family planning related services by non-governmental organizations and changing the law “to remove unnecessary restrictions pertaining to the advertisement, propagation and popularization of diverse conception control methods.”
Given the fact that the average annual rate of population growth in Ethiopia has remained at over 3 percent since 1995,commenting on the NPPE is belaboring the obvious.
Will There Be Ethiopia in 2050?
Whether Ethiopia survives as a viable nation in 2050 free of war, disease, pestilence and famine will not depend on an imaginary 15 percent economic growth or a ludicrous 99.6 percent election victory. It will depend on what is done to deal with the little big 3 percent problem. In other words, overpopulation poses the single most critical problem and decisve issue in Ethiopia today and the years to come.
Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century British economist argued that human population, if unchecked, tends to grow much faster than the capacity of the land to produce food. He explained that population can be controlled through “preventive checks” (such as family planning, wide use of contraceptives to slow growth, marriage at later age) or “positive checks” (mortality caused by war, disease, plague, disaster). The bottom line is that if Ethiopia cannot adequately feed, clothe and shelter 90 million of its people today, there is no way on earth she can do so for 278 million in just 40 years. If the “Malthusian catastrophe” is what is looming on the Ethiopian horizon, the outcome is predictable and certain: massive starvation and famine, extreme overcrowding, endemic poverty, total depletion of natural resources and massive environmental degradation. Widespread and extreme civil strife, conflict over scarce resources and epidemics will complete the grim picture.
What needs to be done is pretty clear. As the Indian economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has convincingly argued, the best way to avert famines (and simultaneously deal with the underlying problem of overpopulation) is by institutionalizing multiparty democracy and strengthening human rights: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy” because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”
Ethiopia’s famine today is a famine borne of “food scarcity” as much as it is a famine borne of a scarcity of democracy and good governance. Ethiopians are famished for democracy, starved of human rights, thirst for the rule of law, ache for accountability of those in power and yearn to breathe free from the chokehold of dictatorship. But after two decades of one-man, one-party rule, we do not even see the ghost of democracy on Ethiopia’s parched landscape. We can only see a malignant and entrenched dictatorship that continues to cling to power like ticks on a milk cow; and in the dark and gloomy 40-year Ethiopian horizon, we see the specter of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse aiming their swords, spears and arrows against a defenseless population of 278 million. Our only shield is a genuine multiparty democracy that functions under the rule of law!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/