Famine, genocide and media control in Ethiopia.

Author:Dugo, Habtamu

Background to Defining Genocide by Attrition

In order to maintain power in Ethiopia, the ruling elite need to maintain the flow of cash and weapons. But, in order to keep their foreign donors happy, they deny genocidal acts against their targeted peoples, and they need to create a believable cover-up to explain the presence of mass deaths. The Abyssinian rulers had no choice but to be satisfied with the slower genocide of hunger and deprivation that could be more easily denied as being deliberate. In order to perpetrate genocide that was mostly funded by foreign aid, the government needed to destroy information flow.

We observe that in Ethiopia constant famines are blamed on climate or drought, but other factors, including destructive government policies, are conveniently avoided. Yet, Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze unequivocally stated, "The points of overriding importance are: that there is no real evidence to doubt that all famines in the modern world are preventable by human action; that many countries--even some very poor ones--mange to consistently prevent them; that when people die of starvation there is almost invariably some massive social failure (whether or not a natural phenomenon had an initiating role in the causal process); and that the responsibilities for that failure deserve explicit attention and analysis, not evasion." (1) Ideally, one should expect that chronic hunger and multiple episodes of mass deaths should no longer exist. One should especially expect that sophisticated, educated people working at the international level would know that fact. Yet, even today, Ethiopian rulers create and ruthlessly carry out policies including forced deportations known to be causing mass starvation and death among some of its ethnic groups, and have not been blamed by foreign observers and donors.

Finding 'Intent to Destroy' in the Patterns of Policy and Denial

The United Nations Genocide Convention (UNGC) is the defining global law that relates to genocide. The protected groups are defined as "national, ethnical, racial or religious" and so would include the Oromo, the Ogadeni, and other conquered nations of the South of the country. The act, or 'actus reus', committed might include outright killing, but also might include, according to UNGC IIc "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part", which would tend to lead to a slow type of genocide. The act could also refer to a negative act, for example, the perpetrators might ignore the problem and not call for aid while people in the target populations are dying. Ethiopian ruling elites have always denied knowledge of famine episodes, and even as they were committing acts destructive to the lives of their peoples, they continued to deny knowledge and culpability.

The first task in defining genocide is to recognize that a major defining boundary set by the writers and signers of the UNGC is the term "intent". The prosecutor must prove destructive acts against certain defined groups, but those acts must be committed with 'dolus specialis', "intent to destroy" a particular protected group, in whole or in part. (2) If intent to destroy a group cannot be determined, there may be crimes against humanity, but there is no genocide.

However, intent can be inferred. Genocide scholar Jerry Fowler wrote, "Inferring intent from conduct in the absence of direct evidence is widely accepted." (3) In this paper, we show that the special "intent" of the minority Abyssinian rulers to destroy Oromo, Ogadeni and peoples of the south can be inferred from the way government responds to media attention to hunger in order to mitigate negative responses of donor governments and reduce global embarrassment.

Government action taken with knowledge of media attention before, during and between the famine episodes should show that, in Ethiopia, there is government understanding of wrongdoing that needs to be hidden. The conduct required to change direction quickly demonstrates the centralized organization required to do so.

In addition, the mass deaths from famine and forcible deportations that cause destruction and death result from organized repetitive acts from which one also could successfully infer "intent" and so also satisfy the requirements of Article 2. These famines and forced deportations are repeated down the decades, as is ever-stronger media control. What appears to be failed policy to outsiders is actually successful policy to the elite leaders for whom deadly outcomes without negative repercussions to them is the desired goal. In other words, the desired policy outcome is the secret mass death of the conquered population.

These tactics include denial of hunger and distortion of the facts to outsiders, refusal to ask for aid and refusal to accept aid (depending upon whatever tactic might work best at the moment), removing food stores from the affected area, repeating food production policies that have failed, preventing victims from pursuing proven coping mechanisms, physically isolating the area, denying minimal medical care, mass deportations and targeting the specific subject people who have been chosen to lose their right to food among other tactics.

Haile Selassie Government and Famine (1892-1975)

Emperor Haile Selassie was the son of Ras Makonnen, who was Governor of Harar Province and cousin and advisor on foreign affairs to Emperor Menelik II. Haile Selassie was mentored by Menelik II during his teens after his father died of cancer. Both Ras Makonnen and the Emperor were cognizant of the benefits and dangers of media attention and certainly must have transferred that understanding to the young boy.

For example, in 1891, when Italian travelers noticed the devastation of the Imri area not far from Harrar, because of raids from Harar, Ras Makonnen "confiscated all their luggage, notes, and sketches" before sending them home." (4) Today the Ethiopian government confiscates photo cameras, video cameras and sound recorders from journalist and tourists to hide its actions. After the battle of Adwa in March of 1896, there were many among the defeated Italian army who were mutilated as punishment. Many were castrated; others lost a hand and foot. About 7% of Italian soldiers who returned home had been castrated. (5) Jonas related that visions of mutilated people in the streets of Italy sent a message of Ethiopian barbarism and undermined Ethiopia's reputation among nations. Chris Prouty related that, "the fact that a few Italian bodies were emasculated by the 'trophy'-collecting Ethiopians appalled readers of the European press." (6)

Haile Selassie valued his global persona as an exemplary and almost mythical father figure of Ethiopia and even Africa. He could lecture world leaders at the League of Nations one day, appear as Time magazine's 'Man of the Year' another day, and another day he was recorded as teaching his troops to refrain from castrating captured soldiers. He was seen by the West as an important ally worthy of receiving substantial aid from the U.S. (7) He was always concerned about protecting his and the country's reputation.

Yet, Haile Selassie had a dark side that he needed to hide. Haile Selassie exhibited the components of intent to destroy a group because of the ethnical, religious and racial hatred which he, as an Amhara Emperor, felt towards the subject Oromo people.He refused to acknowledge that he was not Caucasian, while at the same time he despised Islam and the traditional Waaqeffannaa religions. The Oromo are the people who suffered most from the famine of 1973. With sufficient food in the country, the Oromo were the people who were specifically chosen to starve and perish.

According to Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, the province of Tigrai, home to Abyssinian political rivals of Haile Selassie, was a central area of the famine of 1973. And Harerghe province, inhabited by the Oromo, was affected a year later. It was the province of Wallo, an Oromo area, which was hardest hit by the famine, with most of the 1973 mortality. (8)

Haile Selassie denied the existence of famine. Finally, missionaries and physicians saw the starving masses. It was no longer possible to deny the hunger. A TV documentary showing starving children, The Unknown Famine, by journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, broke the floodgate of denial. The truth was out and cover-up was impossible. Dimbleby would recall, "The film of this holocaust ... ricocheted around the globe." (9)

Although global media became aware of the plight of the victims and had documentation to prove it, the government exhibited the now familiar pattern of denial. The government reacted "absolutely negatively and ferociously." (10) When denial was no longer a viable option, Selassie attempted to obstruct relief efforts. Ryzard Kapuscinski wrote of aid supplies disappearing before reaching the starving victims. Kapuscinski wrote, "His Sovereign Majesty had accepted the aid unwillingly because of all the publicity that accompanied it; all the sighing and headshaking over those who were wasting away spoiled the flourishing and imposing image of the Empire." (11)

The decision to depose the Emperor was taken on September 10, 1974, by a small group led by Mengistu Haile Mariam's military Dergue regime. They used scenes from Dimbleby's film, interposed with scenes of the Emperor's dogs feeding from silver platters in order to enrage the public in Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie was quietly deposed on September 12, 1974, quietly. (12) The lesson of the strength of global media was evident.

The Famine of 1984

After the fall of the Emperor and the rise to power of Mengistu Hailemariam, there was great hope for some semblance of democratic government. This hope was short-lived. Again, there would be oppression and atrocity. Again, an Ethiopian regime would use starvation and death to harm targeted populations. By the time of the...

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