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Op-Ed: Dying in Silence: Tigray’s unprecedented famine and government apathy

Over 2000 people have been reported dead due to starvation in Tigray region (Photo:Tigrai Television/Facebook)

By Dawit Kebede @dawitawramba

Addis Abeba – Abrehet Zeray, aged 42, resides in the Abergelle woreda of the Central Zone in Tigray. Abrehet, a mother of three, traditionally sustained her life through subsistent farming, relying on the annual grain harvest from her agricultural land. Unfortunately, an unforeseen tragedy unfolded when insufficient rainfall during the past summer led to a severe drought, causing the crops she and her neighbors planted to wither. Now facing dire hunger, Abrehet and her children await emergency aid for survival.

Tragically, Abrehet has already lost one child due to the recurring famine, exacerbated by the profound drought. Sitting under a tree near her farmland filled with dried, unfruitful crops, and with a deep sense of helplessness, she states, “the fate of the remaining family members will be the same unless some miraculous kind of urgent intervention is made.”

This account of Abrehet’s plight was shared by a close friend of this author. The friend traveled from the capital, Mekelle, to deliver grain acquired through collaboration with generous compatriots. During this visit, he had the opportunity to converse with Abrehet, and the narrative shared here was obtained from their discussion. I will later discuss the vivid details of the harrowing reality of the severe famine, where millions of vulnerable individuals, mirroring Abrehet’s plight, are grappling with the dire consequences on the ground.

Short Overview

Over the past 14 months, I refrained from publicly criticizing PM Abiy Ahmed and his administration. This decision wasn’t about overlooking mistakes, but to prevent any negative impact on the aspirations of the Pretoria agreement, which has offered some relief for my people. The agreement explicitly prohibits negative propaganda. While I may differ in some of the leadership tactics of the Tigray Interim Administration, led by President Getachew Reda, I’ve embraced his positive engagement approach in resolving issues, acknowledging the visible challenges the federal government faces in implementing the Pretoria agreement.

Amidst the apparent lack of willingness and reluctance from PM Abiy Ahmed to implement the highly anticipated agreement, Tigray is now grappling with another escalating crisis—an unfolding famine. This dire situation has already claimed thousands of lives and is pushing millions of vulnerable Tigrayans to the brink of tragedy. The ongoing daily fatalities in Tigray, due to a lack of urgent aid, demand serious scrutiny and raise pressing questions. Currently, the famine crisis is reaching every household in each village across Tigray.

Among the five zonal administrations under the Tigray Interim Administration, the most severely affected are those in the Central Zone, Eastern Zone, South Eastern Zone, and partially Southern Zone. Highly impacted woredas include Abergele Yechila, Atsbi, Sa’esie Tsaedaemba, Bizet, Enderta, Gulemek’eda, Seharti, Erob and Wejerat, with a grave situation. According to the official data this author obtained from the Interim Administration, up to July, the drought has resulted in over 1,300 deaths, with an additional 900 fatalities reported since September, nearly doubling in the months to date after September.

What’s even more heartbreaking is the distressing information recently disseminated by the Tigray education bureau. Shockingly, the bureau announced that 222,940 students throughout the region have reached a stage where they are unable to continue their education due to catastrophic hunger. This casts a grave light on the lives of those who are supposed to be the successors of the wellbeing of tomorrow’s Tigray, signaling a potential generational gap. Furthermore, the subsequent consequences of this famine on upcoming generations include the alarming trend of newborn infants being born underweight. In Endabatsahma, another highly affected woreda in the central zone, where 72% of residents are grappling with serious hunger, hundreds of infants have been registered as underweight due to the hunger. One with a profound understanding of today’s Tigray can unequivocally testify that the current crisis on the ground is an unprecedented emergency in the history of the region.

The Repulsive Drama

On December 29, 2023, the Tigray Interim Administration, issued a long-awaited appeal to the Ethiopian federal government and international donors. The appeal emphasized the urgent need for intervention to address the unfolding famine. Tragically, the statement from the regional administration likened the current crisis to the tragic 1984/85 famine, underscoring the necessity for collaborative efforts to address the escalating situation.

The disheartening drama that led this author to write this short piece unfolded here.

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In response to Mekelle’s urgent call, the reaction from Legesse Tullu (PhD), Minister of Federal Communication Service, was, to say the least, shameful. Minister Legesse, during a press briefing on December 30, 2023, has not only denied the horrific disaster on the ground but also went the extra mile to accuse the Tigray officials of “politicizing the crisis,” alleging “misappropriation” of funds intended for social and economic activities to “feed combatants.” The minister further questioned the regional authorities’ “moral ground to talk about the suffering of their people.” Legesse’s emotional tone and body language during the briefing went beyond the wording, accusing the leaders in Tigray who are appealing for assistance to save their people.

While it might be inappropriate to characterize the minister’s statement as “shameful,” given the respect he deserves, for someone like me witnessing the horror on the ground and tragic human loss, there is no other word to express the true feeling. Consider Legesse Tullu’s statement from an empathy standpoint, imagining Abrehet Zeray of Abergele, who lost her kid to hunger. What would this woman respond to the minister’s awkward characterization of ‘politicizing the crisis’?

President Getachew Reda swiftly responded to Legesse Tullu’s irresponsible statement, expressing dismay at the lack of basic human decency in our modern history. Getachew, via his official Twitter account, stated, “treating victims’ cries for help as ‘politicizing the crisis’ is regrettable.” He emphasized that “calling for urgent intervention to save millions of Tigrayans is not a political act.” In his response, Getachew boldly called upon PM Abiy Ahmed to instruct his government to fulfill its obligations to its own citizens and help avert a looming catastrophe. Apart from President Getachew, the regional Communication Bureau head, Redaei Halefom, also criticized Minister Legesse for undermining the crisis on the ground. Redaei highlighted to Addis Standard the magnitude of the ongoing daily loss of lives due to the deadly famine.

The Systematic Exclusion of Tigray

A week prior to minister Legesse tullu’s briefing, Chief Commissioner of the Federal Disaster Risk Management Commission, Shiferaw Teklemariam (PhD) highlighted that  his office is providing aid without specifying Tigray. The commissioner underlined that the issue in Northern Ethiopia regions hasn’t reached famine levels and is under the control of the Federal government. However, contrasting this with his December 30, 2023, interview with the Ethiopian News Agency, where the commissioner highlighted successful aid delivery to 7.3 million citizens, affected by drought, with 92% allocated to North Gondar and Wag Himra zones in three installments (July, September, and November), raises concerns about the systematic exclusion of Tigray from the relief efforts. While providing aid to vulnerable citizens in North Gondar and Wag Himra is commendable, the stark contrast in attention to Tigray raises significant concerns. One crucial point that needs to be highlighted here is that not a single quintal of food aid has been delivered to the needy in Tigray in the last few years from the federal government reserve.

Historical replications of ‘denying Famine’

Historical echoes of famine denial resonate in the 1972/1973 crises in Tigray and Wollo, claiming between 40,000 and 80,000 lives. The subsequent 1973/74 famine, estimated to have cost a quarter million lives, was intentionally concealed by Emperor Haileselassie’s regime. Notably, British TV journalist Jonathan Dimbilbi exposed the hidden tragedy, drawing international attention and prompting TV and radio appeals that raised record sums nationally and internationally. Dimbilbi’s report, earning him the SFTA Richard Dimbleby Award, became instrumental in justifying the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by the incoming Derg regime.

Despite Mengistu Hailemariam’s military junta using the concealed 1973/74 famine to justify the downfall of its predecessor, the new regime adopted a similar tactic and hid the 1984/85 famine. The drought of 1984 left close to eight million people as famine victims, with over 1 million fatalities. The BBC news crew, led by Michael Buerk, documented the famine, describing it as “a biblical famine in the 20th century” and “the closest thing to hell on Earth.” Buerk’s report shocked the world. Inspired by the BBC coverage, Irish singer Bob Geldof organized the charity supergroup Band Aid, releasing the single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which quickly became Britain’s best-selling single. Geldof’s efforts continued with Live Aid in 1985 and successfully mobilized millions for famine-stricken Ethiopians.

“Positive Thinking” despite harsh realities on the ground

The disheartening historical replication seems to be a modus operandi in this modern age. Authorities of the current government, whose ideology is thought to be influenced by prosperity gospel beliefs, appear to be adopting practices similar to previous regimes when it comes to addressing famine victims. They seem more focused on image-building activities and prioritizing superficial matters than crafting strategies to save millions who are on the brink. Their approach involves encouraging “positive thinking” despite the harsh realities on the ground. It was evident in the last few years that the response from the Addis Ababa government to citizens of the country in urgent need appears either negligent or driven by political motives, seemingly unaware of international obligations. Throughout the two-year conflict with Tigray, the government applied similar directives. Despite international conventions mandating humanitarian corridors during conflicts, the Ethiopian authorities viewed this as a tool for political bargaining rather than a humanitarian necessity.

In contrast to other war-torn territories worldwide, where warring parties often facilitated humanitarian corridors, the Tigray war did not afford such a ‘luxury’. In this bloody conflict, the Ethiopian government opted for collective punishment over allowing aid access, contrary to international laws. Interestingly, during the 17-year-long war between the Dergue and TPLF, the Dergue regime permitted humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. Ironically, Prime Minister Abiy, in one of his interviews, criticized the Dergue regime for facilitating a corridor for Tigray innocents during the 1984/85 famine, stating that such decisions led to the regime’s downfall. Accordingly, under Abiy’s leadership, there was zero tolerance for aid agencies seeking to deliver emergency aid to vulnerable populations in Tigray.

What’s more regrettable today is that this stance persisted even after the Pretoria agreement, a year after federal authorities and Tigrayan leaders resolved their hostilities through negotiations. The delivery of food aid for Tigray remains a contentious issue, with federal officials obstructing global attention to the ongoing famine. This issue appears to extend beyond individual officials like Legesse Tullu and Shiferaw Teklemariam, suggesting a deliberate effort from the federal government’s inner circle to downplay the crisis.

4.5 million people facing dire circumstances

Based on the aforementioned facts, it appears that the federal government is reluctant to address the pressing demands of our people on the ground. Last month, the Interim Administration of Tigray formed a region-wide emergency taskforce, chaired by the president, to address this famine tragedy. In its press conference last Wednesday, January 10, 2024, the Taskforce revealed that 4.5 million people in the region, constituting 90% of the total population, are facing dire circumstances. The Taskforce discussed measures taken to mitigate the danger but explicitly called for international intervention, acknowledging that the situation is beyond its capacity to alleviate. Alongside the Task Force’s efforts, notable individuals have initiated resource mobilization through various fundraising techniques both domestically and globally. However, all these initiatives fall short in addressing the widespread dire situation, given the severity of the circumstances.

Last But Not least

We are compelled to pose a critical question: Why does the Addis Ababa government seem to lack the sympathy and empathy that every government should have for the people it leads? It is shocking for me to even contemplate for a moment. While we cannot silently witness the collective punishment of our people, our focus should be on immediate actions. Should we wait for Western journalists like Jonathan Dimbilbi or Michael Buerk to document and expose our sufferings to the international community? No, we have to explore other alternatives, considering the digital age we are in.

Therefore, I hereby conclude my essay by echoing President Getachew Reda’s recent tweet in response to Minister Legesse Tullu: “We call upon the international community to fulfill its moral obligations by providing sufficient aid without delay.” That’s where my thoughts lie. The international community indeed has a moral obligation to urgently provide the needed aid. And I kindly urge those of you reading this piece to help disseminate this call via all alternative social media platforms using your devices to reach the concerned global stakeholders and ensure they fulfill their moral obligations. AS

Editor’s Note: Dawit Kebede is Managing Editor of Awramba Times and a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award

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