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Why is Ethiopia hungry again?

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Famine, Genocide and Media Control in Ethiopia

Habtamu Dugo
Visiting Professor of Communications,
University of the District of Columbia

Joanne Eisen, DDS
Senior Fellow, Criminology and Genocide,
Independence Institute, Denver

Source: Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.9, no.10, December 2016


In Ethiopia, we show how the ruling elites have long understood the reality that their donor nations have abhorred the horrific violence that is common in their country. Our analysis of media attention shows rapid shifts in government policy in response to global publicity and the global public understanding of massive death, especially of children and civilians. The pattern of government response to media attention by sudden changes in policy, the pattern of intimidating journalists and the policy of destroying infrastructure needed for communications may be evidence of ongoing genocide. This information may be helpful to those who seek markers for the presence of genocidal activity and who wish to halt the progress of genocide without armed intervention by using the shaming effect of global publicity.

Key words: famine, media control, genocide, genocide prevention, genocide denial, Oromo, Ethiopia, Horn of Africa

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.

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