Wracked by years of civil war and lingering conflict, northern Ethiopia does not need one more thing to go wrong. But that is exactly what is happening in this key region of Africa’s second most populous nation.
The war-torn Amhara, Afar and Tigray regions have been parched for months by a devastating drought that is crippling harvests. Coupled with new fighting and diplomatic roadblocks to humanitarian aid, this is resulting in a new famine in a region that has tragically known hunger before.
A journalist from The Economist, reporting recently from the town of Yechila in the Tigray region, described crumbling hillsides faded by lack of rain to a sickly sepia tone, as farmers with dry wells try to sell off their dying cattle and village grain shops sit empty. A federal watchdog recently made the unusual acknowledgement that nearly 400 people in Amhara and Tigray regions have already died of starvation. Aid workers say this may just be the beginning.
A new memo from the Tigray Food Cluster, a joint project of Ethiopian officials and the U.N. World Food Program, states starkly that “failure to take swift action now will result in severe food insecurity and malnutrition during the lean season, with possible loss of the most vulnerable children and women in the region.”
A former head of World Food Program was more blunt, warning the Associated Press that major sections of Ethiopia are “marching toward starvation.”
This new Ethiopian famine is the global humanitarian crisis that nobody seems to be talking about. Part of the problem is that so much attention is focused on other major crises — most notably the ongoing war in Gaza, but also the flood of refugees in the Congo and the war in Ukraine, among others. But arguably a bigger problem is that the government of Ethiopia is not only failing to do enough about the famine, but actively pretending it doesn’t exist.
When a top official from Tigray recently sought to sound the alarm about the situation, a spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad accused the regional leader of “politicizing the crisis” and dismissed factual information about the famine as “inaccurate.”
In recent days, government officials have finally conceded that there is a problem, but they have tried to blame the civil wars fought earlier in the decade. The Abiy regime wants to avoid any culpability due to ongoing human rights abuses its troops are committing in Amhara and neighboring regions.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The key global stakeholders — starting with the United States government and the U.S. Agency for International Development, but also including the UN, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the rest of the world community — must not only pressure the Ethiopian government to make the famine its top priority, but also dramatically increase their own humanitarian aid.
History has shown us the consequences of inaction. In 1984 and 1985, a devastating famine in the same regions of Ethiopia was blamed for as many as half a million deaths. In the West, the disaster is best remembered for inspiring the famous 1985 Live Aid global rock concert, dedicated to famine relief.
The similarities between that famine and today’s crisis are chilling. Then, as now, a severe drought affected the region, but the real causes were years of civil war and a corrupt ethnocentric government in Addis Ababa.
In late January of this year, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission issued a shocking report warning that as many as 4 million people in the Amhara region of Northern and Central Gonder, Wollo, as well as Afar and Tigray regions are at risk in the current hunger crisis. The drought, highlighting the problem of climate change in the critical Horn of Africa region, is clearly a factor. But the ongoing human rights violations by the Abiy government and its troops, especially in the embattled Amhara region, are pushing Ethiopia to the brink of disaster.
In particular, the campaign by government forces against a popular regional militia in Amhara has triggered mass arrests and the forced displacement of residents, including farmers who are critical to the food supply. Troops are looting homes and shops and have even burned down granaries stocked with desperately needed staples.
But the faltering regime in Addis Ababa also lacks the resources needed to address the humanitarian crisis it is largely responsible for. At the end of 2023, Ethiopia defaulted on a $33 million bond repayment, and the government is now desperately seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund and from other nations.
This growing crisis is also an opportunity for Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other policymakers to make good on their promises of a new partnership between the U.S. and Africa. Only recently have humanitarian food shipments to Ethiopia from the West resumed, with tougher protocols aimed at ending endemic corruption and theft. America can play a key role in using all available diplomatic, development and legal tools to pressure the Abiy Ahmed government to end its campaign of violence and displacement against its citizens in Amhara region and elsewhere.
The ideal vehicle for investigating and exposing these human rights abuses exists in the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which was created in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008 to probe situations such as this. I urge the commission to help bring this looming humanitarian disaster to the attention of a world that is not paying nearly enough attention.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of a needless famine that only broke through into the West’s consciousness after it was too late. Today, millions of hungry Ethiopians are counting on us to have learned from our past mistakes.
Mesfin Tegenu, chairman and CEO of RxParadigm, is executive chairman of the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee.
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