In 1974 Jonathan Dimbleby went to Ethiopia and made a film entitled The Unknown Famine. You can watch a short clip from it here. In 1974 there was a serious famine in the north of Ethiopia during which tens of thousands of people died. This was ten years before the big famine publicised via Live Aid. That part of the world has seemingly always suffered periodic famines. As Wikipedia explains, “Traditionally the Economy of Ethiopia was based on subsistence agriculture, with an aristocracy that consumed the surplus. Due to a number of causes, the peasants lacked incentives to either improve production or to store their excess harvest; as a result, they lived from harvest to harvest.”
Some army dissidents made sure that Dimbleby’s film was repeatedly shown on Ethiopian television, intercut with film of Haile Selassie presiding at a wedding feast in the grounds of his palace. Haile Selassie was deposed soon after, and a group of army officers, named the Dergue, took control. There were many executions, but no-one really knows whether Haile Selassie himself died of natural causes or was murdered.
Things didn’t get any better. The communist Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as a dictator in 1977. Again, things didn’t get any better. Land and most industries were nationalised, markets were controlled, and farmers who had once worked on land owned by absentee landlords were forced to join collective farms. There was a Red Terror against the opposition during which tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people died.
Mengistu was supported by the Soviets who poured $billions of arms shipments into Ethiopia. Michela Wrong (Michaela Wrong: I Didn’t Do It for You, 2005) calculated that between 1977 and 1991 the Soviets sent $5,400 worth of weaponry for every Ethiopian man, woman and child into Ethiopia. According to this report, Mengistu’s government spent 65% of its budget on the army, other estimates I’ve seen put it at over 50%.
However, guns and tanks don’t feed people, and in the mid-1980s there was a major famine.
Opposition to Mengistu grew and in 1989 the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other opposition movements to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). These folk were not exactly always the good guys (the TPLF were originally inspired by Hoxha’s Albanian socialism), but once the Soviets withdrew their support for Mengistu they eventually gained control of the country. Mengistu fled to Mugabeland (Zimbabwe) leaving behind most other members of the Dergue to face the consequences (jail, for several years), and he now lives in the Vumba area of Harare (according to this report).
This film, made in 1990, includes a quite frank interview with Mengistu whilst he was still in power. If you want to know what it was like on the ground, this interesting but at times very harrowing film shows what it calls the Massawa Liberation Battle 1990 fought by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) when they captured the port of Massawa. This film which has some similar footage is extremely graphic – after two minutes it’s in English – it shows what happened when Mengistu’s government used the Migs, supplied by the Soviets, to bomb Massawa after the Eritrean’s had taken the town. There were claims at the time that some Arab states were supplying and supporting Eritrea, and that the Israelis supplied Ethiopia after the Soviets pulled out. There were all sorts of ongoing and temporary proxy struggles.
Eventually, Meles Zenawi took control, and retained power for a longer period than the Colonel had managed. There were a couple more wars, against the now independent Eritrea, and the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia, and some shootings of protesters in Addis after the 2005 election. Recently (June 2016) there were some more clashes between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Though mainly about famine, Peter Gill’s book, published in 2010, has to cover politics because the conflict had such an adverse effect on food shortages. When the Eritreans took Massawa, it became much more difficult for food to get through to Ethiopia. When the Ethiopians bombed Massawa, they destroyed a mountain of grain that had been donated.
Of course, such savagery had been taught to them earlier by the Italian invaders, in the 1930s and 40s.
Even the aid agencies managed to fall out with each other. Médecins Sans Frontières saw that much food aid was being siphoned off by the military on both sides, complained and was eventually told to leave. Oxfam simply accepted this fact.
Peter Gill describes his travels to parts of the country to see what is happening to prevent famine. His findings are very interesting.