Almost 19 years after he first urged us all - with the forthright compassion that would later win him a knighthood - to "just give us yer fokkin money", Bob Geldof is back in Ethiopia, because everybody is dying once again.
In fact, the Ethiopians have been dying of famine, malnutrition and disease in large numbers in every year since 1984 but now, even by their appalling standards, things have become pretty grim.
Four million people presently face death from starvation. As Sir Bob himself put it: "Children will be dying. If there's a war on terror, there must be a war on poverty. One begets the other."
Does it? Well, maybe. But perhaps this time around we should look for a cause for the Ethiopian catastrophe, rather than just bunging them vast loads of dosh. Because the dispiriting thing is, when you examine the evidence, you can't blame any of the people you might wish to blame for the current crisis. You can't blame Tony Blair or George Bush or the IMF or the World Bank. You can't blame those evil multinationals such as Nestlé which, unforgivably, asked the Ethiopean government for money that it was rightly owed. You can't really blame the sun for continuing to burn down on the horn of Africa: it has always done that. You can't even blame Sir Bob (and Midge Ure, Tony Hadley, Paul Young et al); they were only trying to help - even if, in trying so to do, they disguised, or ignored, where the real problem lay. To find out why Ethiopia is in a crisis bigger than its usual, everyday, hellish and mind-numbing crises, you have to look at what happened after we gave them all that money, back in 1984-85.
Back then, the congenital idiot Mengistu was in charge and he had embarked on a comprehensive programme of rural reform, loosely based, it would seem, upon the brilliant collectivisation policy of the early Soviet government. Committed to a socialist economy, Mengistu introduced the concept of "villagisation" in 1985 - not long after Status Quo had concentrated our attention on the matter at Wembley Stadium with their enthusiastic version of John Fogerty's Rockin All Over the World. Some 4.6 million people were relocated into 4,500 "villages" and by 1989 a further nine million had so suffered. This involved the forced separation of families, widespread human rights abuses, and accelerated the spread of disease (malaria, sleeping sickness) and agricultural pests. At the same time, Mengistu concentrated his financial and political efforts upon the collectivised sector of Ethiopean agriculture: that's where the future lay, he mused to himself. State farms thus swallowed 76% of chemical fertilisers and 81% of agricultural credit - but produced a grand total of 6% of output.
Mengistu continued to prosecute a series of wars, the defence budget accounting for a crippling 50% of government expenditure. So doctrinaire was this hideous, vicious and inept government that in 1989, the Red Cross was kicked out of the country, or at least from those areas worst stricken by the continuing famine. Let's not dwell too long on the human rights issues: believe me, you wouldn't want to go there. Suffice to say, there was widespread summary execution, political detention and torture (according to Amnesty International).
Mengistu had an epiphany in 1990. Suddenly, he realised that his mismanagement of the economy had been complete and utter, so he renounced Marxism and embarked on free-market reforms. It was not enough to save him. The regime fell and the Ethiopian people welcomed "His Excellency" Meles Zenawi as prime minister - a former terrorist who lists his hobbies as reading, playing tennis and swimming.
So, what has he done, Meles? Well, the good news is he won the last election in 2001 quite easily, which must mean he's popular, mustn't it? It's true that the opposition contested only 20% of the seats and government soldiers kept shooting political opponents and there was fraud, violence and the detention of difficult candidates - but hell, this is Africa, right?
Old Meles has not been particularly speedy in seeing through the privatisation programme: some 200 state concerns remain a massive drain on the country's economy. The war against Eritrea continued until the last year of the past decade. The Ethiopian private sector is stagnant, perhaps because so much of the country's land is leased from the state that it is impossible to secure loans using land as a collateral. There is restricted freedom of assembly, despite a constitution which insists otherwise, and similar restrictions upon the press. Twenty-seven Ethiopian journalists are in exile and have reason to fear for their lives; the government controls most of the printing presses. Thousands of people remain in prison, detained without charge, and Human Rights Watch fears there is continued torture. Trades unionists and teachers have been imprisoned or forced into exile. The government has failed to take action against soldiers accused of murdering, beating up or torturing political opponents.
There is continued discrimination against women and children; female genital mutilation is still widespread, as is the exploitation of children through forced labour. Kids as young as seven years old have been subject to arranged marriages.
Oh, and I almost forgot: there is still widespread slavery, or the "trafficking of human beings" as the human rights people put it.
I don't know. Maybe if we give them lots more money and blackmail firms such as Nestlé to write off debts, we'll save a few thousand people in the immediate future and convince the Ethiopian government to start behaving with a semblance of humanity and competence.
Because we will be urged to cough up the dosh and again, taunted by those terrible sights on our TV, we will all probably do so.
The more controversial view is that the stick - sanctions possibly, or maybe making them pay back every penny they owe in debt - should be used, rather than the carrot. But even if you balk at this - don't be kidded for a moment that the evil west is to blame for Ethiopia's problems, convenient and comforting though that may be. The truth is: they still don't know it's Christmas. And it's still not our fault.
· Sources: US Library of Congress; Human Rights Watch; Africa Watch, Amnesty International; Ethiopian Human Rights Commission; Ethiopian Ombudsman; CIA website; The Economist; Nationbynation; British Foreign Office.
by Rod Liddle The Guardian
Wednesday May 28, 2003
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