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Martin Plaut and the Politics of Famine

This past year has not been so kind to Ethiopia’s beleaguered, ruling regime, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). After rigging the 2015 parliamentary elections, the regime has faced incessant public protests in the Oromo and Amhara regions, which has led to thousands of deaths, mass incarceration, an internet ban, killing of tourists and destruction of foreign firms, triggering the government to declare a state of emergency and drawing international condemnation. In November 2016, Oromo activist and former Al Jazeera journalist Mohammed Ademo wrote, “Barely a year after ‘winning’ 100 percent of parliamentary seats both at the federal and regional legislatures, [TPLF] now faces an absolute and total legitimacy crisis.” As tenuous legitimacy evaporated over this past year, it seems the misfortunes of the regime will continue through 2017 with the latest reports indicating that Ethiopia is on the brink of famine.

Lacking legitimacy, TPLF can ill afford to take responsibility for another catastrophic failure. So what does it do? Point the finger at Eritrea, of course. With growing international concern for famine in Ethiopia to start the New Year, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) published its January 13 edition of A Week in the Horn web publication expressing concerns not for Ethiopians but supposedly Eritreans at risk:

UNICEF published a report this week, “Eritrea: Humanitarian Action for Children”, which said since 2015 Eritrea had experienced serious El Niño drought conditions which had undermined household food and livelihood security, particularly for women and children, and contributed to a cholera outbreak across three of the country’s regions. The report concludes that half of all children in Eritrea are stunted, and vulnerable to malnutrition and disease outbreaks.

Claims like these are perennial. Literally, there isn’t a single failure in Ethiopia that the TPLF regime has not either (1) blamed on Eritrea or (2) claimed is also happening in Eritrea. In doing so, the so-called international community has rewarded Ethiopia handsomely and punished Eritrea senselessly, which can be explained by the dictum uttered by one Washington insider: “The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass. Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.”

While the Eritrean government doesn’t seem to entertain—or even care about—most of these petty, desperate and oft child-like allegations by TPLF, it is in the interest of concerned and discerning international observers to investigate this spurious “famine” claim and lay bare the unfounded accusations against Eritrea.

On January 17, the UN News Service reported that the TPLF government was seeking $948 million to help feed 5.6 million people in need of emergency food assistance. The week after that, AP journalist Elias Meseret—an Ethiopian and TPLF regime stenographer—covered the issue, quoting UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, who “cautioned, however, against ‘dramatizing by saying this may degenerate into famine.’”

Why the reservation with using the “F” word? Is it not obvious that absent the solicited food assistance, many Ethiopians would in fact be at risk of dying of starvation and the complications associated with acute malnutrition?

Writing for Deutsche Welle in a March 8 article, Jefferson Chase explained that German NGO Menschen für Menschen was sounding the alarms on Ethiopian famine and stated, “Some 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 98 million suffers from food shortages resulting from a catastrophic drought in the eastern African country. But that doesn’t qualify as a risk of famine for the United Nations, which defines the term as 20 percent of a country’s population having fewer than 2,100 kilocalories of nutrition per day.”

Evidence suggests that Ethiopia may have crossed the 20% marker. According to USAID’s Food Assistance Fact Sheet on Ethiopia, last updated on January 4, the agency has “identified 9.7 million people as in need of relief food assistance. This is in addition to the nearly 8 million people who are chronically food insecure and covered by the GoE-led Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), supported by USAID and the donor community.”

What this data highlights—and what the UN and AP seem to overlook— is the quite critical piece of information that there already 8 million “chronic” beneficiaries receiving international food assistance every year that simply are not talked about in news articles. The media only reports the new 5.6 million “acute” beneficiaries. On top of the 8 million chronic and 5.6 million acute beneficiaries is some percentage of the 9.7 million still-food-insecure beneficiaries that will have to rollover this year from last year, giving a total lying in the range of 13.6 to 23.3 million people.

For those critics who think the 9.7 million acutely hungry Ethiopians from 2016 are somehow no longer hungry in 2017, think again. Post-drought recovery doesn’t work that way, or that quickly. Dead cattle don’t come back to life. Internal displacement doesn’t resolve overnight.

According to the Ethiopian Government’s own Humanitarian Requirements Document (HRD) for 2016, 1.0 metric tons of food aid were needed for 10.2 million people. Interestingly, the HRD for 2017, calls for 0.9 metric tons for only 5.6 million people. How is it that TPLF is asking for almost the same amount of food aid as last year, in which 20% of the population was at risk of famine, for roughly half the number of people this year? Are Ethiopians suddenly twice as hungry? The evidence suggests that TPLF is cooking the books. Some of the missing hungry may be covered by USAID money for “water sanitation” under the WASH program. In any case, there are likely 20% of Ethiopians in need of food assistance and at risk of famine.

In spite of these ominous numbers, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, seemed to have forgotten Ethiopian children when he announced on February 21 that 1.4 million children were at risk of famine in four countries: Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. UNICEF even hashtagged it, calling it the #4famines crisis. While the four war-ravaged nations were paraded on social media to the chagrin of their governments, Ethiopia was provided cover from international criticism. As the campaign picked up along with the Ethiopian regime’s need for humanitarian aid, Ethiopia’s looming famine could no longer be concealed.

Following in the footsteps of German counterparts, the British NGO Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) officially launched its East Africa Crisis Appeal on March 15, soliciting aid to combat famine in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and South Sudan that endangered 16 million people. That same day, the UK government, via personal donation by the Queen, announced that it would match “pound for pound” the first £5 million donated by DEC while the AP reported of a “surprise” visit to Somalia by Boris Johnson, who would also be visiting Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

When it came to Somalia, the media made it clear that famine concerns were central to Johnson’s visit. News articles included photos of a smiling Johnson loading UK Aid packages onto Somalia-bound cargo planes.

With Ethiopia, however, the reasons for the visit were nebulous at best. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office press release stated, “Together the UK and Ethiopia can work to make our countries and the region stronger, safer and more prosperous, from combating the devastating drought to enhancing security for people in neighbouring Somalia.” So are they fighting famine in Ethiopia or Somalia? It’s not clear.

On the Ethiopian side, the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) left less room for ambiguity, stating only that Johnson was on an “official work visit” to Ethiopia and then oddly  pivoting to Somalia in regards to drought: “[Johnson] visited Somalia on Wednesday for talks with President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohammed ‘Farmajo’. The two leaders discussed issues devastating the country including drought and insecurity.” No drought or insecurity discussion in Ethiopia? One headline in the Ethiopian Herald was quite sanguine: “UK State Secretary Applauds Ethiopian Growth.”

With growing German and British concerns, Save the Children campaigns on YouTube, public pledges of support for hungry Ethiopian children, TPLF—facing its existential legitimacy crisis—moved to deflect international attention and criticism of its catastrophic failure by, once again, pointing the finger at Eritrea.

As though on cue, the TPLF’s go-to journalist Martin Plaut, former BBC Africa editor, enters the scene with an article in The Conversation UK reminding the world not to forget Eritrea:

The international community has finally woken up to the critical situation across the Horn of Africa. Conflict and drought have left millions at risk of famine. In the UK, an appeal has been launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for assistance for 16m people from Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan. To underline the gravity of the situation, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson visited Somalia on March 15 to observe conditions on the ground. But in the rush to provide help to those facing starvation one community has been ignored: Eritreans. [Emphasis mine]

To support his claim, Plaut quotes the same UNICEF report referenced by the Ethiopian MFA’s weekly publication, which is published by the TPLF regime-consultant and former BBC journalist Patrick Gilkes, who is Plaut’s friend and frequent co-author of numerous counterfactual books and articles on Eritrean-Ethiopian issues. Explaining that “there is no doubt about the scale of the need” in Eritrea, Plaut quotes the following from the UNICEF report:

Malnutrition rates already exceeded emergency levels, with 22,700 children under five projected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2017. National data also indicates half of Eritrean children are stunted.

In actual fact, he misquoted the report, which instead states:

Data from the Nutrition Sentinel Site Surveillance system indicates an increase in malnutrition rates over the past few years in four out of six regions of the country, with 22,700 children under five projected to be affected by severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in 2017. National data also indicates half of Eritrean children are stunted.

Why did Plaut feel the need to add “emergency levels”? Well, it turns out that Plaut, instead of quoting the UNICEF report directly, was simply copying and pasting from the Ethiopian MFA’s website (i.e. Patrick Gilkes’), which itself misquoted the UNICEF report (webpage headline: “UNICEF appeals for urgent support for Eritrea’s drought-affected children”). Think about that for one second: a supposedly independent, ex-BBC Africa editor copies and pastes his work directly from the Ethiopian foreign ministry.

The real UNICEF report makes no mention of any looming emergencies. Even if true, Plaut’s argument would still be a non sequitur since the premise that 22,700 Eritrean children are malnourished does not equate to “famine,” which, by the way, he has no problem explicitly indicating in the article’s headline: “Appeals for aid to fight Horn of Africa famine ignore the plight of Eritreans”. There are more malnourished junk-food consuming London street children for him to concern himself with. (Note: The UNICEF report itself, which cites the 2010 Eritrea Population and Health Survey, seems to have erred in its claim that half of Eritrean children are stunted. The EPHS data claims 25 percent of children, which is the global average for the developing world.)

This isn’t the first time Plaut has created or used falsified information on Eritrea at critical times in ways that seek to delegitimize Eritrean state leadership. In June 2016, he tweeted a picture of a massive crowd of Albanians at an Eid al Adha prayer and wrote, “Vast number of Eritreans demonstrate against the regime and in support of the UN Commission of Inquiry in Geneva. Plaut deleted the tweet—silently, of course.

Knowing the power of images, his latest famine piece bears a photo of a girl with a nasogastric feeding tube in her nose, which was supposedly “smuggled out of Eritrea by the network Freedom Friday” because Eritreans supposedly “are forbidden from taking their mobile phones or cameras into the feeding centres.” Such a photo can be found in any hospital in the world. To suggest that photos have to be “smuggled” in the era of smartphones, anonymous email accounts and WhatsApp, all of which are used frequently by Eritreans in spite of slow internet speeds, is quite laughable and ludicrous. 

The reference to the “Freedom Friday” smuggling network, however, is somewhat interesting. Under the cover of “journalists”, “academics” and “human rights activists” this network has worked to promote the image of repression and famine in Eritrea in order to justify the illegal smuggling and trafficking of Eritrean children and to draw heavy-handed humanitarian intervention.

Writing in the New Statesman in March 2014, Plaut explained that the Freedom Friday smuggling network was led by “three Eritrean women” who “teamed up with Professor Mirjam van Reisen… Together they produced a major report on the issue: ‘Human Trafficking in the Sinai’. The campaign has been a considerable embarrassment to the Eritrean authorities, who like to portray the country as being fully behind President Isaias Afeworki.”

Let us recall van Reisen’s confession in a 2009 interview that “What is also similar to the situation between East and West Germany is the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The split between the countries is very artificial. … We need Meles to play the role of Chancellor Kohl, who in 1989 set everything (including important outstanding border issues) aside to overcome the artificial separation, which made the East German regime crumble.” No wonder smuggling Eritreans into Ethiopia isn’t a problem; in her mind there is no border between the two countries.

Plaut, who himself works closely and incestuously with van Reisen and these Eritrean activists—speaking at conferences together, coauthoring articles and books, engaging in activism together—seems more concerned with regime change than genuinely helping the Eritrean people. Van Reisen’s recently released book Human Trafficking in the Digital Era includes the work of these activists and forwards the allegation—without citing evidence—that the Eritrean state has sanctioned the trafficking of its own citizens. The only official evidence thus far of state sponsored smuggling of Eritrean children comes not from Eritrea but rather from America after US President Barack Obama stated in 2012: “I recently renewed sanctions on some of the worst abusers, including North Korea and Eritrea. We’re partnering with groups that help women and children escape from the grip of their abusers.” Obama the smuggler?

In a letter to the editor of The Guardian two days after Plaut’s Eritrean famine article, one of these Eritrean activists wrote, “As members of the Eritrean community, we were deeply moved by the appeal for assistance in the Horn of Africa, launched by British aid organisations. … But we cannot understand why Eritrea is not included in the appeal.” In line with the Ethiopian foreign ministry, she then quotes verbatim Plaut’s misquote of the UNICEF report (i.e. Ethiopian MFA misquote), which suggests that she is copying and pasting his and the Ethiopian MFA’s work. Perhaps this “activist” is simply following in the footsteps of her father, a well know Derg-era colonel and butcher of Eritreans, conducting war on Eritrea by other means.

Beyond a public relations gimmick for TPLF, the Eritrean famine allegations by these smuggler-activists also serve the regime in another useful way. According to USAID, one justification for food assistance to Ethiopia is that the “lack of humanitarian access in Somalia and conflict in Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea has resulted in an influx of refugees into Ethiopia.” First off, what “conflict” in Eritrea? Ah, yes. The ongoing illegal Ethiopian occupation of Eritrean territory, which the largely US-funded UN refugee agency refuses to acknowledge as a cause of migration since only “repression” is accepted as a grounds for asylum by UNHCR employees in the field.

Second, it appears that the pretext of “refugees” is the reason that the UK government, the European Union, and the World Bank gifted TPLF with a whopping $500 million in October last year. The Partnership Framework initiative “plans to build two industrial parks in Ethiopia to generate about 100,000 jobs, with Ethiopia required to grant work to 30,000 refugees as part of the deal.” It does not take much insight to see that this scheme is suggestive of an integral part of the subtle policy pursued by certain EU governments and successive US Administrations to wean away Eritrean youth to weaken Eritrea.

According to James Jeffrey, who covered the story for IRIN, “Many have harsh words for both the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, ARRA. There’s talk of thousands of dollars changing hands so Ethiopians can pose as refugees for resettlement in Europe, of scholarship funding meant for refugees being given to Ethiopians, and of the numbers of refugees in Ethiopia being inflated to ensure foreign funding keeps coming in.” There is good reason to believe that Ethiopians from the Somali region, harder hit than Somalia with over 90% of cattle now said to be dead, might be the “refugees from Somalia” we’ve been reading about flocking to UNHCR camps. Again, cooking the books.

Jeffrey’s claim of TPLF politicizing refugees, particularly Eritreans, was initiated in 2010 by US Ambassador to Ethiopia who wrote:

While it is commendable that the GOE [Government of Ethiopia] continues to be willing to host refugees, the GOE, particularly ARRA, has strong political and financial reasons for doing this. The GOE has long advocated for preferential treatment of Eritrean refugees as a part of its greater foreign policy towards Eritrea. In addition, ARRA is 100% funded by UNHCR and thus views the creation of new refugee camps as job security.

In the final analysis, it seems that Plaut’s article, parroting the Ethiopian MFA, seeks to make the case that Eritrea, like Ethiopia, is hiding famine. Since Eritrea cannot be blamed for Ethiopia’s famine, which TPLF and the obsequious media blames on the long-over El Niño weather patterns from two years ago—an excuse that keeps on giving—Eritrea must have a famine itself. Following Plaut’s March 15th piece, a number of liberal mainstream and alternative news sources have sprouted claiming that Eritrea is hiding famine.

For Plaut, the Ethiopian MFA and regime-change activists to claim that there must be famine in Eritrea solely because the Eritrean government does not provide evidence disproving the contrary is sort of like claiming there are UFOs at Roswell, New Mexico because the American government refuses to indulge conspiracy theorists. Plaut is engaging in a classic argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy, seeking to shift the burden of proof from himself to the State of Eritrea since he seems to lack such proof. 

Contrast the Eritrean response with the one in Ethiopia, the most food-assistance-dependent nation in the world. According to USAID data for 2016, Ethiopia was granted more than half a billion dollars its American benefactor for 796,964 metric tons (MT) of food aid. Compare this astronomical number with the amounts disbursed to other drought-affected nations: South Sudan ($307.0 million, 173,451 MT), Somalia ($71.0 million, 20,080 MT), Yemen ($199.8 million, 121,810 MT), Kenya ($63.8 million, 51,150 MT) and Nigeria ($50.8 million, 2,270 MT). Keep in mind that USAID has an annual budget of only $2 billion, which means that the Ethiopian government alone swallows 25% of USAID’s budget.

This slavish state of dependency is perhaps best encapsulated by the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s response to the famine concerns last year: “It is the responsibility of the international community to intervene before things get out of hand.” The audacity of this statement directly contrasts with the equally audacious statement made by Arkebe Oqubay, advisor to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, who told Bloomberg Business—with a straight face—in March 2016, “We have achieved food security.” The only thing secure is the money from USAID.

Following Eritrea’s 2005 expulsion of USAID, which has been accused of deliberately fomenting unrest in Cuba and other nations, the Eritrean government has not accepted a single dollar from the agency. In fact, this is the reason that the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System, used by most humanitarians to track famine risk, doesn’t track data for Eritrea. Thus, for Plaut to assume that the absence of data on Eritrea is evidence Eritrea is hiding famine is highly misleading.

The depths at which Plaut and TPLF are willing to go to implicate the Eritrean government in a phantom famine, signifies the scale of the real and looming famine in Ethiopia and the existential legitimacy crisis that awaits the TPLF regime. Crisis of this magnitude could be the final death knell of the illegitimate regime that has wreaked havoc against the masses of peasants and working peoples of the Horn of Africa. It is for this reason that veteran Ethiopia observer and French journalist Rene Lefort observes that TPLF must respond to famine “vigorously, especially as they are haunted by the correlation between the overthrow of Haile Selassie and then the Derg and the famines that preceded them.”

If history is any indication, TPLF may soon be on its way out the door.

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