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Martin Plaut and the Politics of Famine Part II & Final

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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