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Seppe Deckers (KU Leuven) and Jan Nyssen (UGent) on food as a weapon in Ethiopia

‘The famine in Tigray is due to themselves, that’s the reasoning’


English translation of an article published in MO* (Belgium): https://www.mo.be/interview/die-hongersnood-heeft-tigray-zelf-gezocht-de-redenering


Erik Raspoet . August 14, 2021

© Reuters / Giulia Paravicini
Tiebei Negash covers mouth and nose to avoid the smell of rotting bodies in her village Shiw’ate Higum, Tigray, 10 July 2021. ©Reuters / Giulia Paravicini

They share a past in Ethiopia’s Tigray region: the Leuven professor of soil science Seppe Deckers and his Ghent geography colleague Jan Nyssen. With great involvement they follow the civil war that is taking place there. After drones, planes and artillery, food is now being used as a weapon. Just like during the historic famine of 1984, though there is a difference. ‘Many Ethiopians think Tigray deserves this catastrophe.’

This appointment coincided with the peak of the floods. While evacuation plans are being forged against the rising water in Liège and Limburg, Seppe Deckers and Jan Nyssen are on the terrace of a village café on the outskirts of Leuven. ‘This looks like Tigray’, says Nyssen as he evaluates the water curtain around the shelter. ‘During the rainy season, such a deluge is a daily occurrence there.’

Seppe Deckers can easily imagine that deluge. In the 1980s he worked in Ethiopia as a soil expert for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. He was an eyewitness to the apocalyptic famine of 1984 and experienced the fall of the military-communist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam.

© Bert De Busschere
Seppe Deckers (left) and Jan Nyssen (right) © Bert De Busschere

Afterwards, as professor of soil science (KU Leuven), he laid the foundation for an intensive academic collaboration between Flanders and Ethiopia, focusing on agricultural development and food safety. Not coincidentally, most of the projects were located in Tigray, the northern region. In 1984, about half of the 1.2 million starved people were in that region. Deckers’ coordinator on site was the Leuven alumnus Jan Nyssen, a specialist in geomorphology and hydrology who, after ten years in Tigray, became a professor at Ghent University.

To say that the civil war in Tigray, which erupted in November, moves them is an understatement. Deckers, now retired, wrote op-eds about it and addressed his academic network to denounce the humanitarian need.

Nyssen went one step further: he coordinated staff of the university’s department of geography to literally map the consequences of the conflict, together with citizen activists.

In recent months, their newsletter Tigray: Atlas of the humanitarian situation has become an international reference for all those who follow the complex conflict, from embassies to UN agencies to media houses such as The Guardian and The New York Times. He provides an overview of the massacres, artillery shelling and drone strikes, with verified figures of civilian casualties. The authors also trace refugee flows and record the often-alarming level of food supplies per district.

We want to talk about the latter on this rained-out day, because once again a disastrous famine is looming in Tigray. This time provoked by a civil war that has entered a new phase at the time of our conversation. After Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed crushingly won the parliamentary elections, he unexpectedly announced a ceasefire in Tigray in late June. A humanitarian gesture, to allow farmers to sow their lands, that’s what the communication from Addis Ababa sounded like.

The real reason, on which almost all observers agree, is a radical reversal of the odds of war. At the end of June, three-quarters of Tigray, including the capital Mek’ele, was recaptured by the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). That is the armed wing of the regional government that was ousted in November, and which is led by the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF). The Ethiopian army had to withdraw headlong, even though it was supported by troops from neighboring Eritrea and militias from the neighboring Amhara region.

Abiy, meanwhile, has withdrawn his one-sided ceasefire. He follows a new strategy against the rebellious state: isolation and starvation.

Can you still follow the rapidly changing situation?

Nyssen: With a lot of effort. Until June, we could regularly get people on the phone, and we e-mailed easily with colleagues from Mek’ele University. Since the recapture by the Tigrayan troops, all lines are dead, Tigray is hermetically sealed off from the outside world.

Can food aid get into Tigray?

Nyssen: Every now and then the Ethiopian authorities allow a convoy of the World Food Program to pass through, in a bid to ease the pressure of the international community and avoid sanctions. Such a convoy typically holds 40 trucks, good for 10,000 tons of food. That seems like a lot, but to feed a population of six million, such a convoy would have to arrive every day. That food aid arrives through Djibouti and takes four days to reach Tigray through the Afar Desert.

It could be much more efficient, through the central warehouses in Gondar and Kombolcha. Problem: both cities are located in the Amhara region, where anti-Tigray sentiments are very high. The hatred runs so deep that aid convoys for Tigray are attacked or stopped by the population.

After the recapture of Mek’ele by the TDF, the frustrations got out of hand. Images of an incident near Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara, are circulating on social media. Three ethnic Tigrayans were lynched, their bodies were dragged through the streets behind a motorized rickshaw.

Deckers: How awful. In Addis Ababa, too, Tigrayans have to endure a lot. Most catering establishments, shops and businesses operated by Tigrayans are closed. Owners who could not flee are locked up in camps. These ethnic tensions make this conflict even more dangerous. Ethiopia has a painful history in this respect.

In addition to aircraft, drones and artillery, food is used as a weapon in this civil war. In what way?

Nyssen: During and after the November invasion, the Ethiopian forces and their allies did everything they could to sabotage the local food supply. Along the roads, harvests were burned down. Soldiers invaded farms, confiscated their food and oxen and destroyed their plows.

The food convoys that were not blocked at the border were often looted, after which their contents ended up in Eritrea. In addition, the banks were closed and thereby stalled the system of microfinance, on which agriculture largely relies.

In fact, there was almost no money economy left. In the farmers’ markets, they had to reverse to a barter economy. Or the markets were bombed such as a few weeks ago in Togogwa, resulting in dozens of civilian deaths. That happened in full sowing season. It is the moment when farmers have made their final choice of cultivation. For example, if you want to plant barley, you will try to exchange your teff seeds for barley seed on the market.

That bombing was pure intimidation, they know all too well in Addis Ababa what crucial role such markets play in agriculture. And then, a few days later, Prime Minister Abiy talks about a humanitarian truce for the farmers of Tigray. Cynicism knows no bounds.

Deckers: Unfortunately, that’s nothing new under the sun. Also under Mengistu, markets were bombed in rebellious regions. After the fall of its dictatorship, Ethiopia developed a robust food safety system, with money from the World Bank: the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), a system that anticipates regional food shortages through a fine-meshed early warning system. Deficits are offset by surpluses from elsewhere. For example, between 400,000 and one million tons of grain and maize were shifted internally every year.

What is special is that this food aid has been linked to community work, especially reforestation and irrigation programs that reduce the risk of new food shortages. This entire system was created with the support of international expertise, such as partnerships with the Belgian development cooperation and with the Flemish universities, VLIR-UOS.

The system was rolled out all over the country, but nowhere more successfully than in Tigray. After the great famine of 1984, there was no more tree standing, so to speak. In the meantime, a large part of Tigray has been greened, among other things through the systematic reforestation of slopes, a huge asset against land erosion and desertification. Now we have to fearfully wait and see whether that progress survives the current conflict.

“Occasionally, the Ethiopian authorities allow a food convoy to pass, so as to ease pressure from the international community and avoid sanctions.”

In the meantime, the famine is already a fact, that is phase 5 on the food security scale of the World Food Program. 400,000 Tigreans are now in that situation. For more than 2 million others, the second-heaviest code, ’emergency’, applies. How bad is that?

Nyssen: Phase 5, that means at least 2 starvation deaths per 10,000 inhabitants and per day. That is 20 for a district of 100,000 inhabitants. Phase 4 is hardly less bad, then there are 1 to 2 starvation deaths per 10,000 inhabitants per day. More than a third of the Tigrayan population is therefore threatened by acute famine.

Fortunately, there is also good news. According to OCHA, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, food distribution works out better since the return of the Tigrayan authorities. There is, of course, far too little coming in, but at least the available stocks can be distributed efficiently.

Deckers: A lot will depend on the next harvest, in November. So, from the weather. The right amount of precipitation becomes decisive. Fortunately, they have had the worst of the locust infestation. Last year, that reduced yields by 25 percent. Not only because some fields were eaten bare. Farmers also anticipate a locust infestation by bringing in the harvests earlier, even before the crops have reached their full maturity. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they got the military invasion on top of it last year.

© Bert De Busschere
Seppe Deckers (left), Erik Raspoet (center) and Jan Nyssen. © Bert De Busschere

Have farmers been able to sow their land in recent weeks?

Nyssen: The first messages were very pessimistic, but thanks to remote sensing we are more comfortable with it. The European Sentinel satellite imagery has an unprecedentedly high resolution, we can perfectly see where the land has been plowed and if something is growing.

Apparently, the farmers have adapted to the circumstances. [When the Ethiopian and Eritrean troops were there,] Roads were a source of danger, through confrontations with soldiers. To avoid this, they could plow in remote areas, or at night. They have also adjusted their choice of cultivation: more food crops such as grain and maize, and fewer cash crops, commercial crops, such as onions or vegetables. The reason is obvious: you can eat food crops yourself if necessary, while with cash crops you are dependent on the market.

Can this situation be compared to the great famine of 1984?

Deckers: Back then, the state of emergency was not limited to Tigray, there were also tens of thousands of starvation deaths in Wolo (part of Amhara), Ogaden (Ethiopian Somalia) and Afar. But just as now, the famine was largely human work. Drought played a role, but the crop failures were a direct result of the disastrous, collectivist agricultural policy under Mengistu. Peasants were forced to resettle in new villages, that was called villagization.  They had to sell their harvests at lower prices.

It was a complete failure. Just like the large state farms, which went bankrupt very quickly, leaving 500,000 farm workers without income on the streets. The whole agrarian reform was steered by a bureaucratic body that had no connection whatsoever with the lives of the peasants.

Even then, Tigray got it all. To combat the overpopulation of the region, the authorities wanted to move a million Tigrayans to southern Ethiopia. Pure madness, if only because farming methods from Tigray do not work at all in the South. The climate is completely different there, and other plant diseases circulate. Not to mention the conflicts with the local population.

Of course, there were no volunteers to move, and so they sent soldiers to the population. Markets were surrounded, and all men, women and children were loaded onto trucks and deported. An estimated 700,000 Tigreans were arrested in this way. I’ve seen those transports myself. Heartbreaking. That operation alone has claimed many thousands of lives, while leaving countless children separated from their parents.

But I see another similarity with the current situation: disinformation. Abiy denies and minimizes the famine. So did Mengistu. Admitting that there is famine is contrary to the national pride of an African country that still prides itself on never being colonized.

Nyssen: But I also see a difference there. In the past, the Ethiopians swallowed the propaganda, or at least they did not talk of famine. That’s very different now. In Amhara and Addis Ababa, people know very well that there is famine in Tigray. No compassion, it is reasoned, that famine they have “sought it themselves”.


Seppe Deckers

  • °1950, Bekkevoort
  • PhD bioscience engineering KU Leuven
  • 1980-1990: FAO expert in East Africa
  • 1989: professor KU Leuven, department of soil and water science
  • 1990-2015: leads collaborative projects in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Senegal, Vietnam and Ecuador
  • 2015: since his ‘retirement with assignment’, he continues to work for North-South cooperation at KU Leuven and VLIR-UOS.

Jan Nyssen

  • °1957, Sint-Martens Voeren
  • PhD in geomorphology and hydrology KU Leuven
  • 1994-2006: research in Ethiopia and coordinator university development cooperation
  • 2007: lecturer at the department of geography UGent, becomes full professor in 2014
  • Guest lecturer universities Mek’ele and Bahir Dar (Ethiopia)

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