New Internationalist

Slow Relief

Issue 090

N.I. Issue No 53: July 1977 Drought, pestilence, war, starvation - again Africa hits the headlines. UN experts estimate that 60 million people in East Africa will face ‘abnormal hunger’ this year - and there are reports that each day 500 Karamojans from Northern Uganda are dying of starvation.

The ravages of a two year drought have been blamed for much of the suffering in East Africa. Poor rainfall has produced a sweep of withered crops from the Red Sea coast to the borders of South Africa. But for thousands of years the seasons have come and gone - some good, some bad - and families survived somehow. Even today, while drought has spread along the whole of the East African coast, only in certain regions is there mass starvation (see map). Drought has been transformed into disaster by the meddling of inept governments and the wars, both within and between nations, that have torn through the region. Rich men in cities make decisions - poor families close to the land suffer the consequences.

The worst scenes are in Karamoja, Uganda. The military invasion which freed the country from Amin’s bloody rule also disrupted the planting of this year’s crops. Now pillaging hordes are reported to have stolen most food reserves and up to three quarters of the cattle in the region. CARE, one of the biggest US voluntary agencies has suspended all its relief operations since armed bands killed two of its staff. And only a few of the many truck-loads of UNICEF aid that set out for Karamoja ever reach their destinations. Now the UN estimates that over four million Ugandans face acute food shortages.

In neighbouring Kenya the problems are different. Here, poor people go hungry because their staple - corn - is in short supply after a bumper crop in 1978/79. This is largely because of inefficient government planners - who last year exported vast amounts of the country’s corn at a cut price. They are now forced to buy it back at a much higher price to supplement this year’s drought-ravaged harvest.

The Ethiopian war has swollen the East African camps which now contain some two and a half million refugees in Somalia, Djibouti, and Sudan.

An estimated 1,274,000 nomadic people from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia compete with Somalia’s four million population for the country’s food. Some have been in camps for over two years, fleeing from drought and the bombs of the Russian-aided Ethiopian army. At the rate of 2,000 a day they arrive at a sanctuary riddled with disease.

Another million have fled into Sudan from Eritrea, where nationalists continue to clash with government troops. Sudan is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Five of its eight international frontiers have been refugee crossing points since 1965 and resources are now stretched to breaking point. Recently the President launched an appeal to raise $100 million to resettle some of them, and has dubbed 1980 `The Year of the Refugee’.

Newly-independent Djibouti, itself ravaged by drought, must also contend with over 100,000 refugees from wartorn neighbours - swelling its own population by 50 per cent.

But why does the West wait for such long queues to form at the camp clinics before mobilising shipments of food aid to the area? The main reason for the delay argue some angry relief workers, is the presence of Russian and Cuban troops in the region. Fearing being drawn into another Vietnam in the Ogaden desert the West has been keeping a tow profile.

While many charities are crying out for donations, Terry Lacey of Britain’s War on Want calls for a different emphasis. He supports relief efforts but argues that ‘the best way of helping refugees in the Horn of Africa is to support the Organisation of African Unity to get foreign troops out of the continent and let local people find their own modus vivendi instead of an imposed pax.

It’s an uphill struggle for those who want to look behind the daily horrors of mass starvation at the politics of such man-made disasters. War on Want’s claim that starving people ‘want self-reliance and self-determination - not charity’ is a bold one. It stands in sharp contrast to the newspaper advertisements which ask for funds to fly in tents and blankets. Compassion still comes before politics.

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