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Friend To The Colonel


new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988

Soviet ally: Colonel Mengistu
Friend to the Colonel
Ethiopia is now synonymous with famine. But it is also the Soviet Union's
firmest ally in Africa. Is there a connection? John Sorenson reports.

'Marxist - inspired dictatorship.' 'Soviet backed regime', journalists habitually break out these well-worn terms whenever they attempt to explain the helplessness of Colonel Mengistu's military government in the face of the recurrent famines that have swept across Ethiopia since 1984. The Colonel's record is certainly pretty bleak. His people live on the brink of starvation, largely dependent on food relief from the West. Yet the Ethiopian economy is geared not to food production - but to defeating the struggle for Eritrean and Tigrayan self-determination in the north. Ethiopian corpses are piling up in ever-greater numbers on the arid battlefields of Eritrea, where the Colonel is trying desperately to hold onto Ethiopia's only access to the Red Sea. In Eritrea you see napalm burns and amputees. You meet children trained to seek cover at the sound of approaching MiGs. You talk to young men and women who have spent their lives on the battlefield. All of them are stark evidence of Ethiopia's unpopular war.

Nobody could claim that the war and starvation in the Horn of Africa are products of Soviet meddling. But Soviet aid policies towards Ethiopia still have quite a lot to answer for. In the larger scheme of things Africa is a low priority for the Soviet Union, which concentrates its interests in Eastern Europe and Asia. No African country presents an immediate threat to the Soviets and there are no vital supplies of raw materials upon which they depend. The Horn is a partial exception due to competition with the US over the strategic Red Sea route vital for Western oil supplies. Since the 1 960s both superpowers have been building up their forces in the Indian Ocean.

In his day Haile Selassie, the enigmatic Ethiopian Emperor who claimed descent from Solomon and Sheba, skilfully exploited this superpower rivalry to gain greater US support and eventually build up one of the largest armies in Africa. But the worm turned and in 1974 it was the military that overthrew Selassie. Since then the autocratic military government (known as the Derg in the Amharic language) has used its leftist credentials to become the largest recipient of Soviet economic aid in Africa. Yet Moscow's aid effort is dwarfed by that of Washington. In 1980, for example, the Soviets gave just $9.5 million compared to the $139 million sent by the US.

Soviet economic assistance and advice has largely been limited to the program to establish agricultural collectives and state farms. Many right-wing commentators have seized upon the famine as another indication of the failure of socialist agricultural policies. But such claims overlook centuries of food shortages including a massive food crisis in the early 1970s in which hundreds of thousands of people starved to death; this famine was one factor in the downfall of the Emperor. The truth is agricultural production has been steadily declining for years because of poverty, war, environmental degradation, population growth and the concentration of land-holdings. Some collapse of the agricultural system was probably inevitable.

Nevertheless, the Soviet influence on Ethiopian agriculture has not been positive. Since the 1975 nationalisation of land, the state farm sector has grown rapidly - though it still accounts for only a very small portion of total agricultural holdings. Moscow encouraged this expansion of state farms. While the large mechanized state farms receive modern inputs and high levels of government investment the average yields are not much higher than those produced by peasant farmers. And though 80 per cent of the population is involved in agriculture, the Derg has devoted surprisingly little attention to helping peasants since the initial land reform.

The food gap has had to be bridged by aid. But the Soviet's contribution here has been minimal. At the height of the 1984 famine the USSR made its own entry in the annals recording ludicrously inappropriate aid to the Third World - it supplied a mere 10,000 tons of rice, a food not eaten by Ethiopians. The Soviets did provide a number of vehicles and aircraft for use in food distribution but these ended up instead being used in the Derg's notorious resettlement programme. Kurt Jansson, head of the UN's relief operations in Ethiopia during 1984-85, characterized the Soviet aid effort as 'inefficient'. Up to the end of December 1985 Soviet planes had transported 40,000 tons of food compared to 122,000 by Western planes.

The one area where the Soviet aid record is unmatched is arms shipments. Over 90 per cent of Soviet aid to Ethiopia takes this form. During the 1960s and 1970s both the Soviet Union and the US fuelled a regional arms race in the Horn - one of the poorest parts of Africa. While Haile Selassie relied on the US to build up the army in Ethiopia, the Soviets supplied huge amounts of weapons to Somalia.

In 1978 the superpowers suddenly switched sides. Both Ethiopia and Somalia were demanding more weapons and following Somalia's invasion of the disputed Ogaden region, the Soviets dropped their former ally and began supplying Ethiopia. A massive air- and sea-lift of weapons allowed Ethiopia to beat back the Somalis and then turn their full might on the Eritrean liberation fronts. Since then the Soviets have continued to pour a seemingly unlimited supply of MiGs, tanks and Kalashnikov rifles into Ethiopia. The debt for these weapons is now more than $2.5 billion. As one of the world's poorest countries, Ethiopia lacks the resources to repay its arms debt.

Military supplies are clearly seen as the key to Soviet influence in Africa. Because the Soviet Union does not release accurate figures on its military production and exports, many researchers have relied on exaggerated figures provided by the CIA. Nevertheless the quantity of Soviet weapons flowing into Africa is significant: from 1976-1983 the Soviet Union supplied $7.06 billion in weapons to sub-Saharan Africa, 10 times what the US provided during the same period and 51 per cent of the total arms provided from all sources.

What's more, Soviet aid all too often mirrors Western assistance in being tied to the purchase of Soviet goods. And Soviet aid has always been directed not at the poorest or the most progressive countries but at those considered useful. For example, Morocco is the Soviet Union's largest non military trading partner in Africa, receiving 80 per cent of Soviet economic assistance to Africa given between 1975 to 1979. Similarly, Soviet weapons have gone to such repressive regimes as those of Idi Amin in Uganda and Macias Nguema in Equatorial Guinea.

There is hope that the new era of glasnost will signal a change in the Horn of Africa. Colonel Mengistu continues to look to the West for food aid and economic assistance, but his regime is locked into dependency upon Soviet weapons for its survival. As long as the Derg remains committed to its policies of internal repression and its denial of self-determination to Eritrea, it will continue to require massive inputs of weaponry. But rumours suggest that after the latest arms deal expires in 1991, the Soviets will not provide weapons to Ethiopia in the same quantities or on the same terms. This may mean that Mengistu is being given one last chance to crush the Eritreans. The results, of course, will be continued suffering for the people of the entire region.

John Sorenson works with the Eritrean Relief Association in Toronto.

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