A Traveller's Notebook
issue 238 - December 1992
NEIL COOPER / PANOS
A traveller's notebook
War has been the only steady diet for the people of
northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. But NI editor Richard Swift
finds grounds for hope of better fare in the future.
The Toyota land cruiser screeched to a halt. Two strange men jumped out and pointed their odd machines at the boy in the purple shirt and his sister. The little nomad girl leaped off the camel and ran screaming up the hill. The two strange men were me and my colleague Mel from Oxfam-Canada and the odd machines were Japanese cameras. Our driver Walde called out in the Tigranya language to reassure the girl that there was no danger. But in a land like Eritrea where the countryside is still pock-marked with trenches it is hard to get used to the fact that 30 years of war are finally over. The girl's reaction was perfectly understandable - death could easily come at the whim of strangers in large vehicles pointing odd machines in your direction. Peace will take a bit of time to get used to.
Travel anywhere in the Horn of Africa and one reality becomes obvious. War is contagious. Its consequences - refugees, weapons, ecological destruction, fear and oppression - overflow borders and infect the entire region. Weapons from Ethiopian wars are now in the hands of young gunfighters who make survival on the streets of Mogadishu - which used to be the capital of Somalia - a matter of firepower or just plain luck. Refugees from southern Sudan caught in the crossfire of civil war flee in terror across the Ethiopian border. Not too long ago Ethiopian refugees fled across the Sudanese border for exactly the same reason.
But if war and instability can ovefflow borders, how about peace and a commitment to meet people's basic needs? As I travelled through Eritrea and the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray I got at least the hint that this is possible, which would be all the more remarkable given the startling conditions in the region. Few illusions are possible about this part of the world - it is poor in almost every sense of the word. It has few natural resources, no surface water, badly degraded soil and very little rain. The highlands of both Eritrea and Tigray are rolling hillscapes of endless rock interspersed with spindly trees or the odd clump of green. Here and there the vegetation takes on the regularity of crop lines that farmers have managed to coax out of the stingy ground, still using the same ox-drawn iron plow that they have for centuries. Women stagger under huge loads of firewood that must have taken the better part of a day to collect given the scarcity of mature trees.
For me this country has a vaguely Biblical feel. Nomadic people such as the Rashida or the Beja still wander these hills with camels, donkeys and goats in tow trying to survive in an era where modern states with their penchant for regimentation make nomadic life increasingly difficult.
Cars are rare and transportation is hard to find, making hitchhiking a highly evolved art form involving anything from hand gestures and beseeching looks or cries to feigning authority or simply acting as a human roadblock. The roads are in dreadful shape but then so is the rest of the infrastructure. The relatively new hospital in Massawa, Eritrea's Red Sea port, is a case in point. It was so badly damaged by Ethiopian bombing that only a small outpatient clinic on the bottom floor remains open. And this is certainly not due to lack of business in a coastal area plagued by malaria and dengue fever.
Still the mood in Eritrea is remarkably upbeat. After 30 years of almost constant warfare the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) has expelled all Ethiopian forces and is on the brink of achieving the long cherished Eritrean desire for independence. The streets of the capital Asmara are remarkably clean and safe (for both sexes) and everyone you talk to is infected by a quiet optimism about the future. Time and again I was told 'finally we will see what we can do for ourselves'.
There is an acute awareness about the pitfalls that have plagued development in the rest of Africa. A spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was blunt about the penchant for states in post-colonial Africa to build up a centralized and remote bureaucracy in the comfort of Western-style capital cities. Such bureaucracies have too often been an expensive dead weight on the development aspirations of the rural majority.
With this in mind, the new government of Eritrea has already embarked on a radical decentralization, shifting some of its most talented people out of Asmara to run provincial administrations. The dedication of Eritreans to the success of their new country is not hard to see. All upper-level civil servants installed after the collapse of Ethiopian rule are working for 60 birr ($30) a month in order to give the fledgling treasury some breathing space before the formal ratification of independence by referendum in early 1993. It is hard to imagine any other society in the world where the upper levels of the civil service (and most of the army as well) would work a: virtual volunteers for nearly two years.
Although Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front leader Isaias Afwerki is hugely popu lar you cannot find his picture in any of th restaurants or bars that dot Asmara '5 streets The EPLF has always eschewed the cult of personality to which even the most progressive Third World leaders seem susceptible.
As you make your way down the wind) roads that run west out of Asmara to Eritrea's second city, Keran, the national obsession with terracing and reforestation is quickly apparent. Hill after hill shows the fruits of food-for-work programs (a staple of famine relief in this part of the world): regularly interspersed neat stone lines and young saplings to help hold the precious highland soil in place. The sheer variety and ingenuity of water catchment systems is another pillar of Eritrean agricultural policy - micro-dams, settling ponds, handpumps, hand-dug or machine-dug wells, and even elaborate home-made irrigation systems to trap precious water during the rainy season.
As we travel further south into the Ethiopian province of Tigray the story is very much the same - what so much of the world (even the African world) takes for granted is a matter of constant effort throughout these northern highlands. One Tigrayan village is appropriately named Kilishi Inni, which roughly translated means 'too many stones'. Here the women are very careful not to shout or talk too loudly when they are near the well for fear they will scare the water away. This seems like good sense in an area where nature is more whimsical than bountiful.
In Tigray as in Eritrea a mood of determined optimism about making the best of a difficult situation is never far from the surface. Heshe Lemma of the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) can barely contain his enthusiasm when he talks of the agricultural outreach programs that are being made available in rural Tigray for the first time. Farmers here have historically been neglected. Emperor Haile Selassie concentrated wealth and power in Addis Ababa and the Amharic regions of Ethiopia, leaving the poor north to its own devices and hiding its famines from the outside world. And the Dergue that overthrew him was little better: its dreams were of massive state farms churning out export crops to pay for the weapons systems that were so dear to their hearts and so essential to their survival.
'Only now,' says Heshe, becoming very animated, 'are agricultural extension services being made available to the poor peasant farmers who are the backbone of our society.' This could of course be just an official line - but the evidence of our own eyes proves its truth.
Remote Tigrayan villages give new meaning to the word 'outreach'. It's only 30 bone-jarring kilometres between the highland town of Adwa and the little farming village of Mia Kinetal yet it takes us more than two hours. At several points along the road I give up hope that the land cruiser is up to the task, not least when we teeter on two side wheels as we struggle to ford a particularly difficult stream bed.
Once in the village Heshe takes us to its seedhank. As we drink large cups of murky sua - the local brew - REST's agricultural extension officer explains how things work. The system is simple enough. Farmers borrow seeds from the bank the first year and repay it with good seeds from their crops after harvest time. REST's original grant in 1989 provided 4,300 of the 8,000 local farmers with seeds. The extension officer shuffles through a box of carefully maintained records to show that there have been remarkably few defaults despite the poor rainfall last season. The seedbank is particularly important in reducing the vulnerability of the rural population. Hungry farmers are no longer faced with the impossible choice of eating their seeds or being too weak to work in the fields.
Another REST program is the oxen bank - an idea also being tried in Eritrea. This is crucial because oxen are not only essential for animal traction but the main source of capital in cash-poor northern Ethiopia. The cyclical droughts of the 1980s have meant many farmers have been forced to sell their animals or the animals have died of starvation.
The commitments of the Eritrean and Tigrayan liberation movements to the peasant population are understandable. It was these farmers who provided the backbone of resistance to the Dergue. Without their support the military regime in Addis could never have been defeated. But anyway development in these highlands cannot be about mega-projects or dreams of industrial take-off. It must be about survival. Its suc cess or failure will be measured by its effect on the rhythms of everyday life - how long it takes to get water from the new well or if there are enough healthy oxen to plow the fields for the whole village.
But commitments to the peasant small holders can only be guaranteed if the political system gives them real power to shape their own fates. The hope for both Eritrea and Tigray lies in the promise of a grass-roots democracy that allows the majority of people a direct say over the decisions that shape both their communities and their lives. But there are risks here. In Eritrea there is no opposition party on the horizon and it would be quite easy to take bureaucratic shortcuts or confine meaningful discussion of policy options to inner circles of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front. Dissent might be taken as subversion. Without a formal political opposition complete freedom of speech, assembly and the press will be essential if democracy is to evolve - as well as grassroots organizations free of party control.
In Tigray the task is even more complex. The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is not only responsible for Tigrayan affairs but is a key component of the transitional Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa. The transition to a democratic system in a society like Ethiopia with no such traditions is never easy. It will be made more complicated if the government with its strong Tigrayan roots is seen as favouring Tigray over the other regions of the country. The new government in Addis must deal with the thorny problem of balancing the claims of all Ethiopia's different nationalities and their often quarrelsome political organizations.
Already armed conflict has broken out in southern and eastern Ethiopia between government forces and those of the Oromo Liberation Front - who claim to represent the majority Oromo population. The rights and wrongs of this situation are difficult to work out but the willingness of both parties to resort to military means to solve their disagreements bodes ill for a land badly in need of peace.
Still, both the EPLF and TPLF have shown a willingness to rely on compromise and negotiation rather than administrative decree to solve political problems. Also the democratic expectations of the peoples of Eritrea and Tigray are very high. Zemichael Gebremedhin, who is responsible for social affairs in Tigray, is blunt on this point. He seems somewhat ill at ease sitting over a hotel meal in Mekele - Tigray's lively but very poor capital. 'We have only been out of the bush for a few months,' he says, 'so we are bound to make some mistakes. But one thing is certain: the people of Tigray will never accept an undemocratic system again.'
COUNTRIES OF THE HORN: 2
POPULATION: 50 million.
HISTORY: The only country in Africa that was never colonized. The royal family - Halle Selassie was the last monarch -traced its lineage back to biblical times and the Queen of Sheba. Their original seat was the Tigrayan highland town of Axum, where they were closely linked to the spiritual power of the Orthodox Church. The centre of power slowly shifted southward to Addis Ababa where the Amharic people of Shoa province dominated government and economy. Colonel Mengistu seized power in a military coup in 1974, promising socialism and equality but delivering war and economic stagnation.
ECONOMY: Primarily agricultural. Most people are either smallholders or nomadic pastoralists. The rate of inflation is low for Africa and the public sector remains important. Any industry is concentrated in pockets around Addis Ababa and a few other centres. During Mengistu's rule military spending increased from one-quarter to one-third of the government budget - this in a country where income per head is $120 a year and the third lowest in the world. The emphasis on the commercial production of cash crops, particularly coffee, has hurt domestic food production.
POLITICS: When the coalition forces of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front entered Addis Ababa in May of 1991 it marked the end of a bitter war of resistance against Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam's military government. The new transitional government under Meles Zenawi has promised elections and a radical decentralization of power from Addis to the different ethnic regions. In June 1992 the first local elections were held. But there is armed conflict between the Government and the Oromo Liberation Front.
BASIC NEEDS: Life expectancy for Ethiopians is just 45 years. Some 84 per cent of the population cannot get safe water. Half are without access to health care and 40 per cent of all children are malnourished. In 1991 more than eight million Ethiopians suffered from serious shortages of food.
HUMAN RIGHTS: Under Mengistu arbitrary arrest, torture and execution were commonplace. During the 'Red Terror of the 1970s thousands of students and opposition activists were slaughtered in Addis Ababa. In 1983 more than a million people were forcibly resettled from the northern highlands, resulting in at least 100,000 deaths. The situation has improved under the present government, which has gone some way towards restoring the rule of law, although force is still used against political opponents.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.