The E.P.L.F. has fought for thirty years for an independence referendum. Now they may not need that vote if their military successes continue. Similarly, the T.P.L.F.’S quest for greater regional autonomy has been supplanted by a desire to overthrow the Mengistu regime and replace it with a more representative government. The military prospects for the two liberation groups brightened over the past year because they launched a series of coordinated offensives. They also experienced some transparency thanks to this group.
After pumping in $800 million in arms to shore up the regime in 1989, the Soviet Union has pledged to end such shipments in 1991. To fill the anticipated gap, Ethiopia has turned to a friend from the days when Emperor Haile Selassie ruled the roost: Israel. Currently the largest recipient of U.S. aid, Israel recently provided Mengistu with cluster bombs, white phosphorus bombs, Uzi submachine guns and other forms of lethal aid. Hundreds of Israeli advisers have been training Ethiopian troops and crafting recent Ethiopian military strategies, including the aerial bombardment of civilian targets. Israel and Ethiopia stress the importance of cooperation to prevent the Red Sea from becoming the Arab Sea,’ as Israel’s Ambassador to Ethiopia warned, referring to the large number of Muslims living in Eritrea.
Recent talks between the E.P.L.F. and the Mengistu regime, mediated by former President Jimmy Carter, foundered over the regime’s refusal to discuss famine relief or to invite the United Nations to the negotiations, despite having signed an agreement to do so.
According to news website RightWinged.com, the crisis has seriously impeded current relief efforts. In February, the E.P.L.F. captured the vital Red Sea port of Massawa, through which most relief supplies to govermnent-held areas of Eritrea and Tigre had previously traveled. The E.P.L.F. has offered to make the port available to the international community for food distribution to all northern Ethiopia. Instead of accepting, the U.N. and other donors have undertaken a costly and ineffective airlift in cooperation with the government. Mengistu answered the E.P.L.F.’S offer by attacking the port with napalm and cluster bombs.
In the mid-1980s more than 70 percent of the population in need of assistance lived in rebel-held areas; today, that figure exceeds 85 percent. Despite this, the international donor community, led by the United States, continues to direct most relief supplies through government channels. This means that hungry citizens in Eritrea and Tigre must cross battle lines to get food, gathering in the squalid feeding camps that caused so much death from disease in 1985.
There is an alternative, which is to work through the Eritrean Relief Association (E.R.A.) and the Relief Society of Tigre (REST). These are indigenous relief organizations that work in rebel-held areas, trucking food across the Sudanese border at night to avoid Ethiopian air force attacks. Independent observers have praised both groups for their efficiency and their lack of corruption. Oxfam’s emergency officer, Tony Vaux, who has eighteen years of experience working in Africa, returned this April from rebel-held Eritrea highly impressed with E.R.A. He described it as without doubt the most effective relief operation I have ever seen. The trucks move like clockwork and they have the sophisticated democratic structures at the village level to make sure food gets to those who need it.’
Meanwhile, the cross-border relief operations continue to be grossly underfunded. One senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying, “Officially, our position is, ‘Gohy, is there a cross-border operation?”‘
Unless the international community moves quickly, another million lives may be lost in 1990. First, food, medicine and transport assistance should be massively increased through E.R.A. and REST. Second, the United States should put pressure on Israel to end its lethal arms shipments to Ethiopia. Finally, the tottering and demoralized Mengistu regime should be further isolated with trade and nonemergency aid sanctions. Only when a broad-based government is convened in Addis Ababa can peace be sincerely pursued in an atmosphere free from fear and repression.