Litany of disillusionment

  • 29/11/1993

IT IS THE season of the kerempt or "big rains", and the sky is often overcast. Four hours south of Addis Ababa, with the rain turning the roads into swamps, it is a different world.

The sense of helplessness, the sense of waiting, the dependence on nature -- it's there in many villages of western Rajasthan as well -- but one of the things that sets the backdrop here is the complete absence of governance. The only regulars we saw in two weeks in the interior were battledress-clad, Kalashnikov-carrying soldiers, manning barriers at the points that mark ethnic boundaries. It gives the whole atmosphere a sense of being abandoned, people left much on their own.

Talking to people in the villages and cities, the overwhelming feeling appears to be one of uncertainty. The Deruge government -- the troika of soldiers headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ran the Maoist-style social reform programme after overthrowing Emperor Haile Sellasie in 1974 -- were themselves ousted from power in June 1991, in a popular uprising led by guerilla fighters of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Reluctant soldiers
Although two years have passed since then, there is still a "transitional" government -- grappling with issues of ethnicity and marketplace, trying to keep the fragile coalition of guerilla groups together till the constitution is approved and elections held. Farmers speak of taxation and compulsory procurement of grain, but the thing that rankles most is conscription. All able-bodied men were selected to fight a war that nobody believed in, which was not against an external aggressor, but a formless enemy from within.

By the end of the 1980s, it appeared that the strategy for collective holdings wasn't working, and in a dramatic change of policy in March 1990, Mariam announced that the country was moving towards a mixed economy. Farmers would have the right to inherit land, and could liquidate their cooperatives voluntarily if they chose. Having to contend with famine and a war-ravaged economy, however, the reforms may have come too late.

Today there is an air of expectation -- fuelled by the West, but widely felt among middle-class Ethiopians -- that the return to "democracy" will mean the return of private ownership and the victory of market forces over state-sponsored socialism. But beyond the change in the language the government uses (people must "participate" -- meaning pay for services), little has changed.

However, a senior official at the health ministry confessed in an interview that though there were no plans as yet ("it's been only two years"), a way out was to look for the "private sector", including not just the fledgeling trade and business sectors, but also the vast network of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which have been involved in relief work since the mid-1980s.

It was a strange interview. I met him to ask specifically what plans the government had for "re-entering" Dalocha (where?), when the international agency that was propping up the primary health care service there pulled out. His carefully worded response was that interventions should be "sustainable" -- that is, either the communities paid (even for buildings, in the form of labour and materials), or the agency did. But the government's mandate was to make sure that services were in place, and paid for.

What this has meant at the grassroots level is that the health centre in Dalocha, which earlier had one nurse and four health assistants, now has only the nurse and one health assistant. Schools and health posts that were burnt down by angry mobs when the EPRDF came to power are being painstakingly reassembled by the people and the NGO in the area, with no government inputs.

Ethnic postings
The problem is compounded by the fact that postings of teachers, nurses and all local government functionaries are now on ethnic lines, so that those ethnic communities that are poorly represented in the bureaucracy, such as the Siltinya speaking population of Dalocha, tend to be neglected.

The point of reference in Ethiopia has always been disturbingly Western, to the extent of rejecting their own culture and tradition. The irony is that, while the country imports fertilisers and oil and adopts a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, their valuable resources -- their incredible biodiversity, for example -- is being siphoned off by international research and development institutions to be stored and patented elsewhere.

In the villages, people are glad of the demise of feudalism and redistribution of land to the poor by the Dergue government. But it appears that the good is interred and the evil lives on. The overall impression is one of a sense of anticipation, of an uncertain future. As the international workers drive into the countryside in their Land Cruisers -- worried about participation, gender, or the flavour-of-the-month in the development debate in the West -- brother is turning against brother, children are becoming more and more obvious at the street-corners and plastic sheets covering homeless bodies are springing up everywhere. In Dalocha, as more trees are cut and more grazing lands put under the plough, the countryside is red with the blood of the earth.

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