THE BBC brought the 1984 Ethiopian famine to the world’s attention. The outcry in richer countries at the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people led directly to Band Aid, Live Aid, and a punchier approach to humanitarian aid. An investigation published last week by the BBC claims to have discovered that nearly all of the aid money handled by the Marxist rebel Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which then controlled northern Ethiopia, was spent buying arms to fight the Soviet-backed dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. TPLF agents disguised themselves as grain merchants. Their warehouses were purportedly filled with sacks of sand. One source estimated that 95% of the $100m the agents took in was pocketed by the TPLF.
All of this would be history, except that the TPLF has run Ethiopia since 1991, when Mr Mengistu was forced into exile in Zimbabwe. Technically, the country is ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an umbrella group which takes in former rebels from other parts of the country, as well as many younger Ethiopians. In reality, most of the power is concentrated in the TPLF—even though Tigrayans make up only 6% of the 80m population. The country’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, was a leading TPLF commander. So were those who run Ethiopia’s intelligence service, its army, central bank, broadcasting, and many of the ministries. The TPLF is at the heart of the EPRDF’s campaign for a general election due on May 23rd. Mr Meles is likely to win, but perhaps not as cleanly as he would like.
Since his country is in receipt of the largest emergency food-aid programme in the world, this investigation matters. According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), 6m Ethiopians depend on food aid to stay alive and at least another 5m are in need of some kind of assistance. If cheating happened during the famine, cynics say, why not now?
But there are questions about the BBC investigation. Several of the sources on the scam have broken with Mr Meles, some are in exile and have opposition sympathies. It is not news that the TPLF siphoned off some money—it was widely pointed out at the time and since—but the sums are unlikely to have approached $100m. If they had, Mr Mengistu’s spy network would have made more of the deception required, as well as subsequent arms purchases (in any case, much of the TPLF’s arsenal was captured from the government). Aid workers who were on the ground at the time insist that most of the aid money bought grain that somehow found its way into the bellies of the starving. The organisers of Live Aid, including Bob Geldof, have denied the BBC’s allegations. Even if they were true, it does mean Mr Meles would follow suit today. Indeed, Mr Meles is more often accused of playing down the level of hunger in his country.
The allegations will make life harder for the WFP, which is already struggling to come up with funds to feed Ethiopians, year after year. Despite the more damaging accusations in the BBC investigation that some of the money was used to build up the political wing of the TPLF, Mr Meles is unlikely to come under any pressure from donors. As the single biggest recipient of British aid, with dollops of largesse from the European Union, America, and others, he may be considered too big to fail.
Nor is it likely the EPRDF will be brought to book over alleged harassment of opposition politicians in the run up to the election, including the murder this week of an opposition candidate in Tigray in unclear circumstances. A former ally of Mr Meles, Gebru Asrat, of the main opposition party, Forum for Democratic Dialogue, said that the candidate’s body had been cut into pieces, to intimidate other Tigrayans into staying with the TPLF. The minister of information maintains he was killed in a bar brawl. But the willingness of Mr M