Ethiopia Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia

Ethiopia has suffered recurrent drought and famine for centuries. Successive regimes tried various ways to prevent famine, but the idea of emptying scores of villages of their inhabitants in the north and resettling them in the south was never attempted as drastically as it was in 1984. The poorly planned resettlement program resulted in thousands of deaths.

Summary of Event

In 1973, the Ethiopian provinces of Tigray and Wollo lost to famine more than 200,000 citizens. Popular anger over the calamity resulted in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I Haile Selassie I in 1974. Ten years latter, in 1984, as the succeeding regime was celebrating the tenth anniversary of the overthrow of Haile Selassie, famine returned in greater magnitude. According to Dawit Wolde Giorgis, head of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), by March, 1984, the death toll at the famine shelters in Tigray had risen to 16,000-17,000 per week: “None of these figures included those dying in inaccessible regions and in rebel-controlled areas.” Ethiopia;famine
[kw]Ethiopia Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia (Oct., 1984)
[kw]Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia, Ethiopia (Oct., 1984)
[kw]Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia, Ethiopia Resettles (Oct., 1984)
[kw]Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia, Ethiopia Resettles Famine (Oct., 1984)
[kw]Ethiopia, Ethiopia Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern (Oct., 1984)
[g]Africa;Oct., 1984: Ethiopia Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia[05570]
[g]Ethiopia;Oct., 1984: Ethiopia Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia[05570]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Oct., 1984: Ethiopia Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia[05570]
[c]Human rights;Oct., 1984: Ethiopia Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia[05570]
[c]Disasters;Oct., 1984: Ethiopia Resettles Famine Victims from the North to Southern Ethiopia[05570]
Mengistu Haile Mariam
Asfaw, Legesse
Teresa, Mother
Giorgis, Dawit Wolde
McPherson, M. Peter
Belafonte, Harry
Houston, Tom

Even though famine was a recurrent plague in Ethiopia, its advent in 1984 coincided with political events deeply rooted in the imported ideology of radical Marxism. The onset of famine in 1972-1973 intensified radical anger against Emperor Haile Selassie. Students, intellectuals, and labor unions spearheaded the 1974 overthrow of the ancient monarchy. As the civil sector was not mobilized to form a vanguard party, the army stepped in to take control. They organized the Provisional Military Administration Council (PMAC; also known as the Dergue) to run the affairs of the state. After protracted confusion and violence, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged in February, 1977, as the strongman head of state.

The PMAC began its rule as a nationalist body. However, it was gradually indoctrinated with the same idealist view of Marxism that inspired the civilian sector of the 1974 revolution. In 1979, the Commission to Organize the Party of the Workers of Ethiopia (COPWE) was created to pave the way for the creation of single totalitarian party. Legesse Asfaw, a trusted protégé of Mengistu, became the head of COPWE’s organizational affairs. Asfaw’s key role was to take over resettlement responsibilities from the RRC and to enforce coercive resettlement. Giorgis was sidelined and ordered to focus on providing food and medicine to the settlers.

PMAC evolved into a Stalinist regime emulating Stalinist tactics, and in September, 1984, it transformed itself into the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia Workers’ Party of Ethiopia[Workers Party of Ethiopia] (WPE). Ethiopia had become one of a handful of African states to embrace Afro-Marxism, a radical version of Soviet communism. As famine raged throughout the country, the regime ignored the crisis. The 1984 extravagant celebration of the formation of the WPE took precedence over the deadly famine. The Daily Telegraph of London, in its editorial of October 27, 1984, repudiated “Mengistu’s priority” when it was discovered that the Ethiopian regime had bought 500,000 bottles of whiskey from Middlesbrough, England, for the anniversary celebration. In the meantime, the famine worsened. When the crisis was too severe to ignore, the regime resorted to Stalinist methods, including the dreaded Red Terror, villagization, collectivization, and resettlement. All of these resulted in more deaths, but the 1984 resettlement program was particularly inhumane.

As early as 1983, widespread famine was engulfing northern Ethiopia. The RRC made appeals for world assistance, but the government’s hostility toward the West made Western intervention difficult. Western donors were appalled by the magnitude of the famine, but they were also puzzled by the Ethiopian government’s apparent reluctance to cooperate. The Washington Post, in its December 14, 1984, editorial condemned the regime’s attitude and wondered, “Why does [the Ethiopian government] promote and carry out resettlement in a manner suggesting that its purpose is not to fight drought but to break up natural ethnic concentrations in those provinces?”

The 1984 resettlement project was conceived by Mengistu Haile Mariam. He empowered Asfaw, a mechanical functionary with little education and experience, to implement the massive project. Mengistu ordered the removal of 1.5 million inhabitants from the infertile lands in the north, mainly from the provinces of Tigray and Wollo, to resettle them in the far southwestern provinces of the country. The hidden motive for the resettlement was described by Mengistu to his inner cabinet, including Giorgis. Mengistu described the plan as a military strategy to weaken the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Depopulating the northern provinces was deemed necessary in order to deprive the insurgents of their support base. The plan had two phases. In the first phase, Asfaw was able to persuade volunteers by making false promises of wealth and riches in the south. Once they reached their destinations at the provinces of Kaffa, Welega, and Illubabor, the settlers found conditions worse than the places they left behind. As conditions became intolerable, many fled back, others fell victims to hunger, hyenas, and lions while trying to return, and many were caught fleeing to Sudan and executed by government soldiers. In the second phase, there were no volunteers for resettlement. Rumors reached to the north of the dismal conditions in the new settlements. The government used force to arbitrarily round up people from their homes, farms, markets, and hideouts into holding camps. In 1984, more than 500,000 assembled into these camps for mass evacuation. Asfaw, who was contemptuous of the Tigray province, targeted Tigray for vengeance. He ordered his cadres to round up men, women, and children randomly and pack them into buses for the three-to-four-day journey to Gambella. The deaths from suffocation, hunger, disease, and fatigue, mainly of children and the elderly, were not tallied, but the total is estimated to have been in the thousands.

By 1985, conditions in Ethiopia deteriorated further. The international media was spontaneously mobilized to expose the government’s cruelty and inefficiency. World reaction against the government’s handling of the famine and its resettlement programs was generous and swift. The United States Agency for International Development United States Agency for International Development (USAID), under its administrator, M. Peter McPherson, was vigorous in mobilizing food, medicine, and equipment. He defended American reaction to the Ethiopian famine in a hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. Congress. According to the December 24, 1984, issue of Newsweek magazine, by October 1, 1984, USAID had pledged more than 200,000 metric tons of food for Ethiopia. Missionaries of Charity founder Mother Teresa was instrumental in encouraging U.S. president Ronald Reagan to expedite this shipment, and he readily complied.

Humanitarian agencies such as Catholic Charities, World Vision, and Save the Children tolerated Marxist bureaucrats who mocked religion and faith to deliver desperately needed food. Civil organizations such as USA for Africa (United Support of Artists for Africa), USA for Africa organized by singer Harry Belafonte, mobilized artists and produced music recordings to generate funds for Ethiopian victims of famine. Tom Houston, president of World Vision International, negotiated with the regime and was able to deliver famine relief inside the territories held by the TPLF and the EPLF. However, Western generosity was not reciprocated by the regime. It intensified its campaign of phantom resettlement using brutal force.


The famine and the Ethiopian government’s “irrational approach” to it continued in 1985. On May 5, 1985, Legesse Asfaw’s subordinates descended under the cover of night and burned the Ibnet holding camp, scattering more than fifty-six thousand famine victims to the hills. There was widespread condemnation of the act, but by then the regime’s fanatical embrace of Afro-Marxism had rendered it impervious to any rebuke from the outside world. According to David Blundy of The Economist, the death toll in 1985 climbed and “at least 50,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 Ethiopian peasants have died in this year as direct result of their government’s resettlement programme according to the secret evidence of international relief agencies and Western governments in Addis Ababa.” Even when Marxism was being repudiated in the Soviet Union, the Ethiopian regime continued its fanatical embrace of the ideology, claiming that it provided the only salvation for Ethiopia’s persistent hunger. Ethiopia;famine

Further Reading

  • Finn, James, ed. Ethiopia: The Politics of Famine. New York: Freedom House, 1990. Firsthand observation of some of the region’s political and intellectual players.
  • Giorgis, Dawit Wolde. Red Tears: War, Famine, and Revolution in Ethiopia. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1989. Firsthand account of the famine and the political drama of the Marxist state.
  • Kaplan, Robert. Surrender or Starve: The Wars Behind the Famine. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988. Detailed and journalistic commentary on the military, political, and humanitarian crisis of Ethiopia.
  • Keller, Edmond J., and Donald Rothschild, eds. Afro-Marxist Regimes: Ideology and Public Policy. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1987. Descriptive analysis of Afro-Marxism in Ethiopia, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Rahmato, Dessalegn. Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1985. Pessimistic but technical description of the regime’s agrarian policies. Offers noncommittal analysis of the impending policy failures.
  • U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Foreign Affairs. African Famine Situation: Briefing and Markup Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-ninth Congress, First Session, on H.R. 1096, January 30 and February 19, 1985. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1985. Eye-opening account of the Ethiopian government’s callousness and the challenges faced by Western donors to deliver aid to the victims.
  • Wubneh, Mulatu, and Youhannis Abate. Ethiopia: Transition and Development in the Horn of Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988. Scholarly analysis and evaluation of the regime’s policies. Implicitly at home with the regime’s behavior and human rights violations.

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