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Ethiopian ‘aid for arms’ story sparks storm

The BBC sparked a storm this week with a story claiming millions of dollars sent to help starving people in Ethiopia's 1980s famine were used to buy arms by rebels.

The rebels, who now dominate Ethiopia's government, and some aid groups dismissed the story. Bob Geldof, the Irish rock star who helped raise a lot of the money in the 80s with his Live Aid campaign, said it was “simply not the case”. Britain's Independent newspaper published a blog saying the claim was a slur, cooked up by enemies of Ethiopia's government ahead of looming elections.

Ethiopian blog Ethiopian Recycler, clearly not fan of the country's current regime, begged to differ and defended the BBC story in two posts Aid money, arms, and Sir Bob Geldof and Live Aid money did pay for weapons:

Millions of aid money raised in the 1980s was indeed diverted to buy arms and had provided rebel leaders with a lifestyle that was inhuman and extravagant even by today's standards. That is no news. Thousands of the hungry from Tigray were forced to trek to the Sudan in the course of which many perished. And hundreds that were resettled in southwestern Ethiopia were returned to Tigray through the Sudan [hundreds of which perished en route]. That is no news either. The fact that yesterday's BBC report is followed by the question whether this scam ever took place is simply absurd.

“Why did it take a quarter of a century for the truth to be told publicly,” wondered Samuel Ketema at ABBAY Media: The Ethiopian Information Bank:

If there is one thing that people should be surprised about, it must be why it took a quarter of a century for the truth to be told publicly. Otherwise, particularly the deception of the TPLF is something that the Ethiopian public know them for. How REST (Relief Society of Tigray), which is a multibillion conglomerate today, was formed is not such a big secret to the Ethiopian public. Then there is also what the CIA knew from the beginning and the American government supported it.

The two former rebel commanders, who exposed this truth, mentioned this before in different interviews they gave in Amharic. Nothing is new about this. How did TPLF win the largest and well equipped army in sub-Saharan Africa then? Meles Zenawi, as many in the west, including Bob Geldof and Bono described him, is a very smart guy, actually much smarter than his admirers in the west can understand.

A reader at Ethiopian Curret Affairs Discussion Forum, Sarah, noted that Ethiopians were not surprised by the news:

Ethiopians who knows the nature of the ruling party in Ethiopia wasn’t surprised by the news at all what surprised them was how comes the western medias start talking? and Bob Geldof acting like the Ethiopian dictators lire cadres.

The central claims in the “aid for arms” story, argued Mebre, were already common knowledge across Ethiopia:

The story you mentioned is very well known all over Ethiopia but it gives a factual evidence for the West that a dictator that do not have a moral character for his own people can give peace prosperity and freedom to the nation.We all insist the West that don’t armed dictators….give support for the poor…the poor needs freedom than anything…..

Another aspect of Ethiopia's relationship with the aid industry came under the spotlight in an article highlighted by Addis Ababa-based blogger Owen Barder. Aid blog Hand Relief International cast an ironic eye over the difference between the luxury of the capital's Sheraton hotel, where many aid officials stay, and the visible poverty just outside its walls:

One of the meetings I attended last week was in Addis Ababa where my stay in the dignified Sheraton Hotel was slightly spoiled by the vista behind the reassuring fence, where people in rags seemed in general to be enjoying slightly less comfort … Thankfully, the local drought did not affect the water pressure at the fountain systems around the hotel where we took the edge off with regular dips in the heated pool, usually before high tea. The theme of the meeting was “Drought and Famine – HRI opportunities for 2010″

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