US steps up pressure on Ethiopia. AID chief says US wants relief trucks to be allowed into rebel-held areas
In an urgent new effort to save hundreds of thousands of lives in northern Ethiopia, the United States is putting fresh pressure on the Ethiopian government to allow ``safe passage'' of specially marked food relief trucks into rebel-held areas. The new pressure was made public during an interview with the Monitor by the head of the US foreign aid agency, M. Peter McPherson, whose Agency for International Development is spending more than $1 billion on emergency aid to Africa as a whole this fiscal year.Skip to next paragraph
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It has already brought a switch in public attitude from one of the largest private US relief agencies, Catholic Relief Service. After being told of Mr. McPherson's remarks, CRS senior vice-president Robert J. McCloskey publicly endorsed them.
Other private agencies asked for comment saw this as significant, since CRS has been criticized by some agencies in the past for working only in government-held areas and for not speaking out about conditions in northern Ethiopia for fear of offending the Marxist-military government in Addis Ababa.
These agencies reacted in a variety of ways to the new US effort for access to rebel-held areas.
Some were publicly in favor, such as CRS, Grassroots International in Cambridge, Mass., Lutheran World Relief in New York, and a ``Committee for Safe Passage'' set up last December by predominantly Roman Catholic relief groups.
Others, however, were more cautious, such as World Vision, a Protestant group very active in government areas. But World Vision has reportedly been moving in private to persuade Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam and rebel groups to agree on some kind of ``safe passage'' plan.
Meanwhile, many Democrats in the House of Representatives agree with McPherson's call, although Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, said he doubted that Mr. Mengistu would heed what had been said so far.
``It's an issue of sovereignty,'' Mr. Leland said. ``It's the same as in Nigeria when the government froze out all outside efforts to feed the Biafrans. My own plan is for the International Committee of the Red Cross to be allowed into northern Ethiopia from the south.
``I want to see a conference between the US, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Ethiopia to arrange it. I've talked to Fidel Castro, who is in favor. The Cubans have people in Ethiopia and can talk to the Russians. . . .''
However, there is no evidence that the Mengistu government is impressed by public or private pressure. It insists that it controls ``all'' of Ethiopia and that there is nowhere that food supplies cannot be sent.
``Mengistu won't listen,'' said a source close to the African subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, ``until the US has some credibility with him, unless we say, `Look, we want to improve political relations. Here's what we might do -- and we want you, in part, to let more food go into the north.' ''
House Democrats were disappointed that promising efforts to improve relations fizzled out in 1984 after Secretary of State George Shultz met Ethiopian Foreign Minister Goshu Wolde in December 1983.
All US development (i.e. long-term) economic aid to the Ethiopian government is banned by Congress because US property was expropriated without compensation by Mengistu when he seized power in 1974.
There have been recent reports of some behind-the-scenes progress toward solving this issue, but nothing definite has emerged. Meanwhile, Ethiopia takes enormous amounts of arms aid from Moscow while depending on the West for food to feed up to 10 million people.
McPherson first suggested ``safe passage'' a few weeks ago. But he is now so concerned that ``hundreds of thousands of extra people will die'' that he used his Monitor interview to speak out in even stronger terms about the fate of Eritreans and Tigreans in what is seen here as the worst-affected drought region in Africa.
He spoke out after the Addis Ababa government seized 6,000 metric tons of grain destined for Eritrea and Tigre from an Australian merchant ship, the Golden Venture, which called at the port of Assab en route to Port Sudan. Australian Foreign Minister Bill Hayden has just said in Canberra that 5,500 tons of the grain have been distributed to government-controlled areas. The Australians have lodged a formal protest in the Ethiopian capital.
The US wants, in effect, many more Western governments and private aid agencies to speak up in favor of ``safe passage.''
Already Grassroots International, Lutheran World Relief (LWR), and the British private agency War on Want send food into the north by truck from Port Sudan. The US quietly provides food for this effort -- 11,513 metric tons shipped since Oct. 1 last year with another 42,713 tons to come -- but McPherson doesn't believe this pipeline can do enough on its own.