London — The military rulers of Ethiopia, where 8 million people still suffer from famine and drought, are trying to hold down the number of Americans working for United States private relief agencies. The move is seen by recent visitors and by US officials as part of an effort to reinforce government control in the country as a whole. It coincides with:
A resumption of the controversial government program to resettle people from northern to southern areas of Ethiopia, a program the Reagan administration denounces as a political effort to weaken northern secessionist guerrilla forces.
A strong government military offensive in the north. Together with still difficult weather and soil conditions, it is causing what US officials believe is the daily exodus of 400 to 500 Eritreans westward across the border to Sudan to avoid conscription into the Ethiopian military.
Reports, some conflicting, that the Ethiopian government is moving more vigorously now toward a socialist farm policy favored by Julius Nyerere in Tanzania: gathering outlying tribes into central villages to farm large common areas.
Private US relief organizations report a growing demand by the government of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam for them to employ more local Ethiopian staff.
Under a new policy of the ruling Politburo, copies of correspondence, telexes, etc. requesting entry visas for new expatriate workers must now be sent to the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission and other sections of the government. RRC approval is said to be required before visas are issued.
``What happens,'' says Brian Bird of World Vision International, ``is that they'll say, `We can't accept any more visa applications from you this month.' So we have to wait.'' So far, he says, no one has been kept out for more than a few weeks. Also, attrition makes room for newcomers.
Says a spokesman for Catholic Relief Services in New York, one of the largest private agencies in Ethiopia, ``They've reverted to a policy they started three years ago and then let lapse when the famine emergency hit. It hasn't given us any real problems so far.''
It is aimed particularly at World Vision, which has 125 expatriate staff (and 775 Ethiopians) in 10 health and nutrition camps and feeding centers in Ethiopia, and at Catholic Relief Services, with 15 expatriates among 250 staff.
World Vision is highly visible in Addis Ababa, not only because it flies its own twin-engined de Havilland Otter aircraft, but also because of location. Its large headquarters happens to be in the Ethiopia Hotel, almost next door to the RRC head office.
The Politburo has long had a love-hate relationship with World Vision and other European agencies. On the one hand, Ethiopia urgently needs the agencies to feed and give medical care to the 8 million still in dire need. On the other hand, advised at every turn by Soviet officials and acting as a self-declared Marxist nation, it opposes US government policy and suspects the relief volunteers of espionage.
``We believe in using local nationals,'' says World Vision's Bird, ``but we need qualified people as well.'' That means expatriates. But more local employees, other sources say, give the government increased opportunity to keep agency Americans under surveillance.
Reports on resettlement come from two British agencies. ``Seven thousand people have been taken by open truck from the Borena area recently, taken to Dessie and south to Addis, then out to west Gojam Province,'' said a worker just back from two weeks in Ethiopia. ``Nineteen thousand are due to go in a few day's time.''
Other agency officials in London said the move raised a serious relief issue. So far agencies have not been allowed into resettled areas, but they are urging the government to let them in following reports of food shortages.
If they do find suffering, they may have to change tactics and begin trying to send in relief food. The Ethiopian government says it is resettling people not to weaken guerrilla forces in the north, but because southern areas are more fertile.
``These reports are new to us,'' said a US government official in Washington. ``We thought resettlement had stopped. But it may have begun in the last couple of weeks. Our embassy people are not given free access.''
Government troops in the north recently captured the Eritrean town of Barentu, which had seized by secessionists July 6.
Private aid officials report, and US officials confirm, that many Eritreans who had returned from Sudan when the rains came are now going back to avoid the Ethiopian draft. One estimate is 400 to 900 people a day, though Washington puts it closer to 400 to 500 daily.
Reports on socialized farming are mixed. One British relief official says, ``Out in Hararge Province, scattered tribes are being gathered together in huts all lined up in neat rows, and given a large joint area to cultivate.''
US officials report no recent news of such socialized approaches, but say they ``wouldn't be surprised.'' They say that so-called ``villageization'' failed in Tanzania, doesn't work in the Soviet Union, and won't work in Ethiopia.
Another new sight noted by a recent visitor to Addis Ababa: Ethiopian party workers sporting new khaki or dark-blue safari suits with regulation T-shirts.
``It looks as though Mengistu is trying to smarten up the Party and tighten control generally,'' the informant reported.