The military Marxist government of Ethiopia is extracting at least $30 million in foreign currency this year from the generosity of donors giving mountains of grain to feed the nation's famine victims. The figure, twice as high as earlier estimates, comes from four types of port and handling charges at the port of Assab. One of the charges has been six times as high as a corresponding one levied on relief grain in Mombasa, Kenya, and 25 times as high as that charged at Port Sudan.
``The Ethiopians are making a great deal of valuable foreign currency from grain paid for by people all over the world,'' said an informed shipping official here. He shrugged. ``Yes, ports everywhere charge fees and yes, the government does have expenses in distributing grain,'' he said. ``But . . . .''
Another informed official commented: ``And you know what the hard currency is being spent on? Guns and ammunition to fight Eritreans and Tigreans.''
The charges, one of which was revealed in this newspaper earlier this year, have distressed the Reagan administration in Washington, which has committed a record 462,221 metric tons of relief grain to Ethiopia. Washington says it is now feeding half of the nation's 8 million famine victims. The fees have also upset the food-aid arm of the United Nations, the World Food Program, based here in Rome.
The WFP plays a major role in coordinating and monitoring deliveries of grain. After intense negotiations, WFP officials in Rome and Addis Ababa say the government of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam has just agreed to lower the charges considerably.
This means lower fees for relief aid that will be needed next year despite improved crop prospects.
But the fees will still be much higher than in Mombasa, Port Sudan, or in West African ports.
Private Western relief agencies have been paying a net fee of $13 a ton to unload and store relief grain at Assab. Now, WFP sources say, the fee is to fall to $3.75, the figure that governments and the WFP itself have been paying.
The Ethiopian government has been reluctant to drop the fee for private relief agencies, which import and distribute about 60 percent of all relief grain flowing into Ethiopia.
The $3.75 figure represents a considerable savings for the private agencies -- yet it compares to a similar net cost of $2 a ton in Mombasa, Kenya, and 50 cents a ton in Port Sudan, shipping officials here say.
In addition to the net fee, which covers costs of moving grain from ship to dock and from dock to storage, private agencies using Assab have had to pay two additional charges:
A ``supervisory fee'' of $1.50 a ton. Sources here describe this as ``a way to make money for the government.'' The WFP itself has consistently refused to pay the fee on its own shipments, but private agencies have.
An ``agency fee'' imposed on all ships. It is $3,000 for the first 48 hours in port, plus $800 a day thereafter.
An average grain ship spends two weeks unloading at Assab.
The resulting ``fee'' is almost $13,000 -- compared to a flat fee of $2,000 charged in Port Sudan.
``Of course,'' says one shipping expert here, ``other world ports charge agency fees as well. The agency fee is supposed to cover the services the agent on land provides to the captain and crew. But in Ethiopia, a socialist country, there's no choice.
The figure of at least $30 million generated in fees is reached this way:
From the net fee of $13 a ton charged on approximately 720,000 tons of grain delivered by private Western agencies, including Catholic Relief Services of New York which handles grain for the United States Agency for International Development: $27.8 million.
From the $1.50 ``supervisory fee'' on the same amount of grain: $1.08 million.
From the $3.70 net fee charged on 130,000 tons of grain delivered by the WFP itself: $481,000.
From the ``agency fee'' on ships berthing at Assab this year (estimated by the WFP to total at least 70): about $910,000.
Sources say the total could be considerably higher perhaps as high as $1.3 million if 100 ships berth.
On Oct. 17, the Monitor reported that the Ethiopian government was making large amounts of foreign currency from the generosity of donors around the world. It said Ethiopia was extracting ``at least $30 million'' in port charges this year made on grain donated to feed the country's hungry. The thrust of the story was accurate -- that the Ethiopian charges are far higher than those in other African ports. And this is confirmed by shipping sources. The dollar figure, however, should have read about ``$12.2 million.''