Ethiopia's much-needed food relief and development aid could be jeopardized by recent allegations that government forces shot and killed some 20 drought victims at a food-distribution site. This is the view of members of the international donor community in Ethiopia contacted by phone.
Relief officials in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, remain skeptical of the government's denial of the shooting. The incident allegedly took place Feb. 8 in Korem when the peasants refused to be resettled to more fertile areas. And, unless the government ``further clarifies'' what took place, cuts in private relief donations and development funds earmarked for Ethiopia are ``inevitable,'' said a key relief official there Monday.
The controversy comes at a time when food aid is barely keeping ahead of the growing needs of more than 6 million people hardest hit by this year's drought.
At the same time, a number of donor nations are studying recent reforms to Ethiopia's agriculture policies that could attract from $200 to $500 million in Western long-term development funds and loans for the Soviet-backed regime. But if donors remain dissatisfied with the Ethiopian explanation of the alleged shootings, ``all that progress will be destroyed,'' the key relief official said.
Officials are equally concerned that the controversy could bring a drop in private agency donations for emergency food operations. ``People would say food shouldn't be delivered,'' says another relief official. But halting food shipments would be most harmful to the drought victims not the Ethiopian government, according to relief workers.
The Ethiopian government, in a statement issued Feb. 12, called reports of the alleged shooting an ``outright lie.'' The government suggested the reports were part of an ``orchestrated disinformation campaign'' by guerrilla groups fighting the government. Not convinced, relief officials are meeting with the government to discuss the alleged shooting.
The current controversy is the most recent in a series of worrisome incidents and claims about the government's resettlement program. Described by the government as a program aimed at moving Ethiopian drought victims in the north to more fertile lands in the south and west, the effort was strongly criticized during the last big drought, 1984-85. Observers charged that people were forced to move, and many people reportedly died during the resettlement process or soon after arriving at ill-prepared settlement sites.
This time the Ethiopian government has assured the donor community that the program would be strictly voluntary. In their denial of the shooting, the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) said the resettlement program was ``gaining growing support.''
A Western relief official said the shooting has not been confirmed by any non-Ethiopians because none were on the scene, and that the Ethiopian government apparently blocked access by Western journalists to the area just before the incident. In his view, ``the circumstantial evidence is weighted against the Ethiopian government on this one.''
But, another Western relief official said journalists had been going to the area fairly regularly. This same official notes, however, that the RRC recently has had mechanical problems with its few airplanes, one of which is used to take relief officials and reporters to Korem.
Journalists and other foreigners seeking access to Korem and sites outside of Addis Ababa are required to obtain government escorts and travel permits, which are often delayed.