RELIEF efforts are needed as badly as ever in Ethiopia - especially in the war-gripped north. But the suffering and starving won't end until the conflict between government and rebel forces itself ends. Superpowers to the rescue? Maybe. By putting Ethiopia on the US-Soviet summit agenda, Secretary of State James Baker and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnaze have benefited the joint causes of relief and peace in the Horn of Africa.
The Soviets have agreed to cooperate with the US on famine relief, including airlifts. They've already told Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who spends an obscene 70 percent of his nation's budget on the military, not to expect a renewal of the $2 billion arms pact that expires this December. Soviet advisers are slowly being withdrawn.
Most important, the summit seems to have forced Mengistu to stop bombing the port of Masawa, captured by rebels early this spring, and to welcome UN-administered food airlifts to the north. The rebels had asked for UN assistance in Masawa all along. The port is key to the feeding of some 4.5 million people in the north. Mengistu had refused UN help on the grounds that assistance meant recognition. Now the UN will work under the aegis of the US-Soviet cooperative effort launched by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev. Soviet planes previously used for troop transport may carry food (if rebels agree not to shoot at them).
The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a rebel coalition of Eritreans and Tigreans, have been on the offensive in recent months. Mengistu is reportedly unable to head off their attacks. He has to make concessions.
First on the immediate agenda is free access of relief workers to the millions of Ethiopian needy.
Second, and equally important, are preliminary peace talks. The UN presence in Masawa may help begin that elusive process. The summit surely did.
(Still to be addressed are ongoing reports of Israeli military support of the Mengistu regime.)
However, the overriding message is that superpower cooperation on North-South issues can and should become a positive theme of the '90s.