The Books: “Surrender or Starve : Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea” (Robert Kaplan)

History Bookshelf:

Surrender.jpgNext book on this shelf is called Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea by Robert Kaplan.

Yet another one of Kaplan’s earlier books which was re-released after his massive success with Balkan Ghosts. Here, unlike Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite, I can start to feel the Robert Kaplan STYLE emerging. He’s finding his milieu. It’s part travelogue – Robert Kaplan is not just a journalist – he is always IN these books as a character. His idol is Rebecca West, whose stupendous book about Yugoslavia in 1939 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is still a high-water mark in the genre. He is quite open about his regard for her – and that he models his books after her accomplishments. He’s also humble enough to say: “I can only ATTEMPT to do what she did …” Rebecca West is a character in the book she wrote about Yugoslavia – we hear about the breakfasts they had, the people they met on the train … her own thoughts and perceptions at Kosovo Polje, etc. etc. We learn a ton about the region – we get the history, etc., but it’s also almost like a travel diary. Robert Kaplan is damn good at this kind of writing – and in Surrender or Starve he’s moving into that territory.

The book is about famine – the causes thereof (which is, of course, never lack of food) – and power. Who’s in power? Who controls the food supply? What’s the government like? Where do things break down? He travels to the most desolate areas imaginable – horrific refugee camps in the Sudan, Ethiopia … He looks at the inherent sickness in the whole emergency aid culture … It’s a good book. I recommend it. But then again: I recommend ALL of Kaplan’s books.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book. Things covered: the famine in the early 70s in Ethiopia – the fall of the Emperor – and the rise of Mengistu. (This stuff is also told in a BRILLIANT book by a writer I hold above all others – Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Emperor … but we’ll get to that!! Kaplan quotes Kapuscinski all the time, as you will see)


From Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea by Robert Kaplan.

The story began with the 1973-74 famine in Tigre and Wollo. Except for its severity — an estimated 200,000 peasants starved to death — there was little that was unusual about this famine. Like the five previous ones that had devastated Ethiopia since Haile Selassie assumed power in 1916, this famine took place in the north; an area that the Amhara emperor had a strategic interest in keeping underdeveloped, on account of Amhara historical conflicts with the Eritreans and Tigreans. A feudal landowning system, an absence of investment, crippling taxation, and drought were the causes of the famine. As far as the palace was concerned, there was nothing to be alarmed about. According to Kapuscinski,

Death from hunger had existed in our Empire for hundreds of years, an everyday natural thing, and it never occurred to anyone to make any noise about it. Drought would come and the earth would dry up, the cattle would drop dead, the peasants would starve. Ordinary, in accordance with the laws of nature and the eternal order of th ings … none of the dignitaries would dare to bother His Most Exalted Highness with the news that in such and such a province a given person had died of hunger.

In late 1973 there was one difference, however. Between the 1960s famine and the one in the 1970s, television coverage of overseas events finally had come into its own — encouraged no doubt by the intervening Vietnam War. British reporter Jonathan Dimbleby’s film of the famine, The Unknown Famine, of course was not broadcast in Ethiopia, but information about the film filtered back to radicals in Addis Ababa, thereby fostering a strong empathy on their part for the starving peasants up north. A similar bond had eluded Russian revolutionaries until the beginning of this century. In Poland, the convergence of workers and intellectuals into one movement was crucial to Solidarity’s initial success. But in Africa, where radicals tend to come from an urban elite that knows, cares, and thinks little about the countryside and the peasants in it, such a development is unusual.

As news of the famine, conveyed by other journalists who followed Dimbleby’s trail, reached the streets and campus in Addis Ababa, it had the same effect as the 1905 shooting of marching workers in front of the Winter Palace had on Czar Nicholas II — the news broke the emperor’s spell. The edifice of legitimacy, created by history and tradition, was smashed. What followed was a series of events as drawn out, bloody, and intellectually insane as the Russian and French revolutions, but even more complex. Scholar Bertram D. Wolfe’s depiction of revolutionaries in Russia in Three Who Made a Revolution could easily apply to Ethiopia: “With fiercer passion than ever, they fell to engaging in controversies of a minuteness, stubbornness, sweep, and fury unheard of in all the history of politics.”

The first phase of the uprising in Ethiopia was known as the “creeping coup”. At the beginning of 1974, taxi drivers in Addis Ababa, protesting a rise in gasoline prices, went out on strike. A general strike of all workers followed in March. At the same time, an army mutiny, sparked by a government defeat in Eritrea, was taking place. In Negelle, in the far south of Ethiopia, junior officers arrested their superiors, forcing the generals to eat the same miserable food and dirty water as did the enlisted men. Out of this and other barracks’ rebellions came the Dergue (Amharic for committee), a coordinating body of educated junior officers, with representatives from units throughout the country. The uprising began as a class struggle. But, as pointed out by marina and David Ottaway in Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution, the ethnic animosities basic to an empire of great diversity quickly became dominant. Almost as soon as it was formed, the Dergue began to fissure along ethnic lines. Because his ancestry was not wholly Amhara, Mengistu’s rise to power was aided by his ability to be seen as a unifying figure.

It was a gradual process. The portrait of one ruler, as so often happens in the Third World, was not abruptly taken down one day from the wall and replaced with that of another. It was as if the picture imperceptibly changed, day by day, a line at a time, during a period of months, until the face of Emperor Haile Selassie was completely wiped out and the face of Mengistu Haile Mariam had emerged from out of the dim background, anonymous and impenetrable; the face of the masses at their most brutal. In the void opened by the absence of democratic institutions and the chaos of revolution, the worst national traits came to the surface.

Mengistu’s origin is obscure. By one account, he is the son of a night watchman and a palace servant; by another, the illegitimate descendant of a nobleman and his mistress. Mengistu’s complexion is extremely dark, and he is assumed to be part Oromo. During the first years of his rule, his official portrait was touched up to lighten his complexion, so he would appear like an Amhara.

In 1974, Mengistu was a thirty-two-year-old army captain, a graduate of the Holeta Military Academy, which was an institution of no prestige designed for prospective officers whose family backgrounds were neither wealthy nor aristocratic. Like Haile Selassie, Mengistu was short: five feet, five inches. But his reputation was always that of a roughneck; he was constantly getting into fist fights. For eight long years, until the outbreak of the “creeping coup”, Mengistu sat behind a desk in a cramped, dusty office in Harar, while serving as an ordnance officer for the Third Army Division — a typical dead-end job. From this vantage point, noted Rene Lefort in Ethiopia: Revolution Heretique, Mengistu learned how to master the system at its most vicious, petty, and bureaucratic level. Favors, payoffs, and other dirty business regularly crossed his desk. The future author of resettlement and villagization followed Stalin’s dictum well: “Paper will put up with anything that is written on it.”

The barracks disturbances in early 1974 were perfect opportunities for Mengistu’s cunning and thuggishness. Only a true “desperado” could challenge an absolute monarch in a society as violent and secretive as Ethiopia’s. At the Dergue’s founding meeting in late June 1974, Mengistu was chosen immediately as one of its leaders.

The emperor tried to meet the mutineers’ challenge by appointing a new prime minister, who was given a mandate for reform. Meanwhile, Mengistu and the other members of the Dergue worked behind the scenes to unite the faction-ridden armed forces. Haile Selassie was deposed on September 12, 1974; he was driven away from the palace in the back seat of a green Volkswagen and taken to the basement of the Fourth Division headquarters. Two months later, in November, a dispute about the conduct of the war in Eritrea led Mengistu to eliminate his chief rival, General Aman Michael Andom, who was gunned down in his home.

In December, students were dispatched to the countryside, ostensibly to revolutionize th emasses. But the relocation of the students, many of whom were members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary party (EPRP), allowed the Dergue to consolidate its power in the cities by forming its own left-wing party, the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement, known by its Amharic acronym, MEISON. The Dergue then set MEISON agaginst the EPRP.

On August 28, 1975, the English-language Ethiopian Herald announced that Haile Selassie had died the day before of circulatory failure. However, Mengistu is said to have suffocated the eighty-three-year-old deposed emperor with a pillow.

A few weeks later, the Dergue shot contingents of EPRP marchers down in the street. This, as Mengistu no doubt expected, only whetted MEISON’s appetite. By early 1976, MEISON cadres were conducting house-to-house searches, killing anyone suspected of belonging to the EPRP.

Within the Dergue, Mengistu continued apace to eliminate rivals. In July 1976, the members of a faction that supported a peaceful solution to the war in Eritrea all were executed. Undeterred, another group, led by General Teferi Banti — this time calling for democratic reforms — demanded that Mengistu’s power be circumscribed. Mengistu, uncharacteristically, submitted. A few months went by. Then, on February 2, 1977, General Banti and his colleagues were murdered by Mengistu inside the palace. By now, having destroyed the EPRP with the help of MEISON, the Dergue was turning against MEISON itself.

The Russian were very impressed with Mengistu’s performance thus far, and a group of East German security police were dispatched to Addis Ababa to advise the emergent Ethiopian leadaer on what to do next. What followed was the Red Terror, which began in May 1977. On May Day eve, soldiers that had been brought into town by convoy machine-gunned to death hundreds of demonstrating students, including many children. During the coming months, dozens of new bodies would turn up on the street every morning; most of them were teenagers who were vaguely connected with revolutionary politics at a time when there was no right side to be on. The victims’ families had to pay a fee to the government in order to get the bodies back for burial.

The revolution ground to a halt the next year. The death toll was estimated to be thirty thousand, not including tens of thousands of battlefield deaths. (In Tigre, an insurgency had broken out against the new military rulers, and in Eritrea, Mengistu’s uncompromising stance toward the guerrillas resulted in intensified fighting.) Of the 120 members of the original Dergue, only a small fraction were still alive. Compared to the hundreds of political prisoners in jail in Haile Selassie’s day, tens of thousands were being held in 1978. Torture reportedly was widespread.

The Darwinian process of revolution had proved efficient and had elevated Mengistu in a very short time from the very bottom to the very top, where he both orchestrated and survived four years of the most violent internecine struggles imaginable. Constantly underestimated by his rivals, he never once miscalculated. The standard of treachery he was judged by, given the paranoia engendered by the revolution, was much higer than that ever applied to Haile Selassie. A Marxist revolution once again had brought an outdated despotism up to a modern standard, with a programmed killer installed in the emperor’s palace.

Mengistu belonged to the most lethal class of dictator: the kind not distracted by greed. As with Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, Mengistu was not personally corrupt, and corruption never has been a key element in his style of rule. Apologists for the Ethiopian regime — and in Europe, especially, there are many – point out that it is more honest and efficient than the previous one. This is certainly true. Mengistu has none of the all-too-human foibles of other Third World rulers, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, for example, whose evil was of a lesser variety, one to which the US public could relate. (Is there a more tangible symbol of conspicuous, nouveau riche, middle-class consumption than Mrs. Marcos’s fetish for shoes?) This is one reason why even during the height of the famine, the media never bothered much with Mengistu. As a personality he was too austere and his evil too remote for mass audience appeal.

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