Picture: A starving child in Ethiopia, April 1985. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

[Rough translation of an article by Maria Malagardis (Feb. 11, 2021) on the French magazine Info Libé]

In the 1980s, the risk of famine in the country was widely publicized, with great hits of songs in solidarity. The region, isolated, does not receive the same attention today.

Food distribution to hungry children at a nutrition center in Ethiopia in 1985. (Lily FRANEY/GAMMA-RAPHO)

“We are the world, we are the children”: many of us have not forgotten this popular chorus; still knowing by heart the lyrics of this song that had hit the charts in March 1985. Admittedly, this is a time when the under 20s do not know to paraphrase another famous hit. But for the older ones, this memorable music refers to the exceptional mobilization of stars such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan… gathered in a studio, headsets on their heads and eyes half closed, all howl their solidarity with a distant country hit by misfortune: Ethiopia, suffering from a dreadful famine that killed more than a million people. The single raised 63 million dollars (52 million euros).

At the same time, another big band of artists, this time French, set out to relieve “this land of drought [where] only the graves bloom”. Under the leadership of Renaud, Francis Cabrel, France Gall, Gérard Depardieu and Alain Souchon sing in unison: “Far from our hearts and far from our eyes, from our cities, from our suburbs, Ethiopia is slowly dying.” The choruses remain, but times change.

Indifference and cruelty

One could contemplate endlessly about the impossibility of reproducing this campaign of solidarity today when Ethiopia is perhaps again threatened by a famine that could affect up to 3 million people. “That’s more than the total number of COVID victims in the world,” the writer Gaspard Koenig told Les Echos on 27 January.

The fact remains that the famine in Ethiopia has a history. Two dates remain in the memory: 1973 and 1985. Two famines that owe less to the vagaries of climate than to the political choices of the country’s leaders. In 1973, it killed at least 200,000 people but was first concealed by the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie until a British journalist, Jonathan Dimbleby, reveals what was happening in the north of the country with the documentary The Unknown Famine which was going to cause an outrage. The empire at its twilight would soon be replaced by a Stalinist dictatorship that would be equally indifferent and cruel when the food crisis of 1985 occurs.

This year again, the risk of famine appears in Ethiopia, in Tigray, for the moment cut off from the world. Of course, the current Ethiopian government has the right to claim sovereignty. After all, no Western country would let Ethiopian NGOs feed its people without controlling them. But if a humanitarian catastrophe occurs in Tigray, the shame may fall on PM Abiy Ahmed who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 before becoming a warlord.

A year after offering Abiy Ahmed the most prestigious award, Nobel jurors awarded it to the World Food Programme (WFP) in 2020. A strange irony of history since the humanitarian agency’s next challenge may well be to feed the hungry population of Tigray.