Ethiopia risks £130 million of British aid by 'hiding famine'

Britain is threatening to withhold £130 million of aid from Ethiopia if its government hides the scale of a famine in the Somali region where a bitter war against rebels is taking place.

By Damien McElroy in Addis Ababa

Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, told Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister, that Britain would not guarantee future payments to the country. On a two-day visit, Mr Alexander toured a hospital in the town of Kebri Dehar, in the Somali region. Before his arrival, local officials forced starving infants out of the emergency ward and on to the street.
"I put it to him [Mr Meles] that severely malnourished children had been removed from the hospital prior to my arrival," said Mr Alexander. "I made it clear that, if true, that was unconscionable and wholly wrong."
Mr Alexander added that he had given the prime minister a "candid and forthright" message – diplomatic code for a blunt rebuke. He said he would reject official advice and decline to make a cast iron pledge of future aid to Ethiopia. "In the months ahead I will be discussing the funding position within Europe and the United States," he said. "I am not making a decision now because of the continuing issues I have seen here."
Ethiopia is Africa's biggest recipient of British aid – spending this year totalled £130 million – and under Tony Blair, Mr Meles was hailed as the model of a progressive African leader.
Ethiopia wanted a long-term promise of British aid to bolster its negotiating position with international lending agencies and outside investors. But its internal repression has grown too harsh for its allies to ignore.
Since a disputed election in 2005, Mr Meles has become increasingly authoritarian. His government is waging a campaign against rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in the Somali region.
This presents the international community with its greatest dilemma. Aid agencies have only recently been granted permission to deliver food to the bleak desert region. Convoys must still be accompanied by the army, which dictates the safety considerations that allow a delivery to go ahead. The movement of aid workers is severely restricted.
Despite the burgeoning presence of relief agencies in Kebri Dehar, famine is not allowed to show its human face. Mr Meles says he cannot separate the food crisis from the struggle to crush the ONLF.
"I don't believe that it's an effective strategy by the government of Ethiopia to starve the people in that area when we are trying to defeat an armed struggle," he told Mr Alexander. "My military are under clear instructions to facilitate the distribution of food."
Eager to paint himself as a regional leader, Mr Meles has viewed Ethiopia's latest drought and famine as a return to the humiliations of the 1980s when its name was a byword for suffering. Only this week, the government acknowledged that 6.4 million people were threatened with starvation. Oxfam warned that the figure could be higher.
Mr Meles, a former guerrilla leader who earned an Open University degree while in prison, promised to address Britain's complaints. But there was considerable anger in his office at the tone of the meeting. "What are they doing?" asked Bereket Simon, a key lieutenant of Mr Meles. "They are following their own agenda and keeping us waiting."

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