The BBC's allegations over Ethiopian aid: what is the truth?

Aid workers must be pragmatic -- so if food was getting to people, then the money was doing its job.

I have followed, with a certain incredulity, the recent story put out by the BBC that 95 per cent of the aid to the Tigrayan rebels was diverted. I mean, 95 per cent is a vast amount of money, and why, I ask myself, would any group of self-respecting conmen steal it all? Surely they would need to show that enough good was being done, so that the cash cow would come back again and again and again.

The cross-border aid process ran from 1984 to the fall of Mengistu's regime in Addis. This was no one-off smash-and-grab.

Initially, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) simply sent people from Tigray to Sudan to be fed and housed by the United Nations and the international NGOs. It seemed a cheap and efficient way to manage a famine in Tigray. But the Sudanese were overwhelmed by the sight of 300,000 people arriving en masse.

The Sudanese camps suddenly turned into a second Korem, until enough aid could be delivered to reduce the death toll. The TPLF consistently denies that this was what it had done. Yet I, and others, couldn't conceive how such a vast sea of people could have moved through such tightly controlled rebel territory without the active guidance of the TPLF.

What happened next is the crux of the BBC's story and of Paul Vallely's refutation in the Independent. There had been a good harvest in western Tigray, but the poor had no money to buy it. The TPLF, through its civilian wing REST, determined sensibly that buying from the producers to feed the consumers was better for everyone than dumping food aid into the market.

Why, the TPLF argued, suppress the price of food for the few who had managed to grow enough to sell? This impeccable free-trade logic from hardline Marxists won immediate sympathy. And so began the process of meeting merchants, handing out cash, and checking on both food distribution and nutritional levels.

Whisky and fags

Khartoum, before sharia law and the "Courts of Prompt and Instant Justice", was a vibrant, dusty and chaotic city. TPLF soldiers swaggered around flashing their gold cigarette lighters. Johnnie Walker Black Label was their favourite tipple. REST had a large house in an expensive suburb where the rents were too high for us Oxfam types. It was a friendly house, with an endless flow of people coming and going.

As foreigners, we never knew who was who, but no one was turned away, and the atmosphere was beguilingly appropriate for beginning a relationship of trust.

The recent angry response to the BBC by ageing colleagues that every effort was made to build checks and balances into the purchase and distribution process speaks volumes about their real anxiety that many things could have gone wrong. They wanted to be sure that if food or money did go astray, it wouldn't be because they'd been negligent.

On that basis -- and Paul Vallely's detailed explanations -- the more extreme claims made by the BBC must be discounted. But, for the very same reason, so too must any outright denial that anything did go missing.

The truth, I think, lies somewhere between the two positions. The proud young TPLF fighters in Khartoum and the earnest workers of REST mingled, working for the same cause, under the same authority.

There was much we were never privy to as aid workers (and the same applied to journalists), so it would be foolish to state anything too categorically. It was in the interests of both REST and the TPLF to ensure a sustained supply of resources to them and their people. This they did by providing a satisfactory level of access. That was smart and logical thinking.

What did the CIA know?

Had they not been of a Marxist orientation, they would have had an easier time of it from the United States, and perhaps would not have needed to be so accommodating: they could have done with their own Charlie Wilson. As it was, the best they could have hoped for was to be considered the good "commies", as opposed to the bad ones of Mengistu Haile Mariam's regime.

Besides, the verdict has to be out on what the CIA in Sudan did and didn't know. At the time it seemed not enough, given its boringly incessant attempts to question aid workers coming out of Tigray, and yet rather a lot, given its involvement in the highly complex evacuation of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.

The people the CIA seemed most interested in were often the health workers, who travelled widely, witnessed bombing raids by the Ethiopians, and saw where TPLF fighters were based. This was precisely what the spooks wanted to know about. The health workers, on the other hand, weren't too pleased with these extra attentions, but they were the ones who knew whether the process was working or not.

If the people weren't hungry, then that was what counted. That, after all, was what the grain buying programme was for. That was what determined whether the money was well spent. Counting bags of grain was never going to be a foolproof process, nor could it have been a guarantee of success.

The process did work. The flood of refugees into the border camps slowed to a trickle, and health levels improved in Tigray. That's what people gave Sir Bob their money for and, by and large, it did what was expected of it.

It was always evident that greater access, and thus greater accountability, was more possible with the structures established by the Tigrayans than with those of the Eritreans. That this was so is still reflected in the different political realities of the two countries.

Not just a famine

So, I ask myself if the story even has the right focus. What happened to aid to the rebels in Eritrea, where accountability was much harder to establish? What of the tales of an underground TPLF political prison in Gondar, to which no aid worker was ever granted access?

No surprise there. This wasn't just famine, but a nasty and brutal war zone. To suggest that the TPLF never pulled a fast one and took its share would be a very foolish and naive assertion.

Today the TPLF -- sorry, government of Ethiopia -- owns vast tracts of sorghum-growing estates on the Sudan border, right next to Western Tigray where this all began. In a land where private property is illegal, these (ad)venture capitalists are a real success story. As ever, someone else is paying the price.

Nicholas Winer is a former director of Oxfam in Sudan and Ethiopia. He is also the author of "The Tethered Goat" a political thriller set in Mengistu's Ethiopia.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.