1984 Ethiopian Famine

The 1984 Ethiopian Famine was truly tragic.

Famine Pic2

This famous picture taken by South African Photojournalist, Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for its stark depiction of the 1993 famine in Sudan. Artistic License permits us to use it as a representation of the inhumane suffering of the Ethiopian people during the 1984 Ethiopian Famine.

Following the recent Retro-Edition Tribute to Menelik II’s victory over the Italians at the Battle Of Adowa, we round off our time in Ethiopia by revisiting the 1984 Ethiopian Famine, one of the most tragic events in modern Ethiopian, African and World History…The Famine itself was the culmination of a long series of events starting with the removal of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Emperor Haile Selassie & The Decline Of The Ethiopian Monarchy

After the suppression of the 1960s revolt against the Emperor, the Emperor failed to effect significant economic and political reforms that ignited the Ethiopian revolution which began to unfold in early 1974.

In late June, a body of men that eventually totaled about 120, none above the rank of major and almost all of whom remained anonymous, organized themselves into a new body called the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that soon came to be called the ‘Derg’, essentially a Military Junta.


Anachronism: Emperor Haile Selassie

The Derg

The Derg ‘elected’ Major Mengistu Haile Mariam chairman and Major Atnafu Abate vice chairman, both outspoken proponents of far-reaching change.

The Derg worked to undermine the authority and legitimacy of the emperor, and after street demonstrations took place urging the emperor’s arrest, the Derg formally deposed Haile Selassie and imprisoned him.

Mengistu: The Rise

Mengistu hereafter emerged as the leading force in the Derg and took steps to protect and enlarge his power base. Social and economic Land reform was addressed; the result was the promulgation on December 20 of the first socialist proclamation for Ethiopia.

Mengistu Haile Mariam Making Speech

In keeping with its declared socialist path, the Derg announced in March 1975 that all royal titles were revoked and that the proposed constitutional monarchy was to be abandoned, and in August Haile Selassie died under questionable circumstances.

The Derg’s ultimate aim however was the creation of a One-Party system, putting Ethiopia on the road to Socialism and aligning it with the Soviet Bloc Cold War Alliance.

However, the new Republic was immediately embroiled in a period of Civil War and Political unrest emanating from insurgent groups like the EPRP, which was met with a ruthless counter-insurgency response from Mengistu dubbed ‘The Red Terror’ in which Civilians were murdered on the grounds of being EPRP sympathisers.

Ethiopia in Crisis: Famine and Its Aftermath, 1984-88

Toward the end of the 1980s, several crises, including famine, economic collapse, and military setbacks in Eritrea and Tigray, confronted the Derg. In addition, as democratic reform swept through the communist world, it became evident that Addis Ababa could no longer could rely on its Soviet Bloc allies for support.

By mid-1984 it was evident that another drought and resulting famine of major proportions had begun to affect large parts of northern Ethiopia. Just as evident was the government’s inability to provide relief, and by early 1986 the famine had spread to parts of the southern highlands, with an estimated 5.8 million people dependent on relief food.

The 1986 Locust and grasshopper plagues only made things worse.

The government’s inability or unwillingness to deal with the 1984-85 famine provoked universal condemnation by the international community. Even many supporters of the Ethiopian regime opposed its policy of withholding food shipments to rebel areas. The combined effects of famine and internal war had by then put the nation’s economy into a state of collapse.

The 1984 Ethiopian Famine had truly taken hold.



World To The Rescue

Following a BBC Media Report on the 1984 Ethiopian Famine and ensuing public outcry over the treatment of Ethiopians by their own government, the U.S. government was prompted to take steps to work with the Communist leader Chairman Mengistu Haile in order to ease the suffering of famine victims.


The Artists

Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson also wrote the song ‘We Are The World’ and recruited fellow musicians to record it in an attempt to provide aid relief to the victims of the 1984 Ethiopian Famine.

Although the famine began in 1983 with counter-insurgency strategies instituted by Chairman Mengistu in the Northern regions of the country, two years passed before attention in the United States focused on the great humanitarian emergency taking place within Ethiopia.

The focused attention culminated in the great LiveAid concert and “We Are the World” recording which garnered millions of dollars intended for African famine relief.


The charity concerts and record sales ultimately raised between 100 and 500 million dollars with the vast majority of donations coming from the United States. Other large contributing nations were Britain, Australia, and Ireland towards relief for the 1984 Ethiopian Famine.


Conclusion: Aftermath

Media portrayals of the 1984 Ethiopian Famine, replete with photos of children who were literally dying in front of readers’ eyes, and the celebratory coverage of what American and other Western observers had to offer as wellsprings of money, information, and technology diverted attention from hard questions.

Few bothered, for instance, to ask why the United States knowing about the famine conditions since 1982 had opted to standby as the death toll rose. Others failed to ask why Africa had remained for so long on the periphery of American consciousness and why it took a catastrophe of this scale to focus attention on the poverty of so many nations on that continent.

Equally important, the focus on the celebrity links of giving aid and the party like atmosphere of LiveAid presented this emergency as a one-time event rather than a distinct phenomenon with a unique history. Once the party ended, many in the American public moved on with their daily lives and Ethiopia receded into the background.

30 years later Ethiopia is a different Country after years upheaval. Its current model of centralized ‘Authoritarian development’ initiated by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is based loosely on the Chinese model.

On the Political front, Democratic reforms remain a challenge but Ethiopia appears to be on a positive Economic trajectory, although others say the real beneficiaries of this Economic boon are not ordinary Ethiopians but rather Ethiopia’s Elite Political/Military class dating back from the days of Civil War and the 1984 Famine.

You can view the links below for more on the 1984 Ethiopian Famine, Ethiopia’s current situation and the Biography of Photographer Kevin Carter who committed suicide at 33, and our Home Page featured Documentary of the Week is on the 1984 Ethiopian Famine…Peep it!


Links & Credits

Development Lessons For Africa

Kevin Carter Bio: https://g.co/kgs/xB2ZNL








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