Tesfa Kiros Meresfa, an Orthodox Christian priest, goes door-to-door begging for food along with countless others recovering from a two-year war in northern Ethiopia that left his people starving. To his dismay, much-needed grain and oil have disappeared for millions of people caught in a standoff between the Ethiopian government, the United States and the United Nations over what US officials say may be the biggest theft of food aid in history.
“I have no words to describe our suffering,” said Tesfa.
As the US and the United Nations demand that the Ethiopian government relinquish control of the massive aid system that supports one-sixth of the country’s population, they have taken the dramatic step of suspending their food aid to Africa’s second-most populous country until they are safe It will not be stolen by Ethiopian officials and fighters.
It has been almost three months since aid was suspended in parts of the country and there are reports of the first starvation deaths during the hiatus. The US and UN say aid to the northern Tigray region will return to the rest of the country no earlier than July and sometime thereafter if aid distribution reforms permit.
Tesfa, who lives on a school campus in Tigray with hundreds of others displaced by the war, laughed when asked how many meals he eats a day. “The question is a joke,” he said. “We often fall asleep without eating.”
In interviews with The Associated Press, which first reported on the massive theft of food aid, officials from US and UN aid agencies, humanitarian organizations and diplomats presented new insights into the nationwide diversion of aid to military units and markets. This included allegations that some senior Ethiopian officials were instrumental in it.
The discovery in March of enough stolen food aid to feed 134,000 people in a single Tigray town for a month is just a small taste of the scale of the theft the US, Ethiopia’s largest humanitarian donor, is trying to capture. The groceries, destined for families in need, were instead offered for sale in markets or stacked in commercial flour mills, still marked with the US flag.
The impact on the US is global. At a time when the Biden administration is struggling to maintain public support for aid to corruption-plagued Ukraine, it is vital to prove it can uncover and stop the theft of aid funds used by US taxpayers were paid.
At a private meeting in Ethiopia last week, US aid officials told international partners that this could be the largest diversion of food aid to date in a country, aid workers said. In an interview with the AP, a senior official at the US Agency for International Development said the exact amount of the stolen food aid may never be known.
Donated medical supplies were also stolen, according to a Western diplomat and UN official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
With USAID providing $1.8 billion in humanitarian assistance to the Ethiopian government since 2022, a delay in the delivery of food aid is causing widespread distress. Millions of people went hungry during the war while food supplies were looted, burned and withheld by combatants, and UN investigators have warned of possible war crimes linked to hunger.
Now hunger is blamed on corruption.
Preliminary findings released this month by Tigray regional authorities said they have traced the theft of more than 7,000 tonnes of donated wheat – or £15million – in their area, stolen by federal and regional authorities and others. The period was not specified in the results. Other regions have not yet reported amounts.
The Ethiopian government has dismissed claims that it was primarily responsible for the disappearance of aid shipments in Tigray and other regions as harmful “propaganda,” but has agreed to a joint investigation with the US while the United Nations World Food Program conducts a separate investigation.
The manner in which Western aid workers “distance themselves from the allegations by only associating the alleged problem with government institutions and procedures is totally unacceptable and totally contradicts the reality on the ground,” government spokesman Legesse told Tulu earlier this month reporters. He and other government spokesmen did not immediately respond to messages from the AP.
Aid workers say humanitarian organizations have long tolerated some level of corruption by government officials. The delivery of aid in Ethiopia has been heavily politicized for decades, including during the devastating famine of the 1980s when the then-communist regime blocked aid to areas controlled by rebel groups.
The senior USAID official told the AP that the recent theft of US and UN food aid involved manipulation of recipient lists that the Ethiopian government insisted on checking, looting by the Ethiopian government and by Tigray troops and troops from neighboring Eritrea, as well as the diversion of massive supplies included quantities of donated wheat to commercial grain mills at at least 63 locations.
A former Tigray official said government workers often inflated the number of beneficiaries and took the extra grain for themselves, a practice two international organization officials working in Ethiopia said was widespread in other parts of the country.
Numerous officials have accused WFP of simply dropping off food rations in the heart of cities, where much of the relief supplies have been looted by Eritrean forces.
There was also evidence that people whom the USAID official referred to as “market players” were forcing hungry families to give up the food aid they received – something WFP also suspects.
In Ethiopia, which has a history of suffering from deadly hunger, “zero” of Tigray’s 6 million people received food aid in May after US and UN donations were suspended, according to a UN memo seen by the AP. It was said to be unprecedented.
With 20 million people across Ethiopia in need of such assistance, plus more than 800,000 refugees from Somalia and elsewhere, independent humanitarian groups warn that even a quick resolution to the conflict could leave many people starving.
In the first lengthy public comments from the UN Food Safety Authority, WFP East Africa Regional Director Michael Dunford acknowledged possible “deficiencies” in overseeing aid distribution.
“We accept that we could have done better,” he told the AP this week. But until now, Dunford said, “it has largely been the Ethiopian government that has managed the process.”
On the USAID side, the agency’s senior official cited a number of reasons why US officials had overlooked the scale of the aid theft for so long. The war blocked the agency’s ground access to the Tigray region for 20 months. Elsewhere in the country, COVID restrictions and security concerns limited USAID’s oversight, the official said.
Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the rare nationwide suspension of aid shows USAID takes the theft of US aid with appropriate seriousness. When asked if he was concerned about USAID’s oversight, a senior Democrat, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, said, “I’m concerned about how the Ethiopian military and government may have been systematically diverting food intended for hungry people Ethiopians were destined.”
US and UN officials said they were working to limit or end the role of Ethiopian government officials in the aid system.
“We’re regaining total control of the raw materials,” Dunford said. “The entire supply chain, from the time we receive the food in the country to the time it’s in the hands of the beneficiaries.” Plans include third-party distribution, real-time third-party monitoring and biometric registration of beneficiaries, he said.
The US government wants the Ethiopian government to step back from compiling recipient lists and transporting, storing and distributing the aid, according to a donor briefing memo seen by the AP.
The senior USAID official said the Ethiopian government was committed to working together on reforms, but “we have not yet seen the concrete reforms that would allow us to resume aid.”
Once again, the civilians are suffering.
The harvest season in Ethiopia is over and the lean season is upon us. The United Nations Humanitarian Agency has privately voiced its fears of “mass starvation” in remote parts of Tigray, according to an April assessment available to the AP. Another assessment in May cited reports of 20 people dying of starvation in Samre, a short drive from the Tigray capital of Mekele.
Tigray Main Hospital reported a 28% increase in the number of children admitted for malnutrition from March to April. At the Axum City Hospital, the increase was 96%.
“It’s a good day when we manage to eat a meal,” said Berhane Haile, one of thousands of war displaced people who are starving.