Ethiopia famine aid 'spent on weapons'
Max Peberdy (middle) says the aid money went to the right causes - but Gebremedhin Araya (left) was posing as an undercover rebel
By Martin Plaut
Africa editor, BBC World Service News
The BBC has evidence that millions of dollars, earmarked for victims of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, went to buy weapons.
The investigation found claims that a rebel movement in Ethiopia diverted the aid to fund its attempt to overthrow the government of the time.
Rebel soldiers said they posed as merchants as "a trick for the NGOs".
Documents released by the CIA confirmed aid was "almost certainly being diverted for military purposes".
Drought had wiped out crops and an estimated one million people died. Millions were saved by the western aid that poured into the country.
But not all went to its intended destination.
Ethiopia was not just fighting famine, but also rebellions in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray. Much of the countryside was outside of government control, so relief agencies brought aid in from neighbouring Sudan.
Some was in the form of food, some as cash, to buy grain from Ethiopian farmers in areas that were still in surplus.
The photograph above shows one of those cross-border purchases in 1984.
In the centre sits Max Peberdy, an aid worker from Christian Aid, who had carried in nearly $500,000 in Ethiopian currency.
On his journey Mr Peberdy was guarded by 50 young fighters of the rebel movement, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
Max Peberdy believes the food went to feed the starving
But he insists he went in with the rebel's relief organisation, Relief Society of Tigray (Rest).
"There had to be a complete separation between the support we got from the TPLF and the logistics of this grain purchasing, which was in the hands of the Rest officials," he said.
On the left sits a merchant, counting out the money, while a Rest official looks on.
But that "merchant" was in fact Gebremedhin Araya. He insists that he was no merchant, but rather a senior member of the TPLF rebels.
"I was given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant. This was a trick for the NGOs. They didn't know me."
Underneath the sacks of grain he sold, he says, were sacks filled with sand. And he handed over the money he received to TPLF leaders, including Meles Zenawi - the man who went on to become Ethiopia's prime minister in 1991.
Max Peberdy still believes that none of the aid was diverted.
"It's 25 years since this happened and in the 25 years, it's the first time anybody has claimed such a thing."
He insists that to the best of his knowledge, the food went to feed the starving.
Mr Gebremedhin's version of events is supported by the former commander of the TPLF's army, Aregawi Berhe.
Now living in exile in a Dutch town, he says the rebels put on what he describes as a "drama" to get the money.
"The aid workers were fooled," he says.
He says that in 1985, of the $100 million that went through the hands of the TPLF, 95% was allocated either to buy weapons or to build the hardline party within the rebel movement - the Marxist Leninist League of Tigray.
Both Mr Aregawi and Mr Gebremedhin fell out with the TPLF leadership and fled from the country.
The Ethiopian prime minister's office refused an interview with Meles Zenawi to clarify the events.
But evidence supporting the exile's version of what took place comes from a document written by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Dated April 1985, this secret assessment is entitled: Ethiopia: Political and Security Impact of the Drought.
Michael Burke's 1984 report in Ethiopia which shocked the world
It concluded: "Some funds that insurgent organisations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes."
This is supported by Robert Houdek, who became the most senior US diplomat in Ethiopia in 1988 - the charge d'affaires.
He said that rebels of the TPLF and the Eritrean rebel movement - the EPLF - had told him of aid being diverted in Sudan.
"It was sold for cash, and of course with money you can buy weapons, you can buy fuel. That was going on. There was no question about that."
It should not be forgotten that this all took place at the height of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union had poured $4 billion into Ethiopia, and provided Soviet officers to direct Ethiopia battles against the rebels.
In January 1983 President Ronald Reagan issued National Security Directive 75, which aimed to confront the Soviet Union across the developing world.
"US policy will seek to limit and destabilise activities of Soviet Third World allies and clients," it said.
In November 2009 Robert Gates - President Obama's Secretary of Defence - gave a speech describing how he briefed President Reagan during his time as deputy head of the CIA.
He said that the president's approach was to "impose ever stiffer costs on the Soviet Union for its Third World adventurism".
And he includes Ethiopia among the states like Nicaragua and Afghanistan in which - as he puts it - "Soviet surrogates soon faced their own lethal insurgencies".
Mr Gates was unwilling to expand on just how the US backed the Ethiopian insurgents, but since there were only a limited number of rebel movements, the suggestion cannot be ruled out that the CIA not only knew about, but supported, the diversion of aid funds to the TPLF.