NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — An Orthodox Christian priest, Tesfa Kiros Meresfa begs door-to-door for food along with countless others recovering from a two-year war in northern Ethiopia that starved his people. To his dismay, urgently needed grain and oil have disappeared again for millions caught in a standoff between Ethiopia's government, the United States and United Nations over what U.S. officials say may be the biggest theft of food aid on record.
“I have no words to describe our suffering," Tesfa said.
As the U.S. and U.N. demand that Ethiopia’s government yield its control over the vast aid delivery system supporting one-sixth of the country's population, they have taken the dramatic step of suspending their food aid to Africa’s second-most populous nation until they can be sure it won't be stolen by Ethiopian officials and fighters.
Almost three months have passed since the aid suspension in parts of the country, and reports are emerging of the first deaths from starvation during the pause. At the earliest, aid to the northern Tigray region will return in July, the U.S. and U.N. say, and to the rest of the country at some point after that when reforms in aid distribution allow.
Tesfa, who lives in a school compound with hundreds of others displaced by the war in Tigray, laughed when asked how many meals he eats a day. “The question is a joke,” he said. “We often go to sleep without food.”
In interviews with The Associated Press, which first reported the massive theft of food aid, officials with U.S. and U.N. aid agencies, humanitarian organizations and diplomats offered new findings on the countrywide diversion of aid to military units and markets. That included allegations that some senior Ethiopian officials were extensively involved.
The discovery in March of enough stolen food aid to feed 134,000 people for a month in a single Tigray town is just a glimpse of the scale of the theft that the U.S., Ethiopia’s largest humanitarian donor, is trying to grasp. The food meant for needy families was found instead for sale in markets or stacked at commercial flour mills, still marked with the U.S. flag.
The implications for the U.S. are global. Proving it can detect and stop the theft of aid paid for by U.S. taxpayers is vital at a time when the Biden administration is fighting to maintain public support for aid to corruption-plagued Ukraine.
At a private meeting last week in Ethiopia, U.S. aid officials told international partners that this could be the largest-ever diversion of food aid in any country, aid workers said. In an interview with the AP, a senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development said the exact amount of food aid stolen may never be known.
Donated medical supplies also were stolen, according to a Western diplomat and U.N. official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
With USAID giving Ethiopia’s government $1.8 billion in humanitarian assistance since 2022, a delay in providing food aid causes widespread pain. Millions of people went hungry during the war while food stocks were looted, burned and withheld by combatants, and U.N. investigators have warned of possible starvation-linked war crimes.
Now the hunger is being traced to corruption.
Preliminary findings released this month by Tigray regional authorities said they have tracked the theft of more than 7,000 metric tons of donated wheat — or 15 million pounds — in their region, taken by federal and regional authorities and others. The findings did not specify the time period. Other regions have yet to report amounts.
Ethiopia’s government dismisses as harmful “propaganda” the suggestion that it bears primary responsibility for the disappearance of aid in Tigray and other regions, but it has agreed to a joint investigation with the U.S. while the U.N.’s World Food Program carries out a separate probe.
The way that Western aid officials “distance themselves from the accusations by linking the alleged problem only to government institutions and procedures is absolutely unacceptable and very contrary to the reality on the ground,” government spokesman Legesse Tulu told reporters earlier this month. He and other government spokespeople did not immediately respond to messages from the AP.
Aid workers say humanitarian agencies have long tolerated a degree of corruption by government officials. Provision of aid in Ethiopia has been heavily politicized for decades, including during the devastating famine of the 1980s, when the then-communist regime blocked assistance to areas controlled by rebel groups.
The senior USAID official told the AP that the latest theft of U.S. and U.N. food aid included the manipulation of beneficiary lists that the Ethiopian government has insisted on controlling, looting by Ethiopian government and Tigray forces and forces from neighboring Eritrea, and the diversion of massive amounts of donated wheat to commercial flour mills in at least 63 sites.
A former Tigray official said government workers often inflate beneficiary numbers and take the extra grain for themselves, a practice that two officials with international organizations working in Ethiopia called widespread elsewhere in the country.
Numerous officials accused WFP of simply dropping off rations in the middle of towns, where much of the aid was looted by forces from Eritrea.
There were also signs that people whom the USAID official described only as “market actors” were forcing hungry families to surrender food aid they received — something that WFP suspects as well.
In Ethiopia, which has a history of deadly hunger, “zero” of the 6 million people in Tigray received food aid in May after the pause in donations by the U.S. and U.N., according to a U.N. memo seen by the AP. That's unprecedented, it said.
With 20 million people across Ethiopia dependent on such aid, plus more than 800,000 refugees from Somalia and elsewhere, independent humanitarian groups warn that even a quick resolution to the dispute could see many people starve to death.
In the U.N. food agency's first extensive public comments, the WFP regional director for East Africa, Michael Dunford, acknowledged possible “shortcomings” in its monitoring of aid distribution.
“We accept that we could have done better," he told the AP this week. But until now, Dunford said, “it’s been very much the Ethiopian government that was managing” the process.
For USAID's part, the senior agency official cited a range of reasons that U.S. officials missed the extent 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 countrywide suspension of aid showed USAID is taking the theft of U.S. aid with appropriate seriousness. Asked if he was concerned about USAID oversight, a senior Democrat, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, said, “I’m concerned about the ways in which the Ethiopian military and government may have systematically diverted food that was meant for hungry Ethiopians.”
Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “tough questions...need to be answered, and our partner must demonstrate some willingness to cooperate.”
“There must be a fundamental change in how we do food assistance in Ethiopia if we are going to resume USAID food aid there," Risch said, and called for accountability and transparency. "The first principle of humanitarian aid is to do no harm. From what I understand, harm has been done. We have to ensure for the American taxpayer that this doesn’t continue to happen.”
U.S. and U.N. officials said they were working to limit — or end — Ethiopian government officials' role in the aid system.
“We’re taking back all the control over the commodities,” Dunford said. "The entire supply chain, from the time that 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 U.S. government wants Ethiopia’s government to remove itself from the compilation of beneficiary lists and the transport, warehousing and distribution of aid, according to a briefing memo by donors seen by the AP.
The senior USAID official said Ethiopia’s government has committed to cooperate on reforms, but “we have not yet seen the specific reforms in place that would allow us to resume aid.”
Civilians, again, are suffering.
Ethiopia's harvest season is over and the lean season is approaching. The U.N. humanitarian agency has privately expressed fears of “mass starvation” in remote parts of Tigray, according to an assessment made in April and seen by the AP. Another assessment in May cited reports of 20 people dying of starvation in Samre, a short drive from the Tigray capital, Mekele.
Tigray’s main hospital reported a 28% increase in the number of children admitted for malnutrition from March to April. At the hospital in Axum town, the increase was 96%.
“It is a good day if we manage to eat one meal,” said Berhane Haile, another of the thousands of war-displaced people going hungry.
Knickmeyer reported from Washington.
Ellen Knickmeyer And Cara Anna, The Associated Press