alexa Salim’s ‘Return to Korem’ and other crazy East African political stories - Daily Nation

Salim’s ‘Return to Korem’ and other crazy East African political stories

Wednesday November 2 2011


So I am in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, again. As it happens, two days before I came out, I previewed Kenyan documentary/film-maker Salim Amin’s Return to Korem.

When Salim first spoke to me about the documentary, I got the sense that it was a follow up to Mo&Me, the film about his legendary father, photojournalist Mo Amin.

Mo died in November 1996 when the Ethiopian Airlines plane in which he was flying was hijacked and ditched in the Indian Ocean killing 123 passengers and crew.

According to Mo&Me, Mo died on his feet negotiating with the hijackers.

However, Return to Korem is not, as I expected, a recap of Mo’s life. It is an intriguing follow-up on the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.

You could say Mo broke the story. The world was so shocked by what they saw, it unleashed an unprecedented international aid effort, and gave birth to the Band Aid and Live Aid phenomena.


Ethiopia was then being ruled by a notoriously brutal military dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Nearly eight million people were victims of the 1984 famine, and it is believed more than one million died.

Korem was the location of, easily, the largest camp of the famine victims. There are few horrific scenes like Korem then, where about 100 people used to die daily.

Return to Korem, then, simply asks what has happened 25 years later? I won’t spoil it for you, but it will bring a smile to your face and surprise.

Where there were thousands of people disfigured by hunger, there are now irrigated gardens. The question that Salim doesn’t dwell on much is how this happened.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, as any outsider who has met him or read about him knows, is a firm-fisted unsmiling leader who does not gladly suffer a nosy free press.

His gentler critics call him a benevolent despot. To his admirers, he is a great moderniser and reformist. And there is no doubting that Addis Ababa is going places.

Zenawi has steered Ethiopia’s economy to overtake Kenya’s as the largest in the wider East African region.

People like Zenawi, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, have revived the old debate about whether what Africa needs to shake off its lethargy and build nations that work is not “enlightened dictatorship”.

For Rwanda and Ethiopia, have drastically cut down the toll of malaria in ways that richer, more freewheeling “democracies” in Africa have failed to do.

Again, only Rwanda and Ethiopia are notching the 6-8 per cent growth in agriculture needed to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals — I hate having to use MDGs, so forgive me. Korem might suggest why.

The idea is that the “true” democracies are mired in patronage (politicians have to buy votes), corruption, and political bickering that detract from the serious work of growing economies.

I don’t think so, because dictatorships wrecked many African countries, including Ethiopia, before. So it can’t be that dictatorships didn’t work in the 1970s and 1980s, but work today.

Rather, it seems, what seems to spur African governments to perform is vulnerability — and a particularised threat.

The Tigrinya, the community from which Meles comes are, essentially, a minority. There is an extremist tendency in Ethiopian politics that is virulently anti-Tigrinya and talks about dealing with them in genocidal terms.

In Rwanda, the 1994 genocide killed one million people — most of them Tutsi — like Kagame.

In Kenya, the 2008 post-election violence partly targeted the “Kikuyu Diaspora” in the Rift Valley.

The vitriol and anger seems to have shaken President Kibaki and his confidantes, and sparked the most feverish period of investment in infrastructure and reform that ended in a new Constitution.

By contrast, when Narc won and took power in 2003, it sat on its fat majority, did relatively little, and bickered overtime.

It seems, then, that most of the African governments that make changes, even though they remain illiberal, are the ones that first win an election of some sort.

But that is never enough to end extreme hostility. So, second, they then feel the need to bribe and appease the rest of the country with something extra — good roads, working cities, agricultural reforms, and pro-growth policies.

A totally messed up African conundrum.