A young Tigray mind is a terrible thing to waste

Giving medical students a lecture at Mekelle University in 2018

When we think of what has been lost in the Tigray war or the Ukrainian war we count the dead, the injured, and the abused.  I had a remembrance of a commercial that was frequently broadcast in the late 1970s while I was a medical student at Harvard titled A mind is terrible thing to waste by the United Negro College Fund. I suddenly had the revelation that what we do not think enough about in war is that we lose our future. A recent reading for Lenten reflection, Embracing Justice, I have done about social justice and what Christ visualized as an ideal society by Isabelle Hamley opines that Jesus calls for society to allow all members to use their talents for the greater whole in accordance with God’s rules of love, forgiveness, and putting others before one’s self.  In my sixth decade of life the propensity for the world to be involved in cruel wars has not abated. Jesus in the Gospel remarks that war will be always be with us. A whole generation of talented people who could save lives and contribute to societal development have seen their chance to contribute delayed if not ultimately cancelled. Societies that hold back educational development opportunities for less favored groups, blockade necessities of life, destroy hospitals and schools are actually cheating themselves not just those they discriminate against.

From 2015 to the end of 2020 I was Professor and Chief of Neurosurgery at Mekelle University Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital in the Tigray state of Ethiopia. After medical school our residents would go through a five year program to become neurosurgeons. I also taught medical students, surgery residents, and PhD candidates in Neurobiology. The vast majority of students I mentored at Mekelle University in Tigray demonstrated amazing maturity, original thinking, superb problem solving, and keen interest in playing a positive role for their community. Fellows and Senior residents would effectively come up with novel surgical ideas. A young faculty member who later became a PhD candidate published research on neural tube defects that attracted world wide attention. It served as a catalyst to develop prevention strategies for all of Ethiopia.

Not just Tigray is being  affected. Ethiopia is bankrupt from spending more than $6 billion in weapons while drastically cutting budgets for education and healthcare. Food shortages, fuel shortages, and sky rocketing consumer prices for essential items are crippling Ethiopia. I cannot see how anyone in Ethiopia imagines their life now is better than it was before November 2020.

 Adherence to God’s teaching maximally optimizes the transformation of the community. This transformation occurs because the interaction between God and man opens up new possibilities that man alone could not ponder. Societal downfall occurred in the Bible when leaders became fixated on their own advancement in ancient Israel. This corruption spread then throughout society and was inherited in subsequent generations. War, corruption, greed, and diminished belief in faith reduces the ultimate potential of societies members. 

Increasing food shortage in Tigray and Ethiopia forecasted in 2022

The latest forecast for food shortage in Tigray and Ethiopia through May 2022

Ethiopia’s lack of agricultural development causing increasing food imports versus exports and ongoing poor rains are contributing to a worsening food crisis through much of the country. The Ethiopian blockade continues to prevent significant food transport to Tigray and distribution within the regional state. Food insecurity in Tigray and Ethiopia will not improve in 2022. 

The Famine Early Warnings Systems Network outlook for Ethiopia and Tigray through May 2022 sees no significant improvement in the food supply crisis. Tigray will remain in famine, most of Eastern Ethiopia will be  in an emergency or crisis state.

Ethiopia’s high government budget deficit spending billions of dollars for weapons and focus on war with a concomitant lack of attention to food production in addition to environmental factors is contributing to the food security crisis in areas other than Tigray.

Displacement of millions, inflation of food prices, and reduced income for selling livestock in Ethiopia will contribute significantly to food insecurity. Extremely poor rainfall in most of the region over the past two years has resulted in significant livestock death and limitations on the normal migration patterns of pastoralists. 

Ethiopia’s failure to develop agricultural is resulting in a decreasing ability to export food items and greater need to import them. Source: Brookings Institute

A Brookings Institute analysis suggested Ethiopia had been slow to develop the agricultural industry which makes up the most of the Ethiopian economic output. Whereas in the past food exports had contributed to acquiring foreign currency necessary to buy necessary import now there is much less available extra production in excess of domestic needs.  The country exports mostly raw products without processing to create added value, has poor financing, transport, marketing, and commercialization on an industrial scale. 

Food costs increased 41.6% year-on-year mainly due to a jump in the prices of vegetables, meat, milk, cheese, eggs and spices. Those for coffee beans and non-alcoholic beverages also increased. Source Bloombergs

Poor 2022 cereal crop forecasts for Tigray means worse famine

The Tigray and Ethiopia crop forecast for 2022 predicts poor yields

The forecast for growing cereal crops (teff, sorghum, maze, and wheat) in Tigray and Ethiopia in 2022 is poor for Tigray and questionable  for Northern Ethiopia due to below average rainfall predictions based upon meteorological data and satellite sensors. Tigray cannot grow enough food to escape famine without receiving food aid. Normally there is a second season harvest which is more dependent on good rains then the first. The Ethiopian government continues the complete blockade of food and medicine to Tigray.

Without outside food aid from international sources such as the World Food Program this years crop in Tigray will be very insufficient to relieve the ongoing and worsening famine affecting more then 1 million Tigrayans and threatening ultimately another 5 to 6 million. Even for Ethiopia, the war spending in excess of $4 billion since the war with Tigray started will make it difficult to meet its needs even outside of Tigray without major purchases and/or aid. 

The Famine Early Warning systems Network predicts expanding conflict and prolonged drought expected to drive record-level and extreme need in 2022.Crisis level shortages of food will continue in Tigray while much of Ethiopia will also face stress.

Although Ethiopia claimed to withdrawal from Tigray last season to allow planting, Abiy Ahmed appointed official, Abraha Desta, said this was a lie and explained that seeds and farm equipment were sent to Eritrea as well that farmers were prevented from planting. While Ethiopia denied famine, Desta claimed it was a crisis causing many deaths. Eritreans also ransacked food aid during their occupation of Tigray. Just this week an Ethiopian attack on a community mill which farmers in Tigray need to make their crops into flour was destroyed. No seed supplies, fertilizer, or farm equipment has been allowed to be delivered to Tigray since the conflict began in November 2020. Most farmers depend upon farm animals to plow and carry heavy loads in their work but many animals were killed by Eritreans and Ethiopia forces.

Jeffrey Feltman returning to Ethiopia this week to discuss peace with Tigray

Reuters reports U.S. Envoy is returning to Ethiopia to discuss peace talks with Tigray

The Tigray Defense Force retreated back into Tigray boundary in part due to requests from the United States State Department who promised some reciprocal action which has been slow in coming. Just now the United States announced that U.S. envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman is returning to Addis Ababa to specifically discuss peace talks. 

Even though Tigray forces retreated into their borders, Ethiopia has continued airstrikes and drone strikes within Tigray killing dozens of civilians daily. Additionally the complete blockade of food, medical supplies, fuel for  civilian use, power, telephone, and internet have continued for over a year. Millions are facing critical famine risks and thousands have died for lack of even basic health care. 

The resilience of the Tigray forces to withstand against defeat by the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Turkish, and United Arab Emirates forces has created a no win situation for Ethiopia. Now recent advances have started into Western Tigray which is under Ethiopian and Eritrean occupation still with many international humanitarian organizations reporting thousands of deaths from genocidal killing, starvation, displacement, violation of women. Additionally the economic forecast for Ethiopia facing sanctions and economic collapse by the African Development banks finds low investor confidence, high unsustainable debt service from high war costs and with poor tax income. In other words Ethiopia must seek peace or find itself in complete economic ruin.