Towards the end of 1985, at the height of the worst famine in modern Ethiopian history, Margaret Thatcher contemplated helping to topple the Ethiopian government. The documents – marked Top Secret and Personal – have now been placed in the National Archive:
The British prime minister had long made no bones about how much she disliked the military regime led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The British government was among the most generous donors to the Ethiopian famine appeal, but the regime itself – Marxist and pro-Soviet – was exactly the kind of authority Thatcher loathed.
By late 1985 the prime minister’s patience was wearing thin. Charles Powell, her private secretary, wrote to the Foreign Office asking what steps might be taken. The FCO, taking is normal, cautious approach wrote back on 27 November saying that: “Barring an assassin’s bullet, Mengistu looks secure, and the opposition movements inside and outside Ethiopia remain deeply divided. The choice is between seeking to influence the present regime, and a policy of containment.”
This did not satisfy Thatcher at all.
“The Prime Minister continues to believe that it is not enough just to jog along in our relations with the distasteful regime in Ethiopia,” came the reply from her private office, just two days later. “If the conclusion is that our present relations offer no serious scope for exercising beneficial and positive influence, she would like serious thought given to ways in which we could make life harder for the Ethiopian regime. These might, as examples, include:”
The letter then lists four options – the first two of which were explosive.
“i) support for the rebels in Eritrea and Tigray;
ii) a more active effort in conjunction with the Americans to identify and perhaps encourage opponents of Mengistu within Ethiopia”
The other two options were more conventional: asking other western powers to criticise the Ethiopian government and taking a “more robust line” when examples emerge of the abuse of aid.
The Foreign Office – and Geoffrey Howe as foreign secretary – must have found these suggestions very hard to digest. Certainly it took some more than a month for a suitable response to be drafted. “The Foreign Secretary agrees that jogging along with the Ethiopian regime would not be right,” came the reply on 10 January 1986.
But, noting that some progress was being made, the Foreign Office urged caution. Backing the rebels would – Sir Geoffrey believed – not work, driving Mengistu further into the arms of the Soviets and (a killer argument with Mrs T) it was also noted that the Eritrean and Tigrayan rebel leaders were “…as extreme in their broadly Marxist political attitudes as the Derg [the Ethiopian government].”
The letter concludes: “We do not believe that support for the rebels would work to our advantage.”
What is interesting to note is that the British government was – if this correspondence is to be believed – unaware that aid that international charities were providing through the Sudan based rebel movements was already being diverted to purchase weapons. A programme I produced for the BBC in 2010 detailed this evidence.
Bob Geldof objected – saying that none of Band Aid’s money had gone astray (a suggestion the programme never made). The BBC Trust apologised to Geldof for the apparent mistake.
I was subsequently contacted by the head of a major British aid agency who substantiated the claims that aid had gone astray, without commenting on which agency’s resources had been used to buy arms and ammunition.
Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?
Ethiopia has seen a massive cut in its fertility rate, from an average of seven children per woman in the 1990s to 4.6 currently. But how has it managed this?
Experts say the country has made this turnaround because of a combination of factors.
"Women stay longer in school, the standard of living is increasing so people don't want to have too many children and more importantly, family planning is becoming more popular," explains Faustin Yao, the United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA) representative to Ethiopia.
The country's economy is among the fastest growing in the world, and as the quality of life improves, people tend to have fewer children.
Muluwork Tesfaye, a nurse in Addis Ababa, says she could not afford to support a large family in the capital.
The mother of two grew up in a family of eight and her parents struggled to provide for them.
"My husband is the one who took me to college," she says. "I wanted a better life for my children."
In the capital, Addis Ababa, the fertility rate is estimated to be 1.7 - lower than the rate needed to keep the population steady.
More educated women and a higher cost of living often mean fertility rates are lower in urban areas.
In Ethiopia, the availability of contraceptives has also played a big role.
"The increase in contraceptive use during 2000-2011 emerged as the single most important source for the recorded decline in TFR (Total Fertility Rate)," said a UNFPA report.
However, a quarter of all women who need contraceptives are still not able to get them.
Rural areas have also recorded a decline in the number of children per woman, albeit slower.
Ayenalem Daw, a mother of six living in Weyo Rafu Hargisa village about a four-hour-drive out of Addis Ababa, is in her late thirties.
She says if she had heard about family planning earlier, she would have had four children.
Women in her village hold regular meetings called "shene" to discuss contraception and other health issues.
"Things are changing now. I think my children will have only two babies each," says Mrs Ayenalem.
Health extension workers also regularly provide health education in the villages, including information about contraception to those who need it.
The programme entails home visits by government-employed community workers who engage families on a one-on-one basis.
The big leap in contraception use between 2000 and 2011 is largely attributed to health extension workers.
This was also helped by an increase in the number of girls going to school over the same period.
"We go to the churches and mosques to talk to people about family planning," said one of the women in the village of Hunta, in the Oromiya region.
While it is known that the major religions in Ethiopia - Orthodox and Muslims - do not openly approve of family planning, the health workers said religious leaders were generally supportive of their work.
Ethiopia is among nine African countries whose rate of population growth is declining.
Others are Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda.
But many other African countries whose fertility decline was on course have now stalled, while others are yet to begin the transition.
Most dangerous place to give birth:
Mandera - a vast, arid county on the north-eastern Kenyan tip bordering Somalia and Ethiopia - has one of the world's highest fertility rates. On average, a woman there gives birth to eight children.
But it is also one of the world's most dangerous places for a woman to give birth.
The UN Population Fund estimates that 3,795 women die giving birth out of every 100,000 live births. The national average is more than 10 times smaller.
Early marriage, female genital mutilation, low education levels especially for women, underdeveloped healthcare infrastructure contribute to the dire situation.
Local leaders are now keen on changing this trend by inviting foreign partners to invest in healthcare.
"Resources are everything," said Mandera governor Ali Roba.
"We have a lot of competing interests; virtually every sector in Mandera is in dire need of attention."
They are optimistic the rate will come down and when it does, so will the fertility rate.
Experts say reducing poverty rates also leads to a decline in fertility.
"It's not the population growth that is the problem - it's the extreme poverty that is the underlying reason," says Hans Rosling, professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
"If you continue to have extreme poverty areas where women give birth to six children and the population doubles in one generation, then you'll have problems."
A case in point is Niger, the country with the highest fertility rate in the world - 7.6. It is also one of the poorest.
The West African country is projected to nearly quadruple its population from about 17 million to 66 million between now and 2050.
Experts warn that this trend could only spell more trouble for Nigeriens, half of whom are already without adequate food and who are often hit by drought.
For Africa to effectively eradicate poverty, countries will have to take deliberate steps to manage the rate of their population growth.
Some, like Ethiopia, are leading the way and reaping the benefits of having smaller families.
THE UK Government has been urged to provide assurances of “strict scrutiny” over the export of material which can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons to a country with defence links to North Korea.
Data shows that in January this year, the UK approved the export of £1,193 of deuterium compounds to Ethiopia under a licence granted by the government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
The material has uses ranging from the construction of nuclear reactors and the manufacture of medicinal drugs, to the production of nuclear weapons.
The information, collected by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), also shows the deuterium has been exported to Ethiopia under a “dual-use” licence as goods for both military and civilian purposes.
But SNP MP Stephen Gethins, a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has raised concerns over the transaction, pointing out there is no record of any nuclear power reactor in Ethiopia.
The country has also signed up to treaties banning the use and spread of nuclear weapons.
Gethins has written to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond pointing out Ethiopia’s “longstanding” defence relationship with North Korea, which has a “predilection for nuclear armament”.
He told the Sunday Herald: “I want reassurances from the UK Government that it is applying the strictest scrutiny on the sale of materials overseas that have potential to be used in any kind of nuclear proliferation.
“When it comes to these kinds of transactions, security and safety must be paramount and any Government activity must be absolutely transparent.”
The letter to Hammond, sent by Gethins last week, notes that two major uses of deuterium are in the construction of nuclear reactors and “in the creation of the fusion fuel needed to achieve thermonuclear capabilities”.
However, it states a worldwide database on nuclear power plants in operation or under construction, which is held by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has no record of a power reactor in Ethiopia. It goes on to highlight reports that Ethiopia has bought large quantities of North Korean arms and munitions since the 1980s.
The letter said: “Given Ethiopia has signed and ratified the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, what purpose could be had for acquiring nuclear material that has military
“With North Korea’s predilection for nuclear armament, Ethiopia having been found to have onsold deuterium would constitute a serious violation of international law.”
According to data collected by CAAT, around 86 licences for export of deuterium compounds have been issued over the past five years to countries including Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Angola, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Brazil, Norway and Ghana.
The material has also been exported to the United Arab Emirates, although some licences were refused in 2014 due to a “risk of diversion or re-export to undesirable users”.
Andrew Smith, spokesman for CAAT, said: “A lot of the components and equipment that the government licences for civilian purposes can also be used in the production of arms. If there is reason to suspect that equipment being sold to Ethiopia is reaching North Korea then it must be investigated straight away.”
A FCO spokesman said: “The UK has one of the most transparent and rigorous export control systems in the world. Each export licence application is carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU
and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.”
The London Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was asked to comment but did not respond.