Ethiopia in transition: Quick end to a brutal regime

As opposition forces ringed Addis Ababa, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane on May 22 and fled Ethiopia for a ranch in Zimbabwe. State-run radio announced Mengistu’s unceremonious departure without comment. After 14 years of iron-fisted rule, Mengistu left behind a demoralized army, a shattered economy, and an ethnically fragmented society.

In his last days Mengistu desperately sought to shore up his regime. He offered to negotiate with opposition forces in peace talks spon sored by the U.S. He attempted cosmetic changes for his regime by reshuffling his cabinet.He even promised to stray away from his Marx ist policies by relaxing control over the economy and allow more personal freedoms.In the end, as one observer noted:”Mengistu left power as stealthily as he seized it.”

Mengistu remained messianically defiant to the end. He deluded him self into believing that he was the linchipin of Ethiopian unity. He refused to believe that he could be an obstacle to peace and national reconciliation. Recently, he responded to a proposal for his resignation by scornfully instructing the petitioning university professors that he could only be removed by the masses who elected him. He sought to rally public support by raising the specter of secession and national fragmentation. He blamed western powers, particularly the U.S., for plotting his overthrow and undermining his regime both at home and abroad.

Many Ethiopians had long been resigned to the fact that Mengistu will remain in power indefinitely through brutal repression. Few Ethiopians had expected Mengistu’s stealthy departure. Even fewer expected that he would escape for a luxurious lifestyle on a large colonial ranch in Zimbabwe. It is rumored that he bought a ranch previously owned by Ian smith, the former outlaw Rhodesian prime minister. Mengistu’s departure was received with muted jubilation. The imminent siege of the city dampened any large-scale public expression of merriment.

There is divergent speculation on the factors leading to Mengistu’s sudden departure. Some observers suggest that the U.S. helped to secretly facilitate Mengistu’s unobstructed departure in anticipation of a peaceful transfer of power. Others suggest that the inexorable military pressure by the opposition forces convinced Mengistu that there was no hope of saving his regime. Still others speculate that Mengistu realized that he could no longer command the forces or adequately resupply them to continue the fight. Commanding officers reportedly deserted their troops and joined opposition forces. Others demoralized over recent defeats simply did not have the will to fight. The decline of socialism globally and changes in the Soviet foreign policy are also said to be responsible for the overall decay and disintegration of Mengistu’s government.

Mengistu’s Legacy
As the head of a semi-literate military governing structure, Mengistu ruled by Praetorian and military rhetoric. He believed that Ethiopia’s social and political problems could be solved by the forced application of Marxist policies. Both Mengistu and the Derg, the governing body, were often oblivious to the intricate and complex problems in the country’s economy and ethnic structure.

During Mengistu’s regime Ethiopia became synonymous with famine and a global symbol of poverty. Mengistu embraced socialism and experimented with voguish socialist policies nationalizing private property and collectivizing agriculture. He proclaimed a people’s republic and ordered the establishment of a working class party over which he reigned as chairman. He also established urban and peasant associations to maximize his political control at the local level.

Mengistu also left a bitter legacy of ethnic strife and political repression. He refused to negotiate meaningfully with opposition groups. He imposed military solutions to political problems. He ruthlessly eliminated political opposition and periodically purged the military and the derg. Occasionally he personally executed opponents. During the “Red Terror Campaign” in the late 1970,s, he ordered his loyalist cadres and militiamen to conduct political witch hunts resulting in thousands of deaths. In 1978 Amnesty International reported 8,000 political prisoners in Ethiopia.

Mengistu established the third largest military force in Africa with Soviet support. He spent over $10 billion to purchase arms. The military budget exceeded seventy percent of the country’s operating budget by the late 1980s.

Mengistu’s repression caused the largest exodus of Ethiopians in history resulting in the most acute refugee problem in Africa. International sources reported nearly a million Ethiopian refugees in the Sudan in 1985. Hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopians also fled the country to all parts of the world to escape Mengistu’s repression.

Mengistu will most likely be remembered for his depraved indifference to the millions of famine victims. According to Dawit Wolde Giorgis, formerly Mengistu’s commissioner for relief and rehabilitation, Mengistu and his Marxist coterie “either refused to believe (famine) existed, implying it was an insult to suggest such thing could happen in a Marxist-Leninist society, or they asserted if it did exist, it was best to let nature take its course.” Mengistu angered international donors by using food aid as weapon against opposition forces.

Current Situation
Mengistu appointed former defense minister General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan as acting head of state just before making his furtive exit. General Tesfaye had served as the military governor in Eritrea and reportedly opposed Mengistu’s decision to execute 12 generals two years ago. Mengistu later removed him from office.

Initially, there was some speculation that Tesfaye may be able to revitalize the army and successfully repel opposition forces. In a 15-minute televised speech shortly after Mengistu’s departure, Tesfaye expressed his desire to negotiate at an upcoming U.S.-sponsored peace talks.He pledged to carry on with the fight if political settlements could not be achieved.

Buoyed by recent military successes opposition forces seemed determined to vanquish the Derg. They quickly rejected Tesfaye’s interim appointment and declared that Mengistu’s departure in itself will not lead to national reconciliation or peace. They insist on the removal of all officials associated with Mengistu, and the establishment of a transitional government.

Tesfaye was unable to reverse the gains made by the opposition, and government forces lost ground. It had been expected that the elite forces deployed in the capital could indefinitely forestall capture of the capital. Within days the military situation for the government proved hopeless. Less than a week after Mengistu’s departure, the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) seized Asmara and the port city of Assab. Opposition forces had completely encircled the capital. The city’s defenders were in disarray leaving Addis Ababans wondering what might happen next. On the eve of the scheduled peace talks, the government did not appear to have much negotiating strength and was reluctantly willing to turn over power to the opposition forces. At the conclusion of the first day of talks, mediator and U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Herman Cohen somberly announced: “After consulting with all parties, the U.S. government is recommending that the forces of the EPDRF enter the city as soon as possible to help stabilize the situation.” On May 28 EPDRF forces secured the capital after a brief battle. The government called on its soldiers to surrender. And thus ended a seventeen year nightmare.

Following the conclusion of the London peace talks, EPDRF Chairman Meles Zenawi responding to a reporter’s question on the organization’s presumed Stalinist tendencies stated:

“The EPDRF is for the formation of a broad based coalition government as soon as possible. After the formation of such a broad based government, there will be an internationally supervised elections in the country to form an elected government. If that is Stalinism, I am afraid that is what we are working for.”

Meles further indicated that the maintenance of law and order facilitation of the peace process will be high EPDRF priorities. Other EPDRF spokesmen have further indicated that elements of the Mengistu government will be “determined and tried as war criminals and international humanitarian organization will be able to visit them.”

Calm before the storm?
Addis Ababa remained outwardly calm in the week following Mengistu’s departure. There was not much joyous celebration either about Mengistu’s departure or the imminent takeover by the opposition forces. Remarkably schools and shops remained open although there was a 9 pm to 5 am curfew. Thousands gleefully witnessed the dismantling of Lenin’s statute two days after Mengistu left. Close associations of Mengistu and other party members were reportedly arrested or killed while attempting to escape. Most foreigners left the country; the U.S. and Israel coordinated the airlift of nearly 15 thousands Fallashas in 33 hours.

Addis Ababa was described to be in a state of nervous anticipation following Mengistu’s departure. While there was no perceptible panic among city residents, there was grave concern that anarchy could result when opposition forces began their advance on the city. It was also feared that Addis Ababans may turn against remnants of Mengistu’s regime to settle old scores. However, after the EPDRF moved into the city and suppressed pockets of resistance the city regained its calm. EPDRF elements appeared to be highly disciplined; and some were seen casually chatting with city residents on the streets.

Short-term Scenarios
Various scenarios appear to be possible in the short-term. The Derg and the political machinery established by Mengistu are certainly doomed. Tesfaye’s government neither had the opportunity to propose new initiative or the time to pursue negotiations to achieve a political settlement with opposition forces. In fact at the end of the first day of the peace talks Tesfaye had been served with the ultimatum: surrender immediately or face immediate attack. With the U.S. blessing EPDRF launched at attack on government position at dawn and quickly captured the city.

Many Ethiopian appear to be perplexed about the meaning of an out right victory by opposition forces. The Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) purports to be an umbrella organization with multiethnic and multiregional composition. It is believed that the core leadership of the EPDRF. But little is publicly known about the leaders or their political and economic programs. Often spokesmen are assigned the task of articulating the coalition’s military objectives. There is also little that is known about the internal structure of the EPDRF or the multi-ethnic coalition it purportedly represents. This has fueled considerable speculation. The leaders have also been described as “Albania-type communists,” “Maoists,” and “EPLF front.”

Recent statements by EPDRF spokesmen add to the mystery and uncertainty about the composition of the organization’s leadership or its political orientation. The EPDRF has not made clear its political objectives beyond general platitudes about multiparty elections and the establishment of a provisional government to replace the Derg. It appears impractical to believe that the mere promise of democracy could hold together a nation so deeply racked by ethnic division and longstanding political antagonisms. Observers suggest that the EPDRF by being reticent about its political programs may be missing a critical opportunity to establish itself as a viable alternative to the Derg. Some Ethiopians seem to be fatalistically resigned to the metaphor or the “old wine in a new bottle.”

It is likely that EPDRF will seize the moment and announce its short- and -long-term plans for the country and present its leaders to the public. U.S. officials at the peace talks have indicated that the EPDRF will form a transitional government for about 10 months until national elections could be held. If this coalition seeks legitimacy and credibility and ultimately succeed where Mengistu has failed, it must speak for itself and be prepared to discuss its political orientation, plans for the establishment of a democratically elected government and openly share its proposals for a provisional government.
Failure to do so is likely to foster distrust and fear and ultimately promote further ethnic strife.

There are late reports indicating that the smaller ethnic groups in the country feel left out of the negotiation process and fear that they will be left out of the political process altogether. Some observers suggest that unless the provisional government makes a determined effort to be inclusive and conciliatory, it will find peace to be elusive. There are late unconfirmed reports of clashes between EPDRF forces and local elements in Gojjam and Gondar, and an effort by forces still under Tesfaye Gebre Kidan and Tesfaye Dinka to regroup and retake Addis Ababa. Reportedly there are about 100,000 troops still under General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan in Harar, Sidamo, and other provinces that is not captured by the EPDRF.

The provisional government will be facing extraordinary problems. It must first seek to structure a genuinely representative government and quickly stabilize the anarchic conditions throughout the country. During the period of transition, a breakdown of law and order should be expected. Unless the provisional government quickly establishes order and moves on a political agenda that is sensitive to the multiethnic demands of the nation, it is likely to find bogged in the same abysmal morass that trapped Mengistu’s government.

The provisional government will have to quickly reactivate the civil service and the bureaucracy. It may find itself administrative paralyzed if it should attempt to remove existing civil servants and replace them with combat veterans. It must avoid intimidation of the bureaucracy and seek to overhaul it over a longer time period. It is instructive note that Mengistu succeeded in consolidating his power by reorienting the existing bureaucracy to his advantage. Of course, those guilty of crimes during Mengistu’s rule should be removed or disciplined

To allay public uncertainty the provisional government will have to make its political programs and orientation early on. The politics of silence and ambiguity will prove to be counterproductive. The new leaders must come out openly and share their vision of Ethiopia and concrete proposals for change. It indeed the new government is genuinely democratic, it should clearly spell out its proposals for a representative government and a timetable for multiparty elections. It should state unambiguously that it sees itself as a provisional and transitional government until elections are held. EPDRF’s current pattern of behavior is inauspiciously reminiscent of the early days of the Derg – anonymous leaders, platitudinous declarations about democracy, “provisional government,” inability to articulate a clear political direction, preoccupation with seizing power without contemplation of a vision to channel this power, messianic pretensions to save the country and so on. Ethiopians must not be quick to judge; and the provisional government must be given a chance to succeed.

The provisional government must make extraordinary efforts to limit political and vendetta killings. It should quickly establish investigative commissions to look into government misconduct and abuse during Mengistu’s regime. It should resist the impulse to execute or imprison suspects without the due process of law. Even those officials accused of the most heinous crimes should be given a fair trial before punishment is imposed. For in upholding the rule of law and resisting the temptation to act arbitrarily, the new government will have established its legitimacy not only in the of its own people but also before the court of world public opinion. If the rule of law is ignored, the provisional government will have begun its journey on the same irreversible course Mengistu followed to oblivion.

The provisional government should move quickly to demilitarize the capital and mop up pockets of resistance. It should reconstitute the existing military structure and integrate a segment of the large number of guerrilla fighters into a disciplined military organization. It may be impractical to maintain a large armed force given the apparent democratic orientation of the new government. It may be necessary to decommission a sizable part of the guerrilla army and plan for the return of these individuals to their homes and farms. The new government, unlike Mengistu’s, must be frugal in its allocation of scarce resources to maintain a large military establishment. The new military must be small, professional and multiethnic. It must have a clearly defined mission and should be depoliticized. The new government must strive to establish a tradition of civilian supremacy over the military. A large politically active military will pose a permanent threat to the growth of democratic institutions in Ethiopia.

The provisional government must act quickly to respond to the dire famine situation in the country. The harvest this year has been disappointing with shortfalls reported throughout the country. The current political situation is already having severe impact on famine relief efforts. The war has disrupted food deliveries and an estimated 7 million Ethiopians are facing the threat of starvation. Failure to quickly organize international famine relief efforts will almost certainly result in heavy loss of life.

The provisional government must learn from the basic mistakes of the Mengistu regime. It must unambiguously renounce socialism and declare its support for private entrepreneurship as strategy for economic revitalization. The record of socialism in Ethiopia is uncontroverted–apocalyptic famine, dismally inefficient state and collective farms, chronic shortages of basic staples, unemployment, inability to attract external investment, inflation, asphyxiation of natural human impulses and aspirations and so on. Ironically, even Mengistu made a deathbed conversion when he ordered the reinstitution of capitalist forms complete with private ownership of small plots of land, unrestricted capital investment and even closure of inefficient state farms.

Revitalization of private enterprise in agriculture should be a first priority for the new government. Policies and strategies that spur individual entrepreneurship in agriculture should be implemented in the short-term and extended to all sectors of the economy. All artificial controls on agricultural commodities should be removed. In the long-term the government must aid private producers in the form of agricultural subsidies, low interest loans, price support and other financial incentives to insure high productivity. It is instructive to note that the former proselytizers of socialism have a record written in blood. There is no need to repeat it.

The provisional government will face its first test when it unveils its policy on the question of Eritrean secession. It is widely believed that the EPDRF does not oppose Eritrean secession but does favor any formal separation to be preceded by a referendum. However, given the EPLF’s recent military successes the new government may be powerless to influence events it the EPLF oppose any such precondition.

The viability and survivability of the new government is likely to hang on its approach to the Eritrean secession question. For in shaping its policy towards Eritrea it must carefully weigh the ramifications for Ethiopian unity and possible dismemberment. The provisional government must deal withy the thorny nationality question and come up with a plan in which the country’s multifarious ethnic groups could freely unite or go their own way. It will be untenable for the provisional government to look approvingly on Eritrean secession yet deny the same consideration to the other nationalities should they seek it. This in turn will determine whether Ethiopia will continue as a geopolitical entity.

There have been recent reports of fighting in Gojjam between EPDRF forces and elements of the local population. Similar reports have also come from Gondar and Wellega. Such flareups may be portentous particularly if such incidents are ignored. The government must act decisively to peacefully resolve local level conflict. The provisional government must tread carefully and avoid provoking or arousing ethnic antagonisms. It must be measured in its use of force. It must be willing to negotiate with those who disagree with it. It must be prepared to give a large measure of local self-government.

Most importantly, the provisional government must instill a sense of confidence in the Ethiopian people based on a commitment to the rule of law, individual dignity and liberty, respect for ethnic and political differences and a solemn covenant that Ethiopians shall not draw the sword to settle their differences. It must now seize the moment and build a new Ethiopia on the ashes of socialism. Ethiopia must now look forward into the 1990s as it must shoulder this awesome responsibility.

The U.S. role in the negotiations has also become much clearer. Mediator Herman Cohen announced:

“The U.S. here is serving not only as the U.S. representative but as the conscience of the international community which is saying to them you must go democratic if your want the full cooperation to help Ethiopia realize its full potential. The EPDRF, ELF, and OLF will welcome the presence of the U.S. and other international observers.” Cohen, however, warned: “No democracy, no cooperation.”

A massive anti-American demonstration has been reported in Addis Ababa. Apparently, demonstrators were angered by the U.S.’s recommendation that the EPDRF forces enter Addis Ababa before some kind of peaceful transition of power is arranged. In the U.S. in Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, Ethiopians held demonstrations opposing the Eritrea’s separation from Ethiopia. Eight people have been reported killed.

Some frictions among the coalition has also already started when the EPLF declared its intentions to establish its own provisional government.

The expectation that peace may not have been achieved yet at the end of the London peace conference strengthen when General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan, and Tesfaye Dinka rejected the recommendation by the U.S. the the EPDRF forces enter Addis Ababa and maintain order. General Tesfaye declared himself a rebel and vowed to fight the EPDRF. Also the expectation that the EPDRF can maintain order in Addis Ababa did not materialize so far. People have been killed while domonstrating against the EPDRF and the U.S., and violence is erupting throughout Addis Ababa when the Tigreans play their traditional victory song and dance. Apparently the Oromo and Amara polulation in Addis Ababa is provked by such celebration in the street by the Tigreans in Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) and the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionalry Party (EPRF) began to fight in Gondar and Gojjam. These two organizations were shunned the EPDRF and their request to participate in the London peace conference is rejected by both the U.S. and the EPDRF.

Quo Vadis Ethiopia?
Mengistu’s legacy will have incalculable impact on generations to come. But where is Ethiopia going? It has been said that those who do not learn form the past are doomed to repeat it.

It is folly to believe that force of arms alone can bring about a permanent and durable solutions to Ethiopia’s multifaceted problems. Neither the present nor any future government could expect to use violence as means of governing this multiethnic, multilingual society. Leaders on all sides must share a common desire for peace based on genuine compromise and accommodations. They must also show a genuine commitment to the rule of law and respect for the individual’s freedom and dignity. Ethiopia’s leaders must strive to promote ethnic diversity and cast away outdated notions that one or another ethnic group is entitled to rule.

Ethiopia is poised in the twilight of a new era. Whether she will begin a new era of reconciliation and reconstruction or open another dark chapter is in the hands of its leaders and people. Wrong choices and miscalculations by its leaders can yet plunge this desperate nation into irretrievable misery. The leadership on all sides should not miss the opportunity to open a new chapter of peace and prosperity.

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