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The Flight of a Dictator Won't Save Ethiopia From Political Collapse : Africa: Peace and prosperity won't return until the government gives in to Eritrea's longstanding struggle for formal independence.

May 26, 1991|Tom Killion | Tom Killion is a professor of African history at Bowdoin College

BRUNSWICK, ME. — While driving through Revolution Square in Addis Ababa in April, I noticed something missing. The gigantic portraits of Marx and Lenin that I'd seen on previous visits were gone. Only the image of Ethiopia's military Marxist dictator, President Mengistu Haile Mariam, remained. I mentioned my surprise to the taxi driver, and he noted laconically, "He is alone now."

Last week, Mengistu took a plane to Zimbabwe after resigning his presidency in the face of ever more rebel military victories. Two days earlier, the rebels had captured two strategic towns and cut the main overland supply route to the capital. It was time for Mengistu to get out of town.

Signs of his government's imminent collapse were not hard to detect in April. Mengistu's 14-year rule was perceived as illegitimate even in the capital. In the drought-ravaged and disenfranchised provinces, a full-scale peasant rebellion had already toppled his repressive party apparatus and overwhelmed his military garrisons. The Soviet and East German military aid that had propped up his regime for 10 years had ended. The U.S. and other embassies had advised their citizens to leave the country; diplomatic staffs were at a minimum.

During February, a coalition of rebel armies known as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front had overrun government garrisons in five provinces to the north and west of Addis Ababa, capturing vast supplies of arms and killing or wounding thousands of Ethiopian troops. A European doctor in what was then the government's last northern stronghold, Dessie, had told me the hospital was "filled with thousands of Ethiopian casualties." The rebels had moved to within 100 miles of the capital on the three main roads from Nekemte, the Blue Nile bridge and Debre Sine pass.

Along Ethiopia's disputed Red Sea coast, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front had launched an assault on Assab, the government's last remaining port and site of its only oil refinery. The Ethiopian army, numbering about 100,000 soldiers was besieged in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.

Addis Ababa, like Asmara, was on the verge of military encirclement when I was there. In desperation, Mengistu had closed all institutes of higher education and called up their students for military service, although most ignored the summons. Middle-aged party officials were being sent to military training camps. So low were Mengistu's fortunes that even his party loyalists were openly discussing his demise.

Rumors concerning government plans to institute some form of multiparty democracy were again heard. There was even talk of Mengistu resigning. But for Mengistu, the debate about democracy had begun too late. Like the ex-president of neighboring Somalia, who, in January, had procrastinated until his opponents were shelling his palace before announcing democratic reforms, Mengistu waited until the 11th hour to countenance political pluralism--when the possibilities of political initiative had already slipped from his hands.

In some respects, the Ethiopian dictator's sudden resignation was not surprising. There was little chance that Mengistu would have been ousted by street demonstrations, unlike the other African dictators falling left and right across the continent.

Neither would his demoralized army, whose entire general staff was executed last year following an abortive coup, have overthrown him. After years of systematic repression, the population of Addis Ababa appeared completely immobilized, a result reinforced by the indecisiveness of the elite who dominate the capital.

Although they openly revile Mengistu, the elite also opposes the political program of the rebels. In particular, they refuse to accept the rebel proposal that a U.N.-supervised referendum be held in Eritrea so the population can decide its political future. In 1952, the United Nations federated the former Italian colony with Ethiopia. In 1962, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea. Ever since, the Eritreans have fought for their independence.

The Eritrean referendum will be the most difficult issue to resolve at the U.S.-sponsored peace conference set to begin this week in London. The conference will bring together representatives of the rebel groups and the government. Recent meetings between the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the government have stumbled on this issue, despite U.S. pressure on both sides to settle.

It remains unclear whether the Ethiopian military, now represented by Lt. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, will stomach a vote that could lead to Eritrea's formal independence. During the last 15 years, the military has lost, according to conservative estimates, 150,000 men in the fight to maintain control over the province. Any retreat toward Eritrean sovereignty would probably be seen by the army as a betrayal.

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