Ethiopia: who the rebels are

June 12, 1991

By Tony Iltis

The collapse of the Ethiopian military regime, following the flight of Haile Mariam Mengistu to Zimbabwe, ends 14 years of brutal dictatorship and raises hope for an escape from the oppression, war and starvation that have made Ethiopia and Eritrea synonymous with suffering.

On May 28, Meles Zenawi, leader of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), announced that the front would form a temporary administration pending the establishment of a transitional government within a month. Internationally supervised elections will be held within a year.

The Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), which has liberated the whole of Eritrea, will not take part in the transitional government but will form a provisional administration in Eritrea until a referendum is held on independence.

The Eritreans' long struggle stems from their being denied any opportunity for self-determination. An Italian colony from 1890 until the British invaded in 1941, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia by the UN in 1952, without the people being consulted. In 1962 the Ethiopian government terminated the federation and annexed Eritrea. This resulted in a guerilla struggle by the conservative nationalist Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). The EPLF originated from a breakaway by radical sections of the ELF.

Ethiopia had only a brief experience of colonialism, under Italian occupation from 1936 until 1941. Prior to 1974, the dominant economic and political structures were archaic and semi-feudal, the emperor, Haile Selassie, ruling by divine right. In the countryside, 40% of the population lived over two days' walk from any government services, and only a quarter of agricultural produce was marketed.

By the early '70s, the inability of the imperial system to modernise or to contain the Eritreans led to its disintegration. This was accentuated by famine in 1973. The main pressures for change came in the urban areas — from students, the embryonic working class and, most significantly, the armed forces.

The Derg

Throughout 1974 there were student protests, transport workers' strikes and mutinies by ill-fed soldiers. On September 12, 1974, the government was overthrown by group of junior officers known as the Derg — Amharic for "committee" — and led by Mengistu.

The Western media have generally characterised the Mengistu regime as "hard line Marxist." The regime characterised itself as such until the late '80s, when the Soviet Union and Cuba stopped supplying military aid and the Derg had to find support elsewhere, for example from Israel.

However, the leftist rhetoric of the military regime reflected more than reliance on Eastern bloc military aid, which only began in 1977, after the Somali invasion of the Ogaden province. To remain in power, e Derg to destroy the old semi-feudal ruling class. In March 1975 it nationalised all rural land and cancelled debts owed by tenant farmers.

In the south the land reforms were initially well received. There, land was concentrated in large holdings, and the majority of peasants were tenants. The Oromo people of the south became a major support base for the Derg.

In the north, however, most peasants owned land, and there were traditional bonds between the peasantry and the local nobility. Armed opposition to the new government broke out in the northern province of Tigray, the Tigrayan Liberation Front being originally led by the local aristocracy.

Faced with a lack of cadres, the new regime initiated the zemacha, a scheme in which some 40,000 students went into the countryside to mobilise peasants for the land reform.

Opposition forms

Despite these revolutionary measures against the old ruling classes, the Derg had little in the way of a mass base and sought to prevent popular mobilisations. Throughout 1975 there were strikes in favour of workers' self-management. However, the extremely small size of the working class enabled the Derg to crush the unrest with little difficulty.

From the military's viewpoint, the zemacha had the additional advantage of dispersing radical students away from the capital. However, the enthusiasm of the students for land reform and autonomous peasant associations made the military wary that the zemacha could develop its own momentum. Consequently, the movement was brought to heel.

Two political groups, the All Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) and the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP), were formed by students returning from the zemacha. While the MEISON initially characterised the military as progressive, the EPRP, in 1976, began an urban guerilla campaign. The government responded with the "Red Terror" of 1977, annihilating both groups and crushing all student opposition.

Another group of students from the zemacha remained in the countryside and joined the Tigrayan Liberation Front. By 1976 they had replaced the leadership of the front, giving it a revolutionary program and renaming it the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF).

In July 1977, Somalia invaded the Ethiopian province of Ogaden. This increased Mengistu's credibility by allowing him to appear as defender of the nation against foreign aggression. Secondly, it led to the Derg receiving Soviet arms and assistance from Cuban troops. By March 1978, the Somali invasion had been defeated.

Although Cuba did not allow its troops to be used against the Eritreans, their presence freed the Ethiopian military to launch a counteroffensive against the ELF and EPLF who, by 1977, had liberated most of Eritrea.

By August 1978, the Eritreans were in disarray. The EPLF, which had built up a strong popular base, weathered the assault better than the ELF. In 1979 fighting broke out between the two Eritrean groups, and by 1981 the EPLF, with assistance from the TPLF, had established itself as the only significant Eritrean force.

Despite continuing Soviet aid, during the '80s the Mengistu regime proved unable to defeat either EPLF or the TPLF. During the 1983-84 famine, the Derg achieved infamy by using mass starvation as a military weapon, stopping relief supplies reaching Tigray or Eritrea. Trucks bringing food aid were bombed by the Ethiopian airforce.

Revolutionary democracy

The EPLF and TPLF received no support from any government, relying instead upon their peoples. Both organisations developed revolutionary grassroots democracy. The entire population was organised into committees: women's committees, peasants committees, militia committees and so on, with decisions being made from the bottom up.

A social revolution took place. Literacy and health campaigns were undertaken — an enormous task in such an underdeveloped region under any circumstances but almost miraculous under conditions of war and famine.

Some of the greatest achievements have been in the area of women's liberation, with mass independent women's organisations being formed and women well represented in all areas of political life. In the guerilla forces women fight alongside men in mixed regiments. The May 29 Age quotes a TPLF fighter explaining that she joined the struggle because "women were not equal to men and were oppressed. So I wanted to fight for women."

With more than half its budget being spent on the war, the Mengistu dictatorship resorted to expropriating all agricultural surplus to buy arms. It thus alienated its support among the Oromo peasants of the south.

By 1988, the regime was faltering. At the battle of Afabet the EPLF overran a government garrison, putting 20,000 troops out of action. The Soviet Union and Cuba began withdrawing their support.

In 1989, the TPLF moved beyond the boundaries of Tigray and formed a coalition with the Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Movement. This coalition, the EPRDF, now consists of four organisations.

In desperation Mengistu turned to Israel. The recent, well-publicised, transfer of the Falashas, or Ethiopian Jews, to Israel was a bizarre exchange. The Israelis got much-needed propaganda, and in return Mengistu got cluster-bombs!

Despite the collapse of the military dictatorship, the future, without doubt, will be difficult for Eritrea and Ethiopia. In the short term, aid is desperately needed to overcome years of famine and war. In the longer term, both countries are likely to face difficulties attracting will be needed for development.

The sudden collapse of the military has created something of power vacuum in parts of Ethiopia where the EPRDF was not previously established. The large numbers of soldiers from the defeated army could also cause difficulties.

However, the record of both the EPLF and the EPRDF/TPLF suggests that a region long associated with tragedy may become one of hope.

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