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Ethiopia: a government under siege

For the past decade Western political analysts have been predicting Mengistu’s downfall. Many Ethiopians also anticipated Mengistu’s regime to come to a quick and violent end. Now, all signs point to a slow and agonizing death for Mengistu’s regime.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of six groups, including the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), and dominated by the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), is at the forefront of the struggle against the government of Mengistu. While not a match for the government in size or weapons, the low morale of the government troops, desertions and failure in logistics accounts for much of the recent successes of the anti-Mengistu forces.

Mengistu’s periodic purges may have exacerbated the poor performance of government troops. Over the past two years he has ordered the execution of 12 top generals and removed more than 200 officers whom he suspected of disloyalty. Most of these officers were educated and veteran commanders. Inexperienced soldiers with unflinching loyalty to Mengistu replaced the veteran commanders. The military situation has progressively deteriorated ever since. What has been most surprising in the unfolding Ethiopian crises is the swift victory of the opposition forces. Gojjam, Gondar, and Wallega were taken with minimum resistance from the government troops. In fact, large-scale defection of government troops may have accelerated the opposition’s military success. The situation in Eritrea appears to be critical. Government troops in Asmara are surrounded by elements of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Assab is reportedly under imminent attack by the EPLF.

If Assab should fall defeat for the government in Eritrea may be certain. The EPLF has claimed over the past year that Massawa is under its control. A few weeks ago it announced the takeover of the small port city of Tio located between Massawa and Assab. According to the March 22, 1991 issue of the African Confidential:

“The government is hurriedly deploying new divisions that North Korea has been training… In a dangerous gamble, the government is even pulling troops out of Eritrea. It apparently believes that, with at least eight EPLF brigades operating with the EPDRF, this is the risk worth taking.”

The Siege of Addis Ababa
Spokesmen for the opposition forces have declared that it is not their intention to turn Addis Ababa into a battlefield. They have expressed the desire to avoid wide-spread destruction and unnecessary suffering to the city’s civilian population. “Otherwise we could have taken the city a long time ago. Nothing actually stood between us and the city to prevent us, if that was our intention,” one spokesman was quoted as saying. Recognizing the gravity of the military situation in the country, various European countries have reduced their diplomatic personnel in the country. Even the Soviet Union has removed its personnel in anticipation of an imminent collapse of the government.

The well known journalist Patrick Gilkes, who recently returned from Addis Ababa, told the BBC that tension in the city is mounting as opposition forces are reported to be regrouping within 90 miles of the capital. Fear of the breakdown of law and order, and the possible outbreak of civil unrest has already gripped the city. The situation in the country appears to be highly unpredictable.

Ethiopians who recently came to the U.S. have reported that though Addis residents remain outwardly calm, they are nervously stocking up on essential supplies in case the City is cut off from the rest of the country. While many city residents appear resigned to the inevitable downfall of the regime, few are optimistic that things will improve in the short-term. Siege mentality and desperation is also prevalent among government officials. Many have reportedly sent their family out of the country.

Major concern among city residents is that Mengistu is preparing to make a last ditch stand against the opposition forces in Addis Ababa exposing the city to substantial destruction. He may rely on his elite bodyguards of around 12,000 men which he has been grooming for just such an emergency. Opposition leaders discount the capabilities of Mengistu’s bodyguards.

The Question of Ethiopian Unity
The issue of the unity of Ethiopia is a critical one to many Ethiopians. Over the past two months Ethiopians living in Washington, Los Angeles, London and Rome have held demonstrations to express their anxiety over the possible separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia and general dismemberment of the country. Mengistu is playing on this anxiety often projecting himself as the defender of Ethiopian national unity.

Recently, a group of Addis Ababa University professors proposed a peace initiative to Mengistu as a means of avoiding civil strife, further bloodshed and preservation of the country’s unity. In effect, they politely asked for his resignation. Mengistu responded by declar ing that he was elected by the people and can only be removed by them. The most worrisome aspect of this crisis concerns the estimated 5 million people presently facing starvation. In fact, most relief operations in the famine-threatened areas have been suspended because of the war.

Mengistu on the Horns of a Dilemma
Mengistu is confronted with a dilemma. He knows he cannot repel the opposition forces with just 12,000 soldiers, however well armed. Yet, he cannot call for reinforcement from the other fronts. His past miscalculation have come back to haunt him. He has antagonized many sectors of the armed forces through his periodic purges. Few are likely to return to defend him. Any troop concentration in Addis Ababa is also a serious threat to Mengistu and has much to fear by way of coup d’etat from relocated troops. Even if some regional troops want to come to his rescue, the severe gas shortage, logistical difficulty and attack by opposition forces along the way will render such a gesture futile.

“Open City” Status for Addis Ababa and Other Big Cities
Some observers have suggested that the cities of Addis Ababa, Asmara and other urban areas be designated “Open Cities” to avoid civilian deaths and destruction of historical sites and other structures. The “Open City” concept would allow free access to the city by all sides. For instance, Addis Ababa would become a “peace zone” with all armies stationed a certain distance away from the city. Once this is achieved, opposing sides could negotiate within the city limits and achieve political solutions. International supervision may be needed to implement the “Open City” concept along with the consensus of all the parties concerned. Recently, such an arrangement was made in Liberia with the assistance of several African countries.

Fight to the End
Mengistu is unlikely to accept this idea of an “Open City.” According to Cubans and former East Germans who served in Ethiopia, Mengistu has built a ring of military fortifications around the Entoto hills from Yekka to Gullele. In what looks like a copy from Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Mengistu he has reportedly built hardened underground bunkers all over the city, including the Old Gibbi, the Jubillee Palace, the University area and the Ministry of Information. These bunkers are designed to serve as command and control centers, complete with spare electric generators and other communication equipment.

The Maqdala Complex
In a public speech last May, Mengistu reportedly compared himself with Emperor Tewodros who committed suicide in the face of an attack by British forces in 1868. Mengistu appears to be prepared to meet the same fate in Addis Ababa. People who have known Mengistu well tell a different story. During the Palace shootout of 1977, when Teferi Benti and others were killed, Mengistu was said to have crawled under chairs and tables to save his life. They believe he would rather hide than fight. Others believe he is the ultimate survivor who will not blink before eliminating his opponents.

Fear and Paranoia
In a well publicized speech a year ago Mengistu revealed that he had survived no less than nine attempts on his life. As a security measure, Mengistu reportedly sleeps at different locations every night. His food and drink is tested on others in his presence to avoid poisoning. He is practically unapproachable and isolated. Even his closest associates are regularly searched for concealed weapons before they are ushered into his presence. Even pens and pencils are removed from their clothes. He trusts absolutely no one. He is reportedly obsessed with the fear of assassination. Some observers have theorized that his persecution of dissidents is driven by the morbid preoccupation with the fear of being assassinated. In a recent television interview with Charlene Hunter-Gault of the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) he denied killing “even a mosquito.”

What is the Policy of the Opposition?
Now, what of the opposition? What is their overall program for Ethiopia? How are they different from the Mengistu government? Or is it a case of dropping from the frying pan into the fire? These are gnawing questions in the minds of Ethiopians. Little is indeed known about the aims and objectives of those now fighting to topple Mengistu. While many people acknowledge the EPRDF’s sacrifices and efforts in bringing Mengistu’s regime to its knees, they are given less credit for their lack of experience, efficiency, and organizational and leadership skills. They are particularly criticized for a poor public relations program.

Detractors of EPDRF, groups such as the Organization of Ethiopian Unity (OEU) based in Los Angeles and Aend Ethiopia based in Washington accuse them as hard-line Marxists and a front for the EPLF. They are viewed as political extremists bent on dismantling Ethiopia. Both OEU and Aend Ethiopia strongly condemn the Mengistu regime and advocate his removal from power as a precondition for peace and security in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), and Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) also appear to be contending in the current crises.

EPRDF’s supporters argue that their adversaries have deliberately misrepresented their efforts and political program. They accuse the Derg of a “divide and rule” policy. They plead for a fair hearing.

EPDRF leaders have rejected accusations that they are secessionists and hard-line communists. EPRDF spokesmen say that while there may be some secessionists and communists among their ranks, they do not dictate policy nor do they constitute the majority in a coalition of groups represented in the organization. They explain that some leaders in the group still speak in Marxist phraseology because that is the
only political language they know. Many are young people who have been subjected from an early age to intense ideological indoctrination. For nearly two decades, to the total neglect of their overall education, these young people had been exposed to Marxist political literature. They were taught to worship the likes of the likes of Che Guevarra of Cuba, the late Nikolai Ceausescu of Romania and Enver Hoxa of Albania.
The EPDRF also claims to uphold peace as an essential element of freedom and democracy in Ethiopia. They profess a belief in multiparty democracy and individual rights.

Need for Statesmanship
Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Ethiopians do not wish to exchange one set of problems for another. They are tired of bloodshed and fratricidal strife. They crave peace, justice, human dignity and the rule of law. Any group that aspires to national lead ership must be prepared to meet these challenge.

Above all, Ethiopian are looking for the qualities of true statesmanship, a leadership that will reach-out to every section of Ethiopian society and heal the wounds that have been needlessly inflicted on the nation for the last 17 years.

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