Ethiopia

Chapter 4. Government and Politics

by Edmond J. Keller (Professor of Political Science and Director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles)

Main gate of Jubilee Palace, Addis Ababa

THE FINAL CONGRESS of Ethiopia’s Provisional Military Administrative Council marked a watershed in modern Ethiopian history. The congress, held in the capital city of Addis Ababa, was the prelude to the inauguration, in 1987, of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which would be guided by a vanguard Marxist-Leninist party and regime. At least nominally, thirteen years of rule by the military regime were at an end. When the Provisional Military Administrative Council had assumed power in 1974, there were no clear signs that it was committed to a Marxist-Leninist model of social transformation; neither was there any indication that it was sincere about its pledge to return Ethiopia to civilian rule. In fact, within months of seizing power, the new regime began systematically to buttress the already preeminent role of the military as the vanguard of the revolution.

Until its collapse in 1974, the Ethiopian imperial state had attempted to construct an absolutist but modernizing autocracy, a regime committed to preserving tradition while carefully guiding society into the twentieth century. Emperor Haile Selassie I, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1974, portrayed himself as a strong but compassionate leader, a model for all African statesmen. However, at a very fundamental level, the imperial state constructed by Haile Selassie was tenuously held together by a top-heavy, secularized bureaucracy and an imperial myth. Once the myth that the emperor was unassailable had been broken, the new regime began the process of reconstituting state institutions. This process was slow but methodical, and by 1989 the fruits of this institutional transformation were definitely in evidence.

The tasks of social, political, and economic reconstruction facing the new regime in 1974 were formidable. To meet these challenges, the regime attempted to fashion a new ideological foundation for society. The Provisional Military Administrative Council favored a Marxist-Leninist development model because of the organizational power it promised. The approach taken was statist and based on the principles of scientific socialism as interpreted in the Soviet Union from the time of Joseph Stalin to that of Leonid Brezhnev. At an operational level, this choice required the state’s reorganization and reconstitution, the redistribution of wealth and property, the creation of a capacity for central planning, the pursuit of a state socialist development strategy under the guidance of a vanguard party of “revolutionary democrats,” and the establishment of a constitutionally based “people’s republic.”

Ethiopia’s turn toward Marxism-Leninism first became evident in early 1976 with the enunciation of the Program for the National Democratic Revolution. This document, which reflected the views of those regime members who espoused Marxism-Leninism long before they seized power, committed the regime to a noncapitalist approach to development based on the principles of scientific socialism. For the next decade, the ruling group used ideology and new socialist institutions to implement and legitimize its policies. Even when particular economic strategies were chosen, the regime seemed to be motivated by political objectives rather than driven by ideological zeal. Chief among the objectives were establishing the regime’s political control and securing popular legitimacy.

By 1989 it was evident that the government had failed to consolidate its rule. Natural catastrophes such as drought and famine had taken a heavy toll. Furthermore, the regime not only was unable to control the general population, but also dozens of top-ranking officials had defected to the West, where they bitterly denounced the government. With military morale at its lowest point since 1974, disaffected senior officers attempted a coup d’état in May 1989. In addition, numerous opposition groups waged military campaigns against the government. Most notable among these were the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the latter operating with several other antigovernment groups in an umbrella organization known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. By early 1991, these groups controlled large stretches of territory in north-central Ethiopia and were poised to seize even more.

Moreover, by this time the Soviet Union, in the spirit of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness), had abandoned its uncritical support of Ethiopia’s revolution. The winds of democracy that were sweeping across much of the communist world also meant that Ethiopia could no longer rely on its Soviet and East European allies for military and economic assistance. These developments forced the government to reconsider its efforts to deal with its opponents through military rather than political means. However, by early 1991 the government had failed to reach a negotiated settlement with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Thereafter, both groups launched renewed attacks that by late May brought the insurgents to power. The leaders of both insurgencies disavowed the state socialism of the military government and pledged themselves to democratic principles and free-market economics. Eritrea was also expected to become an independent country.

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