Ethiopia

The Vanguard Party

The government announced the formation of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) on September 12, 1984, the tenth anniversary of the revolution. Regional and local COPWE branches were transformed into WPE instruments, and it was announced that party congresses would be held at five-year intervals. These congresses would be responsible for electing the party Central Committee, a body of 183 members as of 1987. The Central Committee normally met twice a year. Among its duties was the election of the WPE’s Political Bureau, the general secretary, and members of the WPE Secretariat. However, the Central Committee was too large and diverse to serve as an effective decision-making body. Although in the late 1980s more than half of the Central Committee’s full members were former police or former military personnel, the Central Committee also included peasants, workers, trade union members, and representatives of various mass organizations.

The WPE Political Bureau had eleven full members and six alternate members. The Derg’s Standing Committee and the COPWE Executive Committee had comprised the Derg’s seven most influential members. The additional four members appointed to the WPE were two civilian ideologues and two career technocrats, who in the years leading up to the WPE’s inauguration had become responsible for the day-to-day direction of party matters and who evidently had Mengistu’s confidence.

The WPE’s Political Bureau was the country’s most important decision-making body. Although the Political Bureau’s decisions were always made in secret, there was evidence that General Secretary Mengistu’s wishes generally prevailed, no matter what the opposition. One observer suggested that whatever power or influence other Political Bureau members exerted was owed more to their closeness to Mengistu than to any formal positions they might occupy or to their personal qualities. The Political Bureau, therefore, was little more than a forum for the articulation of policies already determined personally by Mengistu.

The paramount position of the WPE was enshrined in the 1987 constitution, which stated that the party should be “the formulator of the country’s development process and the leading force of the state and in society.” Indeed, the WPE had become more important than the central government in determining the direction of national and local policies. Local party leaders sometimes possessed a great deal of latitude in determining approaches to policy in their regions as long as their decisions did not conflict with objectives determined in Addis Ababa. At the national level, highly politicized party representatives often exercised greater influence than the Western-trained bureaucrats in government ministries. It appeared that the government bureaucracy had to follow the lead of the party and often found its policies and procedures overridden by political decisions.

At the national level, individuals from the military, the government bureaucracy, and those ethnic groups (especially Amhara and Tigray) that had historically endorsed the notion of a unitary, “Greater Ethiopia” dominated the WPE. However, below the level of the regional first secretary of the WPE, the military and ethnic origins of party leadership became less important.

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