Butter, bullets and books

Robin Wright September 29 1980

Butter, bullets and books

Robin Wright September 29 1980

Butter, bullets and books


Robin Wright

Alemash Araka, a rib-thin seven-year-old, kept smiling and caressing her new blue cotton skirt and vest. Just months ago, she was one of hundreds of orphaned beggars in the shabby capital of Addis Ababa. Her mother hemorrhaged at Alemash’s birth and died for lack of medical care. Her father, a soldier, was killed by Eritrean guerrillas. Today she is one of 5,050 children at Ethiopia’s first Children’s Revolutionary Resettlement Centre, otherwise known as an orphanage. The revolution is “taking care of her.”

Abebech Emmayu, an illiterate 47year-old grandmother, stared intently at a book, her finger moving along the text, her lips mouthing soundlessly. She could not read the words yet, she was still working on the letters. But she is one of 5.4 million Ethiopians partici-

pating in the year-old campaign aimed at wiping out the country’s 93-per-cent illiteracy rate. The revolution is “taking care of her,” too.

As government officials never tire of telling visitors, the revolution is trying to bring Ethiopia’s staggeringly poor population out of the dark age of Haile Selassie’s empire and create a modern “well-rounded socialist personality.” Whatever the rhetoric, the programs do reflect a major turning point. The Marxist military government, long troubled by purges and the “counterrevolutionary terrorism” that killed untold thousands, has finally begun to govern, six years after the coup that toppled Selassie.

This development coincides with the emergence of Lt.-Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the mercurial young leader who shot his way three years ago into the chair of the Dergue (junta). Since then, the council has virtually been dissolved, while Mengistu has grown into a cult figure—and has taken full control. Under his obsessive direction, Ethiopia

has evolved into one of the most radical of African states, complete down to the red hammers and sickles painted on airport windows and the austere street billboards of Marx, Lenin and Engels. It is no longer the zany Abyssinia of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

Yet the average Ethiopian is probably better off under the Marxism of Mengistu than with the totalitarianism of Selassie, Lion of Judah and King of Kings. Although Ethiopia remains one of the world’s poorest nations—the percapita income is under $100—the burden of heavy taxes paid to feudal landlords, the demanding Coptic church and the state have been lifted. United Nations and Red Cross officials say peasants are eating better in most areas, a key factor in a country where food means politics. Selassie’s failure to acknowledge the 1973 famine and the

needed land reform triggered the revolution.

There are also the beginnings of public participation in government, with the evolution of neighborhood cells or kebeles, which administer housing, perform minor police (some say spy) duties and settle local disputes. Yet it is evident that the revolution is still in its early stages. Many of the kebeles headquarters are in red-light districts, an embarrassment to officials who claim to have eliminated prostitution. In several bookshops in the capital, the literature of the proletariat shares shelves with Adventures of Spiderwoman and Battleship Galáctica comic books.

Perhaps ironically, Mengistu’s biggest problem centres on conflicting economic and military needs: how to better the lives of the people on a limited budget and, at the same time, build and equip an army to fight wars on several fronts. The revolution, like the empire, has to hold together a country of artificial boundaries and serious ethnic divisions. There are few political differences between the guerrilla movements and the government. But Moslem rebels in Eritrea, to the north, and the Ogaden, to the south, want independence from the Christian-oriented Amharics in Addis.

The government now claims it holds both areas, but there is proof to the contrary. Last week, a few reporters were escorted to the Ogaden, the glaring red desert, so desolate that it is hard to believe it has been the site of sporadic warfare for almost 200 years, according to fact, and more than 900 years, according to legend. The most recent conflict ended in July, with invading Somali troops forced back to the border. But the visit made clear that guerrillas of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) still hold the bush. Nervous and heavily armed Ethiopian troops in armored personnel carriers formed skirmish lines as battle sites were inspected.

Like Angola and Afghanistan, Ethiopia has relied heavily on Communist support to fight its wars. At various stages up to 17,000 Cuban troops (now reportedly down to 11,000), 1,000 Soviet military advisers and almost $2 billion worth of Soviet arms and war planes have been deployed. The Cubans are so much a part of life in the Ogaden that the “Havana Bar” is the hot spot in Jijiga.

One reason for their semipermanence is the continuing fighting, another the U.S. military deal, signed in late August, opening the way for President Jimmy Carter’s rapid-deployment force to base in Berbera and for massive arms sales to neighboring Somalia, host to the WSLF—moves Ethiopia has interpreted as the greatest external threat

since the revolution.The agreement stipulates that the arms are for defensive use, but Ethiopian commanders displayed captured arms and vehicles from the latest battles—mainly from the U.S. and Europe.

There are also signs that the war in Eritrea—fairly quiet since late last year—may heat up again soon. Neutral observers say the army recently dispatched at least half of the new Sovietbuilt helicopter gunships (so devastating to guerrillas in Afghanistan) to the mountainous north. And new troop movements have been seen in the province, so crucial because its two ports are Ethiopia’s only access to the Red Sea.

Mengistu is desperate to end these conflicts, but he is not willing to concede terms to the fierce opposition. The reliance on outside help has undercut his potential, and it has also created headaches for the government. Last week, the state department disclosed

that two Cuban soldiers climbed over the fence at the U.S. embassy in Addis and defected. The incident happened in May, but Ethiopia so far has refused the two permission to leave, since that would lead to a humiliating loss of face before its closest ally.

Despite the country’s problems, associates say Mengistu’s dream is to play a larger role in Africa—to become, in effect, the Castro of the continent. The “chairman” is also believed to be an Ethiopian first and a Marxist second. But in the meantime he has to be practical. A well-substantiated story reflects his attitude: when a group of university students were gunned down by his troops, a delegation of mothers and relatives protested. For their trouble, they were all locked up. Mengistu heard of the incident, visited the jail to hear their stories and made two decisions: to have the soldiers shot and to keep the relatives in the clink.