DATELINE ETHIOPIA

Harsh rule in an arid land

MICHAEL POSNER May 19 1986
DATELINE ETHIOPIA

Harsh rule in an arid land

MICHAEL POSNER May 19 1986

Harsh rule in an arid land

DATELINE ETHIOPIA

The sleek Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 lands at Debre Zeit, a military airport an hour’s drive south of Addis Ababa. On the tarmac, an earth-toned fleet of 15 Soviet MiG jets stands poised for takeoff, while another MiG screams overhead. Inside the transit lounge an international convention has gathered: black Africans in turbans and immaculate white robes, bound for Nairobi, mingle with sunburned Europeans in khaki, leaving after tours of duty with famine relief agencies. The lounge also contains a surprising incongruity: middleaged, chain-smoking Chinese in Mao jackets mesmerized in front of a color television, watching British rock star Paul Young’s latest music video.

As it struggles to recover from the great drought and accompanying famine of 1984-85, one of the worst in modern history, Ethiopia remains a land of disturbing paradoxes. At the end of an exhausting day in the field assessing the performance of a medical clinic or overseeing food distribution to cadaverous victims of the

drought, relief workers often convene in the posh bars and restaurants of the Addis Hilton hotel for a lavish banquet of food and drink. Upstairs, the hotel’s balconies overlook two starkly different scenes. On one side is the lush garden setting of the spring-fed swimming pool, framed by the majestic purple mountains that ring the capital. On the other is an endless row of tiny, jerry-built, corrugated, tin-sided huts that house a large percentage of the capital’s one million residents. When the heavy rains come, as they have regularly since the end of the drought, water rushes down hillsides in muddy torrents, soaking the homes.

Equally dramatic contradictions are visible in the provinces. The finest hotel in Gondar city, Ethiopia’s ancient capital, is the Goha, a first-class mountaintop retreat that caters to foreigners and government officials with expense accounts. But less than a kilometre away, in circular, mud-floored, thatched-roof tukuls (huts), families of impoverished, rag-clad peasants perform their daily rituals in ways that have not changed substantially for several centuries.

It is not the degree of Ethiopia’s poverty that leaves such an indelible mark on visitors. Many other nations, even in the Western Hemisphere, have

pockets of urban and rural decay as appalling as any in Africa. What lingers is the reach of Ethiopian poverty, a belt of suffering that seems to include the vast majority of its 44 million citizens. Since the 1974 military coup that ended the 40-year reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah—and replaced his feudal monarchy with a Soviet-backed Communist government—most of the surviving remnant of the country’s privileged elite, its middle class and its intelligentsia is either in exile, in jail or in hiding.

There are now more Ethiopian doc-

tors living abroad than there are working at home. And for the past several years the group achieving the best results in the annual national high school examinations has been located in the Addis Ababa prison. Jailed for alleged subversive activities, the brightest students occupy themselves by teaching each other and preparing for the tests.

What remains, principally, are the peasants—undereducated, underemployed, underfed —and the ruling Ethiopian Workers Party, a vast and growing bureaucracy that earnestly spreads its message into every sector of society, including the churches and schools. Party members are now being told that they must not go to a Christian church or have their children baptized. Elsewhere, the party-first ethic creates a strange environment in which the most talented are subservient to the most loyal. At the Addis central hospital, the three most senior medical officials report to a party official with the qualifications of an X-

ray technician. Still, it is a telling commentary on the ideological purity of the Dergue, the committee that runs the country, that virtually every member has family—wives, sons and daughters—living in the United States.

The Dergue’s chairman, Lt.-Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, is rarely challenged. Greeting foreign delegations in his drab blue Mao-style suit, Mengistu—the name means authority in Amharic, the country’s principal language—is soft-spoken and low-key. He talks with feeling of Ethiopia’s desperate need for Western development cap-

ital or the problems of its orphans. “He doesn’t seem to have much charisma,” said a Canadian parliamentarian after a recent audience. An army officer whose formal education is said to have ended at grade 6, Mengistu used one Politburo meeting in 1977 to personally execute the head of state, Brig.-Gen. Teferi Benti, who blocked his route to the top by supporting a civilian socialist group intent on replacing the military regime. Said a Western diplomat: “Give a man a machine-gun and he can develop charisma in a hurry.”

On Mengistu’s orders, Ethiopia’s shift toward Marxism-Leninism is gathering pace. Despite international criticism, the government is also determined to proceed with two huge programs—resettlement and “villagization”—aimed at enforcing control of a proud and hostile population. The government’s stated plan of resettlement was to move more than a million families from the teeming, droughtparched northern highlands—where

they faced possible starvation because of the grim conditions there—to the fertile and less populated southwestern provinces. But Western relief organizers have charged that the new settlers—at least 800,000 of them—were often transferred involuntarily and, separated from their families, they proved vulnerable to malaria and other lowlands diseases. Senior Politburo officials have privately conceded that the effort was badly handled. Mengistu himself told visiting Canadian MPS in March that in the future resettlement would be

“strictly voluntary,” a tacit acknowledgment that coercion had been used. At the same time, the Dergue is proceeding with a grand design to collectivize Ethiopian agriculture, placing millions of isolated, private farmers into central compounds.

The world’s relief agencies, which have contributed millions of dollars in manpower and supplies to Ethiopia, are clearly uncomfortable with the government’s policies. But they acquiesce, needing the Dergue’s sanction to continue pursuing what they regard as the greater good—helping the sick and hungry. “In effect,” said one British aid worker, “we have become hostage to our own humanitarianism.” Only one international agency, the Parisbased Doctors Without Borders, has attacked the resettlement program publicly. In a December, 1985, report,

the organization said that the forced transfers had taken the lives of between 50,000 and 100,000 Ethiopians. It accused the regime of committing, in effect, passive genocide. The statistics were unproven, and perhaps unprovable, but government officials nevertheless swiftly ordered the organization to leave the country.

Although the Dergue continues to wage war against indigenous liberation movements in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre as well as those in southern districts, the regime is solidly entrenched. With 300,000

men under arms, it has sufficient Soviet-made weaponry and enough Soviet-bloc military advisers to thwart any internal opposition. In Gondar city, the government’s base of operations against the Tigre People’s Liberation Front, Soviet pilots fly helicopter missions into the Semien Mountains, returning to their hotels at night to play backgammon and drink Meta, the local beer. Some of the fighting is only 20 km north of the city. Trucks transport the wounded back daily to Gondar Hospital, where East German surgeons operate. But the city is so dry, so desperate for water, that surgery is often performed without scrubbing down.

There are growing fears, as well, that Ethiopia might evenbe drawn into

another military conflict. The Dergue is training and financing the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of Col. John Garang, who from southern strongholds is waging civil war against the Sudanese government. Ethiopian pilots are said to be flying missions on behalf of the SPLA. In turn, Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy is supporting the Sudan. Another complication is that the Sudanese are among several Arab nations helping to finance the Eritrean’s fight for independence from Addis. Some Western observers express concern that the Ethiopians might one day become involved in an aerial battle with the Libyans—an encounter that could have grave consequences not only for Ethiopia, but for the entire Horn of Africa.

MICHAEL POSNER in Addis Ababa