Ethiopia - the disintegration of an empire

THERE IS WAR today, right across Africa's desert regions, from the Western Sahara on the Atlantic to Somalia on the Indian Ocean. It is as if some subterranean fault was causing the continent to crack along its political seams. The wars in Western Sahara, where a liberation struggle is being fought against the Mauritian and Moroccan Governments, and in Chad, represent the resistance of nomads to political settlements which they resent. The wars there are being fought at a fairly primitive level. What is going on in Ethiopia is quite different. It is war on the largest scale that Northern Africa has seen in recent years, apart, of course, from the Arab-Israeli conflicts.


Ethiopia is, in fact, faced with several wars at the moment. The recent violence in Addis Ababa almost merits the term. 'civil war' with the terror of the left-wing Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) being met by the counter-terror of Government assassination squads. Opposition to the Addis Ababa military government (which is known as the Dergue) also comes from the right-wing group, the Ethiopian Democratic Union. The Dergue claims to have routed an EDU army which was formed in the north western part of the country and which was reported to have the backing of neighbouring Sudan.

The more serious wars concern secessionist forces on the periphery of Ethiopia. In the North, the province of Eritrea is now effectively self-governing, and successive attempts by the Ethiopian Army to crush the rebellion there have failed dismally. Other guerrilla moveements have sprung up within a number of different nationalities.

But by far the most serious of the conflicts in which Ethiopia finds itself is the secessionist attempt by Somalia in the Ogaden, a vast scrubland adjoining the Republic of Somalia. This bloody

struggle has now been swung in Ethioopia's favour by the presence of several thousand Cuban and Soviet advisors and the arrival of the greatest amount of war material to be sent to the continent since the Egyptian build-up to the Yom Kippur War. The Russians are reliably reported to have trans-shipped fifty thousand tons of military hard ware to the ailing Addis Ababa regime in recent months, and thus helped shore up a military government which rules with a heady combination of pidgin Marxism and gunlaw.

Ethiopia is the oldest Christian state in the world. It is also one of the longest survrving political entities, possessing a continuity of rule for two millenia. What is at issue is not the Ethiopian heartland, but those areas which were acquired by design in the period of expansionism in the 19th century under the Emperor Menetek and largely by chance after the Second World War. The resentment felt in these subordinate areas to metropolitan Amharic rule lay largely dormant under the tyrannical sovereignty of the Emperor Haile Selassie who came to power in 1916 and whose rule spanned almost 60 years, apart from a brief interregnum provided by the italian invasion of 1935. He was restored to power in 1941 by the British, and the collapse of Italian power in the Horn of Africa gave the Lion of Judah, as Selassie liked to be known, unquesstioned authority over eastern Somalia and the formerly Italian colony of Eritrea.

By the time he was overthrown in 1974, Selassie controlled one of the poorest and most feudal countries in the world. In rural areas, where 90% of the population lived, feudalism was almost absolute. Over 70% of arable land was owned by 0.01% of the population - mostly from the dominant Amharic and, to a lesser exterit, the Tigrean nationallities. Average per capita income was less than 70 dollars a year, and average life expectancy, thirty-five years. The final blow was the famine of 1973, when about 250,000 died. The Lion of Judah's response was to hush it tip. After riots and demonstrations throughout Ethioopia, Selassie was overthrown in Septemmber 1974.

One of the members of the Armed Forces co-ordinating committee who secured the downfall of Selassie (who was to die mysteriously, but unlamented, in prison) was Major Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu is now a colonel and the dictator of Ethio pa.

To the subordinate nationalities within Ethiopia, the death of the Emperor was interpreted as the death of the Empire. Mengistu, who speaks a socialist doggerel and refers to his assassination victims as having been "su bjected to revolutionary measures", understands the situation differently. The Emperor is dead; long live the Empire.

The Eritreans first formed the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1961 after Selassie had crushed the constitution of federration between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and annexed the area as a subject province. At first, Eritrean Liberation forces assumed, that Ethiopia's military rulers would not pursue the war against them. They w~re wrong. But the. Ethiopian armies sent to deal with the three main guerrilla groups were routed in battle and suffered large-scale desertions.

A peasant army was sent into the field, but. that too fell apart when faced by the Eritrean guerrillas, who have built the infrastructure of a state and who undoubtedly command the loyalty of the people.

The impasse in Eritrea seems to have convinced Somali insurgents that they too could secede, especially with the support of neighbouring Somalia, which hankers for the creation of s.Somalistan involving part of Northern Kenya too, where shifta bands of nomads have been active for years.

Within weeks, Somali insurgents had seized the greater part of Ethiopian Somalia. Ethiopia's rag-bag army seemed incapable of preventing secession, and the active support of Somali troops, although officially denied in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, seems to have been a prime factor behind the insurrgents'successes.

But another factor was to come into play. Somalia, once the darling of the Russians, is now shunned by Moscow. All Soviet advisors were withdrawn from the country last November and Somalia Was left with a Soviet-supplied Air Force, but no spares. The Soviet Union had looked at the Horn of Africa and decided that the best long-term bet for its strategic interests lay in a strong and united Ethiopia dominating the southern flank of the Red Sea and thus the Western route, via the Suez Canal, to the Indian Ocean.

Cuba had already decided to send 311 medical advisors to Ethiopia last May. Ethiopia needed them. At that time there were only 127 doctors in the country, serving a population of almost 35 million.

Cuba's original involvement then was undoubtedly altruistic. But as the war in the Ogaden hotted up, it became clear that the Cubans would not merely be used to keep life and limb together. They would also serve in the killing business. Castro has clearly concluded that the regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Miriam, who had copper-bottomed his 'most favoured nation' status in Moscow last May during a visit to the Kremlin, was a socialist deserving his support. Castro's brother Raoul, an enthusiastic proponent of 'internationallizing' socialism, appears to have been the co-ordinator of Cuban efforts. The Russians subsequently put their promises into effect. The collapse in April of an American arms deal to Ethiopia meant that Mengistu was desperately short of equipment. With up to 3,000 Soviet and East European 'advisors' came shipments of T54/55 and T34 tanks, plus 60 Mig 21 and 12 Mig 23 swing-wing fighters. In all, up to 1,000 million dollars worth of hardware was dispatched to one of the poorest countries in the world. At one point, Soviet advisors working in the Sudan (which is bitterly opposed to the Ethiopian regime) programmed Sudanese radar so that it could not detect movement in the air corridor being used by the giant Antonov A22 air freighters.

Assistance - in the form of 40 elecctronics experts - came also from, of all places, Israel, which seeks the friendship of Ethiopia as the only non-Muslim country in the area. Somalia is Muslim, and the Eritrean guerrillas have had extensive support from Arab states, particularly Iraq, and from Palestinian organizations.

The Israeli-Arab dimension becomes a trifle complicated when one considers that a thousand soldiers from the Marxist and passionately anti-Zionist Republic of South Yemen, are also assisting the Ethiopians.

The Soviet supply route, ironically, was through the Suez Canal, the superrvision of which, at its jugular point, is one of the reasons why the Russians are so interested in the Horn of Africa. Some supplies were off-loaded in Aden, to be air transported from there to Addis Ababa. Later consignments of munitions arrived in the minor port of Assab, at the very edge of Eritreanncontrolled territory. Some two dozen Soviet ships cruised off Eritrea to prevent interference from guerrillas, and, some reports claim, actually fired on Eritrean positions.

The spirited Ethiopian drive against the Somali forces which began last month dramatically illustrated Addis Ababa's improved military status. After years of endless reverses in wars with insurgents, success had arrived. Moving forward from the base town of Dire Dawa, the Ethiopians and their multinational allies headed towards the strategic town of Jijiga, which was captured by the Somalis in September when they routed the Ethiopians' Third Division. That, supposedly, should open the plain of Ogaden to an armoured thrust to the borders of the Somali Republic.

Simultaneously, another Ethiopian armoured thrust drove towards Djibouti, the newly independent former French colony, which Somalia would clearly like to annex. Since the Somali insurgents cut the railway line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti last summer, and with the other major port of Massawa under Eritrean control, Addis Ababa's only other link with the sea has been the small port of Assab. An armoured thrust along the Djibouti railway would be an important logistical requirement for the maintenance of the thrust into the Ogaden.

It is that thrust which could well turn out to be an expensive business for the Russians. The Somalis are nomads who know the ways of the country they are fighting in. The Ethiopian drive must pass through the Karamarda Mountains before the Ogaden plain is reached, and even with skilled advisors, that could present major problems. The Somalis have fallen back before this offensive, but it would be foolish to think that that is the end of the war; the Ogaden consists of 3,000 square miles of bleakness. Even if the Ethiopians manage to cut through to it, they could face the protracted horrors of a guerrilla war similar to the experiences of the Mauritanian and Moroccan troops on the other side of the continent in the Western Sahara, where Polisario guerrillas have prevented the painless partition of their countries by their neighbours.

The President of the Somali Republic, Siad Barra, claims that the situation in the Horn of Africa could trigger off nuclear war. But no one is coming to his aid. In simple terms, Somalia is guilty of aggression against Ethiopia, which is the legitimate owner of the Ogaden. Even though Cuban and Soviet-piloted Mig's, and Ethiopian-flown American F5 'Freedom Fighters' (supplied before the Washington/ Addis Ababa split) have been bombing the regional capital of Hargeisa and the Red Sea port of Barbera in the Somali Republic, there is little likelihood of substantial support going to Somalia because, ostensibly anyway, it is the primary aggressor. Saudi Arabia and Iran have made it clear that if the Ethiopians try to force their way past the Somali frontier, they will give assisstance to the Somalis. American Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance has hinted the same. The Organisation of African Unity, however much it dislikes the role of the Cubans and Russians in Ethiopia, acknowledges that· they are merely serving to 'normalise' the situation. The OAU policy is that the old colonial boundaries, however absurd and arbitary they are, must be maintained if Africa is not to dissolve into secessionist chaos.

Presumably, if the Ethiopians can crush Somali secessionism, and halt on the borders of the Somali Republic pthereby not bringing Iran and Saudi Arabi into open hostility - they can then turn their attention to Eritrea.

But Ethiopia remains an un'stable country. Three of its leaders have been killed in three years. The Dergue survives by the liberal use of 'revolutionary measures', even within its own ranks. Hundreds of suspected political opponnents have been rounded up and shot. And in the final analysis, there is no prospect that the Dergue can solve the problems of dissident nationalities, chafing under the yoke of Amharic rule. The Afar Liberation Front is active in the Damakil depression and the Oromo Liberation Front operates in the south, amongst the Galla people, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, who feel Amharic rule has discriminated against them. In the north, the Tigre People's Liberation Front has won measurable support.

Three different guerrilla groups control Eritrea, and the Western Somali Liberation Front will, it may be assumed, be around for a long time. The Russians have involved themselves in the contorrtions of a dying empire. lt is an involveement they may come to regret.