Khartoum, May 1980: Hundreds of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis were rounded up and put in prison in nearby Omdurman when Ethiopian leader Menguistu Hailemariam visited here May 25 to help celebrate the eleventh anniversary of Sudanese President Jaafar al-Numayri’s seizure of power. The purpose of the visit was to consolidate and formalize newly improved relations between the two countries. Sudan and Ethiopia have been at loggerheads since the 1960s, when Sudan provided assistance and haven for the Eritrean liberation movement and Ethiopian dissidents, and Ethiopia became the base for southern Sudanese opposition.

In 1972, Numayri signed an agreement in Addis giving south Sudan regional autonomy. He recently offered to mediate between the Derg and the Eritrean movement on the same basis. But neither the Derg nor the Eritreans are interested in regional autonomy. Both sides point out that regional autonomy has hardly been a resounding success in Sudan.

Southern Sudanese confirm that their region still suffers from economic, political and cultural discrimination. Shortages of milk, sugar and other foods in the north are even worse in the south. Earlier this year, all flights from Khartoum to the southern capital of Juba were suspended for several weeks, and land transport was strictly controlled. The reasons given were a lack of petrol and need to interdict a cholera epidemic from the south. But many southerners attribute it to the tense political situation in the south.

President Numayri announced in January the dissolution of the national People’s Assembly and the southern Regional Assembly, claiming that new elections were required by his reorganization dividing Sudan into seven regions, each of which has its own assembly. Southerners point out that their assembly did not need to be dissolved to implement the new policy, and that this constituted unacceptable interference in southern affairs. Other Sudanese suggest that “regionalism” allows the regime to diffuse responsibility for Sudan’s economic woes, but still maintain control over military, security, and economic development projects. Numayri retains the power to dissolve the assemblies.

The Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) says it is confident that Sudan will not alter its policy of offering facilities to the Eritrean movement. However, since the beginning of the year, Sudanese security has forbidden access to EPLF-held areas of Eritrea for journalists. Since April, even representatives of humanitarian organizations and support committees have been denied permission to enter Eritrea.

Sudan still serves as a transit point for food, medical supplies and some military equipment. There is no evidence to support Ethiopian claims that Sudan has agreed to deny Eritrean access to Port Sudan docking facilities, or to close the Eritrean political offices. In contrast to the Derg’s insistence upon a military solution in Eritrea, EPLF Vice Secretary General Isaias Afewerki told me that the EPLF is prepared to negotiate with the Derg in the presence of a third party.

“We are ready for negotiations without preconditions,” he explained. “The negotiations will come out with the just solution for our cause and for the general situation, for a peaceful solution to the conflict.” Afewerki stated that President Numayri “has never tried to impose any political solution. He is exerting all his efforts to bring the Eritrean revolution and the Derg to the negotiating table, and we support that initiative. The Derg is maneuvering and trying to exploit the position of Sudan as a psychological weapon against the struggles of the Eritrean and Ethiopian people.”

Afewerki dismissed regional autonomy as an “empty proposal” that “has nothing to do with the Eritrean question. It is not even a solution for minority nationalities or some ethnic groups within Ethiopia. It is crystal-clear that we would not negotiate on this basis.”

Ahmed Nasser, chairman of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), returned from a visit to Moscow early this year to report that “the comrades in Moscow told us, as they did in our earlier visit in June 1978, that there cannot be any military solution in Eritrea. They said they are against any attempt to solve the question militarily…. They insisted that they ‘have no hand in the policies and activities of the Ethiopian authorities in Eritrea.’” There is little evidence, however, that the Soviet Union has significantly altered its support for the Derg, whose pursuit of the war in Eritrea assumes continued Soviet military assistance.

Addis Ababa, September 1980: Life in Ethiopia’s capital has a disconcerting air of normalcy. The portrait of Comrade Chairman Menguistu Hailemariam, in military uniform with pink cravat and prominent red star on the cap, stares down from the walls of public buildings. Street posters stress traffic safety and the revolutionary future of the Party of the Working People of Ethiopia. Adult literacy classes, with mostly women students, are held every afternoon in the kebeles, the neighborhood urban dweller’s associations. Workers are increasing production, factories are expanding. Educated city youth — students and new recruits to the rapidly expanding bureaucracy — dress in the latest imported European fashions. New housing is being constructed on the fringes of the city.

But there are manifestations of Ethiopia’s problems, too. The beggars, for instance, come in all ages, with all varieties of affliction. Long-time residents of Addis say the beggars are periodically rounded up and shipped out of the city, but they inevitably return. Life in the countryside is even more difficult than the hardship of Addis’ cold rainy nights.

The streets of Addis are quiet at night. The “difficult times” of the Red Terror against “counter-revolutionary elements” are over. Less than two years ago, bodies were routinely picked up from the streets in the morning. Friends would disappear over night. Some say many may still be alive in prison. “Not knowing is the most difficult thing,” one Ethiopian told me, “trying to sustain the hope that someday you’ll see your son or sister again. Of course there is a lot of bitterness. Who in Addis didn’t know someone who disappeared in those days?”

The security forces are better organized now that the East Germans are in charge. Young men and women talk only very quietly about going to America to study, to live. The notion of the “land of opportunity” has not yet faded for a small minority of Ethiopians who had a Peace Corps teacher or a relative who worked for the Americans “before the revolution.” For many intellectuals, their role in the new “socialist Ethiopia” is either ill defined or burdened by the scars inflicted by a military regime. The torment of intellectuals is of secondary import; the revolution was designed to benefit the workers and peasants. All major industries have been nationalized. Workers now participate in the management of factories, although the government-appointed general manager has a veto. The workers belong to the All-Ethiopia Trade Union, the only legal union. Working conditions and benefits have improved, but there are reportedly still labor disputes, frequently over pay, because annual wage hikes are not keeping up with inflation. Each worker must do voluntary labor one day a month “for the motherland” to support the war effort which may affect them very little or may be directed against people from their own region.

Political meetings at work sites and in the neighborhood kebeles focus on the Commission to Organize the Party of the Working People of Ethiopia (COPWE). Menguistu announced COPWE in December 1979 to advance the formation of a worker and peasant-run “socialist Ethiopia.” As the recognized chairman of the party-to-be, Menguistu’s picture is displayed throughout the country. His only companions are the posters of Marx-Engels-Lenin which grace the entrance to kebele offices.

Kebele 18 is the one which many foreign journalists are shown. But even if unique, it exhibits the potential for what a kebele was originally conceived. Kebele 18 has established a clinic, a kindergarten, an elementary school, a bakery and a theater-size meeting hall from community funds. Sister Mabet, the clinic nurse, excitedly demonstrated newly arrived medical equipment and supplies from UNICEF. “Until recently I was working out in the countryside,” she said, “but I’m very glad to be in Addis now. This clinic, designed mainly for mother and child care, is an important contribution to this community, which is 97 percent Muslim. I plan to study preventive health care. We serve 6,000 people, mostly women merchants in the local market.” Abdelrahman, chairman of the kebele development committee, proudly displayed kindergarten classrooms and playground. “The playground is small, and we have 40 children in each classroom — too many. But we always plan to make improvements.”

There are many who do not share Mabet and Abdelrahman’s support of the regime. One resident of Addis observed that “part of the reason why there is no well organized opposition is that the regime is giving many dissidents the tools they want to make long-term changes in the country.” The most organized opposition is from the national movements, fighting economic, political and cultural discrimination and for the creation of independent states.

It is impossible to gauge conditions in Ethiopia’s countryside from Addis. Travel permits are very difficult to obtain. Two new national liberation struggles have emerged since the overthrow of Haile Selassie. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) organizes that province’s 5 milion people. In July the TPLF staged a daring raid into Axum, a major town, and kidnapped two Soviet doctors. It is holding these doctors somewhere in the countryside, much of which is under TPLF control, and refuses to negotiate with anyone but the Russians.

Although less potent at present, the Oromo Liberation Front poses a more fundamental challenge to the Menguistu regime. Oromos are the largest national group in Ethiopia. Earlier this year, the Derg made a sweeping arrest of Oromos, including high-ranking officials in the government or military. Menguistu is empowered to undertake such tasks in his capacity as chairman of COPWE. “The chairman shall…take all necessary measures to avert any situation which threatens the revolution, the territorial integrity of Ethiopia, or the dignity and welfare of the people,” says COPWE’s founding proclamation. Menguistu is building up for another offensive in Tigray and Eritrea, according to the TPLF and EPLF.

Refugees in Sudan include some 360,000 Eritreans and 30,000 Tigreans. Somali officials estimate that some 1.2 million from Ethiopia are now in Somalia. Over 700,000 are in refugee camps, including some 200,000 Oromos from the southern provinces of Bale and Sidamo. The Derg insists that “the Somali Army comes into Ethiopia, burns villages and kidnaps the people, taking them to camps in Somalia in order to appeal to the international community for assistance.” The refugees have another story: small-scale but widespread armed clashes between local peasants and nomads and Ethiopian forces. The Oromos describe their resistance to the Derg’s efforts to recruit militia and to resettle people in “strategic hamlets.”

According to the Derg, the first two phases of the revolution (“destroying the feudo-bourgeois system” and “eliminating counter-revolutionary elements”) have been completed. The third phase — economic, political and social development — is underway. However, even a cursory examination of the forces at work in Ethiopia shows clearly that the national question is far from resolved. Among the fronts there is a growing consciousness of the necessity for military and political coordination. If this develops, these movements will present a fundamental challenge to the Menguistu regime and the political structure of “socialist Ethiopia.”

How to cite this article:

Lynne Barbee "Letter from the Horn," Middle East Report 92 (November/December 1980).

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