Conscription into the army or other government service for years on end, fear of detention and torture for real or imagined transgressions with no legal recourse, no prospect of schooling or meaningful work, and no personal freedom: The reasons Afar refugees in eastern Ethiopia gave for fleeing their homeland often echoed those I had heard from their countrymen in interviews I conducted in 19 countries over the last two years. But most I spoke with had another grievance—disempowerment and discrimination based on their ethnicity and culture.
Said Ibrahim, 21, orphaned and blind, was making a living as a singer in Adi Quala bars when a member of Eritrea’s national security force claimed one of his songs had “political” content and detained him at the Adi Abieto prison. After a month Said was released, but he was stripped of his monthly disability payments for two years when he refused to identify the lyricist. “I went back to my village and reflected about it,” he told me over tea at an open-air café in the Adi Harush camp in northern Ethiopia. “If the system could do this to a blind orphan, something was very wrong.” After appealing to his neighbors for help, two boys, aged 10 and 11, sneaked him into Ethiopia and all three asked for asylum.
The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission set up a year and a half ago to adjudicate a border dispute that left tens of thousands dead and the entire region on edge will issue its verdict on April 13. Both countries have pledged to abide by the outcome.
Two months after Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a pact to end their two-year border war, an agreement to move ahead with its implementation has finally been ironed out. The 4,000 UN troops brought here to monitor the truce are preparing for deployment to the contested frontier. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of war-displaced civilians remain in camps behind the lines, waiting to see if the truce will hold.
A second round of fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia in February found the political positions of the former allies little changed from their opening salvos the previous June, but overwhelming Ethiopian numbers — troops and arms — finally forced the Eritreans to accept an American-backed “peace plan” on Ethiopian terms. Meanwhile, not only had the levels of firepower intensified, but also the stakes, in a bitter dispute that has already had a profound impact on regional alignments and development prospects. Tragically, it appears to be a repeat performance of earlier battles in the 30-year contest over Eritrea’s independence, which ended in 1991.
In the arid, mountainous, north-eastern corner of Africa, two of the world&’s poorest but best armed states — Eritrea and Ethiopia, allies until a short while ago — are on the brink of all-out war. Shuttle diplomacy by a succession of would-be mediators has failed to provide an exit from potential catastrophe for both sides, though it has temporarily halted the fighting that wracked the area last spring. Since then, the two countries have mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops and a staggering arsenal of Cold War arms to do battle over less than 100 square miles of disputed scrub farmland and desert. Far more is at stake than a petty border dispute, however.
Over the past several years, the perception has become widespread that the world has entered a period of profound change. A main feature of this change has been some erosion of the principle of state sovereignty as a major structural feature of international relations. The new activism of the United Nations and the trend toward selective military intervention for humanitarian purposes and as a means of international crisis management have been the most prominent features of this development.
Fantu Cheru is an economist from Ethiopia now teaching at the American University in Washington, DC. His book The Silent Revolution in Africa: Debt, Development and Democracy (Zed) won the World Hunger Media Award for 1989. Joe Stork spoke with him in Washington in the spring of 1990.
How would you characterize the present situation in Africa in terms of food, nourishment and productivity?
Gayle Smith coordinates the Africa program at the Washington-based Development Group for Alternative Policies. In the past ten years she has worked extensively in the Horn of Africa on relief and development issues. Her most recent trip to Ethiopia and Sudan was in June 1990. She spoke with Joe Stork in Washington.
Compared to the famine of 1984-1985, what is the scope of the problem in the Horn today?
In terms of numbers, the famine is somewhat less severe than it was five years ago. There are an estimated 5 million in need as opposed to 7-9 million in 1984-1985. Just over 1 million of these people are in Eritrea; another 2.2 million live in Tigray. The rest live elsewhere in the north of Ethiopia, areas now also affected by the war.
In his February 1986 Message to the Congress on Foreign Policy, Ronald Reagan announced his support for “growing resistance movements now [challenging] communist regimes installed or maintained by the military power of the Soviet Union and its colonial agents — in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua.” In four of Reagan’s five regional hot spots, an avowed anti-communist contra-style force maintains a field presence against a regime allied with the Soviet Union.
Famine takes root when farmers lose their means of production. In Africa, drought and war have forced huge numbers of peasants to sell off their animals and tools and abandon the land on which they depend, thus bringing local economies to a standstill. Grain yields in Africa declined by one-third per hectare over the last decade; food production is down by 15 percent since 1981. One out of every five Africans now depends on food aid. Interest payments on international loans now consume $15 billion per year. The continent’s industrial base is functioning at only one-third of capacity. The incidence of famine among Africa’s rural producers has in turn brought national economies to a halt.
Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution (London: Verso, 1982).
Most Western commentators sharply criticize the current Ethiopian regime and the process that brought it to power. They argue that there has been no genuine revolution in Ethiopia, but rather a military coup followed by terror against civilian opponents, repression of the workers’ movement and refusal of self-determination to the national minorities. For critics on the right, such developments prove the turpitude of “Soviet surrogates.” For critics on the left, they show yet another military clique subverting a progressive mass movement.
February 27, 1982
On February 16 the Ethiopian armed forces launched Operation Red Star, a military offensive aimed at isolating the Eritrean opposition and rebuilding the war-torn territory. Ethiopian troops in Eritrea number 120,000, and they are backed by MiG 23 jet fighters, MI-24 helicopter gunships, T-54 tanks and heavy artillery supplied by the USSR. The government in Addis Ababa has made few comments on the war since the original announcement of the campaign on January 25. Mohammed Siad Barre, the spokesman hereof the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), asserts that the Ethiopians have suffered almost 11,000 killed or wounded in the three-week old war.
In April 1976, more than 18 months after taking power, Ethiopia’s ruling Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) finally provided an elaborated ideological basis for the Ethiopian revolution. The National Democratic Revolution Program, published that month, included many of the changes demanded by the radical civilian left: widespread nationalizations; rural and urban land reform; establishment of peasant and urban (kebele) neighborhood associations; a mass army; reorganized trade unions and other mass organizations.  The document also allowed for considerable devolution of authority and responsibility to the elected leadership of these new organizations.
One of the more positive political themes that the exiled students brought back from their studies was a special emphasis on the need for the emancipation of women. A Women’s Committee operated within POMOA. As late as 1977, official state documents were stressing the double oppression of women, as workers and women. This was in contrast to the more orthodox theory of the Eastern European countries that became official policy in 1978. In the countryside, moreover, the establishment of peasant associations went together with the setting up of local women’s associations. Nearly all women had been integrated into these structures by 1980, and women appear to have participated quite widely in the peasant associations.
By the end of 1979, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, “the Chairman,” was being projected through the official media in a strong authoritarian light. He derived from his earlier years an exceptional acquaintance with the regional diversity of Ethiopia. Born in an Oromo area between 1940 and 1942, of mixed Amhara and shankala (a caste of blacks who were traditionally slaves) origin, he traveled as a child to different areas while his father was soldiering and then serving as a houseguard. Mengistu gained access to the Holeta military academy, where he was trained as an ordnance officer. He twice visited the United States for training purposes. There is no public evidence of his radicalism prior to the constitution of the Derg in 1974.
With hindsight it is possible to see in the course of the Ethiopian revolution a process of radicalization and post-revolutionary consolidation through which the Provisional Military Administration Committee (PMAC, or the Derg) established a stable new order on the ruins of the old. The direction of political and social change was by no means this clear during the first years after 1974. The pattern of revolutionary transformation involved a deep paradox, namely the conflict between the military leadership at the top and the various radical civilian forces below. At each stage of the revolution, the PMAC, aware of its own political weaknesses, sought to establish alliances with these civilian forces. Indeed it put into practice much of what the civilians were themselves demanding.
Political developments in Africa have lately slipped out of the headlines, but the confrontations brewing there could dwarf earlier conflicts in both military fury and political complexity. The US-backed regimes in Somalia and Sudan each face the possibility of sudden coups d’etat or civil wars. The Soviet-supported Ethiopian government is losing another in a long sequence of campaigns to stamp out nationalist guerrillas in the former Italian colony of Eritrea. Addis Ababa also faces ongoing revolts by three minority nationalities who are increasingly linking up with one another to topple the military authorities.
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.