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Ethiopia: Victors and Victims

The Friends of the Ethiopia vs. the Friends of the Dergue

We are all friends of Ethiopia but we are not all friends of the Dergue, the group that rules the country. The friend of Ethiopia sees a people in distress and wishes to do something about it. It seems a simple issue—people are starving and should be fed. The friends of the Dergue are a different lot—the object of their identification is a politburo, the former Provisional Military Administrative Council which overthrew Haile Selassie and set up Mengistu Haile-Mariam in his place. The friends of the Dergue need an ability to identify with an apparently omnipotent regime. People have this fantasy, and to a striking degree. It gives the fantasy a particular piquancy if you can feel not just that you are a friend of power, but that, through no fault of that power, you happen to be the only true friend it possesses.

The friends of Kim II Sung are like that. And the Maoists in West Germany were similar. They used to turn out in serried ranks to chant their immense slogans in public places. They were not trying to convert the passer-by. They seemed more or less unaware of their surroundings. But they were out to say to the Chinese themselves: look, you are not friendless; few we may be, and persecuted, but we have kept faith. The friends of Enver Hoxha saw themselves as the lone connoisseurs of socialism. Even Pol Pot had friends of this kind, lone supporters from afar.

From both a non-Western and a socialist perspective, Ethiopia has taken a correct ideological position in its domestic policies. The entire range of its economic and social policies contain within their frame the politics of equity. Political rights and economic and social rights have a common core and cannot be separated one from another.” This is a friend speaking. It sounds as if he is reading from a Dergue handout. He tells us that “the lives of Ethiopia’s poorest citizens have been improved” and that “it is remarkable how quickly the population as a whole has come to accept the radical changes that have taken place.”

The voice belongs to Professor Peter Schwab of the State University of New York. He is, on his own authority, a reputed Ethiopianist. “Only Marina and David Ottaway, Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, and this author,” he tells us, “among reputed Ethiopianists, have seen the revolution as a positive step despite some of the excesses.” But it is hard to see what, in the professor’s terms, would count as an excess. Purges of conservative and bourgeois opponents were fine because “the violence of the executions served as a cleansing agent. As Fanon so well put it, the destruction ‘is the preliminary to the unification of the people.’ ” “In 1984,” says Schwab, “Ethiopia is cleansed of opponents and everyday life is peaceful and largely nonviolent.”

Ethiopia: Politics, Economics and Society, from which these quotations are taken, was published this year in London by Frances Pinter Ltd., the first of a series of monographs on present-day Marxist regimes.^1 Although Schwab believes that everyday life is peaceful in Ethiopia, he has heard of the war there:

That the Soviet Union, Cuba and Ethiopia had national and international interests that converged in time and place was beneficial to Ethiopia. It allowed it to strengthen its ties to the socialist commonwealth while at the same time permitted it to maintain its territorial integrity.

Professor Schwab is also aware that there is a large and vocal exiled opposition to the Dergue, “particularly so in the United States where some 30,000 students, many of them Eritreans or former members of the EPRP [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party], reside.” These get little sympathy.

What is so ironic about their insistence for “democracy” in Ethiopia “is that many of these individuals were the same persons who held positions of dominance prior to the revolution, who held tenant-farmers at their mercy, and who lived off the fruits of oppression” (Schwab, 1982, p. 198). Thus their claims are somewhat hollow.

Thus Schwab, citing Schwab, dismisses them.

But there is a danger in this argument about people who held positions of dominance before the revolution, as Schwab perceives. He may be a friend of the Dergue. He may be happy to dismiss the rebel movements in Eritrea and Tigre out of hand. He may think of socialism as essentially a society without opponents. He may tell us that the EPRP “acted like spoiled academics and almost asked to be crushed by the revolution.” Yet there are issues on which this (unspoiled) academic is prepared not only to warn the Dergue of trouble ahead, but even (heroically, I think) to tell Colonel Mengistu what to do. One such is the question of Amhara chauvinism.

As Ethiopia had developed under Selassie and his predecessors, the Christian Amhara-Tigrean section of the population, which represented between 35 and 40 percent of the total, dominated more than eighty other linguistic-ethnic groups, including the Oromos or Gallas who alone accounted for 40 percent of the total. (Figures from Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution, Schocken, 1982.) This ethnic domination was much resented. But what if it continues today? “It is clear,” says Schwab,

that the Amhara are once again represented in central officialdom far out of proportion to their numbers in society as a whole. In and of itself this may be meaningless; but given the historical tradition of Ethiopia the perception is as important as the reality. It must be made clear to the population that despite their numbers they wield no undue influence.

(That is, it must be made clear that the Amhara, rather than the population, wield no undue influence.) The psychological technique here is almost endearing. Schwab starts by assuring the Dergue that the problem may of course be illusory, then he insists that even illusory problems might be problems:

It must be transmitted to the population by Mengistu that individuals are in the arena of authority because of their talents and politics, not because of their ethnicity. If the Dergue and COPWE [the Commission to Organize the Party of the Working Peoples of Ethiopia] are seen as too conciliatory to the once-oppressive Amhara (as it seems they currently are, Halliday & Molyneux, 1981, p. 165) it could lead to upheavals against the socialist government. It is important for Mengistu not only to speak on the subject, but to ensure that the Amhara do not re-emerge as the primary political actors solely because of their ethnicity. If this were to occur it would violate the ideals of the revolution and Lenin’s thesis that ethnic distinctions must be obliterated.

This may be, according to the professor, an area of serious conflict. So what is to be done?

If the Amhara representatives in the Dergue and COPWE continue to dominate, then a policy statement must be issued that emphasizes their value to the state and reduces the importance of their ethnic composition.

A policy statement must be issued! The professor has started kicking ass in Addis Ababa. In the eye of his fantasy he has intervened, and not just like the USAID official who says his intervention allows the government to change its policies and not fall. Schwab is delivering an ultimatum:

Ethnicity is not important in a socialist revolution and should not be, but it must not be seen by the people to be important, otherwise there is certain to be trouble. This is a sensitive issue but it must be confronted.

If we think of the friend of the Dergue as the man in love with an omnipotent regime, rather than as the man with a personal taste for power, this issuing of ultimatums might seem a little out of character. We have to remember that even the friend of the Dergue has nightmares. He needs to be sure that, somewhere in the world, there exists an omnipotent regime; but what if, for some essentially idiotic reason, that regime was overthrown? (It couldn’t be for a good reason, because the regime would obviously be immune to any rationally foreseeable attack. The friends of Hitler wonder why he was overthrown, scratch their heads, and come up with the essentially contingent fact: for some odd reason, Britain could not see that, objectively, it was the natural ally of the Reich.)

The friend of the Dergue admires the revolution from above: it will institute socialism and in turn socialism will institute communism and there will be no opponents; even the revolutionary committees, the kebelles, are seen as a useful tool, rather than as an expression of socialist emancipation—they “have proved their value as a judicial, social and political instrument of the state.” The Dergue is admirable because it goes the whole hog:

Chile under Allende and Sandinista Nicaragua were both in the nature of social reform movements with a very limited trace of true radicalism, while the case of Zimbabwe points to a New Deal type of Marxism that only recently has moved toward violence. Both Benin and the People’s Republic of the Congo are examples of socialism via the coup, neither incorporating the radical anti-feudal and anti-traditional nature of the Dergue. And the lengthy anti-colonial struggle in Indo-China led by Ho Chi Minh, a political example in and of itself, was totally unlike the Ethiopian revolution. Ethiopia, then, stands alone…

although it is now moving “ever closer to traditional and orthodox socialism.” It is unique, but it is also becoming orthodox—an admirable object for fantasy.

Professor Schwab does not have much to say on the subject of famine, although he recalls the attitude of Haile Selassie’s court to the drought of the early Seventies, and quotes from Kapuscinski’s book The Emperor as if it were a bona fide historical source (surely it is a fable in the Kafka tradition, and not to be taken as straight reportage). He tells us how the 1973 and 1974 famine was first covered up, and then, “when some relief supplies did finally reach Ethiopia further scandalous activity took place: ministers first demanded customs fees from overseas donors and then appropriated the food shipments, and then sold them to those who could afford to buy.” Ten years later, it has been the task of the present regime to rebut similar attacks on its probity. Following are extracts from two recent statements by the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), given to me in Addis Ababa:

While we understand the wishes of the donors that relief goods should not be subject to charges, we must point out that if Ethiopia could afford to pay all the costs involved in port handling and clearance, it would not need all the help it has been requesting of the international community…. Our levying of port charges is not a starvation tax. On the contrary, the more of our own resources we have to pay for port costs, the less will be available for urgently needed interventions in shelters and feeding centers.

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