September 15, 1986

PAUL B. HENZE: a former National Security Council staff officer , is a resident consultant at the Rand Corp. in Washington.


A proud and talented people with 3,000 years behind them, Ethiopians deserved better.

Twelve years ago the military junta known as the Dergue hauled the old Lion of Judah, Haile Selassie, off from his palace in a Volkswagen. Acting in the name of the “broad masses” without even any of the classic communist rituals of rigged elections or “people’s congresses,” the Dergue began turning Ethiopia into a communist state.

Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, who stayed in the shadows until the titular Dergue chairman and seven other members were killed in a 1977 shoot-out, was always the prime mover toward Marxism. His methods were brutal. The country fell into disorder from which it has never recovered. Far more Ethiopians have been killed and forced to flee than during the Italian invasion of the 1930s.

Mengistu rules Ethiopia like a Marxist emperor. Two years ago he launched his Ethiopian Workers Party, but workers are few. The party is a Soviet-style nomenklatura of bureaucrats and military men. Mengistu is using it to turn the country into a people’s republic, as if mimicking Soviet practice would solve his problems.

The hallmarks of Marxist Ethiopia are bloodshed, famine, economic stagnation and hordes of refugees. No combination of claimed accomplishments could offset the damage inflicted on the country.

Mengistu’s rush into Marxism provoked rebellions in outlying provinces that have proved intractable.

Marxism has exacerbated Ethiopia’s relations with all its neighbors and forced the government to divert most of its budget to military purposes. Soviet generosity with arms is never matched by economic aid.

Drought alone did not cause the great famine of 1984-85. Neighboring Kenya experienced a food deficit twice as serious as Ethiopia’s, took timely measures and completely avoided starvation and disruption of rural life. Dawit Wolde Giorgis, who headed the famine-relief operation and defected to the United States a few months ago, confirms that it was Mengistu’s policy to ignore the plight of people in rebellious regions and peasants resisting collectivization.

Mengistu imitated Josef Stalin’s tactic in the Ukraine in the 1930s. In his new book, “Ethiopia, the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” David Korn, who was in charge of the American Embassy in Addis Ababa at the time, chronicles how the West delivered $1 billion worth of food and supplies and saved the lives of 7 million to 10 million Ethiopians.

Optimists expected Mengistu to apply the lesson of the famine and shift policy to favor private agriculture and a free market. He disappointed the optimists, as he always has, and began an enormous resettlement campaign for which the Soviets supplied trucks and aircraft. He followed it with a nationwide campaign to herd peasants into new villages where they can be forced to deliver their produce to the state.

Such forced moving of people would be daunting for well-organized, prosperous governments. Ethiopia has neither the personnel nor the resources to make such undertakings successful. Crops are said to be good this year, but Mengistu’s policies will cause more famine, more revolt, more hardship.

The World Bank’s 1986 Development Report puts Ethiopia’s per-capita gross national product at $110, the world’s lowest. All other economic indicators in Ethiopia also have plunged since the revolution. Even a study by Soviet advisers in the Ethiopian planning commission, which has been circulating in Addis Ababa, admits that food production is down to 84% of what it was before the revolution. Only the population has grown: Put at 44 million now, it is projected by the World Bank at 65 million by the turn of the century. Far from being an advertisement for Marxism, Ethiopia’s experience stands as an appalling indictment of it. Why does Mengistu stick to a system that compounds all his difficulties? A passion for power and an illogical conviction that the Soviet Union represents the wave of the future are possible explanations. Could Mengistu change course? It may be too late for him to do so and survive. His scorn for the United States seems profound. He recently attacked the U.S. government for its “sheer ignorance” and “blind hatred” of Ethiopia. But the Ethiopian “broad masses” know better–they know where famine relief came from, and they rely on the broadcasts of the Voice of America as the most reliable source of news. When Ethiopians escape or defect, they make their way to America as soon as they can.

On what does Marxism rest in Ethiopia? Not much, other than brutality and terror–and lack of a clear-cut alternative to Mengistu. Except for his clique, serious Marxists are harder to find in Addis Ababa than on U.S. college campuses. Like most Ethiopians, the United States hoped that the 1974 revolution would bring a more open society and more rapid economic development. The hope was not naive.

A proud and talented people with 3,000 years behind them, Ethiopians deserved better. Haile Selassie was never a despot. His failings look less serious as each year of Mengistu’s reign passes, and his statesmanship more impressive. The United States has been consistently patient in the face of Mengistu’s insults. We must not lose our patience now. But we must speak forcefully about Ethiopia’s problems and of the better future that it could enjoy if it abandoned Marxism and rejoined the West.


Source: LA Times