Ethiopian Rebel Group Creates a 'Democracy' With Contradictions

REBELS who seized the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in May have yet to offer details on reforms they want adopted countrywide. But there are clues to what may lie ahead here in this northern region where rebels have governed for more than two years.Farmland in this dry area has, for example, been redistributed from wealthy to poor. Yet the state still owns the land and those not "volunteering" to help slow erosion by building terraces and planting trees are fined. Shortwave radios have been legalized since rebels took control of this hilly provincial city of stone houses and dirt back streets. And residents now may openly discuss politics with no fear of arrest, yet few do. This is Tigre province, backyard to the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels who have established their own brand of grass-roots democracy. While people are freer to make their own decisions, the state's role in people's lives remains quite large. There are other contradictions or gaps between the TPLF's written program and what is actually practiced here. Freedom of travel is one such example. A program issued earlier this year by the TPLF-led rebel coalition - the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Forces - calls for "the rights of citizens to free movement in their country." But a checkpoint on the road out of Mekele is guarded day and night by TPLF rebels carrying machine guns. People are free to travel, but "if people want to migrate [to another part of Ethiopia], they are refused immediately," a local official explains. Rebel leaders are concerned that those leaving their communities may become homeless and burden the state, the official says. At present, the state still tells people where to live. Land reform is one of the TPLF's proudest achievements. "Wherever we go, they [farmers] ask for land reform," says Mebrat Beyene, a woman who is one of several designated TPLF leaders here. Land reform is "why people ... supported us," says her husband, Yemane Kidane, a top TPLF political official. The TPLF's land-reform process is simple. Villagers are told to elect a committee to redistribute farmland. Each family is given a small parcel of land next to their home. Other land, farther from the village, is classified on the basis of fertility. Each family gets the same amount of fertile land, assigned by lottery. Large families are given more land. "Some were not glad if their land was taken," says an Ethiopian resident of Mekele. "But land was for a few. Now it's for the majority." This resident also says that during the rule of ousted dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, people were arrested for listening to nongovernment radio. "You can say whatever you like ... about politics - but you have to prove it," says Berhan Aregu, a Tigrean recently returned from Addis Ababa to work for the Ministry of Health. His meaning seems clear: Reasoned criticism appears to be allowed. But other things, such as the "voluntary" communal work, are not open to much criticism. For several months each year, during the agricultural off-season, farmers and other rural residents are asked to work on erosion-control projects. If someone refuses to volunteer, "they are punished,"says Gezai Gebregerbese. Wearing a Soviet Kalashnikov assault rifle over one shoulder, he is the elected chairman of a village about 25 miles south of Mekele. So far, he says, only one man from his area has failed to "li sten to the people" and was punished. The man was fined about $3 for the day missed. He volunteered the next day. "The only thing we have is our freedom," Mr. Yemane, the TPLF official, says in an interview on the terrace of a small hotel overlooking Mekele. Below, the sound of rope whips being cracked by children - a popular game here - punctuates the silence between the roar of trucks hauling private cargo, people, or Western relief food. A truck passes by filled with chanting Tigrean civilians returning from what a TPLF official describes as a training center. The TPLF runs training centers in the region for military recruits, as well as health and agriculture workers. A two-to-three month political indoctrination course at the center offers "the general fighter and people ... a clear view of TPLF programs," says Aregash Adane, another TPLF official whose duties include programs for women. The TPLF, she says, is trying to help women in several ways. To allow them more time with children, the rebels are encouraging them to farm the portion of the family farm closest to home. Assessing the TPLF-led government, Bill Pierson, director of the US Agency for International Development in Addis Ababa, said on a recent visit here that "the signals are encouraging." Mr. Pierson cited steps to free farmers from government controls, but noted that the former government had taken some similar steps in its last years. "This group seems to have a real understanding of grass-roots democracy," says Paul Henze, a Washington D.C.-based expert on Ethiopia interviewed here. But when asked if life had improved in this impoverished city since the TPLF captured it in early 1989, a resident says things are still the same. "Conditions are difficult," he says.

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