Ethiopian Rulers Search for Stability

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A YOUNG soldier, wearing a travel-stained Army uniform, sits on the sidewalk with head bowed, cradling a dazed comrade in his arms. He strokes the cheek of his uniformed friend and feeds dry bread into his slowly chewing jowls.

They are successful: While hundreds of other begging ex-soldiers in Ethiopia's capital go hungry, these two attract a crowd and win a small fortune in coins.

Almost half of Ethiopia's 500,000-man Army has been transported to their homes across the country in the last six months by the International Committee of the Red Cross, says Rainer Baudendistel, head of the ICRC delegation in Addis Ababa. It is the largest and fastest demobilization of an army in Africa; most of the soldiers now have nothing to do.

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Some in Addis Ababa beg. At night, ex-soldiers - and the lack of a police force - make the capital the most dangerous it has been since a small guerrilla army overthrew the brutal regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam last May. On roads outside Addis, well-armed ex-soldiers have joined with bandits to ambush travelers. Reversing the violence

The threat posed by the country's more than 250,000 unemployed soldiers underlines the myriad difficulties faced by the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, a coalition headed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), after eight months in power.

Correcting the legacy of mismanagement and repression left by Mr. Mengistu's Marxist regime has stretched the EPRDF to its limits. Many demobilized ex-soldiers are well-armed.

"Guns are nothing new," a diplomat says. "In the last three years of the civil war, Mengistu threw guns at these people. A village would receive 100 guns and be told to 'defend yourselves

Ordnance is plentiful: Moscow Radio recently reported that Soviet military aid to Mengistu's regime totalled $13 billion.

Despite the security problem, the transitional government recently announced a bold new provincial map of Ethiopia based on ethnic divisions. After decades of being forced to bury their ethnic differences, Ethiopians will have some degree of regional autonomy according to their tribe.

The government has not published the new map because it fears violence.

"People are beginning to hate the EPRDF because it is dividing the country into ethnic groups," says a student here from the Amhara community. "People are not asking to be divided, and already in many places they are trying to reject other ethnic groups."

Amharas formed the ruling class when Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu were in power and now are the group most unhappy with the EPRDF.

"It is very possible that Ethiopia will break into ethnic clashes like Somalia, though people here are different and want to live together. The government is forcing them apart," the student adds. "The people genuinely want democratic leadership, not someone who will divide them."

The government's plan is a "high-risk strategy," says a Western diplomat here. "Success will depend on how genuine those groups are about running their own affairs, such as regional police, education, and tax systems. The balance of power between the center and the regions will be most important, and so far that is not at all clear."

The ethnic provinces are expected to police their own territory, thereby relieving the EPRDF forces to serve as a small national army. All financial arrangements between the central government and provinces are vague. President Meles Zenawi has promised all nationalities that they can exercise their "right to self-determination up to and including secession at all times." Right to secede

Eritreans, who fought for independence from Ethiopia for 30 years, are independent already. Other regions, such as that of the Oromo people who make up 40 to 50 percent of Ethiopia's population, are considering this course.

"The solution for the EPRDF is to recognize the right of ethnic groups and give them democracy. This is sanity for Africa," says Assefaw Tekeste, an Eritrean who graduated from medical school in Addis. "The most important thing is that local government should be strong, as part of a federal state. Give them time; the EPRDF is taking the right steps."

Historical examples of ethnic federal systems are not encouraging. Yugoslavia - held intact for decades by a strong central government - broke along ethnic lines into civil war. Most African nations strive to deny ethnic differences in the name of unity.

Ethiopians have been granted unaccustomed freedom since the EPRDF came to power, including the right to hold opposition demonstrations. But results have been mixed. The EPRDF, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, still holds more than 1,100 high-level officials in detention, most of whom were associated with Mengistu's anti-insurgent campaigns of 1978 that left 5,000 dead.

"A lot of people are using their new freedom to settle old scores," says a longtime Western observer. These deep-rooted conflicts - most of them now concentrated in the eastern Hararge Province that includes the famine-stricken Ogaden - have disrupted relief-food supply lines; armed robbery and looting have increased in recent weeks. Vulnerable government

Such incidents point to how thinly spread EPRDF forces are in Ethiopia. Tension is growing over the slow pace of change. The government appears to be in a race against time to improve security, begin programs, and come up with a national policy.

The core of the EPRDF is the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which regards Albania as its model state. Young TPLF fighters, dressed in tight brown trousers and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, patrol the streets of Addis. Local citizens sometimes verbally abuse these "liberators of Ethiopia," calling them ignorant peasants.

"They say that the EPRDF has come from the bushes, and has no experience running a government, but this isn't true," says a professor at the University of Addis Ababa who asks not to be named. "Many of the EPRDF are much better than Mengistu's people. At least they were reading books in the countryside."

The government is also shackled by Mengistu's huge bureacracy, which remains largely intact. The first 49 top technocrats were replaced last November. But below them "the bureaucrats are not on the side of the EPRDF. They are on a permanent go-slow to show their dissatisfaction," the professor says.

The World Bank is putting together a $500 million emergency-funds package to help jump-start the economy. Many bilateral donors are holding back, unsure of the new government's ideology.

The 87-member Council of Representatives, through which all major decisions must pass, has done little to ease donor fears. One year ago, the EPRDF approved a Marxist economic agenda.

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