After 30 Years of War, Ethiopia Rides a Rocky Path to Democracy

Ethiopia has been at peace for 3 1/2 years after 30 years of civil war.

In 1991, ethnic rebel groups ousted Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam. And in early December, an elected Constitutional Assembly adopted a new Constitution aimed at paving the way for presidential and National Assembly elections sometime next year.

But warning bells are ringing for a government led by former rebels.

The massing of tens of thousands of antigovernment demonstrators in a legal and peaceful rally here Dec. 4 is the latest sign of strong political resentment toward Ethiopia's Transitional Government, led by President Meles Zenawi.

And since rebels seized power in 1991, pro- and antigovernment forces have clashed in parts of the south. Opposition leaders claim the government blocked their efforts to present candidates for elections earlier this year to the Constitutional Assembly by arresting party officials and killing opponents.

``They always speak of democracy and human rights,'' says Neka-Tibeb Bekele, first vice president of the opposition All Amhara People's Organization, based here. ``But what we've seen in the name of democracy is a lot of atrocities.''

Opposition leaders also claim the government's policies of recognizing ethnic differences and creating pro-government parties within ethnic groups is simply a divide-and-conquer tactic. And they argue that the new constitutional right to secession will lead to the dissolution of Ethiopia.

In an interview with the Monitor, President Meles responded to some of these claims.

``We are trying to develop a system of democracy that is based on the active participation of the population, at the grass roots,'' he said.

On recognizing ethnic differences, including promotion of local languages in primary schools:

``During the war in Ethiopia for ... 30 years ... [the government] tried to create an Ethiopia of a homogeneous nature. They have tried to stamp out differences in language, culture, and so on.... They have not succeeded. What we are saying is, it's not necessary for us to be homogeneous to be united.''

On allowing the right to secession:

``The other option is fighting [against secession movements]. And fighting does not succeed. What we are telling everybody: `If you don't like it [union], this is not a prison. You can just move out.' So this is a voluntary union. I'm confident we'll make Ethiopia too good for anybody to try to leave.''

On opposition to a government focus on rural problems and ethnic politics:

``The easiest way of dividing and ruling that I know is to appoint ... local, established elites [and] go through them. That's what the British did in Africa. That's exactly the opposite of our approach. We are doing it [political development] from the bottom up; and therefore we are alienating the local elites.''

``They [the former urban elites] have lost power. They've lost their privileges; their upper-class citizenship. Everybody else was second, third, and fourth-class citizens.''

On arrests of opposition leaders:

``There are instances where [opposition members] have shot people ... incited violence ... stashed away guns, ammunitions, hand grenades. We are willing to turn a blind eye sometimes. But at the same time there is a limit.''

On political and economic goals:

``Five years down the line ... we will by then have perfected the system of participatory democracy to a satisfactory level, not just experimental.''

``In 10 years' time we will have, I think, overcome not only the structural food deficit but also the issue of food access. In 10 years we should have universal primary education of eight years. We should have universal access to primary health care in all areas.''

On financial challenges:

``The main problem is the government's capacity to finance rural development and provide technical assistance. If we cannot do that, we'll be back in the vicious circle of poverty, instability, ethnic strife, religious politics....''

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