Ethiopia's support among masses erodes as state turns communist

Ethiopia - scheduled to become Africa's first formal communist state in September - is already acting like a Soviet-bloc nation. It announced it would boycott the summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It is seeking to impose a ''revolution'' initiated at the top instead of from the grass roots. It is trying to join Comecon, the Soviet bloc's economic community.

But at the same time, the government's support among the masses is steadily eroding through the expansion of a half dozen armed national liberation movements that are strongly opposed to Ethiopian military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam's new order.

Besides facing strong military challenges from rebels in Eritrea and Tigre and growing rebel movements in Wollo and Gondar, Mengistu now is confronted with a rebellion by the Oromos.

By far the largest population group in Ethiopia (with 19 million of the nation's estimated 35 million inhabitants), the Oromos could be the biggest threat of all to Mengistu's regime.

The Oromos (contemptuously described in the past as Gallas, or slaves, by their Amhara conquerors) are spread in a horseshoe around the country extending from the provinces of Sidamo, Bale, Harar, and Arussi in the southeast to Wollega, Illubabor, and Kaffa in the southwest.

The objective of the Oromo Liberation Front is the formation of a People's Democratic Republic of Oromia, which would function as an autonomous region on the Yugoslav model. The OLF does not favor the breakup of Ethiopia but prefers to work out a democratic constitution with other Ethiopian national groups.

The Oromo rebel movement was launched in 1976, but it became a serious military force within the past nine months. The front claims to have 5,000 men under arms on the eastern front, supported by another 5,000 to 7,000 peasants organized into militias to defend their villages. In the west, the OLF says it has only 500 men under arms (mainly in Wollega) and several thousand peasant militia.

Young recruits reportedly are joining the front in growing numbers - a process helped by the fact that thousands of young peasants prefer to join the OLF ranks rather than submit to national Army conscription.

The OLF's most dramatic exploit has been its capture in broad daylight of Aselle, only about 85 miles from the nation's capital. It held Assele for 24 hours in an attempt to upset a national celebration of the Ethiopian regime. The group has also launched attacks to within 12 miles of Harrar, the capital of Harar Province, which is better known as the Ogaden. Apart from Harar, the OLF's main bases are in Bale and Sidamo.

Serious differences exist between the OLF and Somalia. The Oromos reject attempts by the regime of Somali President Siad Barre to classify some Oromo areas as belonging to the Abos, who are linked to the Somalis. These differences make it difficult for the OLF to get supplies through Somalia. Most of the Oromos' arms are gained by capture, but they can also buy arms with proceeds from their agricultural harvests.

Confusion sometimes arises about whether the OLF or the West Somali-Abo Liberation Front from the Ogaden is responsible for military activity in the Harar area. Ethiopian and Somali authorities publicly attribute the fighting to the WSLF. But there is evidence to suggest that the WSLF is no longer the effective force that it once was.

The OLF now appears to be the major military element in the area, says a senior WSLF member who is in London seeking political asylum.

The rise of the Oromo front comes at a time when the Ethiopian Army is still licking its wounds from its recent serious military setbacks in Eritrea at the hands of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. After 20 years of fighting, Eritrean resistance is as far from being quelled as ever, and the resistance movement has once again begun to expand its area of control. This movement is the only one of the half dozen that really seems to seek independence.

The Ethiopian government's position is weakest in Tigre, the important province in the north that lies adjacent to Eritrea. There, the Tigre People's Liberation Front claims to hold sway over 80 percent of the province.

The Tigre rebels recently helped two other resistance movements to open up new fronts of armed opposition. The Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement is now fairly active in Wollega, while a new group has emerged in Gondar, the seat of an ancient Abyssinian kingdom.

There is a sharp contrast between the growing centralized power of the Mengistu regime and its effective authority over much of the countryside. An observer who recently traveled for six weeks through Wollega and Tigre never saw an Ethiopian soldier in the countryside.

The ''revolutionary unity'' promised by Mengistu remains a chimera. Despite 10 years of power and billions of dollars of military support provided by the Soviet bloc, Ethiopia remains essentially the old Abyssinian empire inherited from Emperor Haile Selassie. But, if anything, it is in a worse state of disintegration now.

Mengistu claims that the Marxist-Leninist Ethiopian Workers Party - which he intends to launch in September as ''the sole instrument to effect the realization of communism'' - reflects the wishes of the ''masses of workers and peasants.''

The party will, in effect, be a narrowly based dictatorship of military and urban elites.

The Soviets must know - from their experience in Afghanistan and from the failure of their efforts to help the Ethiopian Army to subdue Eritrea - how much money they would need to invest to prop up their African communist ally.

They may not be overly concerned about the military investment, but they have already indicated to Mengistu that he should not look to Comecon for the kind of economic support given to, say, Cuba. That is why they have encouraged Mengistu to court the West for aid and investment. This is what Ethiopian diplomats tell the West when they come out looking for aid.

Ethiopia is already the biggest recipient of European economic aid of any of the Lome Treaty members. But will the Western powers be ready to go on helping Ethiopia once it joins the Soviet camp formally and if, as seems highly probable , the deteriorating military situation leads to even more brutal repression, backed by the Soviets?

The opposition to the Mengistu regime would undoubtedly be further strengthened if there were a united front among the different national liberation movements.

But, for historic reasons as well as because of logistical problems, efforts to get the Eritrean, Tigre, and Oromo rebels and others united have not made much headway. One of the obstacles is that the Eritrean movement, for example, favors secession while the others don't.

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