THE sudden departure May 21 from Ethiopia of longtime dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam brightens the prospects for peace in a country torn by 30 years of civil war. "I think the chances are now better" that a settlement can be reached to end years of fighting, says Mogus Tekle Mikael, former spokesman for the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Peace talks among Eritrean and Tigrean rebels and the government are scheduled to begin May 27 in London.
Diplomats, rebel leaders, Ethiopian officials, and others, all saw Mr. Mengistu's possible insistence on clinging to power as the chief stumbling block to forming a "transitional" government that all sides have publicly said they want to achieve.
After his departure was announced, the Ethiopian government declared its willingness to initiate an immediate cease-fire, probably dependent on reciprocity by rebels, who are only 60 miles from this capital city.
Mengistu's departure considerably reduces the chances of fighting in the capital, Mr. Mogus said on May 21. "There will not be another Mogadishu," he said, referring to the massive killing and destruction that occurred in the Somalian capital in January, when dictator Mohammed Siad Barre refused to leave his post after losing all public support.
Public reaction to Mengistu's departure was quick and positive. "A sigh of relief" among ordinary people is the way one Ethiopian described it in a telephone interview.
Despite the rebels' imminent approach, a surface calm reigns in Addis Ababa. As recently as May 19, this reporter saw crowded churches and packed soccer matches. An an elderly man sat alone reading his prayer book, oblivious to the afternoon crowds.
But beneath this surface calm, Ethiopians are anxious - and hopeful - that the peace talks will somehow halt the long, and recently escalating civil war.
"People want peace," an Ethiopian official says. "They're scared."
The official adds: "I don't think the government feels threatened. They think they can turn it around."
A Western diplomat in Addis Ababa suggested just last week that Mengistu might still have believed he could rally enough support to win in the name of protecting national unity.
If Mengistu had insisted on being part of any "transitional" government, the talks would have been doomed, Ethiopian and Western analysts here say.
But the new government is not likely to show any less resistance than Mengistu to the idea of secession by Eritrean rebels in the north, a point that could lead to the failure of the peace talks.
Yet all sides have something to gain from successful talks.
The rebels, Western analysts say, want to avoid the high casualties and damage to Ethiopia's economy that a battle over Addis Ababa would entail. They would prefer to get a new government through talks.
The government faces increasing economic pressures, especially as rebels now control some major food-producing areas. Recent fighting has occurred along the road from the capital to Assab, the only port still in government hands.
This not only threatens supply of fuel for the military, but food for several million drought victims in the north.
Both sides have launched attacks in the past six days, jockeying for stronger bargaining positions. The rebels have made the most gains, weakening the government's negotiating power.
A widening government dragnet is forcing more and more Ethiopians into the military. After as little as 15 days of training, new recruits are often rushed to the front. Recently many University of Addis Ababa students signed up for the military, responding to Mengistu's call to preserve national unity. But diplomatic and Ethiopian sources say many of these students have gone into hiding. Except for night classes, the university is closed. And there are reports of forced conscription at campuses outside t
Many Ethiopians, long familiar with and proud of owning firearms, have stepped up purchases of small weapons on the black market to protect themselves in case the war reaches Addis Ababa.
Another response has been "to go to church and pray" as they have in past crises, says Richard Pankhurst, a noted British historian on the faculty of Addis Ababa University. Notes an Ethiopian analyst, "People think God gives them government, good ones when the people are good, bad ones when people are bad."
The current drive by the largest groups, those based in the north, is "deep down an attempt by the north to reassert their [historical] control - political and economic" in Ethiopia, says Alula Pankhurst, son of the historian and an assistant professor in social anthropology.
An Ethiopian academic, however, suggests the rebellion in Tigre is a direct response to the regime's unpopular Marxist policies, including collective farming and resettlement of farmers away from drought-hit areas.
The prolonged war has led to a decline in agricultural output, as many Ethiopians have fled their homes, because of the fighting as well as recurrent drought. And Ethiopia suffers from lack of international donor assistance, says the elder Pankhurst.