Swift Fall of Ethiopian Capital Linked to Public Disillusionment
Military collapse came only hours after predawn rebel attack
NAIROBI, KENYA — THE final rebel victory in Ethiopia appears to be due as much to the collapse of an ideology as to the collapse of the military. Rebels, many of them teenagers, needed only a couple of hours May 28 to capture the capital, Addis Ababa, the last stronghold of the Ethiopian military, once known as among the strongest and best-equipped in Africa.
The battle for the capital appeared to be over within a few hours of the predawn attack by the rebels. Some fighting still was reported in pockets of the city against remnants of the military and possibly from local militia in slum neighborhoods. But well-disciplined rebels were already relaxing within sight of the presidential palace by mid-morning May 28.
United States Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen, who convened the talks that began May 27 in London involving the rebels and the government, called May 28 for a quick end to the hostilities and establishment of a broad-based transitional government leading to "free, democratic, internationally monitored elections within nine to 12 months."
Meanwhile, thousands of government soldiers continue to flee Ethiopia into Djibouti and Sudan.
Military analysts may search for clues on how the final rebel victory came so quickly. But behind the collapse of the military was the steady disintegration of public support for a dictator and his adopted ideology, according to both Western and Ethiopian analysts.
Much of what the dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fled to Zimbabwe last week, tried to do was based on illusion, says Paul Henze, a RAND Corporation expert on Ethiopia.
Mr. Mengistu had an "illusion that he could somehow construct a communist system in the country and that he could rely on continued inflow of Soviet arms to combat insurgents," says Mr. Henze. Even after the Soviets distanced themselves from him, Henze says, Mengistu had the illusion that he could "preserve or transform his eroding power by granting economic concessions and fanning ethnic tensions."
During visits to Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia over the past four years, this correspondent noted a subtle but growing shift in the way people responded to questions about their government.
As conditions worsened, and rebel fighting increased, people in Addis Ababa complained more bitterly and less privately. Last year, even on public mini-bus taxis, some people openly criticized the government. Well-educated Ethiopians lamented that in the declining economy, they could not find job opportunities and were not being given a chance to speak their minds, or even to travel as freely as desired.
Mengistu's ideology was "not necessarily rooted in Marxism, but in the argument that ... the Amharic culture is the Ethiopian culture," says Gayle Smith, a longtime American analyst of Ethiopia. (The Amhars have dominated Ethiopia for centuries.)
But the rebels who captured Addis Ababa May 28 emerge primarily from the Tigre culture and bring with them the message that "the Ethiopian culture is diverse," says Ms. Smith.
Part of that diversity may have led to disintegration within the military itself, Smith suggests. Many new government recruits were Oromos. They were told they would win in a matter of days or weeks. Disillusioned, and in the final weeks and days abandoned by their superiors who fled abroad, they, too found little desire to fight, she says.
Finally, with rebels surrounding the capital, senior US officials in London conferred with rebel and government representatives and recommended that the rebel Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) enter the capital to avoid further chaos and disorder.
A US official said American officials were worried that Addis Ababa might become another Mogadishu. In January, a monthlong fight by eventually victorious rebels against the government of Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre left the city badly damaged and looted, with a loss of some lives.
"We got word from Addis that law and order had broken down," the US official said.
But an Ethiopian contact reached by telephone in Addis Ababa both May 27 and the morning of May 28 said he saw few signs of chaos. "I was driving all over the city, to get my ration [of gasoline]," he said. "It was absolutely quiet."
He added, however, that there had been fighting in the presidential palace compound May 27, apparently between quarreling elements of the Ethiopian military. He described it as a possible mutiny. Otherwise, he said, things were calm, and many people went to work.
When Mr. Cohen in London recommended that the EPRDF enter the city, they apparently were quick to take up the idea, though a spokesman said the decision was their own.
Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka objected strongly to the rebels' entry, predicting it would lead to heavy fighting. Just hours earlier, Mr. Dinka had ordered a cease-fire, following acceptance of a cease-fire by the EPRDF.
The challenge facing the rebels, which include the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), based in the north, in Eritrea, and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) from the south, is to form a coalition government.
Speaking from London at the site of the talks, Smith said the EPRDF had not ruled out the possibility of including in the transitional government some people in the now-fallen government.
And, she added, the EPRDF leadership is fully aware that they will need the cooperation of the Amhar and other cultural groups to set up a viable interim government.