ETHIOPIA, in a bold experiment, is trying a different approach to avoiding tribal conflicts.
In May 1991, after 17 years of repressive rule, dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam was forced from the capital, Addis Ababa, by rebels sweeping down from the north. But instead of trying to suppress tribal demands, as Colonel Mengistu had, the new leader, Meles Zenawi, recognized them.
President Meles formed a transitional council, or parliament, composed of 30 political parties with representatives from most of Ethiopia's 60-plus ethnic groups. The country was divided into 14 ethnic-based regions. Each region was given autonomy to choose its own language, set up a police force, and direct its own development.
"This was the demand of the people," says Teklu Negash, a government spokesman. He says the $1.2 billion of economic aid pledged to Ethiopia by Western donors in late November is recognition that the country's devastated economy must be bolstered while ethnic federalism takes root.
But experts say it is too early to know if Ethiopia's experiment will work.
"We can't give an answer for another 50 years," says Richard Pankhurst, a history professor at the University of Addis Ababa and an expert on Ethiopia.
Regional and local ethnic clashes over land and other issues since Meles came to power reflect the fact that the central government is now a weak one, Dr. Pankhurst says. People are feeling the impact of sustained conflict, he says.
A girl he met in a rural area, for example, used to walk one mile to school until the building was destroyed in a tribal clash. Now she must walk much farther to another school.
But previous Ethiopian governments have been repressive, Pankhurst notes. So today, he says, many Ethiopians are asking: "What is better, a bad government or no government?"
In the most serious conflict, the Oromos, Ethiopia's largest tribe, have had armed clashes with the central government. The Oromo Liberation Front, one of the rebel groups that fought against Mengistu, boycotted the June regional elections, claiming Meles used "strong-arm tactics" to block the OLF's campaign.
At the time, international observers said the election was flawed.
Leenco Tata, deputy secretary-general of the OLF, sees a "general deterioration of the political atmosphere" in Ethiopia as a result of the election exercise.
But a diplomat at the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa says: "I don't see Ethiopia falling apart. The security situation is fairly quiet."
Whatever happens in Ethiopia will influence how other African states address the challenge of balancing ethnicity and national politics.
"A successful democratic transition in Ethiopia will profoundly influence developments in the rest of Africa...," concluded a report last year by a team from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.