Ethnic-Based Dissent Tests Ethiopia's Move to Democracy

AFTER 30 years of civil war and 17 years of Marxism, Ethiopia is now run by a young team of former rebels who say they are trying to make democracy work.

But police killings of university students during a recent unlicensed demonstration, and the subsequent closing of the University of Addis Ababa, underscore the concerns of many critics of the young regime: Despite its talk of democracy, they say, the government does not tolerate sharp dissent.

Since toppling the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile-Mariam in May 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been attempting to find a way to govern amid Ethiopia's vast ethnic diversity.

President Meles Zenawi established a transitional coalition government consisting of 30 political parties and a federal system of 14 ethnic-based states. The government also allowed a rebirth of publications and broadcasts in local tribal languages. The transition period is scheduled to end in January 1994 with Ethiopia's first democratic ballot.

"Getting democracy to take root" is now the political priority in Ethiopia, says Dawit Yohannes, an EPRDF official.

The student protest - organized, according to the EPRDF and Western diplomats, by the All-Amharic People's Organization - is an example of the kind of ethnic tension the new government faces. Sparked by a visit of United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Jan. 4 demonstration was to protest a UN-backed plan to conduct an independence referendum in the Ethiopian province of Eritrea.

Ethiopians of many ethnic groups, especially the Amhar, strongly oppose Eritrean independence. The Amhar were the dominant political class in Ethiopia during the past century, and fought a 30-year war against Eritrean secessionists.

The Tigreans are the dominant element in the current government. As rebels, these leaders received considerable support from the Eritreans during their 17-year war to oust Mr. Mengistu.

Clashes between students and police at the demonstration resulted in the death of either one or four students, according to official and student views, respectively. The campus was closed Sunday, and its president and vice president have been dismissed.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin charged Monday that there were "armed elements were among the demonstrators, who provoked violence and wounded three government police personnel."

Many protests have been licensed and carried out peacefully, one Western diplomat says. And Marc Bass, US ambassador to Ethiopia, says the new regime has started "a process toward a pluralistic political system, which will take time. There's an absence of fear," he says. People are able to speak out, to demonstrate."

While other demonstrations have challenged details of government economic policies, this one touched a nerve - a central political policy backing Eritrea's referendum.

Ethnic-based challenges such as the student protest are met with repression, claims one distressed Ethiopian resident here. "There's no freedom" under the new government, he claims. Another Ethiopian, who also does not want to be named, says people still fear open discussion of politics.

The Amhar, Oromo, and other key ethnic groups charge that the central government used strong-arm tactics and stooge candidates to gain control of the regional governments in last June's state elections. During that ballot, the EPRDF backed candidates of the pro-government Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO), its own creation.

The main Oromo political and military group, the Oromo Liberation Front, alleged government violence against OLF supporters, prompting the group to boycott the elections. The EPRDF claims the OLF used violent tactics against the OPDO.

The OLF also vacated its 12 seats on the 87-member national Council of Representatives. One Oromo resident of Addis Ababa, who asked not to be named, said the withdrawal leaves Oromos, who comprise about 40 percent of Ethiopia's 53 million people, with little national influence.

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