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close this bookThe Courier N 145 - May - June 1994- Dossier : European Union: the Way forward - Country Report: Ethiopia (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)
close this folderCountry report
close this folderEthiopia: Emerging from a long Dark Age
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPresident Meles Zenawi
View the documentAn interview with opposition leader Dr Beyene Petros
View the documentReaping the peace dividend
View the documentMotivating the peasant
View the documentReviving private business and industry
View the documentFreedom of the press - A contribution to the democratic process
View the documentProfile
View the documentEU-Ethiopia Cooperation: the largest support programme in the ACP


Ethiopia is an old country with old problems, but the solutions it is trying to apply to them are often bold and new. Some have never been tried in Africa before and, if they succeed, could show a possible way forward for other troubled parts of the continent.

A patchwork of races, religions, climates and landscapes, Ethiopia has one of the world's ancient culture and echoes of its history reach us from a very distant past. it was one of the earliest homes for the monotheistic religions of the Middle East: Judaism was the first arrival, probably in Old Testament times, Ethiopia's highlands were Christian before most of Europe and its lowlands Muslim before most of Arabia. Rich archaeological remains attest to the existence of successive kingdoms which had a flourishing trade with the outside world and produced literature, music and art; in mediaeval times Abyssinia was known to Europe as a half-fabulous land of riches and power reigned over by a legendary priest-king, Prester John. Fable gave way to hard fact in the last century, when the territory now known as Ethiopia (including Eritrea), after a period of feudal anarchy, was consolidated as an empire and, under the Emperor Menelik, was the only country in Africa which stood out successfully against the European powers in the period of imperial expansion (except for Eritrea, which was occupied by Italy). Ethiopia was recognised as a sovereign state by these powers at the turn of the century, and it stepped onto the international arena in the 1920s when it pined in the first attempt at a world organisation devoted to securing peace, the League of Nations.

In modem times, unfortunately, Ethiopia has had a more unhappy reputation as a victim of foreign interference and internal oppression or as a country constantly appealing for outside help. Three thousand years of independence ended when fascist Italy attacked and seized Ethiopia in 1936, followed by a period from 1941 when it was virtually a British protectorate. Under the restored rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, a feudal pattern of landowning persisted, with a small elite of nobles and gentry living on the surplus produced by millions of peasant farmers. The aristocracy gradually lost their traditional military and administrative powers, however, to the monarch, who, under the Constitution of 1955, promulgated laws in his own name, overrode the verdicts of the courts and concentrated all executive and policy decisions in his own hands. Added to this social and political imbalance was the destabilising effect of an economic structure relying overwhelmingly on agriculture and a laissez-faire attitude to the development of wealth creating industry. Discontent at the general stagnation grew among the technocratic elite, military and civilian, which the Emperor had himself created in a halfhearted drive to modernise the country and on which he had hoped to rely as a counterweight to the landed aristocracy. After a failed coup by the monarch's bodyguard in 1960, secessionist rebellions broke out on the peripheries of the country, while territorial war flared with neighbouring Somalia. In an atmosphere of frustration and disillusionment, Marxist-Leninist ideas Imported through contact with radical movements in the West took hold among students and the military. The stage was set for the military and urban based uprising which overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974.

Power was taken bye provisional administrative council of soldiers known as the Derg (meaning the Committee), which set about establishing socialism under military rule. A power struggle led in 1977 to the emergence of the communist Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam as head of state and chairman of the Derg, followed by a brutal campaign of 'red terror' in which thousands of his ideological opponents were killed or tortured. Mengistu's years in office at the head of a totalitarian junta were marked by the mass militarisation of the country, with Cuban and Soviet backing, for the purpose of putting down insurrections by certain of Ethiopia's nationalities, particularly in Eritrea, and carrying on war against Somalia over possession of territories inside Ethiopia inhabited by ethnic Somalis. The failure of political attempts to win over disaffected nationalities by reorganising the state into autonomous regions was paralleled by the Derg's inability to win support from the general population for its programme of collectivisation. Disastrous droughts and famines struck in the 1980s, killing unknown numbers of people and prompting the government to move hundreds of thousands of peasants to allegedly less vulnerable areas, mainly by force. Food aid was slow in coming as the international community was suspicious of the Derg's military dependence on, and ideological subservience to, the Soviet Union.

The country's economic collapse in the late 1980s paved the way for the Derg's military and political downfall. Government forces suffered defeats at the hands of rebels in the northern region of Eritrea in 1988 and lost Tigre, the region worst hit by the droughts, in 1989.

Mengistu wasted opportunities to reach a political accommodation with the Eritreans and the Tigre People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the left-wing secessionist organisation which was gradually advancing on Addis Ababa from the north, and the TPLF joined up with other nationality-based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the EPRDF. The prime demand of the new Front was now no longer national self-determination but the removal of Mengistu and the establishment of democracy in Ethiopia as a whole.

In 1990 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front cut off the Ethiopian army's supply lines to Eritrea by capturing the Red Sea port of Massawa, and the government was forced to move troops south, where they were needed to defend Addis Ababa against the advancing EPRDF. To conciliate opposition groups, Mengistu invited them to join a unity party and renounced Marxism - but it was too late. The army was no longer able or willing to fight, while the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe had left the Derg with no overseas support, just as a slump in the price of Ethiopia's main export earner, coffee, was devastating the country's economy.

A new start

On 21 May 1991 Mengistu fled the country (he sought political asylum in Zimbabwe and now lives there in exile) and a week later the EPRDF finally reached Addis Ababa. Talks sponsored by the United States in that month led to the formation of an interim government in July, including the EPRDF, its ally the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) from southern Ethiopia and two other Oromo groups. The EPRDF had already abandoned the communist ideological model (at the same time as Mengistu), and the programme for the future was for a liberal, pluralist political and economic system.

The task facing the new government was enormous. The country's economic infrastructure had been ruined by mismanagement during the imperial period, compounded by the distorting effects of the Derg's command economy and the crushing cost of attempts in both periods to hold the country's diverse regions together by military force. Prosecuting the Derg's wars had absorbed 60% of the national budget. A huge and demoralised army of doubtful loyalty was scattered throughout the country, with many of its leaders arrested. Ethiopia's foreign alliances had collapsed and it had few friends among its neighbours or in the wider world. Periodic famines had left much of the population dependent on external food aid, while negligence, deliberate concealment of the scale of the disaster, sullenly resisted collectivisation and enforced resettlement of peasants had weakened the agricultural sector's ability to cope with any future droughts. Some private-sector trade and industry had managed to struggle through the 17 years of communism but was minute in scale, hopelessly undercapitalised, uncompetitive and operating at 10% of capacity. Human rights had never been respected by any previous regime and the ordinary people were hardly involved in decisions concerning their lives. The administrative structure of the state was unmotivated, antiquated and bureaucratic. The new government had both a vision and ideas for fuming it into a reality, but only minimal resources of skilled manpower and money with which to set up practical policies.

The Transitional Government

A first start was made on establishing a viable system for governing the country. in July 1991 the EPRDF called a national conference of some 20 political organisations and ethnic groups to discuss the country's political future and set up a government to oversee the transition to full democracy. The Transitional Period Charter presented to the conference by the EPRDF and duly adopted established a Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TOE) headed by the chairman of the Front, Meles Zenawi, now President. His deputy, Tamrat Layne, became Prime Minister, at the head of a Council of Ministers whose 17 seats were divided among seven different organisations. The legislative branch of government for the transitional period, which was set at two years with the possibility of a six month extension if required, is the Council of Representatives; the Charter stipulates that this must include representatives of national liberation movements and other political organisations, as well as otherwise unspecified 'prominent individuals'. Of its 87 seats, 32 went to the EMDF's component parts, 12 to the OLF and 15 to four other Oromo groups, with the rest shared out among some 26 other political organisations. An important function of this body was to set up a Constitutional Commission whose task was to draw up a draft constitution for the longer-term future. Elections to a National Assembly, the Charter said, would be held on the basis of this new Constitution, no later than the end of the transitional period.

These institutional arrangements have worked less well in practice than the national conference of 1991 hoped. The most obvious malfunction is that the two year period, plus extension, expired in January this year before arrangements to hold the promised elections had been made and the TGE simply decided it would therefore remain in power until elections to the Constituent Assembly could be held; a date has now been set for these on 5 June this year, nearly six months after the agreed deadline. Parties opposed to the EMDF have accused it of holding onto power illegally and called for the formation of a national unity government including themselves, but have been ignored.

Towards a democratic Constitution

Observers of the political scene in Addis Ababa say the delay is more probably due to organisational obstacles or simple inefficiency than anything deliberate. To begin with, creating a Constitutional Commission which represented Ethiopia's different nationalities and political parties and included a fair spread of special-interest groups (notably women and professional categories) took longer than expected, in a country where no such body had ever existed before. Then, before putting together the draft Constitution to be submitted to the Constituent Assembly once that was elected, the Government decided to seek the public's views on what should go into it and compiled a list of questions for countrywide debate about such fundamentals as the electoral system, accountability of public officials, respect for human, political and civil rights, land ownership, the right of secession and the status of languages. The public were also given an opportunity to say whether they want a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy or a presidential system, and whether Ethiopia should be a unitary state or a federation. As the Chairman of the Constitutional Commission, Dr Kifle Wedajo, put it, 'There are as many versions of democracy as there are people, so we haven't tried to define the concept of democracy' - but some components are not up for negotiation: it is felt that any Constitution must include provisions for regular elections by universal suffrage and secret ballot, a definition of the limits on government power, the inviolability of human rights and an independent judiciary. The Constitutional Commission accordingly had to consult representative of Ethiopia's more than 80 ethnic or linguistic groups through a system of grass-roots representation which divides the population into more than 20 000 administrative units: understandably, it has found organising this, and collating the results, an uphill battle.


A serious and basic political split emerged in the TOE's first year in power. Its leading figures are convinced that Ethiopia cannot survive as a nation-state with a single system of government from the centre. In the rest of Africa and much of the Third World, the nation-state is perceived as having failed to deliver peace, prosperity and democracy, and, in Ethiopia specifically, Eritrea's long war for independence and the history of the very liberation movements making up the TGE are seen as the best proof that the country's many different nationalities have different, sometimes competing interests which need to be accommodated in a decentralised framework.

Right from the outset, the TGE recognised Eritrea's right to decide its own future, and allowed the former province to secede last year (in the teeth of protest from many quarters, particularly opponents of the TGE operating from abroad). To promote self-determination for all Ethiopia's 'nations, nationalities and peoples', the EPRDF wrote into the Charter a guarantee of respect for each ethnic group's culture, history and language and of its right to administer its own affairs within its own defined territory, while participating in the central government as well. to achieve this in practice, the Front set up a federal system based on 12 new, self-governing regions and two chartered cities (Addis Ababa and Harar) and or ganised local elections for April and May 1992. However, the boundaries of the new regions were considered to favour the Tigreans, the dominant nationality in the EPRDF, and to penalise widely dispersed groups such as the Ambara, who had dominated Ethiopia under the Emperor and the Derg and were generally among those who favoured a centralised state. As a result, the ethnic conflict already raging when Mengistu fell continued into 1992, especially in Oromo territory in the south and east, and although a ceasefire was agreed with help from the United Stat" and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, EPRDF activists were alleged to have intimidated opposition candidates and supporters in both the local elections and the run-up to the regional elections which followed in June. In protest, the Oromo Liberation Front boycotted the regional elections, and then left the Government altogether. Other groups which refused to take part in the elections included the All Amhara People's Organisation, a mainly urban-based grouping - a sign, in that particular case, of a wider dissatisfaction among the urban educated classes at the EPRDF's lack of a policy to protect their interests and its concentration on meeting the needs and wishes of the rural peasantry. The regional elections nevertheless took place and regional governments have been set up, though the precise division of powers between them and the central government will not become clear till Ethiopia finally has its Constitution.

The EPRDF regards its settlement of the nationalities issue as the jewel in its political crown, and, if the commitments to democratic self-determination in the Charter are honoured in practice, there are hopes that the new system, with its opportunities for peaceful reconciliation of interests, will put an end to a problem of ethnic rivalry which has plagued Ethiopia for a hundred or more years. If it fails, Yugoslavia and parts of the former Soviet Union offer examples of the kinds of wars between small states or rival nationalities which pessimists fear could break out in Ethiopia. For almost the last two years, however, the Government says there has been no armed conflict between ethnic groups in the country, while the consensus view emerging from the constitutional consultation was, according to the Constitutional Commission, in favour of a federal system, not secession, so the omens for relatively peaceful political change are good. Politicians are, none the less, candid about the difficulties they face en route: in the words of Dr Haile Wolde Michael, a member of the Council of Representatives, 'Who knows what federalism is? It's a new concept for us and with good luck we think we might succeed. All we have at our disposal now is good will.'


Progress towards democratisation in Ethiopia has released a variety of forces which were always previously suppressed. A vociferous independent press has emerged and carries a range of views opposed to those of the TGE, despite a press code which the Government has used against journalists guilty, in its view, of disseminating reports which jeopardise state security. Supporters of the fallen Derg are banned from political activity during the transitional period but some of them play an indirect political role through publications they control. Critics of the commercial press say it sensationalises in order to sell more copies; if so, the market was soon saturated, and dozens of newspapers and magazines have folded. Student demonstrations were a regular feature of life in Addis Ababa even under Haile Selassie, who ignored them, while during the 'red terror' of the Derg student leaders, like other protesters, were savagely put down. Under the TGE, clashes between students and the security forces (which, since the disbanding of the regular army, consists essentially of the TPLF's own, Tigrean-dominated militia) led to the closing of Addis Ababa University for three months last year and the dismissal of academic staff who had criticised government policies - another sign of the rift between the educated urban elite and a government whose first concern is improving the lives of poor farmers.

In the party political arena, lively opposition to the EPRDF, which originated in northern Ethiopia, is conducted mainly by parties representing urban interests or peoples in the south. Five parties from a coalition known as the Southern Ethiopia People's Democratic Union were expelled from the Council of Representatives in April 1993 for endorsing a resolution by exiled opposition groups in Paris condemning the arrangements for the transitional period - calling, in effect, for the dissolution of the government. Two junior ministers from the Union were expelled from the TGE at the same time. In December a conference of dissenting parties was held in Addis Ababa and passed a resolution calling on the TGE to stand down in the interests of uniting the country. The Government seems for its part inclined to tolerate but disregard the activities of urban-based politicians representing only a tiny minority of the population. On its new regionalisation policy, it maintains that it is not dividing the country but simply admitting that it has always been divided along ethnic lines and trying to make proper provision for safeguarding the interests of all nationalities, including the minorities living in areas which have been allowed to lag behind economically. And it draws a democratic lesson from the fact that protests against its policies have come out into the open: 'Transparency of political conflicts,' says the Vice-President of the Council of Representatives, Dr Fekadu Gedamu, 'is, we think, an achievement and a sign of political progress.'

Democracy and development

Democratisation and observance of human rights are, of course, linked to development cooperation by the fourth Lomonvention, and a characteristic comment from the TGE on its attitude to these issues came from the Minister of External Economic Cooperation, Dr Abdulmejid Hussein: We do not have problems of principle or clashes of direction with the European Union in the democratisation area, on human rights, on good governance. All these are tenets which we ourselves aspire to. We should have a set of standards that are accepted globally - but you can, of course, vary it according to conditions in your own country.' As to whether democracy is necessarily the key to economic progress, the Minister is in no doubt about the link between them: 'In some quarters we have been under pressure to say we have gone too far with this democratisation. Within the country itself, a lot of people who have been used to a highly centralised authoritarian style are saying this is too much democracy, this is destroying the country and we need a firmer hand and that's the only way to develop: look at South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and so on. Some even say look at China: 13% GDP growth. But many of us in the Government - thank God, the majority of us - believe that development will happen even faster, and on a firmer base, if we allow more people in on decision making; and if you make it also at the grass roots, it might not be easy but once it takes off then you are assured that, regardless of who is in power, you don't need any strong, charismatic leader. The machinery will oil itself and it will go. If we look at other countries which have done it, in Western Europe and North America, that system works and in the long term it's more resilient.'

An ongoing food crisis

Ethiopia's top development priority is feeding its population. Media pictures of starving famine-victims were all too familiar in the 1980s, and evoked an unprecedented response from the public in the affluent North, but, as President Meles Zenawi explains in an interview in this country report, the problem has not been solved: Ethiopia is still chronically short of food. Self-sufficiency can only be a dream for the moment, and, according to the President's economic adviser Neway Ghebreab, the country will have to continue relying on foreign help 'entirely'. Despite good harvests in 1992 and 1993, structural food reserves remained low and half a million tonnes of food still had to be imported in 1993. Late rains, lack of fertiliser and attacks by pests have made the situation worse this year, and for 1994 the TGE has had to appeal for one million tonnes, but the response has been slow, and the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission warned recently that nearly seven million people were at risk of starvation. The worst-affected areas are, as in the past, Tigray and Welo, the regions in the north where support for the EPRDF is also strongest. The budget for the present fiscal year, however, contains no provision whatever for buying food for distribution to the needy. It is arguable whether free hand-outs of food are a proper use for a national budget; it certainly contains appropriations to pay for food-for-work schemes and public works programmes. Also, as part of the economic reforms, the country's farmers have lost the subsidies they used to enjoy on purchases of fertilisers and improved seeds, so productivity is low. Mr Neway sum up the government's position: 'If we were to attempt to import food, firstly our foreign exchange would not be enough, and secondly the budgetary implications would put a big strain on us at the very moment when we are engaged in putting into effect stabilisation policies, and these are very much dependent on controlling our budgetary expenditure.'

Economic policy

The TOE's economic plans for the transitional period are set out in a comprehensive paper published in 1991. The policy is the mix now familiar in the developing world, of a shift from a command to a market-oriented economy combined with stabilisation and structural adjustment, and the TGE has impressed the international financial institutions by coming forward with well-formulated plans of its own rather than merely asking for a funding package with a string of polity prescriptions attached. 'These programmes are ours and we own them,' in the words of the Minister of Finance, Alemayhu Daba. Ethiopia is eligible for the IMF's Structural Adjustment Facility, World Bank Structural Adjustment Lending and EU adjustment support under LomV (ECU 75 million were allocated for 1993 and 1994).

Economic reforms so far have included a deregulation of the agricultural and industrial markets by removal of price controls and, as the first step towards privatisation of government-owned enterprises, certain public undertakings, particularly state farms, have been made autonomous in terms of management and financing. They can now sell at any prices they like and the trend is for prices to fall. Capacity utilisation in industrial enterprises has risen from between 10 and 30% at the change of government to around 70 or 80% at present. me next step will be the actual trasference of property ownership, for which a privatisation agency has been set up. The TGE hopes to attract foreign investment, particularly in the agro-industrial sector, and says that Ethiopian traders and merchants, too, are showing interest and have cash and security for loans. The state will, however, retain control of electricity and water supplies, telecommunications and certain large-scale engineering, metallurgical and chemical plants and industries of strategic importance. The important road transport sector will be open to private participation but remain state-regulated, and mineral resources will remain public property to be exploited, largely by the state, for the development of the economy.

There is a government-funded safety net programme comprising cash payments and retraining schemes for workers laid off because of privatisation. To discourage retrenched workers from moving to urban areas and further overloading services which are cracking under the strain, the Government's investment code includes extra incentive to encourage investment and hence job creation in remote regions, and its development strategy focuses on distributing new roads, schools and hospitals as fairly as possible between the regions. Both capital and current expenditure are planned to be directed more and more towards the countryside, and the cut in military expenditure from 60% of the national budget under the Derg to 10% now, thanks to the peace dividend, has released funds to addres the major needs there, namely in education and health. Standards in both these sectors fell drastically in recent decades and the need is not just for materials and equipment but for instructors until there is a trained workforce which is self-reproducing.

Ethiopian industry relied too heavily in the past on imported inputs, for which sufficient foreign exchange was not and is not available, and the Government hopes there will be a shift towards domestically available raw materials, which are for the greater part agricultural.

Industry used to be protected from foreign competition by high tariffs and quotas, but will now have to become competitive by capitalising on Ethiopia's own resources.


This fiscal year the Government is not in competition with entrepreneurs for bank loans (future borrowing will depend, says the Finance Minister, on how revenue and the external assistance programme turn out). Under the Derg, the Minister of Finance used to chair the board of the National Bank of Ethiopia, making for a clear conflict of interest between fiscal and monetary policies, but now the Bank is to become more independent in monetary affairs, which its Governor, Leikun Berhanu, believes can only benefit the economy as a whole. The Bank has had a major say in formulating and overseeing the implementation of Ethiopia's economic reforms, and is satisfied that the policies already in place will allow the private sector to play an increasingly important role in the economy. Since the change of government the national currency, the birr, has been devalued by some 150%, in two stages, against the US dollar, making it more expensive for those who need foreign exchange to acquire it through the auction system but on the other hand boosting foreign-exchange-earning exports for the benefit of all. In a competitive environment, says Mr Leikun, the Bank is conscious of the need to impose only such controls on the use of credit as are compatible with macroeconomic targets. No distinction is made between public and private entrepreneurs applying for loans, provided their projects are bankable, and successful applicants may use the borrowed money as they wish. The state's monopoly of the financial sector is about to end in any case, as the Council of Ministers has approved a law which will shortly allow for private bankers and insurance companies to set up in business in competition with the state-owned financial institutions.

It is a matter of some pride in Ethiopia that it is almost the only country in Africa which maintains a strong currency without a parallel market. Inflation has stabilised at 10%.

Enterprise and land ownership

One obstacle to the emergence of private enterprise is a lack of experience of what it means. Under the Derg only merchants working with massive profit margins were allowed to flourish, and it may be difficult for them to revise their expectations down to more realistic levels - yet they are the ones who have some capital available. The Government hop" to see a new crop of small-scale businessmen emerging, engaging in commercial farming and spin-off industrial activities such as cotton ginning and oil milling. The potential is there, says the President's economic adviser, but 'most importantly, I think, it requires to be served by an honest administration which is not corrupt. One inheritance of the command economy is a situation where government has a lot of discretionary authority, and discretionary authority, particularly in relation to the economy, leaves much scope for getting abused. We are tackling that and it's getting narrower.'

The system of state ownership of all land, inherited from the Derg and continued by the TGE, is the one feature of the economic policy which seems, on the face of it, out of place in a free market system. President Meles, in his interview, defends it as a safeguard against the peasants being bought out and migrating to the cities, but private entrepreneurs regard it as a discouragement to capital investment.. The World Bank, on the other hand, points out that in many countries land tenure is essentially on a leasehold system. Whether it discourages enterprise or not depends on how much the leases cost and in how many instalments they have to be paid; these elements have not yet been made clear by the Government, and rumours abound.

Looking to the future, will political regionalisation fragment the Govemment's economic and fiscal policies? 'Not at all,' says Finance Minister Alemayhu Daba. 'Now people are allowed to manage their own affairs in their own regions and they have been given clear terms of reference. And the way revenue is to be collected and used by the central and regional authorities has been clearly demarcated.' And there will be no risk, he believes, of a regional government deciding to abandon the economic reforms and return to the command economy of the past. 'The general environment, not only in Ethiopia but in the world, favours the free market. The people of Ethiopia also have seen the other side of the market, the socialist planned system and regimentation. I don't think the people of Ethiopia will opt for that.'

Foreign relations

During the Cold War Ethiopia was of interest to both superpowers as a possible link in a chain of defensive alliances which each side wanted to forge against expansion by the other. Until the 1970s Ethiopia opted for a close association with the United States, for which it made a useful contribution to a containment strategy involving countries of the Middle East. At regional level, the American connection made Ethiopia anathema to the politically radicalised Arab states in its vicinity. At the same time, other, conservative Arab states which subscribed to pan-lslamism had territorial designs on Ethiopia's Muslim-inhabited lowlands and islands, leaving it with no possible ally in the Middle East but Israel. This alliance was severed after the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, in the face of Arab pressure through the Organisation of African Unity. In return, Ethiopia hoped for Arab neutrality on the questions of Eritrean secession and Soviet-backed Somalia's territorial claims on the Ogaden in southern Ethiopia, but those hopes were to be disappointed. Relations with the US then soured after the rise to power of Mengistu, who shifted the focus of Ethiopia's alliance to the Soviet Union and its satellite states and was to a large extent sustained in power with the help of supplies of Soviet armaments. After the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1988, however, relations with the Soviet bloc cooled, and in 1990 the Derg, its hand forced by changes in the communist world, renounced Marxism-Leninism and began to look for allies in the West. Turning his back on allies he had made among the radical Arab states, Mengistu had reinstated diplomatic relations with Israel at the end of 1989, in the hope of thereby winning US economic aid and support against the rebel movements advancing in Eritrea and Tigray. The US, on the contrary, took up friendly diplomatic relations with those movements, believing that any solution to Ethiopia's political problems must centre on them. It was eventually the US, after attempts to reconcile the Ethiopian government and the rebels had come to nothing, which invited the TPLF to enter Addis Ababa and take over power. Washington has continued to play the role of a broker under the new regime, this time between President Meles' government and the opposition.

Some of the opposition to the TGE comes from ethnic Somalis living in south-eastern Ethiopia who, like other national groups in the country, aspire to recover the autonomy which Emperor Menelik took from them a hundred years ago. When neighbouring Somalia had a functioning government, it used to support these aspirations and intermittently went to war with Ethiopia over its claim to the territories concerned. Now that Somalia has descended into chaos, it is vital to prevent the upheavals there spreading across the border into Ethiopia, and the TGE has been very active in trying to bring the warring sides in Somalia together to find a solution that will bring peace and stability to that country and remove any threat to the rest of the Horn of Africa.

Where to from here?

The period just before a national election is not the best time for assessing prospects for the future, as any guess may be overturned by the electorate, but it seems safe to say that Ethiopia will continue along the political and economic lines laid down by its Transitional Government. No other force, by itself, is well-organised and disciplined enough, or has enough support across the country, to challenge the leading political role of the EPRDF through the ballot box. Devolution of power from the centre, if it succeeds, will defuse the rivalries between Ethiopia's 15 major ethnic groups - and no other solution is on offer. The TOE's economic policies, insofar as they are based on the Transitional Period Charter, have the backing of all the groups represented in the Council of Representatives (plus some which left it), which means support from the majority of the political forces in the country. As to the prospects for development, Ethiopia is one of the world's least developed countries, and the international situation as regards outside help is not what it was. But the country has a hardworking, serious population, some potential for expanding agriculture and industry, a variety of climate which should protect it from ever being hit by a drought or famine across the whole country - and, for the first time many of its people can remember, there is an atmosphere of relative peace and stability in which Ethiopians can go about their business without fear. Yet the country has lost virtually a whole generation, and it could take another generation to turn the situation round. Both Ethiopia and its foreign friends realise that there are no easy solutions. Given the difficulties bequeathed to it by its past, perhaps the wisest forecast is a cautious one: with good luck and continued determination, at least things will not get any worse.
Robert Rowe