The Demise of the Military Government

Ethiopia Table of Contents

In retrospect, perhaps the two crucial factors in the fall of the Mengistu regime were the abortive coup of May 1989 and the loss of Soviet military and political support. In the aftermath of quelling the coup, disaffection spread throughout the army. Thereafter, whole military units defected, taking their arms and equipment with them as they joined insurgent groups. At the same time, Soviet military deliveries dwindled and then ceased, a source of supply that Mengistu was never able to replace, leaving government forces still further weakened and demoralized. It was these developments that led Mengistu to attempt economic reforms in 1989 and 1990 and to initiate peace talks with the EPLF and EPRDF under Italian and United States auspices.

During the early months of 1991, both the military and the political outlooks darkened considerably for the government. The EPLF pressed its sweep down the Red Sea coast with the aim of capturing Aseb. In February and March, EPRDF forces overran large portions of Gonder, Gojam, and Welega, threatening Addis Ababa from the northwest and west. In mid-April the National Shengo proposed talks with all political groups that would lead to a transitional government, a cease-fire, and amnesty for all political prisoners. At the same time, the National Shengo tempered its peace initiative by calling for the mobilization of all adults over the age of eighteen and for the strengthening of the WPE. A few days later, on April 26, Mengistu, in a gesture to his opponents, reshuffled the government, dropping several hard-liners and replacing them with moderates. Among the latter were Lieutenant General Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, one of the army's commanders in Eritrea, who was promoted to vice president, and Tesfaye Dinka, former foreign minister, who became prime minister. Both belonged to a group of advisers who had been urging Mengistu to compromise with the Eritreans and the Tigray.

The main opposition parties--the EPLF, EPRDF, and OLF-- rebuffed the National Shengo's offer. During the next month, as all parties prepared for the next round of talks scheduled for London in late May, the EPLF and EPRDF pressed hard on the military front. In late April, EPRDF forces were reported to be some 100 kilometers west of Addis Ababa and still advancing; in Eritrea the EPLF made gains along the Red Sea coast and closed in on Keren and Asmera. In mid-May the last major government strongholds north of Addis Ababa-- Dese and Kembolcha in southern Welo--fell to the EPRDF. With little but demoralized and fleeing troops between the capital and the EPRDF forces, Mengistu resigned the presidency and fled the country on May 21. His exit, widely regarded as essential if the upcoming negotiations were to succeed, was secured in part through the efforts of Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen, who pressured Mengistu to resign and arranged for his exile in Zimbabwe.

Lieutenant General Tesfaye, now head of state, called for a cease-fire; he also offered to share power with his opponents and went so far as to begin releasing political prisoners, but to no avail. EPRDF fighters continued their advance on the virtually defenseless capital and announced that they could enter it at will. Meanwhile, on May 24, the EPLF received the surrender of Keren and the 120,000-member garrison in Asmera, which brought the whole of Eritrea under its control except for Aseb, which fell the next day. The goal of independence from Ethiopia, for which Eritreans had fought for three decades, now seemed a virtual certainty.

Against the background of these events, the London conference opened on May 27. The main contending parties were all in attendance: the government party headed by Tesfaye Dinka, the EPLF under Issaias Afwerki, the EPRDF under TPLF leader Meles Zenawi, and the OLF under its deputy secretary general, Lencho Letta. Assistant Secretary Cohen served as a mutually acceptable mediator. Ostensibly, the conference was supposed to explore ways to set up a transitional government in Addis Ababa, but its proceedings were soon overtaken by events on the ground. The talks had hardly gotten under way when Cohen received a message to the effect that Lieutenant General Tesfaye had lost control of the government's remaining armed units and that Addis Ababa was threatened with a complete breakdown of law and order. To prevent uncontrolled destruction and looting, Cohen recommended that EPRDF forces immediately move into Addis Ababa and establish control. Tesfaye Dinka strenuously objected, but he spoke from a position of weakness and could not prevail; he subsequently withdrew from the conference. On the night of May 27-28, EPRDF forces marched into Addis Ababa and assumed control of the city and national government.

The next day, Cohen again met with leaders of the EPLF, EPRDF, and OLF, but now as an adviser and not as a mediator. The insurgent leaders committed themselves to a pluralist democratic society and government for Ethiopia and agreed that Eritreans would be free to determine their own future, including independence if they wished. They also agreed that the EPRDF should continue to exercise temporary control in Addis Ababa. The task of constructing a transitional government, however, was postponed until early July, when a national conference broadly representative of all major political groups would convene in Addis Ababa to take up the matter. With these agreements in hand, the London conference adjourned, but not before Cohen stressed the need for fundamental reforms and conditioned future United States aid upon construction of a democratic political system.

By early June, the EPRDF claimed that it had established effective control over most of the country, the last remaining government troops in Dire Dawa and Harer having surrendered along with some 300 officials and military officers of the former regime. The new rulers faced a number of daunting problems, among them famine and starvation affecting several million people, a severely dislocated economy and society, the prospect of Eritrean independence and with it the loss of direct access to the Red Sea, and the thorny and far from settled question of ethnicity. The explosive potential of these problems was immediately apparent when, only a day after having marched into Addis Ababa, EPRDF soldiers shot or wounded several demonstrators protesting the EPRDF takeover, agreements affecting Eritrea, and United States policies toward the country. Even so, there was much hope and optimism about the future among a war-weary population, as well as a palpable sense of relief that seventeen years of despised military rule had at last come to an end.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress