Wave of Defections Reveals Marxist Failure in Ethiopia

Times Staff Writer

Foreign Minister Goshu Wolde was the good face of Ethiopia. He had attended Yale University and he genuinely liked the West. But he was also an unfailing cheerleader for Marxism and for the generous Soviet gifts of weapons to his country.

"Goshu could sure give you the Marxist spiel," a European diplomat said recently. Speaking at the United Nations in October, Goshu paid what he called "deserved tribute" to the Soviets for their disarmament proposals, and he assailed U.S. policy in Nicaragua.

Then, less than three weeks later, Goshu Wolde defected.

"Our revolution," he wrote in a resignation letter from New York to Ethiopian head of state Mengistu Haile Mariam, has deteriorated into "absolute dictatorship and cruelty."

Goshu is the highest-ranking Ethiopian to have reached that conclusion in the last year. But he is not the only one.

The ambassador to the Nordic countries defected on Dec. 15, saying that the government had "trampled upon the dignity and pride of its people." Three months ago, it was the ambassador to France. Six months ago, it was the deputy director of the internal commission that coordinated the famine relief effort, and a year ago, it was the director of that agency.

When four members of the Ethiopian national soccer team defected last year in Swaziland, and a dozen players on the second string team failed to return home last summer from Cairo, the government announced that the team needed more practice and halted international competition, except with "friendly countries."

The rash of defections points up one of the serious problems facing Ethiopia's iron-fisted regime: the Communist ideology it has showered on this country over the last decade has failed to penetrate much below the tiny group of presumably committed Marxists that control the country.

"I don't think the Ethiopian will ever make a good socialist," a foreigner and longtime resident here said the other day. "They're nationalists and capitalists at heart."

But this is a country of contradictions. "It's awfully difficult to say where this country is headed and when," a Western envoy says.

Ethiopia's government continues to put up red hammer-and-sickle banners and proletarian slogans around the country, moving resolutely down the Communist path. It has a Workers' Party and plans to adopt a new constitution and proclaim the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, perhaps as early as next spring.

A Cultural Watershed

Nevertheless, the famine relief effort, which filled the country with thousands of Westerners for the first time in years, was a cultural watershed for many Ethiopians who still look west rather than east. The government slightly loosened its restrictions on contact with the West, allowing revolutionary television to show old American feature films on Saturday nights and more Ethiopians to apply for academic and cultural exchanges, Western embassies say.

An affection for Westerners, especially Americans, is still apparent in Ethiopia today. Not long ago in downtown Addis Ababa, a shopkeeper helping an American visitor waited until a government official was out of earshot and then, with a smile, whispered conspiratorially, "Yea, America!"

One of the most prized shopping bags in Addis Ababa is a white cotton sack bearing the words "Gift of the United States of America," a sturdy famine relief leftover now on sale in the markets.

Suspicious of West

Tens of thousands of Ethiopians who were in the United States at the time of the 1974 revolution simply never returned home. Many settled in Southern California, where the weather is similar to that in their homeland. Although many Ethiopian government officials have relatives in America, the hard-liners in the Politburo remain suspicious of the West.

Dawit Wolde Giorgis, who headed Ethiopia's relief and rehabilitation commission during the famine, defected last year after a Politburo meeting at which officials were preoccupied, he said, with the notion that "Western imperialism" was using the drought "to destabilize the Ethiopian revolution."

Dawit recently told The Times of London newspaper that the West's famine relief effort saved millions of lives but "it also saved Mengistu and his regime" from being overthrown.

Situation Still Desperate

Despite the political upheaval here since 1974, when the pro-American Emperor Haile Selassie was dethroned by junior army officers, the situation facing most of Ethiopia's 42 million people has not changed drastically. It was desperate before the revolution and it remains so today.

Most farmers, still called peasants as in the feudal days, live on plots of land so remote and inaccessible that some relief workers think they may not know of the revolution. For the remainder, the revolution has meant little more than a bookkeeping change: They pay the tax man rather than the landlord for the right to farm the land.

Centuries of neglect of agriculture have caused the average annual income in Ethiopia to slide to about $110, which according to World Bank figures is the lowest in the world, $20 below Bangladesh.

Life Expectancy Declining

A nationwide campaign has raised the literacy rate in Ethiopia from 7% in 1974 to 63% this year, according to government figures. But most other indicators are negative. Ethiopia still has fewer miles of road per capita than any other country in Africa; most of the population lives more than a day's walk from a dirt track. Life expectancy has been declining, infant mortality has been rising and the country counts only 18 doctors for every million people.

The economy is trapped in decline by controlled prices and wages, minuscule investment, swelling government bureaucracy, a population growing at the rate of 2.9% a year, outpacing economic growth, and large military expenditures. Ethiopia has faced armed insurrection for more than a quarter-century, and today it allocates 20% of its thin budget to a standing army of 300,000 men, the largest in Africa.

Once the country's greatest asset was the land itself, three times the size of California and among the most fertile in Africa. But in recent decades, as the land has been stripped by drought and primitive farming methods, Ethiopia's greatest asset has become its strategic location.

Horn of Africa Coveted

Both the United States and the Soviet Union consider the Horn of Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, important because of its proximity to the Middle East and the world's oil-producing regions. As a result, the superpowers have been eager to spend money here in exchange for friendly relations.

Yet Ethiopia has maintained its sovereignty through most of its history. It is the oldest independent country in Africa and among the world's oldest civilizations. Legend has it that Ethiopia's emperors descended from a romantic liaison between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon about 1000 BC.

The tradition that has grown out of this legend is evident in the palaces and statues of emperors scattered throughout Addis Ababa, the capital city of tall office buildings and lightly traveled, tree-lined boulevards contrasting with neighborhoods of tin-roof shacks and roaming roosters and goats. The hilly city of 1.3 million people sits 7,500 feet above sea level, in crisp air fragrant with eucalyptus.

Hotel Nationalized

All across Addis Ababa these days are newer monuments: roadway arches made of tin and plywood, painted festive reds and yellows and adorned with slogans, in English as well as Amharic, such as "Long Live Proletarian Internationalism." Atop the Hilton Hotel, nationalized back in 1977, the Hilton name is followed by the slogan "Peace, Friendship, Solidarity."

At Revolution Square, a giant billboard displays the bearded profiles of Marx, Lenin and Engels on a red background that can be seen from the turn-of-the-century palace of Emperor Menelik II a couple of miles up the hill.

Next to this is a billboard picturing Mengistu, in pinstripe suit and mustache, waving to the workers. Behind Mengistu's portrait is a painting of the Ethiopian Workers' Party flag--a yellow star and hammer and sickle in the upper left corner on a field of red, almost identical to the Soviet flag.

No Signs of Haile Selassie

All signs that Haile Selassie ruled this land for nearly half a century, until 1974, are gone. But there is a giant new statue of Lenin, showing the Russian revolutionary taking a purposeful stride with his hand smartly on the lapel of his jacket. The statue faces the airport, three miles distant, and Ethiopians joke that Lenin "has his hand in someone's pocket and is running for the airport." According to another version, Lenin is facing the airport "so the Russians won't have to ask directions when we kick them out."

The Soviet Union has spent nearly $4 billion on arms for Ethiopia since 1977, when it replaced the United States as Ethiopia's military sponsor. About 2,500 Soviet soldiers and 700 civilians live here, along with 3,500 Cuban economic advisers, diplomats and soldiers.

Ethiopia needs the arms and advisers to wage its long-running battle with Marxist secessionists in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre. The liberation groups, which control large areas of those rugged regions, consider themselves more purely Marxist than Mengistu and his government.

East Bloc Criticized

While the Ethiopian Politburo is grateful for Soviet arms, some Ethiopians privately criticize the East Bloc for what they regard as its miserly development help. They point to the bloc's small contribution to the famine relief effort.

A decade of close relations with the Soviet government has not prompted much curiosity about Soviet culture among educated Ethiopians. The bookstores of Addis Ababa carry virtually nothing on Russian art or history, and language schools that offer English, Italian, Spanish and French have no demand for Russian.

Among middle-level government officials, trips to conferences or seminars in Europe or the United States are in much greater demand--and much more difficult to get approval for--than trips to the East Bloc. Officials fortunate enough to get approval for a trip to the West have been known to hide the news from their co-workers until the last minute, hoping to avoid their jealous barbs.

Despite its reliance on Soviet arms, Ethiopia's leaders say, it remains independent-minded. "We are very different from Eastern Europe," Mersie Ejigu, a member of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party, said in a recent interview. "Programs that work there might not work here. We are not following any country."

Takes Nationalist Stand

Mengistu himself is more of an Ethiopian nationalist than a Soviet puppet, political analysts here say. It is widely believed that the Politburo is made up of two distinct factions--the pro-Soviet group that opposes any contact with the West and the moderate nationalists who think some contact with the West for development aid is in the country's best interest.

A career military officer, the 49-year-old Mengistu has little training in either Eastern or Western political ideologies, but he is widely considered to be both shrewd and ruthless. He has kept the Soviets at arm's length, keeping such things as his internal security force in the hands of Ethiopians.

"He's not a committed Marxist," a Western diplomat said. "He's a committed Mengistuist." Nevertheless, Mengistu toes the Soviet line at international meetings, and Ethiopia joined the Soviet Union in boycotting the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Embarrassing Defections

The recent defections have been more embarrassing than dangerous for Mengistu. "Until you get a Politburo member or an active-duty general turning, it really doesn't have an impact," a Western envoy said. "The people who defect are only a threat to the government if they stay."

Some of the defections may in fact have been precipitated by warning signals from Addis Ababa that the officials were under suspicion and might be jailed on their return to the country, as happened to Ethiopia's U.N. envoy last year when he was called home on a routine matter.

In resigning their posts, most of the officials said they had come to realize that the revolution, as directed by Mengistu, had failed to help the country's people and in fact had driven many away.

Goshu Wolde, the foreign minister for four years and a member of the Workers' Party Central Committee, said he had watched "as my country slipped further and further into totalitarianism, with the inevitable consequences of intolerance and repression."

'Political Intolerance'

Taye Telahun, the ambassador who resigned in Sweden, said that "political intolerance" had prompted thousands of educated Ethiopians to leave. "The hopes and aspirations we Ethiopians had in the wake of the revolution in 1974 have been dashed," he said.

When Mengistu emerged as the country's ruler in 1977, three years after Haile Selassie's overthrow, the United States had been Ethiopia's primary economic and military sponsor for 23 years. That relationship was deteriorating, however, and soon Mengistu ordered the U.S. military and economic missions to leave. Then he went after his opponents, undertaking what has come to be known as the "red terror."

Americans on the U.S. Embassy staff once numbered 700; today there are 33, including the Marines who guard the compound.

One hurdle to improving U.S.-Ethiopian relations has been outstanding claims by 20 U.S. firms whose businesses were nationalized in 1977. That claim was resolved a year ago, and the Ethiopian government has paid, on schedule, $2.5 million of the $7 million it owes the United States.

Trade Ties Expanding

Trade ties are expanding. The United States is Ethiopia's principal export customer, buying mostly coffee, and Ethiopia is the No. 3 buyer of U.S. goods in sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopian Air Lines recently agreed to buy a Boeing 767 and two Boeing 737s in a $100-million deal.

In the year since the famine relief effort--in which the West delivered 90% of the supplies--the Ethiopian government has followed a fairly liberal policy on exit visas, released about 900 political prisoners and adopted a fairly tolerant attitude toward churches.

These human rights developments, though minor, have contributed to a feeling that, as one American envoy put it, "this country is not that far gone from us yet."

"It's a mistake to look at it simplistically, as we did the last six or seven years," the diplomat said. "You've got to stop looking at this place in black and white terms. The Horn of Africa is too important. You've got to care about it and keep looking for opportunities here and taking advantage of them."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
88°