It was an important government monument and this city’s municipal joke: a giant bronze statue of V. I. Lenin on a barren hillside square, depicted with his hand gripping his lapel and, in a lumbering stride, heading east.
The joke was that the figure was oriented that way so that when the revolution came, Lenin would show Ethiopia’s deposed Marxist leaders the way to the airport.
On Thursday, two days after the country’s ruthless dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, fled in a plane from Addis Ababa airport for refuge in Zimbabwe, the statue came down.
Thousands of office workers and other onlookers gathered in the square as two yellow cranes from the Ethiopia Building Construction Authority draped cables around Lenin’s suit coat while a crew had a go at his concrete and steel pedestal with jackhammers and welding torches.
When the cranes gave a mighty tug and pulled the figure loose, then laid it on its back on a flatbed truck to be taken away, the crowd cheered and danced, chanting, “Mengistu’s a cannibal!”
Supervising the deconstruction work was the Building Authority’s chief engineer, who declined to give his name but allowed that he was the man who had erected the monument in 1984.
“They ordered me to put it up,” he said. “Now they’ve told me to take it down.” Did he know why the order came? The engineer broke into a sheepish smile.
“You can guess why,” he said.
As it came down, the atmosphere on the square resembled that around another monument--the Berlin Wall, at the time of its dismantlement. Before long, children in the crowd were hawking pieces of the cement pedestal as souvenirs.
But glee over the dual overthrow of Mengistu and the bronze Lenin was tempered here by fear of a continuing rebel advance on this city. Troops of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the coalition of six ethnic and regionally based insurgent groups whose military successes sent Mengistu to flight on Tuesday, proceeded toward Addis Ababa.
The revolutionary front has outright refused to agree to a cease-fire until at least Monday, when its leaders are scheduled to meet top government officials at U.S.-sponsored peace talks in London. By then, many people here fear, they may already have occupied Addis Ababa or, worse, have provoked by their continued advance a breakdown of public order in the city.
As for the government, according to diplomatic sources here, army troops are under orders not to engage the rebels offensively.
“There’s a unilateral cease-fire,” said one Western diplomat. Nevertheless, there were reports of fighting at the front on the western outskirts of the capital.
The rebel group is dominated by the Tigre People’s Liberation Front, which in the past has identified itself with Maoist ideology but since experiencing real battlefield success--and close contact with the U.S. government--has tried to suggest that it favors the free market and political self-determination. Its principal goal was the ouster of Mengistu, and Western diplomats say they are concerned that, despite accomplishing that end, the group has not called a halt to its military offensive.
Diplomatic observers here believe that the revolutionary front’s leaders still genuinely mistrust the government, which they identify with the departed Mengistu.
“The rebels are caught in a ‘bush-paranoia’ mentality,” said one Western diplomat. “They think they are dealing with the Mengistu mind-set, where he would use cease-fires to buy time, to conscript another 50,000 soldiers. But this government is made up of the guys who got Mengistu to go, and who recognize that it’s all over. They’re ready to deal with the rebels on just about any issue.”
The rebels claimed Thursday to have taken the town of Genet, site of one of the country’s oldest military training establishments--and, incidentally, Mengistu’s alma mater--22 miles from the capital.
Retreating government soldiers, most of them bedraggled but still carrying field gear and clutching their carbines, could be seen flowing into the city ahead of the rebel advance, mixing almost unnoticed with crowds on the sidewalks going about their business.
The government has tried to keep the soldiers from accumulating in the capital by picking them up in buses and trucks, disarming them and sending them directly toward their hometowns.
Addis Ababa maintained its characteristic tranquil air until late afternoon, when there was a rush of commuters heading home to beat a 9 p.m. curfew and to seek security against a possible rebel entry into the city.
Soldiers were much in evidence around the city’s downtown market, where they appealed for handouts of food and water but thus far without any threat of violence. They appeared to be a spent force in virtually all respects.
Ethiopia’s new government, headed by Mengistu’s former defense minister, Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, moved swiftly Thursday to eradicate many reminders of the Mengistu regime as it continued to appeal to the advancing rebels for a cease-fire pending the start of the London talks.
Tesfaye said he began freeing 187 political prisoners, including a naval officer jailed for 15 years for his part in a coup attempt against Mengistu and a former deputy prime minister held without charge.
But the manner of Mengistu’s flight, heading for a comfortable ranch in the solitary southern African climate of Zimbabwe, seemed to dilute some of the happiness most people here feel about his regime’s end.
“Some people are happy, but some say he got away,” said Tsegah Kebede, a worker for the Ministry of Water Resource Development, just across the street from the Lenin statue. “We wanted him out, but we also wanted him to stay to go on trial"--a sentiment echoed widely.