Documentary : A Scoundrel’s Time: The Fall of Mengistu : After 14 years of dictatorship, Ethiopians feel a bit ambivalent over their country’s change of course.
It is the received wisdom among travelers in Africa that Ethiopia is a place like none other south of the Sahara. Its written history places its cultural heritage on a par with that of China and Egypt, and its people cherish the legend that they are descended from the union of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Addis is emblematic of this impression; it is the only capital in black Africa never colonized by Europeans, and one of the very few where the electrical supply functions nonstop and the water is safe to drink.
On the second day after the fall of the 14-year regime of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, I flew into Addis on Ethiopian Airlines, the enormously successful and efficient state carrier that is reputedly the best in Africa. The government was crumbling, the capital surrounded by rebel troops. Nearly two decades of Marxist rule had made Ethiopia one of the world’s poorest countries. And we landed just 15 minutes late. In America, airline schedules can get more disrupted than that by a rainstorm at LAX.
Perhaps it was this mysterious Ethiopian efficiency that led people to believe that the rebel takeover of the capital would be a smoother transition than it turned out to be.
Popular reaction to Mengistu’s flight into exile seemed strangely ambivalent. The people I met were clearly delighted to have him gone, though perhaps disappointed at the manner of his departure.
Everyone roundly reviled his memory. He was a thief, they said, a cannibal, a vagabond, the worst ruler Ethiopia ever had. They laughed at his pretensions. Mengistu had a habit of comparing himself favorably to heroes of Ethiopian history, especially Emperor Tewodros, who in 1865 resisted a British military expedition sent to rescue a hostage diplomat and committed suicide rather than watch the British burn his capital. By contrast, Mengistu’s escape in a small, twin-engine plane seemed craven.
“We thought he would at least commit suicide,” one resident of Addis remarked to me on Day Two of the post-Mengistu era. “Not leave like this.”
But in this, one could not help detecting a strange Ethiopian self-deception, a willful forgetfulness. It was true that Mengistu had ruled by a policy of terror. But he had also been canny enough to continually manipulate the proud nationalism of Ethiopians, extolling the destiny of a united Ethiopia, an island of Christianity steadfast against the surrounding Muslim Arab nations. Mengistu had survived for 14 years, and they had themselves at least partially to blame.
And if Mengistu’s flight meant the elimination of an internal enemy, the city realized that he had now left it at the mercy of what its citizens had been taught to regard as almost an alien foe: the woyane (bandits), the army of rebels from the northern province of Tigre who now had the city surrounded from positions closer than a day’s stroll from downtown.
Addis was an anxious city. The barbarians were at the gates. Even educated people shuddered as they confided their fears of the woyane : They would shoot everybody; a blood bath lay ahead. From deserting government soldiers, people were able to buy guns for a few dollars each, and few resisted the bargain.
“I have my own personal weapon,” said Germa Wolde Mariam, whom I met on the plaza in front of St. George’s Church, an Ethiopian Orthodox edifice of customary circular design with a nearby museum devoted to the memory of Haile Selassie, the last emperor. “It’s an AK-47.” (Soviet-made assault rifle). Then he said: “All Ethiopians need only peace.”
There was also an odd sense on the streets of Addis that the Ethiopians had lost control of their own destiny. The people in charge, residents suggested, were the Americans. The United States had forced Mengistu to flee. The Americans were going to keep the woyane out of the city and broker a settlement at peace talks in London that would finally bring serenity to Ethiopia.
“When is your army coming to protect us?” someone asked me on my first day in town. A day later, a colleague and I introduced ourselves to an Ethiopian churchgoer as American journalists.
“Americans,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
It was a heady feeling to be regarded as somehow the agents of Ethiopia’s deliverance. But this would prove to be another product of self-deception--not only the Ethiopians’ but ours.
So far, it seemed, Addis was behaving with traditional Amharic rectitude. Thousands of deserting government troops were pouring into the city, aimlessly wandering its streets with tattered rucksacks and guns, but there was not a single confirmed report of looting.
“You have to remember that this place is not Earth,” said one longtime resident as we discussed the orderliness of the besieged city. “These people have a long history of culture and religion that holds them to a high ethical standard. What do they do when things get bad? They don’t loot--they go to church!”
More self-deception? A tremendous stratum of violence lay just under the tranquil surface of Addis life. Night after night, random gunfire echoed from every corner of the city and the sky was lit by tracer bullets. It was as if everyone in Addis had a new rifle and was airing it out.
It was worth recalling how the previous Ethiopian revolution had unfolded in 1974, with the aged emperor driven off in a Volkswagen as his advisers were kept on in a provisional administration, all amid a tranquil air. This had lasted for about two months. Then the revolution exploded in blood with the summary execution of 59 former government officials. Four years later came another outbreak, the Red Terror, in which thousands of people succumbed to death squads and midnight executions.
As the May 27 opening of peace talks approached, there was a growing and tangible tension in the air. Would the woyane guerrillas, as they had promised the American mediators, stay out of the city?
In fact they moved in at dawn May 28, guns blazing, frightening off the few remaining government soldiers occupying the presidential palace on a low hill in the center of town. It was all over by midday. Now, with a 24-hour curfew in place, the people of Addis faced the prospect of rule by a gang that 16 years of government propaganda had taught them to regard as bloodthirsty foreigners.
In London, as it happened, American negotiators had reacted to reports of increasing insecurity in Addis and the collapse of the government army by agreeing to the rebel chairman’s plan to send his troops into the capital immediately. But to people here, it seemed as if the Americans had ordered the guerrillas to march on the city, betraying the principle of a negotiated peace on which the talks had been established. (The Americans and the rebels both denied this.) Now the woyane were in unassailable control.
Strangely, that first day turned into something of a holiday. Thousands braved the curfew to come out on foot. Huge crowds ambled along the streets, stopping to gape at the polite, unflappable rebel soldiers. As a few of us joined the throng, we sensed a discordant note. We got some hostile glares. One man approached our party and shouted: “Why don’t you stay home?”
Wednesday, the second day of the curfew. Enforcement by the rebel troops again was indifferent. Five of us, American reporters all, decided to rent a car to run the curfew and find the rebel commanders, who were rumored to be operating out of an Agricultural Ministry office on the edge of town. The government taxi service was not operating, of course, so we negotiated a day hire: an aged Volkswagen bug with bald tires and only one usable door.
A white pillowcase flapping from the aerial, we sputtered through the city. Failing to find the commanders, we moved on to the American Embassy. We parked the car across the street and spent the better part of an hour inside the wooded embassy compound getting a situation report from a friendly diplomat.
On our way out the gate we passed an officer tying American flags to the aerials of embassy automobiles. Another huge flag was draped over the front gate. After all, Americans were big in Ethiopia right then. (“Americans. Thank you very much.”)
The embassy man handed us a flag as we went out. Across the street we scrapped the pillow case and tied the Stars and Stripes to the antenna, like a totem of invulnerability. But there was something we did not know.
Coming up the hill toward us was an anti-American demonstration.
In a minute they were upon the car, swatting at it with sticks and palm fronds. Then a rock smashed through the window, and another. We poured out of the car’s one door, came out on our hands and knees, sprinted for the embassy gate. From across the street it seemed as if a hundred rocks were coming at us, fist-sized cobblestones. Some found their marks on our arms and legs. Suddenly there was shooting. Guerrilla soldiers stationed at the naval headquarters next door were firing into the air to disperse the crowd, but it sounded as if the gunshots could have come from anywhere and been aimed at anyone, including us.
We spent the rest of the day holed up as wave after wave of demonstrators gathered in front of the compound and cursed the American government for selling Ethiopia out to the guerrillas and for countenancing the splitting off from the country of the province of Eritrea, where separatist rebels had won their 30-year civil war just as the Tigrean rebels prepared to enter Addis Ababa.
One day people were thanking Americans, but three days later a press photographer escaped an anti-American mob only by showing them his Dutch passport. Even now, whites on the street get nasty stares and it’s uncomfortable to be taken for an American. This may soon pass, if the rebels prove to be as earnest and well meaning as they so far seem. But as one former government official remarked to me last weekend: “If they don’t call for a coalition government as they have promised, then we will really feel betrayed by America.”
For all that, the Woyane leaders might themselves be contemplating their new role as rulers of Ethiopia with some trepidation. It’s true that the atmosphere in Addis has more or less returned to normal--more quickly than might have been expected in any other African capital. The electricity is working again, offices and shops are open, the nocturnal gunfire has all but disappeared.
Two separate Ethiopian civil wars, one lasting 30 years and the other 16, have ended. But there are unassimilated rebel groups in the west and southeast, and hundreds of thousands of armed, demobilized soldiers ranging through every corner of the country.
Bandit gangs prey on freight trucks and famine relief convoys. About 750,000 Sudanese and Somali refugees live inside the borders. Seven million Ethiopians are threatened by starvation.
One can imagine the former rebel leaders now occupying their offices in Haile Selassie’s ornate old palace looking at each other and saying:
“All right, we won. What do we do now?”