ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Dec. 5—A breath of liberty and exciting hopes of a new democratic future that were felt briefly earlier this year have nearly disappeared as an almost anonymous and hard‐fisted military junta has replaced centuries of absolute monarchy.
With few of its old problems solved—or even yet faced—this East African country of 26 million people is also beset with new or intensified difficulties, particularly the threat of widespread disorder or even fullscale civil war.
The mass summary execution recently of members of the old Ethiopian elite was a brutal shock to world opinion as well as a tragic loss.
“The chance we had is probably gone for good,” an Ethiopian said. “Even if we do get a civilian government now, it will probably be an extreme left‐wing and authoritarian one.”
The speaker asked not to be identified, which is what almost everyone here has done in recent weeks. Most people are too frightened to speak frankly at all.
The atmosphere is a painful and stark contrast to the happy, invigorating sense of freedom that closely followed army mutinies last February that, in a matter of days, destroyed the authority of Emperor Haile Selassie. People spoke, wrote and acted freely for the first time in their lives and, no doubt, in the life of this old and complex empire stretching south from the Red Sea.
Although it seems to be a harsh, even uncharitable view, there is a strong argument that the Ethiopians brought the, outcome on themselves.
When the mutinies cracked the 82‐year‐old Emperor’s authority early this year, the army was not a unified political organization. Interim committees from various units acted in loose cooperation to force the Emperor to appoint Endalkachew Makonnen as Premier and, at Mr. Endalkachew’s urging, promised a constitution establishing parliamentary democracy and increased civil liberties within six months.
Plea for Time Ignored
Although Mr. Endalkachew —one of those executed by machine‐gun fire late last month—was a scion of a noble family, he said the right things and seemed to some people to mean them. He begged for a few months to carry out the promises, hut he did not get them.
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Urban Ethiopians, released at last from the burden of a feudal System, would not be patient, nor did they focus their main attention on basic institutional reforms. Instead, they erupted in an endless series of strikes and protests, which allowed them to flex their new liberties and to demand immediate amelioration of profound social and economic injustices.
Some strikes were against basic ills — foe instance to force up the urban laborer’s wages of 50 cents a day; others were called to compel the dismissal of disliked superiors or just to let off steam.
There was also preoccupation with punishing members of the old regime, which had unquestionably ignored or condoned exploitation and social injustice. Addis, Ababa students ran through the streets shouting, “Hang them!”
All this made day‐to‐day government difficult, and it made basic institutional reform virtually impossible.
Changes in the Military
Meantime, confused developments were taking place in the army. The informal “soldier soviets” of February were gradually welded into a more coherent committee representing military and police units. Ethiopians call it the Derg, a relatively new Amharic word for “committee.” Its full title in English is the Provisional Military Administrative Committee.
When Premier Endalkachew hesitated to arrest fellow aristocrats who were in the former Government, the army simply arrested the old Cabinet and then began picking up noblemen close to the court.
“At this stage,” a diplomatic observer commented, “the army did not want to rule, but it would not let anyone else rule either.”
Mr. Endalkachew was dismissed and, later arrested, and the work of his constitutional drafting committee was tossed aside. Another son of a noble family, Michael Imru, had a brief period as Premier, only to he retired to the Ministry of Information.
In September the army for malty deposed Haile Selassie, who had been on the throne since 1930, and, perhaps more important, took direct control of the country. The then chairman of the Military Committee, Lieut. Gen. Aman Michael Andom, became Acting Chief of State and chairman of the relatively impotent Cabinet.
Major at the Center
Although much is still unclear, the architect of the new military Government appears to be a 33‐year‐old major named Mengistu Haile Mariam, from the Third Division, stationed in eastern Ethiopia. An Ethiopian soldier recently told a foreign diplomat: “We owe a great deal to Mengistu. He put it all together.”
The Military Committee announced that its aims were revolutionary and adopted a now‐ubiquitous slogan: “Ethiopia first.” It, also suffocated the infant liberties.
Student demonstrations were suppressed, and a plan was evolved to close schools for a year, during which the students are to be sent into the countryside to teach modern methods to backward peasants. The students are bitterly resentful.
The same union leaders who had made Mr. Endalkachew’s life impossible were clapped in jail, where they remain. Strikes and agitation have been banned,
The press, which had sworn that it would never again serve as the docile servant of an autocratic master, has lapsed into tame discipline. People have returned to whispering and rumor‐mongering.
Though the army has had all real power since September, its administrative control has been surprisingly weak. The almost unanimous opinion of foreigners and informed Ethiopians is that the ??reaucracy has been at a virtual standstill, with civil servants afraid to act without sanction of the 120‐man Military Committee. But guidance has been spasmodic and minimal.
“All that a ministry can do now is to carry on old programs, shuffle papers and pray to God they don’t exceed the petty cash budget,” an informed source said.
Another problem is that the Military Committee—and the combat units it purports to represent—have spent much of their energy and time in a struggle over the question of who will wield authority and how it will be wielded.
Killed in Gun Battle
A bloody climax was reached when Major Mengistu and other committee officers quarreled with General Aman, then attempted to arrest him at his home, as they had arrested so many others. He resisted and was killed in a wild gun battle involving tanks. The same night 59 others, including 18 generals and the cream of the old nobility and officialdom, were shot in a prison courtyard and buried in a mass grave.
Officials working in the headquarters building of the Organization of African Unity look out at the plowed area where the bodies were dumped and covered over.
In a larger sense the removal of General Aman may not be decisive because it did not remove, the basic causes of army dissent.
One source of friction was that he wanted to negotiate with secessionist guerrilla organizations in the northern province of Eritrea to find a peaceful end to a 12‐year‐old insurgency that has been at a low level for the most part. His death and the decision of the junta to push reinforcements into Eritrea have apparently killed the chances of negotiations and may lead to full‐scale guerrilla war, which, a diplomat predicted, cannot be won.
Nor have recent events reduced the tensions in the army. The, members of the Military Committee are technically elected respresentatives of the four army divisions, the air force, the navy and other units.
Apparently reliable reports Say that on several occasions units have attempted to “recall” their committee representatives and even to dismiss some. Instead of accepting these summonses, the committee members have stayed in their new headquarters in the Grand Palace, which Haile Selassie used for office space. In the cellars they are holding 150 to 170 former officials, soldiers and nobles for trial for misdeeds during the old regime.
One report is that Major Mengistu’s wife and children were arrested by the Third Division in eastern Ethiopia after his refusal to return for consultations.
The prediction, then, is that further upheavals, disagreements and possibly bloody clashes may occur in the next few months, though predicting events is especially hazardous since, as a foreigner remarked, “In Ethiopia the entire iceberg is under water.”
Another difficulty is the lack of any visible progress toward social, economic and other reforms. Premier Endalkachew’s fall was due to his failure to show quick results, but the recurring turmoil since then has also prevented, or may have helped to prevent, basic changes.
More than nine months after the original Capitulation by the Emperor, for stance, there is still no landreform program, which most onlookers believe is the most pressing single need in a country where most people are impoverished peasants.
A recent editorial in the Ethiopia Herald, now: Armycontrolled, again promised that land reform was coming but urged patience and exhorted people not to take the law into their own hands. The meaning of this is that the main harvest gathered in the neat fields of the green highlands. This is also the time that landlords traditionally take their heavy rents, which can run from 60 to 70 per cent of the crop in kind.
Violence Is Feared
In the climate of “new expectations” and general anarchy that has prevailed for months there is real fear that the peasants may resist paying the landowners, most of whom ate not great lords but sturdy country squires. Because rural Ethiopia has more firearms per capita than Dallas, the possibility of trouble is great. Incidents of murder, arson, and disorder and slashing of tractor tires have already been reported on a small scale in the central highlands.
Moreover, the soldiers are stretched thin watching the Somali border, the rebels in Eritrea and each other. The army has literally no presence in most of rural Ethiopia. In a daylong drive in central Shoa, the province around Addis Ababa, a visitor saw two combat policemen armed with obsolete American carbines.
A potential leader of antiGovernment action is Mengasha Seyoum, a ras, or duke and possibly the most distinguished nobleman of them all, who escaped the army’s net, fled to neighboring Sudan, conferred with the Eritrean rebels and is now said to be in the northern highlands with, a nucleus of 600 men calling themselves the Tigre Liberation Front, for his own province of Tigre, just south of Eritrea.
Coffee auctions and the marketing of other cash crops have been badly disrupted. The Military Committee has arranged a small loan from West Germany and a roadbuilding project, by the Britrih and has a few other tangible accomplishments to show, big the recod of achievement is limited.
A pop music festival has been forbidden as a manifestation or “imperialist culture.” A contest for a new national anthem haa opened. More than 70 luxury automo biles owned by the old nobility and officials have been seized. A committee has been appointed to “inventory” the contents, of Haile Selassie’s 14 Palaces. Repeated but inconclusive, attempts have been made to get at the Emperor’s wealth in Swiss banks, whose size the junta has apparently exaggerated.
The committee has abolished the Emperor’s birth and coronation days as public holidays. It accused the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of tax evasion. It nationalized a hotel owned by four grand sons of the Emperor. It ordered 32 former members of the defunct—but it was always defunct—Parliament to pay about $10,000 each in back taxes. It promoted two generals and then revoked the promotions a few days later. It replaced General Aman with a brigadier general named Tafari Banti, who is expected to be more friendly to younger officers.
Some Still Incredulous
In the meantime it has had little impact on rural Ethiopia, with its conical straw houses, its brightly decorated saddle horses and its deep conservatism. There has been no resistance to Haile Selassie’s removal, although a few peasants reportedly refused to believe it has happened.
When the Emperor, who is in detention, appeared each day at the Grand Palace he presided over a Byzantine, nearly incomprehensible system that did not work well, but it had a degree of accessibility.
Every day hundreds, sometimes thousands, of peasants and city folk crowded through the open gates, past the mangy palace lions into the imperial presence to lay petitions, appeal court cases. make complaints and pay homage. A bustle of priests, soldiers and nobles crowded around the throne to tattle on each other and to give and take adivce.
Today the Military Committee occupies the same palace, but hardly anyone enters, and white‐shawled peasants do not even appear at a gate blocked by steelhelmeted, soldiers. Only the families of imprisoned notables come each day with jugs of stew for those in the cells.