Ethiopia's Collapse

May 24, 1991

A 17-year nightmare in Ethiopia has ended with the flight of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and the collapse of the dergue, or revolutionary council, and Workers Party dictatorship.

The officers who overthrew the feudalism of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 promised enlightened socialism. They brought terror, war, famine, pestilence, suspicion and fear. Victims included some 60 high officials murdered in 1974, the later Red Terror executions of 10,000 intellectuals, and perhaps one million dead of starvation. Instead of coming to terms with the secessionist movements that the monarchy had provoked, the dergue drove more Ethiopians into rebellion.

The dictator survives the wreckage, thanks to the timely intercession of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who organized a quiet exile there. But the rest of the dictatorship was left trying to hold a ring around the capital of Addis Ababa in the face of advancing tanks of the Tigre People's Liberation Front, at least until U.S.-sponsored peace talks could begin in London on Monday. At stake is the public health in Addis Ababa, not the regime, which is finished.

The catalyst of change was the Soviet Union's Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose "new political thinking" included ending the subsidies to the torturers who claimed Lenin and Marx as guides for the introduction of Ethiopian socialism. In particular, the ending of tank deliveries from former East Germany weakened the army before the onslaughts of the Tigrean revolutionaries, their Eritrean secessionist allies and the Oromo Liberation Front in eastern Ethiopia.

But the end of one tyranny does not promise a new age of enlightenment. The three rebel movements themselves claim Marxist absolutism and display ethnic particularism. The U.S. mediation was a response to Mengistu's vaunted moderation of the past year, with a chance of regaining some of the influence the U.S. enjoyed during the monarchy. The Cold War motivation in Washington is gone, though the hope of friendly Eritrean ports and listening posts that close to the Persian Gulf has replaced it.

At this stage, what Ethiopia needs is a humanitarian respite from war and famine, and a tolerance and pluralism that are not found in recent political tradition. Whatever good offices the U.S. possesses should be used to that end.

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