Ethiopia's president, Mengistu Haile Mariam, fled the country last week ahead of the rapid advance of opposition forces. The news was greeted with joy by a population devastated by civil war and by hunger. But the Mengistu government, led by a hand-picked successor, continued to attempt to cling to power, and rebel groups continued to move toward the capital, Addis Ababa.
War has been the dominant reality in the Horn of Africa for many years. It has consumed lives and scarce resources, and has made a mockery of all talk about development.
Ethiopia, in particular, has been at the center of the crises in the region, with its multi-faceted wars and perennial famine. Indeed, since 1984, Ethiopia has become a metaphor for disaster. A country once described as a potential breadbasket for the Northeast African region has turned into a basket case, depending on external assistance to feed a large segment of its population. The same is now true for Somalia and the Sudan.
Yet, in the current climate of proliferation of crises globally, scant attention has been paid to the Horn of Africa, certainly none in terms of addressing the root causes of the various conflicts and helping to find lasting solutions.
The recent announcement that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen had persuaded the Ethiopian government and three principal liberation movements to meet in London was therefore a hopeful sign that a peaceful resolution of the conflicts in Ethiopia may be at hand. The three liberation movements invited to the London meeting are the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
What are the prospects for successful talks? The answer to this question is related to the stakes involved -- to the issues behind which the forces are aligned, as well as to their relative military strengths and the degree of popular support they enjoy.
There is, of course, the external factor. U.S. policy-makers are demonstrating proper appreciation of the complexities involved in the various conflicts, and their Soviet counterparts are no longer in an adversarial position. The end of the ideological -- East-West -- confrontation should thus help in finding peaceful solutions, assuming that the local forces are able and willing to agree on a framework for a peaceful settlement of the conflicts.
What then are the stakes? First, we need to know what the contending forces are fighting for and where they stand in relative military strength.
The EPLF has been fighting for Eritrean national self-determination up to independence. The Eritrean liberation struggle is different from the others in that Eritrea's case, in the eyes of Eritreans and their supporters, is a case of unfulfilled (or frustrated) decolonization.
After half a century of Italian colonial rule (1889-1941) Britain occupied Eritrea for ten years (1941-1952) following Italy's defeat. In 1950 the United Nations decided to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia as an autonomous unit short of national sovereignty. The federal arrangement, which came into effect in 1952, was abrogated by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962.
The Eritrean armed struggle began in that period. The emperor's illegal annexation of Eritrea galvanized Eritrean nationalism, turning the muted resistance into a fight for what was once denied by the U.N. arrangement, that is, national independence.
After nearly 30 years of armed struggle, the Eritreans under the EPLF have wrested most of the territory from the Ethiopean army, which is now encircled in Asmara and its environs and in the port of Asab. The capture of the port of Massawa in February 1990 cut off the Ethiopean army from all land supplies, this beginning the final phase of a count-down in the war.
Meanwhile, the EPRDF, which is an ally of the EPLF, has swept down Ethiopia's northern and central provinces of Tigre, Wollo, Gondar, Gojam and parts of Shoa and Wellega, pushing government forces to the central region around Addis Ababa.
In the process of the spectacular military victories which it has scored, the EPRDF has decimated government forces and captured scores of thousands of them with considerable equipment. The government's control over the country was so reduced that a standard joke referred to President Mengistu as "the mayor of Addis Ababa."
The EPRDF has become a crucial element in determining the future shape of politics in Ethiopia. Its position on the issues of contention, notably the Eritrean question, has therefore become a subject of interest to all concerned, including U.S. policy makers.