Ethiopia after Absolutism

June 03, 1991

The great capital of Addis Ababa is patrolled by soldiers who speak provincial Tigrinya and not the local tongue and Ethiopian national language, Amharic. That can lead to confusion and conflict. The Tigreans rebelled against the imperialism of the Amhara, whether under theocratic emperor or Marxist junta. Now the Amhara not unreasonably fear the shoe on the other foot.

Ethiopian rulers had clout on the Red Sea coast until the 16th century, when the Turks invaded. At the end of the 19th century, Italy beat out Egypt and Ethiopia to set up the modern colony of Eritrea. Eritrean identity is an Italian invention. An Italian attempt to conquer Ethiopia was crushed in 1895 at Adowa (now a rebel-held town in Tigre) and Ethiopia won recognition as a modern state.

In 1935, Italy did conquer Ethiopia and unite it with Eritrea. Britain ousted Italy in 1941, freeing Ethiopia and separating it from Eritrea, which became a British protectorate. British withdrawal in 1952 left Eritrea, by United Nations edict, as an autonomous province of federal Ethiopia. Ten years later, Emperor Haile Selassie incorporated Eritrea wholly into his realm, provoking rebellion. The Marxist officers who overthrew the emperor should have come to terms with Eritrean autonomism, but instead became more imperialist.

Now Ethiopia is governed at the center by provincials whose main concern is Tigre province, which needs trade routes to the Red Sea through Eritrea, which is self-governing. Both the Tigrean liberation faction and the equally victorious Eritrean rebel group agree to a plebiscite on Eritrea's status. In the current climate, though, that would bring separation. This is not agreed by "One Ethiopia" Amhara.

Another underdog group, the Oromo of the south, who outnumber their Amhara oppressors, also cry for separation. The same historic justification does not exist. If the Eritreans (a mosaic more Islamic than the Ethiopian mosaic) get their way, Ethiopia will be landlocked. If Oromo separatists get their way, Ethiopia would cease to exist.

Meles Zenawi, the Tigrean leader, has been a rebel for 15 years. Now, at 36, he must be a statesman. A former hard-line Marxist, he has become flexible. Pray so. History may ask him to save Ethiopia; humanity demands that he save Ethiopians. An Ethiopia in which all peoples participate should live in easy association with a self-governing Eritrea. Previous rulers prove that, in the Ethiopian vortex, absolutism is doomed to fail absolutely.

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