As food prices
soar world-wide it was reported recently on the BBC that ‘Ethiopia has launched an urgent
appeal to international donors for more than $300m (£154m) of emergency aid’.
According the news item, ‘a
total of 4.6 million people are now thought to need food aid, because of the
drought which struck most of the country in the early part of this year. In
some parts of the country, health centres and feeding clinics are already being
overwhelmed with large numbers of severely malnourished children. Existing
stocks of food aid will cover June, but the crunch will come in July.’
This news came a few weeks after
the sentencing to death in absentia for crimes against humanity of Lieutenant-Colonel
Mengistu, deposed former leader of Ethiopia,
currently in exile in Zimbabwe.
Like Robert Mugabe, Mengistu was a self-declared Marxist-Leninist, having probably
not read a line of Marx or Lenin. He presided over an undoubtedly brutal
If and when
Mugabe is brought down and Mengistu is extradited to his homeland to face the
music, he may deserve all he gets. As socialists we do not moralise but judge
things from a class position. Therefore it is necessary to understand and to
analyse the processes that lead to the rise of Mengistu to power and to the
fall of his regime, what has created the current set of circumstances and the
role of leadership.
Court of Ethiopia, who handed out the sentences to Mengistu and his henchmen,
is also guilty of rank hypocrisy. Since the overthrow of Mengistu in 1991, Ethiopia’s
current government have presided over a regime that has done little for its
people, has been accused of human rights abuses and vote-rigging. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister once a
‘Marxist-Leninist’ rebel, having studied for an MBA in the US, is now a free-marketeer. The
regime he has presided over is in itself a crime against humanity. According to
the UN Human Development Report, 2006, Ethiopia is ranked 170 out of 177
countries. 31 Million live on less than half a dollar a day and between 6 and
13 million people are at risk of starvation each year. The vast bulk of the
Ethiopian people live in grinding poverty.
Ethiopia is a country rich in resources. But the benefits of this have never
been enjoyed by the bulk of the Ethiopian people. In fact, far from it, they
have suffered needlessly in hunger and poverty. A brief look at some facts and
figures reveals this.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second largest maize producer and is believed to
have the largest livestock population on the continent, and the 10th largest
producer in the world. Coffee grows well on its southern slopes and is its
largest export commodity. A major deal was recently struck with Starbucks,
which seems to now have an outlet on every high street in the UK. Other items exported include
grains and oilseeds, leather and gold. Ethiopia could also become a major
world exporter of flower and plant products. Saudi
and the UK are major
‘investors’ in the country and along with Japan
are major exporters.
So why does Ethiopia
find itself having to appeal for aid? Some might say that this is down to the
explosion of the population said to have increased from some 33 million in 1983
to between 76/78 million today, according to the FCO website. Surely coupled
with drought this is what is to blame for the dire situation in the Horn of
argue that it is in fact the way our society is ordered, the ownership and
control of the means of production and the world’s natural resources by increasingly
fewer people, is at the root of the crisis on Africa
and beyond. Public ownership of the land, industry and the financial
institutions, with democratic planning by the workers and peasants of Ethiopia would be a first step towards dealing
with the problems of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is extremely underdeveloped. Italian fascism, monarchism and the
current regime have done very little to address this. The historical political
weakness of Ethiopia
is reflected in the fact that it has long been reliant on aid. This has been
the means by which rival economic blocs vied for influence. During the period
of Soviet influence most economic aid came from Western sources, with the
intention of creating and controlling new markets to exploit, with military aid
coming from the Soviets for reasons which will become clear in considering the
ideology of Stalinism.
Italy under Mussolini colonised it from 1936 to 1941. Given its natural
resources and strategic position on Africa’s
Horn it is plain to see the attraction for plunder by stronger countries. Neighbouring
was also an Italian colony. Italy
vied for influence in the region – initially beaten back by Ethiopia before the turn of the
century. A federation with Eritrea was formed in 1952 but was dissolved in 1962
which led to Eritrea’s war for independence. Eritrea achieved independence in
1993 and there are still disputes over its borders. Italian fascism was
responsible for some limited development of Ethiopia’s infrastructure, such as
roads. However, it was driven out of Ethiopia during WWII and Haile Selassie the
Emperor from 1930-74 was reinstalled by the allied forces. Given that Rastafarians
considered Selassie divine it seems strange that he had to rely on military
forces to reinstall him!
attempt to move his country from a subsistence economy to an agro-industrial
one through a series of plans from the 1950s onwards lead to some improvements
by the ‘70s. The economy grew and there was some expansion into manufacturing
and services. However, there was not the administrative and technical ability
to deepen these (according to Library of Congress studies). Four fifths of the
population were subsistence farmers who were kept in poverty by taxes, rents,
debts and bribes. Foreign grants and loans were used to pay of a balance of
What are thought
to be Selassie’s remains were finally recovered and buried in 2000. The current
government have denounced him as a despotic tyrant and accuse him of amassing a
huge personal fortune which they are seeking to recover. Selassie certainly
lived in splendour while his people suffered hardship, famine and disease.
The famine in
the Wello province in 1974 was the catalyst for the overthrow of Selassie. A
committee of low-ranking military officers and soldiers, which came to be known
as the Derg assumed power. Several groups were involved in the movement to
overthrow the imperial regime. Colonel Mengistu emerged as the main figure of
the Derg in 1977 when the so-called Red Terror commenced in response to the
resistance movement spearheaded by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party.
Ethiopia built up the
second largest army in sub-Saharan Africa with
Soviet assistance. Military spending diverted funds away from the development
Dispute over the Ogadon region was a major point of conflict with neighbouring
Somalia, who had lost the territory as a result of a seizure by Ethiopia during
colonial partition. This culminated in the Ogadon War of 1977-8 when ethnic
Somalis subjected Ethiopian forces into a stage of siege in the region. Soviet
equipment and Cuban troops ensured that Somalia was beaten back.
Somalia and Eritrea had previously been allies of the Soviet
Union, as Ethiopia
were an ally of Western imperialism. The revolutionary upheaval against
landlordism in Ethiopia,
a country of some 35 million, was a major threat to the interests of imperialism.
ambitions saw them break with the Soviet Union who moved over to support Ethiopia,
whose movement they were compelled to attempt to control in their own
regime set about introducing wholesale nationalisation and collectivisation of
agriculture, modelling itself on the existing Stalinist regimes. In 1986/7, under
pressure from the Soviet Union, this was
formalised with the creation of the Worker’s Party of Ethiopia, adoption of a constitution
and Mengistu’s assumption of power as president.
The benefits of
the effective overthrow of landlordism and the small elements of capitalism in
the country could be seen in the advances in education in particular. Primary
school enrolment increased from 953,300 to 2,450,000 in the period 1974/5 to
1985/6, the number of schools doubled and literacy was raised from 10 % to 63
%. A universal health programme was also launched.
Mengistu regime was never stable. As well as the border tensions with Somalia
and a secessionist war in Eritrea, there were regional rebellions in Tigray and
Oromia Drought in 84/5 was not dealt with, manufacturing declined due to
agricultural downturn, the deficit worsened and military spending at between
40-50 % drained the economy. Despite growth in GDP by 5% per annum in the
period 1985-90, the country continued to stagnate.
response to the famine in 1985/6 was to resettle peasants to Southern regions
along with ‘village-isation’ which also sought to tackle security issues. This
involved forcible relocation to planned villages. This was unpopular and to add
insult to injury the government failed to provide the infrastructure and
By 1991, the
Mengistu regime was in serious trouble. Rebel forces, based on Tigrayan and
Oromian guerrillas, continued their struggle and the instability of the regime,
coupled with the effective withdrawal of military support from the Soviet Union culminated in its collapse.
As the rebels
captured key areas, a US-brokered deal saw Mengistu sent into exile in Zimbabwe,
agreement to the principle of Eritrean independence and aid on the basis of the
introduction of a ‘democratic’ political system. We can see from the figures
quoted above what has occurred, or rather not occurred since. Meles Zenawi, one
of the ‘heroic’ guerrilla leaders has been leader of the country since 1991. He
freed the country from the tyranny of a brutal Stalinist dictator in order to
usher in the tyranny and brutality of capitalism.
carries out the dirty work of US imperialism in the region. The Ethiopians are
now fighting a proxy war for the US
after the Americans were beaten back by Somalian Islamists who had occupied
parts of the country.
brutality of the Mengistu regime, the fact that he declared himself a Marxist
suited the West, despite the fact that they supported regimes in which
thousands were butchered, such as Pinochet’s Chile. However, it would be more
correct to say that he was a nationalist who due to the influence of the Soviet Union was pushed towards the gross caricature of
Marxism practised by the Stalinists, in a similar way to many other
under-developed countries in this period – as a means by which to resist
Soviet Union which degenerated under the pressures of being isolated, Ethiopia’s
regime under Mengistu was ‘deformed’ from the start. Ted Grant explained the
Marxist position with regard to Ethiopia
is a country far more backward than Russian Czarism or even pre-revolutionary China,
and is under conditions of civil war on every front. With a leadership which
takes Cuba and China
as its model, without revolutionary training, this officer leadership has moved
towards Stalinist conceptions in the course of the revolution. But we cannot
throw out the baby with the bathwater. We must separate out the enormously
progressive kernel from the reactionary wrappings. Landlordism and capitalism
have been eliminated and this decisive fact will have far-flung effects on the
whole of the African revolution in the coming epoch.’
perspective was not borne out, due to reasons which could not be foreseen, not
least the way in which Soviet Stalinism collapsed and the plunder by capitalism
that followed. However, the analysis that is outlined above reflects the
application of the Marxist method to the circumstances in which Marxists found
themselves in that period.
What holds true
is that, unlike in the West where capitalism had developed on the basis of a progressive movement by an emerging
ruling class to overthrow the old feudal order, the nascent capitalist class in
was too weak. It was too enmeshed with landlordism to carry out this
progressive role. This is the central idea of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent
revolution. He explained how it fell to the working class to lead the national
movement to overthrow feudalism and the carry out the progressive tasks of the
bourgeois revolution as part of the overthrow of capitalism.
regime on the basis of the distorted caricature of socialism offered by the
Soviet Union carried out some of these tasks, by abolishing landlordism and
those elements of capitalism that existed in Ethiopia but due to the limitations
of Stalinism were unable to carry these further.
reject the concept of democracy espoused by the capitalist class. Democracy for
them, despite any of its trimmings, means the rule of capital. Any threat to
their ability to make profits, unfettered, is met with ferocity wherever
elections, freedom of expression or worker’s struggle cannot be contained
revolutionary Marxist party operating on the basis of democratic centralism,
that is full debate and discussion with complete unity in action, would have
provided the leadership required in order for the working class to take control
of society and its resources to solve the problems of the masses. This included
the vast peasantry who cannot, due to the individualistic character of their
production, be an independently revolutionary class. Therefore the key is the
Ethiopian working class, though small.
In Russia 1917
it was not the Bolsheviks who seized power but the working class through the
Soviets – Workers’ Councils. The Bolsheviks represented the distilled essence
of the revolutionary movement of the working class. They became the leadership
of the working class through correct ideas, method and programme, tested again
and again in the heat of battle.
This factor was
absent in Ethiopia.
But the military, who lead the overthrow of the monarchy and landlordism, were
representing the pressure from the masses to find a way out of the crisis that
faced them, a famine being the most acute crisis they could face.
importantly, a genuine Marxist party would have appealed to the working class
throughout Africa and beyond to come to the aid of their Ethiopian brothers and
sisters. A genuine movement for socialism in Ethiopia would have acted as a
spur, an inspiration to those in neighbouring countries and beyond. On the
basis of this struggle the party’s appeal to internationalism could have taken
hold, turning them against their real enemy- the ruling class – encouraging revolutionary
movements in Somalia, Eritrea but more importantly in countries such as South
Africa and Egypt.
A socialist federation
of the Horn leading to an African Socialist Federation would have become a
realistic demand on this basis. Socialism cannot develop in one country. The
economic benefits of a federation, on the basis of nationalisation are plain to
see. A glimmer of this was provided by the advances made under Stalinist
Ethiopia. However, the economy would have had to be controlled democratically
by the workers and peasants through their own organisations. The lack of this
is another reason for the decline and disintegration of the Ethiopian system
and indeed that of the Soviet Union. If
Stalinism could not work in the Soviet Union with its colossal productive power,
it would never work in Ethiopia.
has to be a world system. A country or federation operating under a system of
democratic workers’ ownership and control, as a means towards building a
socialist system can only survive of a limited amount of time. Like the early Soviet Union it will come under economic and military
attack from those who wish it to remain areas for exploitation in pursuit of
profit. Lenin and Trotsky explained that the Soviet Union would be doomed if
the revolution did not spread to the countries of Europe.
explained Stalinism could be defeated in the Soviet Union
by a political revolution, in which the working class would struggle to remove
the corrupt ruling bureaucracy in order to reinstall democratic control by the
working class lead by the genuine representatives of the Marxist tradition in
the revolutionary party.
possibility that Trotsky outlined was that of the restoration of capitalism.
The collapse of Stalinism was a major set-back for the working class, despite
its crimes, but the subsequent triumphalism of capitalism rings increasingly
It is likely that
the Ethiopian Revolution could have survived had Stalinism in Europe stayed
intact. The advances made, despite the deformation of the regime, would have
had a major impact, to the benefit of the masses, on the political landscape in
Africa, as Ted Grant explained. However, on
the other hand, removal of the dead-weight of Stalinism opens up real
possibilities for genuine revolutionary change.
There have been
magnificent mass movements of workers and the poor across Africa.
Mass strikes have been a regular occurrence in Nigeria,
Egypt and South Africa. This shows the way
forward for countries that have not benefitted from the same level of
development, such as Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian Revolution could not advance to socialism without linking to a
general movement of the working class in Africa.
The hope for Ethiopia
remains the power that movement holds in its hands. When the working class move
to change society, there is no force to stop them.