ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, June 1977


Notes of the Month

Ethiopia: Class Struggle Intensity


From International Socialism (1st series), No.99, June 1977, pp.5-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


FEBRUARY 1974 marked the effective fall of the autocratic regime of Hailie Selassie. Mutinies in the army, student demonstrations and a strike-wave whose high-point was the general strike of March 1974 unleashed a revolution whose end is still not in sight. The causes of the revolution were the great famine in which 600,000 peasants are estimated to have died in one province alone, inflation, the corruption and brutality of the regime and the war of national liberation in Eritrea.

The revolution threw into power a military regime called the Derg, ostensibly pledged to socialism and even Marxism-Leninism. The possibilities for change seemed tremendous.

1976 was another famine year. The world economic crisis has fuelled continued inflation. The war in Eritrea goes on. And the Derg is implementing a policy of repression aimed especially at the workers’ movement which makes the Selassie regime appear tolerant by comparison.

The Derg celebrated May day this year by massacring an estimated 1,500 demonstrators at an anti-government rally in the capital Abbis Ababa. Nor was this an isolated incident. On February 25 a leading militant in the Addis Abbaba Cement Factory was hauled out and shot. The next day 25 workers from the same factory were rounded up for refusing to identify revolutionaries on the shop floor. 44 political prisoners were executed that day.

Shortly after the Mayday massacre, the Ehiopian dictator, Lieutenant-Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam arrived in Moscow. He was welcomed with open arms by the Soviet leadership. President Podgorny declared his support for the Derg against the forces of ‘internal counter-revolution’ and said that ‘recent developments’ showed that Ethiopia was progressing ‘along the socialist path’. (After all, Stalin built ‘socialism in one country’ on the corpse of millions – why not Mengistu?)

The Struggle for the Red Sea

Underlying the hand of friendship (and military assistance) extended to the Derg by the Russian bureaucracy lies a crude political and military calculation. Ethiopia is in a crucial strategic position. The Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab provide access to the Red Sea, and thus to a zone dominated by the oil rulers of Saudi Arabia and their allies, Presidents Sadat of Egypt and Numeiry of Sudan, that is vital to American interests in the Arab East.

The Soviet Union’s traditional ally in the area is Somalia, which has received large amounts of military and economic assistance, while the Derg continued the defence agreement concluded with the US by Haile Selassie as well as Ethiopia’s traditional close links with Israel. Somalia claims the Ogaden region of south-east Ethiopia and looks set to dominate the French colony of the Affar and Issas when it becomes independent on June 27. Since the colony’s port, Djibouti, takes 60 per cent of Ethiopia’s imports, independence for the Affar and Issas could be followed by war between Ethiopia and Somalia.

Meanwhile, powerful forces are driving towards a reversal of alignments in the area. As the Financial Times put it,

‘the conservative Arab states, marshalled by Saudi Arabia and including Egypt, Sudan and Syria, want to create a band of Arab or Muslim states along the shores of the Red Sea and its approaches. Such an alignment would be broadly pro-Western and would exclude both Soviet and Israeli influence from the coast.’ (May 2 1977)

The Saudi alliance’s main target is the Ethiopian regime. The predominantly Muslim Ethiopian Liberation Front (ELF) is armed and financed by the Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Gulf states. Sudan is the main backer of the right-wing Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) that operates in Gondar, Tigre and Gojjam provinces. As we reported last month, the Arab rulers are also trying to prise Somalia out of its alliance with Moscow, offering President Siad Barre oil money if he will ‘do a Sadat’ and kick out the Russians.

Meanwhile, the Russians themselves have seized the opportunity provided by the Carter administration’s decision on coming into office to cut its losses and cease military aid to the Derg. In March Fidel Castro visited Addis Ababa and Cuban troops are reported to be training the 200,000 peasant militia which Mengistu is assembling to reconquer the rebellious northern provinces (US opposition to a similar attempt last year, which ended in humiliating defeat at the hands of the Eritrean guerillas, was one factor in the Derg‘s breach with Washington). Meanwhile an arms agreement with the Soviet Union worth 100 million dollars is said to have been signed.

The Kremlin will have difficulties reconciling its two allies. There have been reports that Moscow has proposed a compromise under which the Derg will hand over at least part of Ogaden to Barre, who will in exchange guarantee Ethiopian access to Djibouti. There are even rumours that Russia is trying to patch up an understanding between Mengistu and the leftish Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) (Sunday Times and Observer, May 8 1977).

Such a deal would be very difficult to pull off, especially in the light of the Derg‘s extreme nationalism. The following remarks, said to have been made by a Soviet diplomat to a Somali, are an indication of whom the Russians will back if they are forced to choose and of the principled internationalism that will guide their choice:

‘Mengistu Haile Mariam is a good boy. If socialism wins in Ethiopia we will have 30 million friends there plus the ports of Assab and Massawa. You Somalis are only 3 million.’ (The Economist, May 14 1977)

If this is an accurate guide to Moscow’s thinking, its intellectual camp followers in the West like Basil Davidson will find themselves in some difficulty explaining away their articles praising Somalia’s ‘road to socialism’.

The Derg, Eritrea and the EPRP

THE Russians are putting their money on a regime whose social base is very narrow. The Derg has been riven by bitter internal struggles. It was only in February that Mengistu established absolute power, executing the head of state, Brigadier Teferi Bante, and six other officials.

These struggles reflect the nature of the Ethiopian state. The country is an amalgamation of diverse nationalities largely unified by the conquering armies of the Emperor Menelik II at the end of the nineteenth century. The empire was dominated by a feudal oligarchy of Amharic nobles based in Shoa province, to whom the emperor assigned vast estates in the south of the country.

The first, and most powerful, blow to the integrity of the Ethiopian state was struck by the Eritrean independence movement. Eritrea, colonised by the Italians in the 1880s, was handed over to Haile Selassie by Britain and the UN in 1952. In 1958 the ELF was founded and three years later it opted for armed struggle. The burden of the war, the crushing defeats inflicted on the regime’s forces by the Eritreans and disaffection created as a result in the Ethiopian army helped to bring down the autocracy.

The Derg is committed to preserving the unity of Ethiopia. The declaration of policy it published on December 20 1974 states that ‘it is the sacred duty of this generation of Ethiopians to maintain and strengthen the unity of Ethiopia’.

As a result, the war in Eritrea continues, despite the victories of the independence movement. Opposition to the Derg has bred separatist movements in other provinces. Most important is the leftist Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), closely linked to the EPLF and based among the poor peasants of a province that has close ethnic and historical connections with Eritrea.

The contradictions involved in preserving the unity of Ethiopia has caused bitter conflicts within the Derg. The main division seems to run between the representatives of the Shoan oligarchy, still strongly entrenched in the state machine, and those officers like Mengistu drawn from non-Amharic nationalities excluded from participation in power under the emperors. The former have shown themselves more prepared to reach a compromise over Eritrea.

Internally the regime’s policies amount to a mild dose of state capitalism. The Declaration on Economic Policy of Socialist Ethiopia, published on February 7 1975, opts for state control of the economy. However, it adds, ‘foreign private investment will be given ample opportunities in many spheres of economic activity and will be assured fair and adequate returns’. The Land Proclamation Act promulgated the same month has far from solved the agrarian problem that is the burning question for the poor peasants who are the vast majority of the population. The 1976 famine was aggravated by the fact that rich peasants, many of them former landowners still permitted part of their estates under the land reform, hoarded grain.

But the enemy for whom the Derg has reserved the utmost savagery is the workers’ movement. The fall of Hailie Selassie unleashed a tremendous upsurge among urban workers and townspeople. Out of that movement emerged the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP).

The EPRP, declared in August 1975, drew its support initially from the student movement that formed one of the main centres of opposition to Hailie Selassie. Its politics are Maoist: it calls for a ‘People’s Democratic Republic’ as the first, ‘national-democratic’, stage in the Ethiopian revolution and advocates a ‘broad united front’ of ‘all feudal and anti-imperialist forces’ ‘under the leadership of the proletariat.’ Its demands include the formation of a people’s militia, the transfer of rural land to the poor and middle peasants and the right of self-determination for all nationalities.

One factor in the wave of repression launched against the workers’ movement seems to have been the EPRP’s growing influence. In September 1975 the Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions (CELU), which had called the general strike of March 1974 and advocated workers’ control of state-owned firms, passed a resolution calling for the replacement of the Derg by a ‘popular provisional government’. It was immediately banned, its leaders arrested or driven underground, and a number of airport workers killed. Mengistu has tried to replace CELU with the stooge All-Ethiopian Labour Union, although workers’ militancy continues unabated.

The programme of extermination of the EPRP began in earnest in November 1976 when a number of members of its Youth League were massacred. Some of its leaders have also been killed. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Army (EPRA), the party’s armed wing, has retaliated with urban guerilla actions.

The outcome of the Ethiopian crisis is difficult to predict, given the complexity of the forces involved. But nowhere more dramatically than Ethiopia, where in 1972 manufacturing industry employed less than one per cent of the population, has the central role of the working class in the ‘Third World’ countries been revealed. Hailie Selassie was brought down by a general strike; the workers’ movement remains the most important centre of domestic opposition to the Derg. It holds the key to the future of Ethiopia, and with it of the region of which Ethiopia is the heart.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 23.3.2008