Ethiopia: which way forward?

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’.

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 one-party regime.

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. 

The Supreme 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 Arabia, France and the UK are major ‘investors’ in the country and along with Japan and Germany 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 Africa? 

Socialists would 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 Eritrea 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! 

Selassie’s 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 payments deficit. 

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 of Ethiopia. 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. Somalia’s nationalist 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 interests. 

Mengistu’s 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. 

However, the 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. 

The government’s 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 services needed. 

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. 

Ethiopia today carries out the dirty work of US imperialism in the region. The Ethiopians are now fighting a proxy war for the US in Somalia after the Americans were beaten back by Somalian Islamists who had occupied parts of the country. 

Given the 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 imperial domination. 

Unlike the 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 in 1978, 

‘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.’ 

Ted’s 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 Ethiopia 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. 

The Mengistu 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. 

Socialists 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 sufficiently. 

A genuine 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. 

Most 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. 

Ultimately, socialism 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. 

As Trotsky 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. 

The other 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 hollow. 

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. 

Source: Socialist Appeal