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History, Resistance and Revolution

Amhara people, EPLF, EPRDF, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopian army

Despite its reorganization, the Mengistu government continued to be viewed by many as illegitimate, and by 1987 opposition groups such as the EPLF and the TPLF, which had been driven underground a decade earlier, emerged as revitalized and better organized military organizations. Over the next two years, the Ethiopian army suffered an increasing number of defeats, and its forces became demoralized. The EPLF regained control of most of Eritrea, and the TPLF captured the entire Tigray region and began operations in surrounding regions.

Beginning in the late 1970s Ethiopia suffered from a series of droughts, which progressively lowered agricultural production. A prolonged drought between 1984 and 1986 plunged the country into famine. The embattled northern regions of Ethiopia were hardest hit by the drought. Under an ill-planned resettlement program, the government forcibly relocated about 600,000 northerners to the south. The protracted civil war and the government’s mistrust of Westerners hampered worldwide efforts to provide food and medical aid to the inhabitants of Ethiopia. During the 1980s an estimated 1 million Ethiopians died from starvation as a result of famine.

In the late 1980s Ethiopia lost the support of the Soviet Union, which had become dissatisfied with Ethiopia’s political and economic development under Mengistu. Faced with economic and military shortages, the government was forced to devise a political solution to its problems. The Ethiopian national assembly called for unconditional peace talks with the EPLF in June 1989, and later agreed to similar talks with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an umbrella organization headed by the TPLF. Even as these talks proceeded, the opposition forces acquired more and more territory. In February 1990 the EPLF mounted a major drive aimed at capturing the Eritrean port city of Massawa, the entry point for much of the food and military supplies coming into Ethiopia. By the middle of the month it had overrun the city, dealing a decisive blow to the Ethiopian army. A year later the EPRDF had encircled Addis Ababa in the country’s heartland. The Ethiopian army lost its will to fight, and the country’s political leaders conceded defeat. In May 1991 the EPLF took complete control of Eritrea, Mengistu fled the country, and the EPRDF took control of Addis Ababa.

The EPRDF, led by Meles Zenawi, set up a national transitional government in Addis Ababa, and the EPLF established a provisional government in Eritrea. After a referendum in 1993, Eritrea declared its independence, and Ethiopia recognized the new Eritrean government. In June 1994 Ethiopian voters elected representatives to a Constituent Assembly, charged with writing a new democratic constitution. The EPRDF won 484 out of 547 seats in the assembly. A new constitution granting special rights to different ethnic groups in Ethiopia was ratified in December, and became effective in August 1995. In May 1995 a new legislative body, the Council of People’s Representatives, was elected, with the majority of seats going to the EPRDF. In August the Constituent Assembly officially transferred power to the new legislature, and the country was renamed the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In the same month the legislature elected Meles as the country’s prime minister. He was reelected in October 2000.

Some ethnic groups, including segments of the Oromo and Amhara people, remain displeased with the Ethiopian government and consider it as illegitimate as the one that preceded it. The most vigorous opposition has come from the Ogaden region of southeastern Ethiopia, where Islamic fundamentalist Somali rebels, supported by Somali kinsmen, have battled for the region’s independence since before the overthrow of Mengistu. In late 1996 the Ethiopian army attacked rebel bases in Somalia, killing more than 200 Somali rebels.

In 1994 Ethiopian courts began criminal proceedings against members and supporters of Mengistu’s regime for offenses committed during and after the years of the Red Terror. By 1997 more than 5,000 suspects had been charged with war crimes such as torture, murder, and genocide. Prosecution began in 1996 against 73 Derg members, 23 of whom, including Mengistu, were tried in absentia. The Ethiopian government has attempted to extradite Mengistu from Zimbabwe, where he lives in exile. Human rights groups have criticized the fact that many of the suspects in custody—who total more than 2,000—have been in prison without trial since 1991.

In mid-1998 clashes broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea along the countries’ border, with each side accusing the other of seizing territory. The border had not been precisely delineated when Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993. By early 1999 hundreds of thousands of troops had been sent to the border, and the dispute had become a bitter war. Tens of thousands of soldiers died in the fighting before a cease-fire was declared in June 2000. In December Eritrea and Ethiopia, under the auspices of the UN, signed a peace agreement that formally ended the war and established a commission to demarcate the border between the countries.



Article key phrases:

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