Toward the end of the 1980s, several crises, including famine, economic collapse, and military setbacks in Eritrea and Tigray, confronted the Derg. In addition, as democratic reform swept through the communist world, it became evident that Addis Ababa no longer could rely on its allies for support.
Ethiopia had never recovered from the previous great famine of the early 1970s, which was the result of a drought that affected most of the countries of the African Sahel. The late 1970s again brought signs of intensifying drought. By the early 1980s, large numbers of people in central Eritrea, Tigray, Welo, and parts of Gonder and Shewa were beginning to feel the effects of renewed famine.
By mid-1984 it was evident that another drought and resulting famine of major proportions had begun to affect large parts of northern Ethiopia. Just as evident was the government's inability to provide relief. The almost total failure of crops in the north was compounded by fighting in and around Eritrea, which hindered the passage of relief supplies. Although international relief organizations made a major effort to provide food to the affected areas, the persistence of drought and poor security conditions in the north resulted in continuing need as well as hazards for famine relief workers. In late 1985, another year of drought was forecast, and by early 1986 the famine had spread to parts of the southern highlands, with an estimated 5.8 million people dependent on relief food. Exacerbating the problem in 1986 were locust and grasshopper plagues.
The government's inability or unwillingness to deal with the 1984-85 famine provoked universal condemnation by the international community. Even many supporters of the Ethiopian regime opposed its policy of withholding food shipments to rebel areas. The combined effects of famine and internal war had by then put the nation's economy into a state of collapse.
The primary government response to the drought and famine was the decision to uproot large numbers of peasants who lived in the affected areas in the north and to resettle them in the southern part of the country. In 1985 and 1986, about 600,000 people were moved, many forcibly, from their home villages and farms by the military and transported to various regions in the south. Many peasants fled rather than allow themselves to be resettled; many of those who were resettled sought later to return to their native regions. Several human rights organizations claimed that tens of thousands of peasants died as a result of forced resettlement (see The Politics of Resettlement, ch. 4).
Another government plan involved villagization, which was a response not only to the famine but also to the poor security situation. Beginning in 1985, peasants were forced to move their homesteads into planned villages, which were clustered around water, schools, medical services, and utility supply points to facilitate distribution of those services. Many peasants fled rather than acquiesce in relocation, which in general proved highly unpopular. Additionally, the government in most cases failed to provide the promised services. Far from benefiting agricultural productivity, the program caused a decline in food production. Although temporarily suspended in 1986, villagization was subsequently resumed.
In March 1988, the EPLF initiated one of its most successful military campaigns by striking at Ethiopian army positions on the Nakfa front north of the town of Afabet, where the Derg had established a base for a new attack against the insurgents. In two days of fighting, the Eritrean rebels annihilated three Ethiopian army divisions, killing or capturing at least 18,000 government troops and seizing large amounts of equipment, including armor and artillery. Subsequently, the town of Afabet, with its military stores, fell to the EPLF, which then threatened all remaining Ethiopian military concentrations in northern Eritrea.
The Ethiopian army's defeat in Eritrea came after setbacks during the preceding week in Tigray. Using the same tactics employed by the EPLF, the TPLF preempted a pending Ethiopian offensive in Tigray with a series of attacks on government positions there in early March. A government attack against central Tigray failed disastrously, with four Ethiopian army divisions reportedly destroyed and most of their equipment captured. In early April, the TPLF took the town of Adigrat in northern Tigray, cutting the main road link between Addis Ababa and Eritrea.
The March 1988 defeats of the Ethiopian army were catastrophic in terms of their magnitude and crippling in their effect on government strategy in Eritrea and Tigray. The capability of government forces in both regions collapsed as a result. Subsequently, Ethiopian government control of Eritrea was limited to the Keren-Asmera-Mitsiwa triangle and the port of Aseb to the southeast. The TPLF's victories in Tigray ultimately led to its total conquest by the rebels and the expansion of the insurgency into Gonder, Welo, and even parts of Shewa the following year.
On September 10, 1987, after thirteen years of military rule, the nation officially became the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) under a new constitution providing for a civilian government. The PMAC was abolished, and in June of that year Ethiopians had elected the National Shengo (National Assembly), a parliament. Despite these changes, members of the now-defunct Derg still ran the government but with different titles. For example, the National Shengo elected Mengistu to be the country's first civilian president; he remained, however, the WPE's general secretary. Other high-ranking Derg and WPE members received similar posts in the new government, including the Derg deputy chairman, Fikre-Selassie Wogderes, who became Ethiopia's prime minister, and Fisseha Desta, WPE deputy general secretary, who became the country's vice president.
Despite outward appearances, little changed in the way the country was actually run. Old Derg members still were in control, and the stated mission of the WPE allowed continued close supervision by the government over much of the urban population. Despite the granting of "autonomy" to Eritrea, Aseb, Tigray, Dire Dawa, and the Ogaden, the 1987 constitution was ambiguous on the question of self- determination for national groups such as the Eritreans, except within the framework of the national government. And although the constitution contained provisions to protect the rights of citizens, the power of peasant associations and kebeles was left intact.
The Soviet Union policies changed toward its allies among the developing countries in the late 1980s--changes that appeared likely to result in significant reductions in it's hitherto extensive support of Ethiopia. By then it was evident that the Soviet-Ethiopian relationship had undergone a fundamental reorientation. The change was partly the result of the new directions in Soviet foreign policy undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev. But other contributing factors were strong undercurrents of Soviet disapproval of Ethiopia's conduct of its internal affairs and of Addis Ababa's inability to make effective use of the aid that Moscow sent. The implications of this changed policy for Ethiopia were likely to be profound, inasmuch as continued high levels of military assistance were vital to the pursuit of Mengistu's military solution in Eritrea as well as to the fight against other internal insurgencies.
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The literature on Ethiopia is relatively rich and deep, the consequence of Ethiopia's indigenous written tradition, mostly in Gi'iz, and of the extraordinary interest in the country shown by Europeans over the last five centuries. For the early historical period, two works are fundamental: Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity by Stuart Munro-Hay, and Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527 by Taddesse Tamrat. Each is the best work on its respective subject and period and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. In nearly the same league is John Spencer Trimingham's Islam in Ethiopia, a standard work and a starting point for the history, culture, and religion of Ethiopia's Muslim peoples, despite its age (published in 1952).
A comprehensive, up-to-date survey of the country remains to be written, but an older work by Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People (1973), is still quite useful, despite its emphasis on the northern, Semitic-speaking population. As a supplement, the reader might consult the relevant chapters in the eight volumes of The Cambridge History of Africa, edited by J.D. Fage and Roland Oliver. Two books by Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia and the Red Sea and Ethiopia: The Era of the Princes, cover subjects or periods otherwise almost totally neglected, including trade, commerce, and the contributions of the Oromo. Richard K. Pankhurst's Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935 contains a wealth of information on a wide variety of topics, as do other works by this scholar. Two books by Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold and Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society, provide stimulating and at times provocative analyses of Amhara, Tigray, and (in the latter volume) Oromo cultures but should be consulted only after basics in the field have been mastered. A highly useful reference is the Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia by Chris Prouty and Eugene Rosenfeld, which provides a lexicon of Ethiopian topics as well as an extensive bibliography.
Bahru Zewde's A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1974 surveys the last century of imperial rule, with an emphasis on the twentieth century. Two biographical histories on nineteenth-century emperors are recommended: Yohannes IV of Ethiopia by Zewde Gabre-Sellassie, and The Life and Times of Menelik II by Harold G. Marcus. The following are among outstanding works on the reign of Haile Selassie: George W. Baer's The Coming of the Italian-Ethiopian War; Christopher S. Clapham's Haile Selassie's Government; John Markakis's Ethiopia: Anatomy of a Traditional Polity; and Harold G. Marcus's Haile Selassie I: The Formative Years, 1892-1936. A new work by Gebru Tareke, Ethiopia: Power and Protest, analyzes three major peasant revolts and the response of the imperial government.
An excellent discussion of contemporary Ethiopia that treats both the Haile Selassie era and the revolutionary years is Ethiopia: Transition and Development in the Horn of Africa by Mulatu Wubneh and Yohannis Abate. Among the best sources on the military government and its policies are Marina and David Ottaway's Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution, still the basic source on the early years of the Derg, and Christopher S. Clapham's Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia. Among periodicals, the Journal of African History and Northeast African Studies are particularly valuable for scholarly coverage of Ethiopia and the Horn. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)
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