As early as 1976, the Soviet Union had encouraged Addis Ababa's new leaders to create a civilian-based vanguard party. The Ethiopian head of state and leader of the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC; also known as the Derg--see Glossary), Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, initially had resisted, arguing that the revolution had taken place without such a party and that there was no need for haste in creating one. However, in the late 1970s, in the wake of the regime's near collapse under the weight of armed opposition to its rule, Mengistu believed the creation of a vanguard party would accomplish the regime's goals of gaining political control over the general population and of securing popular legitimacy. Therefore, in December 1979 Mengistu announced the creation of the Commission to Organize the Party of the Workers of Ethiopia (COPWE).
The establishment of mass organizations, such as the All- Ethiopia Trade Union, the All-Ethiopia Urban Dwellers' Association, and the All-Ethiopia Peasants' Association, preceded the creation of COPWE. The Revolutionary Ethiopia Youth Association, the Revolutionary Ethiopia Women's Association, the Working People's Control Committees, and various professional associations were instituted after COPWE's establishment. The idea behind the proliferation of mass organizations was to create a party that would neutralize "narrow nationalism," or sectarianism, and that would be based on broad, yet clearly defined, class interests. In response to the fiasco that resulted from efforts to create a union of Marxist-Leninist organizations in the mid-1970s, the Derg determined that the party should be one of individuals, not of political organizations. To the extent that individual interests were represented, this was to be done through mass organizations.
Mass organizations not only represented their membership at party congresses but also guarded their interests on an everyday basis. The mass organizations had educational and developmental roles. The basic units of political consciousness and involvement, then, would be party cells at work sites or in mass organizations. Individuals could belong to more than one mass organization at a time.
In determining COPWE membership, the regime tried to give the impression that a broadly representative organization had been created. Between 1,200 and 1,500 delegates from all regions and all walks of life attended the three congresses. However, the diversity of the delegates was questionable. For example, at COPWE's first congress, in 1980, more than a third of the delegates were members of the armed forces or residents of the Addis Ababa area.
The first congress unveiled the membership of the COPWE Central Committee and the Secretariat. The Secretariat, which was supervised by the top Derg leadership, consisted mainly of civilian ideologues. The Secretariat was responsible for the day-to-day administration of Central Committee business. Regional branches under the direction of military officers in each region complemented COPWE's central leadership. However, the positions of chief regional administrator and COPWE representative were divided in late 1981, with the party posts assuming greater importance. Within a year of the first congress, it was clear that COPWE was being transformed into a party that could be used by the state as an instrument of control.
By mid-1983 the COPWE bureaucracy stretched from the national center to the fourteen regions and thence to the subregional level, to peasant associations and urban dwellers' associations (kebeles--see Glossary), and on down to the party cell level. At that time, there were an estimated 6,500 COPWE party cells, with a total membership estimated at 30,000 to 50,000.
Party membership, however, was not open to all. The main criterion for acceptability was loyalty to the regime rather than ideological sophistication. Although Mengistu had stressed the need for ideological purity and for only a few "committed communists," concern over ideological purity appeared to be a facade for the Derg's efforts to neutralize or preempt its opponents and thus establish the party's exclusive role in defining the normative order.
Once COPWE was in place, the Derg projected itself into the most important sectors of the central bureaucracy. Derg members served as the administrators of twelve of the fourteen regions. An additional thirty Derg members took up influential posts in subregional administration and in central ministries. After 1978 the presence of military personnel in the bureaucracy expanded so greatly that not only members of the Derg but also other trusted military men served in such roles.
The organizational model followed by COPWE was Soviet inspired. Even though there was tension between self-styled communists and nationalists in the Derg, there was an understanding that their collective position as a ruling group was unassailable. This could be seen in the distribution of power within COPWE. The most important policy-making bodies in COPWE were the Executive Committee, whose seven members all came from the Derg, and the Central Committee, which consisted of ninety-three full members and thirty alternates. Of the 123 members of the Central Committee, seventy-nine were military men or police officers. There were at least twenty Derg members in this group, and others held important regional posts in the bureaucracy as well as in COPWE. At the time of COPWE's demise, military personnel represented more than 50 percent of the congress that established the vanguard party.
The government announced the formation of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE) on September 12, 1984, the tenth anniversary of the revolution. Regional and local COPWE branches were transformed into WPE instruments, and it was announced that party congresses would be held at five-year intervals. These congresses would be responsible for electing the party Central Committee, a body of 183 members as of 1987. The Central Committee normally met twice a year. Among its duties was the election of the WPE's Political Bureau, the general secretary, and members of the WPE Secretariat. However, the Central Committee was too large and diverse to serve as an effective decision-making body. Although in the late 1980s more than half of the Central Committee's full members were former police or former military personnel, the Central Committee also included peasants, workers, trade union members, and representatives of various mass organizations.
The WPE Political Bureau had eleven full members and six alternate members. The Derg's Standing Committee and the COPWE Executive Committee had comprised the Derg's seven most influential members. The additional four members appointed to the WPE were two civilian ideologues and two career technocrats, who in the years leading up to the WPE's inauguration had become responsible for the day-to-day direction of party matters and who evidently had Mengistu's confidence.
The WPE's Political Bureau was the country's most important decision-making body. Although the Political Bureau's decisions were always made in secret, there was evidence that General Secretary Mengistu's wishes generally prevailed, no matter what the opposition. One observer suggested that whatever power or influence other Political Bureau members exerted was owed more to their closeness to Mengistu than to any formal positions they might occupy or to their personal qualities. The Political Bureau, therefore, was little more than a forum for the articulation of policies already determined personally by Mengistu.
The paramount position of the WPE was enshrined in the 1987 constitution, which stated that the party should be "the formulator of the country's development process and the leading force of the state and in society." Indeed, the WPE had become more important than the central government in determining the direction of national and local policies. Local party leaders sometimes possessed a great deal of latitude in determining approaches to policy in their regions as long as their decisions did not conflict with objectives determined in Addis Ababa. At the national level, highly politicized party representatives often exercised greater influence than the Western-trained bureaucrats in government ministries. It appeared that the government bureaucracy had to follow the lead of the party and often found its policies and procedures overridden by political decisions.
At the national level, individuals from the military, the government bureaucracy, and those ethnic groups (especially Amhara and Tigray) that had historically endorsed the notion of a unitary, "Greater Ethiopia" dominated the WPE. However, below the level of the regional first secretary of the WPE, the military and ethnic origins of party leadership became less important.
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