Ethiopians prepare to cross out an empire: First-ever election nears

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The Independent Online
MALAWIANS waited three decades to vote. Black South Africans waited four centuries. Next weekend Ethiopians will vote for the first time in a state dating back 1,500 years.

Ethiopia is holding its first national election next Sunday, to elect representatives who will vote on a new constitution turning this ancient empire into something nearer a federation. On a system of national proportional representation, one representative will be elected for every 100,000 Ethiopians, but unlike other countries in Africa, especially South Africa, Ethiopia's parties are encouraged to represent ethnic groups rather than political platforms.

Ethiopia has a population about the same size as Britain's but covers five times the area, and much of it is only accessible by footpath or mule track.

It is also a former empire whose centre traditionally dominated about 80 'nations' - ethnic and language groups. Until 1974 it was ruled by a dynasty of emperors who claimed to trace their origins to King Solomon. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in 1974, but Mengistu Haile Mariam, his Stalinist successor, gradually assumed the ideology of empire.

Mengistu was unable to play off the regions against each other and in 1991 after a long and bloody war, he lost to an alliance of two northern nations, Eritreans fighting for a separate state, and Tigrayan Marxist Leninists.

Ethiopia's new rulers were essentially the Tigrayan revolutionaries, but as they attained power, they found allies among other groups and formed the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. They quickly switched ideologies, from Marxist Leninism to social democracy and free-market economics.

Eritrea secured independence peacefully, and Meles Zenawi and his government in Addis Ababa offered Ethiopians a new dispensation - a total restructuring of Ethiopia from feudal and military empire to democratic federation of nations, with devolution of power to the regions and the option of secession if the nations wanted to leave Ethiopia altogether.

A conference of all parties representing every ethnic group set up a Council of Representatives in 1991, and this council drew up a draft constitution which the assembly to be elected next Sunday will debate and vote on. The draft constitution proposes 14 regional governments which will administer their areas, with powers to levy taxes and plan development. Central government will be restricted to preserving the constitution, defence and foreign affairs. In theory it seems one of the freest, most open-ended political structures ever encouraged by a government.

The most vociferous enemy of the Meles government is the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a group which fought ineffectively against Mengistu. In 1992 the OLF resigned from Ethiopia's Council of Representatives and is now pursuing a low-level guerrilla war against the government.

It is difficult to understand what lies at the heart of the dispute with the OLF, but the Oromo are the one nation which could not secede. Reflecting old bitterness, the OLF still refers to Ethiopia as the Abyssinian empire and Addis Ababa by its old Oromo name of Finfin. The Oromo are scattered all over Ethiopia, and formed a sort of serf underclass in the days of the empire. They have areas but no clear-cut territory, and it would be impossible for an Oromo state to be formed without breaking up the whole country.

The OLF has recently been joined by other groups, including left-wing groups formed in the early 1970s. The government has arrested some of their members and accuses them of taking part in the Red Terror, the bloody purges which followed the overthrow of the emperor in 1974.

Two questions hang over next week's election: will it be organised better than the elections two years ago, and can the opposition muster enough forces to disrupt it? If the answers are yes and no respectively, Ethiopia will soon have one of the most liberal and developed governments in the world.