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The Ethiopian Transition: Democratization or New Authoritarianism? Marina Ottaway Georgetown University The early 1990s became the age of instant democracy in Africa in the same way as the mid-1970s were the age of instant socialist transformation . In both periods, a combination of internal pressures, the carrots offered and sticks wielded by outside supporters, and prevailing intellectual fashions led a considerable number of African regimes to proclaim their allegiance to the ideology of the moment. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to conclude that those African countries that attempted a sudden transition to a Soviet-inspired socialist model succeeded in creating only very pale replicas of the original. They put in place the formal trappings of the system, but without the substance. Governments lacked the necessary tools for political and economic control, and the underlying structural conditions did not lend themselves to the desired transformation. Without the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to reach equally firm conclusions about the success of instant democratization, but there are reasons to doubt that forced, rapid transformation can be more than a purely formal process, without content. Ethiopia provides an interesting example of a country that attempted instant socialist transformation in the 1970s and 1980s and is now purportedly engaged in an ambitious attempt at democratic transformation. The process, which started after the overthrow of the Mengistu regime in May 1991, was expected to culminate during 1995 with the elections for a new parliament.® Northeast African Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 2, No. 3 (New Series) 1995, pp. 67-84 67 68 Marina Ottaway The chances that this transformation would succeed were very remote . First, the events of the early 1990s—the period after the overthrow of the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam—suggested that the leadership was more interested in retaining its power than in bringing about democracy. They also indicated that the United States, which emerged as the main backer of the government, was also more concerned with the short-run stability of Ethiopia than with a long-run democratic transformation. Second, the conditions for a democratic transformation simply did not exist at that time in Ethiopia. The problem thus goes beyond the sincerity of President Meles Zenawi and the leadership of the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the organizations that wielded power in Ethiopia. Third, the emphasis on democratization as a purely formal process that characterized those last few years may in fact decrease the longer term prospects for a democratic transition. The Failure of Instant Democratization In May 1991, the Mengistu regime, officially committed to MarxismLeninism but relying on the military for support, was overthrown by the combined efforts of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the Tigrean People's Liberation Front. The former movement was fighting for the independence of Eritrea and after the fall of Mengistu devoted itself exclusively to governing that region, which finally became an independent country a year later. The TPLF took on the task of governing the rest of Ethiopia. The problem was not simple. The Mengistu regime had been very unpopular in its last years, but opposition to Mengistu did not translate into widespread support for the TPLF. As a Tigrean movement, the front was regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups, fearful that it would impose the rule of a minority on the entire country. Conscious of the problem, the TPLF tried to widen its support even before the fall of Mengistu, creating a coalition of ethnic movements called the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Nominally, it was the EPRDF that defeated Mengistu and took control of the country. But in the eyes of most Ethiopians—and in actual fact—the EPRDF was The Ethiopian Transition: Democratization or New Authoritarianism? 69 simply an instrument of the TPLF. The insurgent army that overthrew Mengistu was also a Tigrean one. The history of the TPLF until that time suggested that the new regime would be as socialist as the one it had overthrown. Like all other Ethiopian political organizations, the TPLF had its roots in the student movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a hot bed...


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