Consensus and Dissent in the Horn of Africa

Consensus and Dissent in the Horn of Africa

January, 1994


Dale Bricker and
Leah Leatherbee Horn of Africa Program
The Fund for Peace
823 United Nations Plaza
New York, New York 10017
Fax: 212-661-5904


Perhaps more than anywhere else on the continent, the "Horn" of Africa has repeatedly drawn the world's attention since antiquity. In Africa's northeastern corner, facing the Arabian Peninsula, it has served as a primary point of contact between sub-Saharan peoples and the cultures of Western Asia and the Mediterranean region. Though earliest Egyptian pharaohs had slaves, gold, and wild animals brought from the faraway South for their use and amusement, their hapless successors' dynasties later were deposed as Nubians swept up from that same Sudanese region to reign over a united Nile. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus chronicled the classical world's fascination with the Land of Punt, today's Somali and Eritrean coasts, where trading centers collected ivory, ostrich feathers, and myrrh for export north to the Mediterranean. Medieval crusaders sent emissaries to the fabled land of Prester John and his Christian Kingdom, now known as Ethiopia, entreating the king there to join in their war to win the Holy Land from the Saracens.

Five hundred years later, in a challenge to the growing British Empire in Africa, the Sudanese forces of the Mahdi temporarily wrested Khartoum from its Anglo-Egyptian occupiers. The garrison's slain commander, General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, was immortalized in imperial history as having tried to confront the forces of indigenous Sudanese "fanaticism." More recently, the world took note as the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 sent a fleeing Emperor Haile Selassie on his famous but fruitless mission to the League of Nations to plead for assistance. Here, at least the African was sympathetically viewed as the injured party.

In the last two decades, however,the dubious romance of distant battles in distant lands has been replaced by the immediate images of starving African children on the TV screens of the West. To the sway of "We are the World," Americans and Europeans in 1985-86 and again four years later were entreated by international pop stars to help relieve famine in Ethiopia, famine exacerbated, if not caused, by the deliberate policies of a well-fed but dogmatic Ethiopian regime. In succeeding years the media focus shifted from weakened and dying Ethiopians to those in similar condition within Sudan and then Somalia. Are the nations of northeastern Africa truly the world's "basket cases," as Western media pundits so glibly assert?

The sad history of all the countries of the Horn since independence from European colonialism---Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Somali---is one of violent repression and insurgency. Regimes have too often been de facto before they were de jure. However governments in the region came to power extralegally, in practically every case they have been dislodged by force. In almost forty years of post-colonial history in the region, the examples of one administration peacefully succeeding another after winning free elections can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

In such a milieu, it comes as no surprise that regimes that themselves seized power have tried to make certain that the rise of challenges to their supremacy from any quarter was prevented. Strongman presidents prefer submissive legislatures, and have often ensured submissiveness by hand-picking the legislative candidates. In a day and age where single-party rule is out of vogue internationally, the former single parties are forced to rig elections so that they will get at least a comfortable majority if not every seat. Judges assure their tenure by handing down pre-determined convictions in political cases. "Checks and balances" between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the state is a quaint concept at best. And independent organizations rising out of civil society have also provided ineffective counterweight to the power of the chief of state and the circle around him. They are either banned outright and forced underground, or carefully monitored to make certain that they are apolitical and remain so.

"Civil society" is the aggregate of independent interest groups existing within a country. These groups may organize by affinity (women's groups, labor unions, professional associations, religious societies), or merely temporarily come together, as in a public demonstration or private gathering to pursue common ends. The level of development of civil society is often regarded as an indicator of how democratic a country is. Authoritarian regimes concerned with their international reputations often try to give the illusion of a thriving civil society of creating their own official organizations specifically to mobilize the population in public support of regime-formulated goals. A related phenomenon of recent vintage is the so-called "GONGO," or government-organized 'non-governmental organization.' Its task is to express public solidarity with its regime at international fora even while claiming to be a representative of independent society.

The size of the space in which civil society is allowed to operate is determined by the extent to which those at the top have a project other than maintaining their hold on power and assuring their opportunities for self-enrichment. In situations where officials limit themselves to these objectives, independent groups that do not challenge the status quo are often allowed to form and operate without significant interference. Good citizenship under such regimes consists of dutifully turning out for show elections, but otherwise keeping one's nose out of political affairs, the exclusive preserve of those ruling the country. In other situations where rulers wish to entirely remake society along particular lines, little or no opening is permitted for citizens to freely organize themselves into groups of common interest. Only the state itself is permitted to create organizations. The intent, then, is not to depoliticize civil society, but to destroy it.

The constriction or abolition of civil society is a grave violation of civil and political rights in itself, but official abuse may worsen if people step forward to disrupt the deceptively calm atmosphere of effective repression. Even where this opposition is nonviolent and the regime merely wishes to be left alone to its corruption, the few individuals who openly challenge the policies or legitimacy of the authorities, or worse yet join with others to do so, court harassment, imprisonment, torture, or worse. The regime will take whatever measures it deems necessary to protect itself. At the same time, however, those regimes heavily dependent on Western aid may institute cosmetic reforms like the legalization of multipartyism, the promulgation of a new constitution, the appointment of compliant members of various religious or ethnic groups to visible positions in the government, or the ratification of international covenants of human rights, all in an attempt to mislead the international and national communities.

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In this article we intend not only to look at the balance of power between civil society and the state in the countries of the Horn, but also how the relationship between consensus and dissent is handled in each. In any healthy society there must be both a search for consensus and a tolerance for dissent. These requirements hold for both a government and its political opposition. Since differences of opinion are natural in any society, the never-ending search for consensus must not be one in which "unanimity" is imposed by a state. Nor can the search for consensus be stymied from the start by an unwillingness to compromise, perhaps by a well-meaning government that has taken offense at being verbally demonized by its opposition, or by an opposition with a preference for getting none rather than only half of its demands met.

Tolerance for dissent means, ultimately, the willingness of officials to permit nonviolent activities, even when they are designed to bring about a peaceful transition of power to replace the government. It also means forbearance in the face of disagreeable expressions of opinion, a type of forbearance absent in laws that make criticism of the regime and its institutions criminal libel. As well, such tolerance means the willingness of an opposition to permit others to freely reject its line and choose another, either in support of the government or in favor of a third way. In short, it is clear that a society in which there is a search for true consensus and tolerance for dissent is one in which fundamental human rights are respected by all. Given the record of rights abuse in the Horn of Africa, it should be no surprise that accommodation and respect for others have usually been in short supply.

We intend to review the human rights situations, and their contexts, in five of the six territories in the Horn of Africa. Because the situation in Somalia proper has been the subject of considerable examination and analysis over the past few years, and since this review is written only a few months before the completion of the American troop withdrawal by throws everything into question once again, we have decided to put off an examination of conditions there. Rather, we seek both to draw attention to conditions in places either little known or sporadically remembered by the outside world.


Sudan, Africa's largest country, physically straddles both the continent's Arab North and its sub-Saharan South, enclosing within its borders a diversity of landscape reaching from the Nubian desert south nearly to equatorial jungle. Unfortunately, its history since independence in 1956 demonstrates that successive Sudanese regimes have been unable to accommodate the diverseness of their people with the same inclusivity. Every government has been controlled by the predominantly Muslim North at the expense of the mostly Christian and animist African South. Discrimination against non-Arabs and non-Muslims, as well as aggressive attempts to assimilate and more recently to eradicate them, have occurred under military and civilian administrations alike. A civil war raging in the South is rooted in the gross inequities found in the distribution of resources and political power, as well as the state's ominous efforts to impose a national Arabo-Islamic identity. As politically inspired violence has spread to other parts of the country, it is only the ideological fervor and brutality of the current regime that sets it apart from its predecessors.

Sudan's history is unique in the region, in that it has experienced several periods of democracy brought about in large part by popular uprisings that overthrew military regimes. Although these periods were marked by serious human rights abuses and social injustice for a significant percentage of the population (namely the South and marginalized regions in the west and central parts of the country), opposition was tolerated, if grudgingly. There was an independent judiciary and press, a thriving academic community, and a number of civic organizations, including ones that monitored human rights, and a handful of activists working in their individual capacity.

All this changed on June 30, 1989, when Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir overthrew the elected government of Sadiq el-Mahdi and imposed martial law. Bashir's coup was soon discovered to be driven by the National Islamic Front (NIF), a politico-religious party whose agenda was nothing short of the complete restructuring of society according to a narrow vision of Islamic law and culture. Though in free and fair balloting the NIF probably would not have been able to muster much more than the seventeen percent of the vote it received in the 1986 election, the party over a 25-year period had developed a strangle-hold on significant sectors of the economy and the allegiance of a small group of military officers. With the assistance of the officers in a ruling military council and the advantage of significant public disaffection with the previous government, it was well placed to thwart peace with the South and begin the process of Islamization. To accomplish this, the NIF-backed Bashir regime has systematically decimated civil society and quashed any semblance of dissent.

Efforts to impose total authority over Sudanese institutions and society began immediately after the coup with the banning of all political parties, labor unions, professional associations and independent institutions of civil society. In most cases, the assets of these institutions were seized and the regime created surrogates, GONGOs which masquerade as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in their stead. "Elections" in the new National Assembly, unions, and universities have become charades characterized by government-approved slates of candidates and rigged voting procedures. Labor activity in particular has been effectively paralyzed, as the regime has forced unions to operate on the basis of workplace rather than trade. With different trades within the same workplace having different and sometimes opposing interests, effective organizing and representation is made difficult.

Control of the judiciary has been transferred to the Ministry of Justice, and the chief justice, formerly elected by sitting judges, is now appointed by the regime. The result: more than 300 judges considered "ideologically unacceptable" have been replaced by NIF loyalists often unqualified to sit as jurists. Freedom of speech, press, assembly and association have been suspended and all private newspapers have been banned. Mail is opened and censored. 'Popular committees' serve as the eyes and ears of the government on the most local level, monitoring the population and informing on suspicious activities. Proselytizing by Muslims is allowed but proselytizing of Muslims is a crime, and apostasy by Muslims incurs the death penalty. Even mosques showing insufficient enthusiasm for the NIF have been "nationalized."

A vast and complicated security apparatus has been established with separate branches controlled by the government, the army and the NIF, and supplemented by the Popular Defense Forces (PDF), various tribal militias armed by the government, the regular police, the "morality" police, and the "popular committees." With the possible exception of the popular committees and the regular police, these security bodies enjoy extensive powers, if vaguely defined, enforcing a new social order based on a militant Islamic and Arab identity that is alienating even most Muslims in the country. The new system is maintained through: forced depopulation and relocation campaigns referred to by many as ethnic cleansing; disappearances and extrajudicial executions; the widespread use of detention and torture in notorious "ghost houses"; and mass purges from civil, judicial and military posts (with new appointments to office based solely on political loyalties)." Reports of Sudanese tortured to death, or executed by such means as crucifixion, continue to surface.

In the South and other marginalized parts of the country, particularly in the rural areas and war zones where there are no foreigners to witness the atrocities, abuses are unparalleled. Young fundamentalist zealots are sent to the South with instructions to wage jihad., or holy war, against non-Muslims. A fatwa (religious decree) reportedly issued in December 1993 by clerics in Khartoum declaring it a holy duty of all Muslims to kill people in the Nuba Mountains (a site of hostilities and ethnic cleansing in the central part of the country) that either refused to convert to Islam or follow the NIF's form of fundamentalism.

In the southern capital of Juba, government troops summarily detained, tortured, and executed hundreds of civilians on dubious suspicion of having leaked information to the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). In the immediate aftermath of this "clean-up" operation, witnesses reported the grisly sight of hundreds of decomposing bodies floating down the Nile. Still more Southerners have been killed by indiscriminate bombings and land mines. At least two U.S. government employees, one European community worker, and probably one UN employee were also extrajudicially executed on charges of spying for the SPLA.

Although vigorously denied even by some Sudanese human rights activists, the practice of slavery persists. According to some reports, hundreds, if not thousands of women and children have been kidnapped or forcibly relocated from the South and the Nuba Mountains into Arab households and farms to perform domestic or agricultural work without pay, or to serve as concubines.

Prior to this regime, competing political parties eager for immediate voter and financial support attached themselves to religious sects that delivered a spiritually rather than ideologically motivated constituency. This strategy, however, was implemented more to secure uncritical support than to develop a constituency responsive to a particular political program. Although the current regime shares with most of its predecessors an intention to stay in power at any cost, it is distinguished by its dedication to fundamental religious and ideological changes that will build---"an Islamic nation and society linked to God almighty."

Islamization is designed to bring about a transformation of public morality, and its reverberations are felt in all spheres of Sudanese life. The northern part of the country now falls under the jurisdiction of shari'a or Islamic law, which imposes harsh hadoud sentences for "moral" as well as criminal infractions. Executions for petty economic crimes, amputations for theft, and public flogging for "morality crimes" are among the misapplications of shari'a law applied by this regime. Although the state has refrained thus far from implementing sentences of stoning for adultery or execution for apostasy, these punishments are legally available to it should the need arise to dispose of political or social "undesirables."

Central to the regime's scheme for accomplishing a new Islamic and Arab national identity is its policy of forced assimilation. Most notably, this policy has been carried out in the military, educational, and social arenas. Defectors from government militias report orders by their superiors to rape and impregnate Southern non-Muslim women in order to create Arab fighters for the jihad. Grants of land and sums of 10,000 Sudanese pounds (some forty dollars at December 1993 exchange rates)are allegedly offered to those who can prove that they have impregnated four women within a year's time. Conversion to Islam has also been used as a precondition for release from prison and for obtaining desperately needed relief supplies in the camps for those displaced by the war. On the educational front, strict Islamization and Arabization of the curriculum, language of instruction and entrance requirements have drastically lowered educational standards and excluded many non-Muslims and non-Arabs from the system. The regime has an Islamic syllabus even for kindergarten, and Christians are forced to memorize and recite sections of the Koran.

In the social arena, women are the primary targets of the fundamentalist onslaught. Young girls are bombarded day and night with propaganda that makes them ashamed of their bodies and tells them that their nature requires obedience and domesticity. Women are stopped on the street for being inadequately covered, not having a proper escort, and even walking in a "provocative" manner. Dancing between the sexes is also now prohibited. While the policy of Islamization accomplishes the regime's social agenda by requiring absolute conformity, it also serves as a handy device for isolating, humiliating and at times ridding itself of its political opponents.

In 1989, the new NIF-backed regime set out first to disrupt and then to remake a society largely unsympathetic to its ideological agenda. By the fall of 1993, the regime had closed down all open channels of dissent and placed NIF loyalists in all key positions of power. Reorganization could now begin. Announcements earlier in the year foreshadowed the end of the ruling military council, its replacement with a civilian administration, and a system of "people's" congresses organized in gradual stages from the local council level on up through the provisional and state. There were to be no political parties, but elections would be held in late 1994 and the head of state would eventually be directly elected by popular vote. Participation would be broadened, but "not in the sense of sharing the cake of power." Islam would guide the state's laws, systems and policies. In the fall, Lt. General Bashir reincarnated himself as a civilian, and a minor cabinet shuffle was accomplished. The civilian administration was born.

With repression institutionalized, the regime could effect cosmetic changes designed to pacify internal and external demands for human rights. The curfew was lifted, but replaced with constant surveillance by the "mini police" (one and two-man security stations liberally scattered around the city). Arrests are no longer made without warrants, but blank warrants are pre-signed and delivered to security agents for use at their own discretion. Meanwhile, a new Ministry of Social Planning is charged with ensuring the public's adoption of "Islamic" principles and diffusing social tensions arising from the regime's policies. In a matter of months, the Ministry has implemented programs to co-opt the middle class by softening the impact of its devastating economic policies with social support funds. The head of the Ministry, the NIF's number-two man, has announced that national economic productivity will be increased by introducing prayer into the work place. (This policy offers the additional advantage of providing the regime with a vehicle for weeding out the troublemakers who resist the policy from the loyal, devout, or compliant who submit.) At the same time, the Ministry---which more aptly would have been named the "Ministry of Social Engineering"--- is grooming young graduates to carry on the next generation of NIF programs. Advocating the supreme importance of civil society, the Ministry has touted regime-created "non-governmental" institutions, among them a purported human rights organization, a bar association, a labor federation, and an academic union. Such cosmetic moves are nothing more than a strategy for reducing the cost of repression.

How successful has the regime been in accomplishing its objectives through repression and the destruction of civil society? The answer is mixed. The repression has been effective in the sense that people usually submit because they are frightened. While there is plenty of unhappiness in Sudan, it is generally not organized. Security forces have shown that they are willing to fire on crowds, so most public protests are courageous expressions of despair over severe economic conditions. Meanwhile, the underground opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) movement is not sufficiently strong to pose a real threat to the regime.

On the other hand, a growing number of individuals, many of whom have already been victimized and feel they have nothing to lose, are becoming bolder and more defiant. Although most of the Sudanese who were active in human rights during the previous "democratic" period have gone into exile, a whole new generation of people, many of them women and youth, has spontaneously risen to fill the void. Despite the considerable risks, and the fact that no independent citizens' groups are allowed to exist, an extensive, informal network of individual activists and clandestine organizations form a dynamic and continually expanding human rights community that operates illegally. Indigenous forms of passive resistance designed to needle the regime are combined with more defiant tactics, including the documentation of detentions, torture and ethnic cleansing. Others have organized safety nets to assist the families of those who have been executed, detained or lost their jobs. Still others engage in illegal human rights work under the umbrella of legally registered front organizations that appear to be serving some innocuous social service or commercial function. The regime knows that human rights are being monitored internally, but it does not know who is doing it or how to stop it.

These people get away with acts of resistance because there are cracks in the machinery of repression. Some disaffected members of the military, police and prison system both leak information about incommunicado detainees and turn a blind eye to underground activity. And despite the pervasive presence of the "morality police," their harassment of women seems to come only in waves because they know they lack wide popular support.

Increasingly, civil society, often led by the human rights underground, has been able to influence even the governmentally created "non-governmental" institutions. A recent letter to Bashir from the head of the labor federation, a state creation, complained about the condition of workers and threatened to withhold support from the regime unless the government delivered on a minimum wage increase he was advocating. Likewise, the "popular committees," in reality established to assist the official security organs, have in some localities been taken over by people determined to fulfill their stated mandate of delivering social services to residents.

The protest from civil society takes three forms: deliberate defiance (organizing direct action to oppose the regime), passive resistance, and reluctant protest spurred by desperation. Numerous informal human rights networks document abuses and smuggle the information out of the country to organizations like Amnesty International and the Arab Lawyers Union. Relatives of 28 officers executed for their never-proven involvement in an attempted coup publicly demonstrate and even hold anti-government political rallies in their homes, amplifying their criticisms of the government by aiming their loudspeakers out open windows. Last October, secondary school students led protests against the regime, shouting slogans like "we are ready to die for a new government" and holding placards saying "we already know the Koran; give us gas!" More recently, small traders and the middle class have been closing their shops and refusing to pay when the tax collector comes. Elections for the popular committees have been widely boycotted and many Sudanese have refused to stand as candidates. (In truth, these so-called popular committees have become so unpopular that even the government now criticizes them as vehicles for corruption and nepotism.) Women, except for those working in government offices, have refused to alter their traditional Sudanese dress to appear more 'Islamic' despite the regime's announced requirements. And officers purged from the regular police force have distributed leaflets detailing abuses by the security forces, including information about torture and massacres in the Nuba Mountains.

These actions do have an impact. In response to widespread demonstrations over price increases and shortages, the government canceled a deal to export 50,000 tons of sugar so that they could be distributed to citizens in need. Reports in the Armed Forces assessed the demonstrations as capable of escalating into a popular revolt that could create "a complete change."

Repression is the sign of an insecure regime. The NIF government's insistence on literally blaming demons for its problems, while attributing its "successes," such as victory in obviously rigged trade and student union elections, to angels indicates a loosening grip on reality. For now, the war on non-Arab Sudan is a convenient way for the regime to mobilize and discipline potentially unruly people. Without it, young NIF purists would be criticizing the corruption of their high-level officials. The war provides ample justification for silencing NIF critics, and religious radicals can be pacified by sending them off to the front to inflict jihad on the infidels.

But the rift between the top brass in the NIF and the younger radicals is growing by the day, and the cost of maintaining repression and the war is very high. It is expensive to put a security agent on every block; the regime must provide them with salaries, guns and vehicles. The regime is attempting to remedy its lack of credibility with the vast majority of Sudanese---Northern and Southern---with heightened security measures rather than political accommodation. Although the Ministry of Social Planning may be trying to ultimately eliminate the need for security by restructuring society, one must ask where the regime will get the resources to do this. Given the current economic crisis, it seems highly unlikely that the regime will ever have the means to restructure society.

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What is unique about Sudan vis-a-vis the other countries of the Horn is that Sudanese (at least in the North) look to elements of civil society to deal with their despotic government and solve their human rights problems. They look to students, trade unionists and the opposition, ideally buttressed by sympathetic elements in the army, to effect a popular uprising. Having been severely weakened by almost five years of persecution, however, these entities are less equipped to carry out this task than ever before. The labor movement and opposition have been driven underground, where their ability to organize is severely hampered, while prominent unionists and dissidents languish in prison or exile. On the other hand, one feels a tremendous sense of optimism knowing that there is both the experience and the expectation of popular revolt-----a public consciousness that a government, no matter how repressive, can ultimately be held accountable by the people. This, in combination with the possibility of the regime collapsing under its own weight, could bode well for Sudan's immediate future. In the long run, however, Sudan's next real civilian government will be doomed to the same fate as its predecessors unless great efforts are immediately taken to consolidate and institutionalize civil and human rights institutions.


Tiny Djibouti perches strategically above the mouth of the Red Sea, pinched between Eritrea and Somaliland on either side and Ethiopia to its rear. Arid and sun-baked to temperatures often over 100xF, it has been characterized as a vast wasteland with no permanently arable land. The product of the nineteenth-century French aim of gaining a foothold on the northeastern coast of Africa, in both population and area Djibouti is one of the smallest countries in Africa. Its sole economic resource of consequence is its port and capital city, also called Djibouti. In fact, it was frequently remarked that this colony of "French Somaliland" was little more than the port itself, with a bit of hinterland tacked on to give it heft.

Yet this legacy of imperial ambition is today a sovereign and independent state, principal base for the French Navy in the Indian Ocean and reluctant host to refugees from the surrounding countries in the Horn. While Somalia has most recently gotten the lion's share of coverage in the Western press, and Sudan rates a few columns of print whenever famine in the South gets particularly egregious, most Americans would find it difficult to either pronounce "Djibouti" or locate it on the map, let alone give any account of recent events there. But a deteriorating human rights situation, encouraged in no small part by indifference in Washington and Paris, merits significant attention.

On December18, 1991, Djibouti was the scene of a massacre in the crowded Arhiba quarter of the capital, when security police opened fire on a crowd protesting an attempt to round up suspected opponents of the regime. More than forty were killed and fifty wounded. Exactly one year later, the government of Djiboutian President Hassan Gouled Aptidon held the first multi-party elections in the country after some seventeen years of de facto one-party rule. Unfortunately, however, this appearance of increased regime tolerance for political opposition were deceiving; Djibouti had not in fact been swept up in the recent pan-African trend toward democratization. Nor were a greater tolerance for open expressions of dissent by Gouled opponents evidence of more than a minor degree of acknowledgment of human rights.

Most inhabitants of Arhiba are Afar, the second largest ethnic group in Djibouti, and also present in significant numbers in neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea. Most of the security police and their commanders are of the Somali-speaking Issa clan, one of many such clans that occupy Somalia proper, Somaliland, and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. In the case of Djibouti, the Issa make up some two-thirds of the population, though they are divided into a number of sub-clans that command the primary allegiance of their members. In addition to controlling the security forces, the Issa also fill most of the positions in the army and the government administration. The remainder of the population is divided between non-Issa Somali, Arabs, and a contingent of French civilian advisors who ensure that the daily affairs of state run smoothly.

It was clear almost from the start that Djibouti's minority communities, as well as the country as a whole, would get what President Gouled deigned to give them. President since independence was granted in 1977, he seemed to consider it important that all groups be proportionally represented in the three branches of government during his regime, but political loyalty always appeared the most important qualification for office. The legislature, not to mention the judiciary, was never intended to provide a significant challenge to the power of the executive, and the army and security forces acted to ensure that the president's writ was law. Until a constitution finally was promulgated in 1992, sudden decrees issuing from the presidential palace continually redefined the parameters of the state. Legislating, a more deliberative process, merely codified decisions already reached by Gouled. In short, the self-rule made possible by independence boiled down to the unbounded personal rule of the president, assisted by a small coterie of Issa advisors and associates.

Internally, civil society has been allowed to operate unhindered insofar as it does not challenge the hegemony of those in power. In contrast to the regime in Sudan, whose ultimate goal is to establish universal consensus by forcing the creation of a fundamentalist society, Gouled and those around him are merely concerned with 'stability.' For the most part, the President's policies have created a broadly passive population, well aware of the turmoil and suffering in the rest of the region and usually unwilling to roil the waters by confronting their own authorities. Until late 1991, not only had stability been achieved, but in addition receipts from the port and a railway line that carried goods to and from Ethiopia brought a measure of prosperity unparalleled in the Horn, particularly to well-connected members of the Djiboutian elite. But suggestions of high-level corruption continually resurface, most recently evidenced by the reluctance of the Bank of Djibouti and the Middle East (BDMO), placed under receivership, to collect large debts owed it by high officials.

Civic dissent on a modest scale has periodically emerged, and a limited amount has been tolerated, though the use of torture by the security police to coerce the outspoken opponents of the regime into silence has been constant since independence. Periodic demonstrations demanding an end to rights abuses and the freeing of political prisoners are regularly broken up by security police, who at times have fired on the demonstrators. There are currently two local human rights groups, the Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Liberties (ADDHL) and the Committee of Support for the Liberation of Political Detainees. A small core of persistent rights activists is repeatedly detained, sometimes for extended periods without charge and sometimes on grounds of having "defamed the army" or "slandered the president." Independent journalists, such as Dabale Ahmed Kassim of the informally distributed Le Combat, are threatened with prosecution on these charges as well as for allegedly having incited "public disorder, revolt and enmity between Djiboutians."

Meanwhile, the regime's political opposition has made some attempts at uniting, a case in point being the creation in mid-1992 in Paris of the multi-ethnic United Djiboutian Opposition Front. But its constituent organizations fragmented before the 1992-93 elections, as parties either fielded separate candidates or boycotted the exercise altogether. In the past, many prominent opposition figures have at least temporarily gone into exile, later returning and, in the case of some, accepting cabinet positions in a spirit of mutual accommodation with the government. Others more persistent in advocating nonviolent change have also been often allowed to come back, as long as they were willing to accept conditions in which the state-controlled media usually ignores them. Still others, such as Afar leader Ali Aref Bourhan, have been deemed too dangerous to remain at large and have been imprisoned after show trials. A state security court has handled the prosecution in such political cases, with conviction pre-determined and nonappealable.

Until late 1991, that portion of the regime's opposition committed to its violent overthrow consisted of largely ineffective guerrilla organizations formed in exile. Clashes between the military and armed individuals were sporadically reported in both the Afar-populated north of the country and in the South where alienated Somali clans live. The greatest threat to the regime so far was first launched in November 1991, when largely Afar insurgents of the three-month-old Revolutionary Front for Unity and Democracy (FRUD) attacked several army bases in the North. Apart from attempting to defend itself militarily, an alarmed regime reacted by trying to root out suspected FRUD sympathizers from the Afar community. One result was the massacre in Arhiba before year's end.

Since then the war between FRUD and government troops has waxed and waned. The rebels were able to extend their effective control to some two-thirds of the country by late 1992, with the exception of sizable towns adjoining military garrisons, but a counter-offensive in 1993 by the state has pushed FRUD close to the border with Ethiopia and Eritrea. Gouled has claimed that the FRUD forces are invaders from Ethiopia, while FRUD leaders and spokesmen claim that it is an indigenous Djiboutian movement fighting to end his protracted autocratic rule. Impartial analysts tend to feel that the truth lies somewhere in between, with Afars from Ethiopia and Eritrea bolstering native-born guerrillas. The government continues to deny FRUD charges that its repression of the native Afar population provoked the insurgency.

By far the most serious consequence of the civil war has in truth been its effect on civilians. Diverting much of its budget to defense and levying an additional ten percent tax "for the righteous defense of the state" on the income of each employed Djiboutian, by mid-1993 the regime had tripled the armed forces in size to fifteen thousand. Refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia were forcibly conscripted from the capital and camps in Djibouti, to be sent off along with mercenaries from as far away as Mogadishu to regain the northern part of the country from the FRUD. As to the matter of the war tax, an independent labor federation (the Democratic Labor Union) was formed in 1992 in reaction to the compliance of the state-run labor federation, but two of its founders were soon imprisoned in retaliation.

But the effect on the Afars in the North, far from eyes of the foreign community in the capital, has been much graver. A September 1993 urgent action appeal by Amnesty International denounced an accelerated campaign of retaliation by the regime against Afar civilians for attacks by FRUD guerrillas on army troops. Unarmed men have been summarily executed, women gang-raped, and many of the scattered settlements in the region forced into the wild after their vital water wells were intentionally plugged up and their subsistence gardens deliberately destroyed. Tens of thousands have fled across the border into Ethiopia, others have swollen the fetid slum of Arhiba, and still others seem to have been simply swallowed up by the desert during the torrid heat of summer and fall. While suspected FRUD sympathizers among the general population have been rounded up and detained in prison camps, prominent human rights campaigners such as ADDHL's Mohamed Houmed Souleh have been repeatedly jailed for attempting to spread the word of the violations to the international community.

Likely in response to the beginning of FRUD's offensive in November 1991, the regime began to draft a new constitution in January 1992. It was an abrupt about-face after its earlier dismissal of multipartyism. The proposed document provided for a limit of four legal political parties, a strong-president system with a minimum of checks and balances on the executive, and institutionalization of the standard array of universally-recognized civil rights. Authorities made little or no effort to solicit the participation of the political opposition before the constitution was duly ratified by the legislature and submitted to the electorate in a September 1992 referendum. Since opposition political parties were not legally permitted until some two weeks after the referendum, the opportunity for meaningful debate was limited. The government announced that approximately ninety-seven percent of those voting endorsed the constitution.

Legislative elections were held in December 1992, but only two parties of the five that had sought legalization obtained it. Parties based on ethnicity, region, religion, or language were constitutionally prohibited, as well as those having an associated military wing such as FRUD. Organizers were required to put up a deposit equivalent to some $340,000. FRUD dismissed the purported democratization as a sham, and most Afar reportedly boycotted the balloting. In the end one of the two parties that met the preconditions opted not to contest the elections, charging that evidence of registration irregularities showed that the results would be tainted. The other, the Democratic Renewal Party led by Mohamed Djama Elabe, won none of the sixty-five seats in the Chamber of Deputies due to what it claimed was decisive electoral fraud.

The succeeding presidential election in May 1993 was won by Hassan Gouled with an officially reported 60.71 percent of the vote against four competitors. Detractors, in dismissing the result, pointed as an example of clear irregularity to the government's claim of a massive turnout for the president in such places as Obock and Tadjourah in the Afar North. The official tabulation of ballots in Obock, for example, gave Gouled almost 90 percent of a voting population that accounts indicated had largely fled the town and its military garrison months earlier. Even Afars in the North who might have been willing to vote were often unable to get to the polling stations due to the turmoil prevailing in the region, and opposition poll-watchers were reportedly blocked by the army from observing voting and vote counting.

Djiboutians clearly do not have the means to change their government democratically; the primary purpose of the elections was never more than to try convince Western donors that the regime was somewhere on the path to democratization. But the president has had better means to keep his foreign friends: Djibouti was used as a staging area for the allies during both the Persian Gulf conflict and the UN effort at pacification in Somalia. In return for permission to use its airport and port and to store military ordinance, the regime has continued to earn millions in military aid and spare vehicles, and even occasional logistical assistance to troops in the field, from France and the United States. Paris, historically the biggest patron to this island of francophonie, privately remonstrates with Gouled for his obstinate attitude toward real power-sharing. Still, even with full knowledge of the Djiboutian army's abuses in the field, France continues to prop up the regime. And though the American Embassy in Djibouti has repeatedly requested that it be allowed to investigate allegations of serious human rights abuses in the North, to date the Djiboutian government has refused to allow any such field trip without the presence of military 'minders.'

Not only has Washington's gratitude to Gouled for services rendered for the UN/US action in Somalia led to reluctance to publicly call him to account for the rampages of his military, but in an all-too-characteristic display of myopia it lauded the African nation's armed forces as "constantly ready for the service of peace." Only weeks after Amnesty International issued its September 1993 urgent action appeal, the out-going head of the US Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell dispatched a letter to his Djiboutian counterpart that received wide coverage in that country's state-controlled media. Praising the efforts taken by the regime on behalf of "peace and stability in Africa," he thanked the Gouled regime for responding to "the pressing needs of a land ravaged by civil war and famine." Ironically,that land to which he referred was not Djibouti.

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The regime asks for nothing more than to be left to its own devices, formally challenged at periodic multiparty elections but remaining permanently at the helm of state. Though marginalization of non-Issas would continue, those members of society satisfied with pursuing their private interests and ignoring such larger issues would generally be left alone. But despite the lack of any apparent ideological purpose underlying its tight embrace on power, much like the regime in Khartoum the Djiboutian government clearly stands ready to employ any means necessary to maintain its control. This has included extrajudicial violence when necessary to stifle domestic ferment and a faade of democracy in an attempt to pacify foreign benefactors. These benefactors, French and American, are already predisposed toward the regime as a tried-and-true guarantor of continued Western access to strategically-placed Djibouti. The only question that remains is whether Paris and Washington will continue to believe that keeping Gouled and associates in power is ultimately of prime importance, overriding whatever the cost may be to Djiboutians.


On May 24, 1993, Eritreans celebrated the official birth of Africa's newest internationally recognized state. Eritrea, a narrow country of 3.2 million extending from Djibouti west to Sudan along the Red Sea, had already won its de facto independence on the battlefield in 1991 after a bloody 30-year war with Ethiopia. It received recognition in April 1993 for its new status when an internationally monitored referendum delivered a resounding 98 percent mandate for separation. Monitors declared the exercise "free and fair." In the national euphoria that followed, few sights were as moving as that of Eritrean war-veterans rocking back and forth in their wheelchairs in the middle of the street while singing compatriots danced adoringly around them.

During the long insurgency, when pro-independence Eritreans were pressed to offer a justification for secession, most responded that Eritrea was a region related to, but distinctive from, Ethiopia. Much of Eritrea has been culturally and politically tied to the Christian Abyssinian highlands to its South since the first centuries A.D. Eritrea was detached in 1890 from Ethiopia when Italy colonized those portions of Africa left after the rest of Western Europe had satisfied its hunger for empire. Though Rome intended to push on to Ethiopia itself, it was thrown back in 1896 by the troops of that country's emperor and forced to make the best of its retention of Eritrea. Fifty years of Italian colonization, coupled with later mistreatment or worse at the hands of Ethiopian administrators and generals, ensured an Eritrean national consciousness.

In 1936, Mussolini's overseas army made Italy's second attempt to forcibly extend its colony into Ethiopia, and this time it was successful. Until resident Italian forces were routed from the Horn of Africa by the British colonial army in 1941, Eritrea and Ethiopia were administered as a single Italian colony. Eritrea was governed by the United Kingdom as a U.N. trusteeship until 1952, when, under United Nations auspices, it was federated with Ethiopia.

Despite constitutionally guaranteed autonomy, for the next ten years under conditions of "federation" Addis Ababa suppressed a vigorous civic society, crushing the assertive Eritrean trade union movement and banning all political activity that was not slavishly pro-union. Ethiopia's Amharic, not native to Eritrea, was illegally imposed as the language of administration. Eritrea went on to lose even its formal autonomous status in 1962 when Haile Selassie's government exerted heavy pressure on the Eritrean legislative assembly to approve the assimilation of Eritrea into a unitary Ethiopia. With its acquiescent vote secured, the Emperor got what he had always wanted: Eritrea as just another Ethiopian province.

But Eritrean history did not end. The first armed independence movement in Eritrea, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), had begun its armed drive for secession from Ethiopia in late 1961. It drew its support largely from Muslims in Eritrea's western lowlands, who opposed incorporation into Christian-dominated Ethiopia. The ELF was gradually supplanted during the nineteen-seventies by another group, the more politically-doctrinaire EPLF. The EPLF, whose leadership initially came from the western Christian highlands, accused the ELF of representing the interests of a conservative Muslim elite. By contrast, the EPLF followed a Marxist, class-based analysis of Eritrea's history and society that rejected any appeal to Eritreans based on religion, region, or ethnicity. Though the movement was dominated by those of Christian origin at the outset, the EPLF has evolved to essentially reflect the religious and ethnic diversity of Eritrea itself.

In 1974, Emperor Selassie was overthrown by the Dergue, an Ethiopian military clique of leftist orientation. Despite initial hopes to the contrary, it soon became clear to independence minded Eritreans that the nationalistic Dergue was as opposed to a sovereign Eritrea as the Emperor had been. The new junta, soon to be headed by the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, was committed to retaining the "Ethiopian province," whatever the cost in human lives and money. During the war that continued the next seventeen years, military control of Eritrean territory was to see-saw between the EPLF and the Dergue, with the EPLF gradually extending its authority until it controlled all but the provincial capital of Asmara, the Red Sea port of Asab, and certain adjacent areas.

During on-again, off-again peace negotiations, the Ethiopian government repeatedly stated that it might accept any political arrangement for Eritrea short of independence; the EPLF demanded a referendum within Eritrea that would have independence as one of its options. A political settlement seemed unlikely. Finally, even as an Ethiopian insurgent group allied to the EPLF moved in on Addis Ababa in mid-1991, the EPLF itself entered Asmara victorious after defeating the remnants of Mengistu's occupying army within Eritrea. Rebels at his heels, the dictator was forced to beat a hasty exit to Zimbabwe. During the course of thirty years of insurgency some forty thousand Eritrean civilians had died, and over a three-quarters of a million had fled the country.

Upon overthrowing the Dergue, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)---the EPLF's allies---stated publicly that it did not intend to stand in the way of a United Nations-sponsored referendum in Eritrea on independence. Despite the intensity of "Greater Ethiopia" nationalism in Ethiopia, Ethiopian political movements convened at a July 1991 conference endorsed the EPRDF position rather than face a renewed war with the well-armed and dug-in EPLF.

With the Dergue defeated and an official seal of approval from Ethiopia secured, the EPLF set about the business of building peace, developing the country, and preparing for the April 1993 referendum that would make their success on the battlefield internationally palatable. In the immediate aftermath of Mengistu's ouster, a euphoric Eritrean public, temporarily oblivious to the devastation and extreme poverty of their country, rejoiced in both the EPLF's victory and its leadership. Indeed, EPLF authority enjoys the support of the vast majority of Eritreans today. The EPLF's nearly universal support is not surprising given the movement's well-deserved reputation for integrity, resourcefulness and self-sacrifice, earned during the three decades of bloody struggle against Ethiopian rule.

In the year since the referendum, Eritrea has largely slipped from world attention. Some analysts, impressed with the accomplishments of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) during its two decades of leadership in the liberation struggle, have long predicted that the referendum's successful completion would usher in a new era of popular sovereignty, development, and stability. Such forecasts, however, may be premature. The EPLF's impressive ability to mobilize a near 100% turnout on the noncontroversial issue of independence---about which the populace was united and passionate---should not be confused either with the will to govern democratically or the ability to amass permanent popular support. The prospects for democracy and respect for human rights remain unclear.

On the positive side, the EPLF can point to some important accomplishments and promising indicators of national economic and political reconstruction. It has initiated moves to develop the fisheries, petroleum, and tourism sectors, attracted a measure of foreign reconstruction assistance, and restarted all the public sector factories within the cities that were idled before liberation. In the political arena, the EPLF moved to broaden popular participation in administration even before the war ended by establishing elected village, municipal, district and provincial councils in its liberated zones. Sub-national elections were extended to the entire country before the referendum, a positive sign that the new Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE) intended to share the burden of governing.

The challenges facing the EPLF, however, are unenviable. Without witnessing it for oneself, it is nearly impossible to imagine the damage wrought by Ethiopia's aerial bombardments. Whole villages were destroyed, a once sophisticated infrastructure built by the Italians was devastated, and a cycle of war-induced famine begun. As it tackles the daunting task of reconstruction, the EPLF must also facilitate the absorption of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans returning to rebuild their lives and country after years in exile. As if to further test the endurance of a long suffering people, serious drought hit the region in the early nineties. Though harvests immediately rose in the first full year of peace, they fell again as the drought worsened. The government has estimated that it may need some two billion dollars to return Eritrea to the status quo prevailing when the British handed the territory over to Ethiopia in 1952.

From the start, the new government cited development as its top priority. Investors, however, reportedly discouraged by the regime's ideological attachment to elements of a planned economy, have so far proven hard to locate. Hailing the virtues of self-sufficiency, the regime has responded by mobilizing the labor of thousands of former guerrillas and others in development projects for which they are given maintenance but not pay. Pitching in with patriotic fervor, the brigades have worked on reforestation projects, constructed irrigation and water-retention facilities to aid agriculture, and cleared land mines. Nevertheless, in May 1993 a number participated in mass actions protesting the indefinite duration of their assignment, and called for salaries. In response, a cash-poor administration announced that it would begin releasing a number of former guerrillas from their duties and back into society.

Apart from rehabilitation and development, the greatest challenge facing the EPLF is one of integrating citizens representing three religious traditions and nine major ethnic groups without resort to repression. The two areas of the country, now largely quiescent, that are most likely to pose problems are the Afar Denkalia region in the south and the majority-Muslim western lowlands near the Sudanese border. The traditional ethnic Afar area encompasses adjacent Djibouti and Ethiopia, and some irredentists among the Afar have rejected Eritrean independence as merely a further partitioning of their territory among independent states. The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF), an expatriate umbrella group of three political organizations, calls for Asmara's recognition of the Afar right to self-determination, an unlikely prospect given the EPLF's emphasis on unity and national consensus. Recognizing the EPLF's probable intransigence, ARDUF is calling for armed struggle against Eritrea's provisional government, no doubt inspired by the largely-Afar FRUD's attempt to overthrow the Djiboutian regime next door.

Though most Eritrean political movements in exile supported independence both before and after the EPLF-led victory, their attitude toward the EPLF-led provisional government ranges from cautiously conciliatory to adamantly hostile. Some factions of what was formerly a united ELF---the ELF-Popular Liberation Front, the ELF-National Council and the ELF-United Organization---have returned to Eritrea to participate in the task of reconstruction. A few activists were even invited to join the government, though not yet to participate in partisan political activity. On the other hand, the ELF-Revolutionary Council, though it called for Eritreans to vote for independence in the referendum, has stated from exile that institutions such as the national legislature created by the EPLF's provisional government (PGE) are illegitimate. It emphasizes, however, that it will use democratic and nonviolent means to fight the monopolization of power in the country.

The "Islamic Jihad" movement, begun in 1988 and apparently fundamentalist by conviction, has also dismissed the regime as illegal. Calling for holy war against the secularist PGE, Islamic Jihad envisions an Eritrean state where the Koran would be used as the guide for governing. It is said to have engaged in clandestine propagandizing and recruitment among Muslim Eritreans still living in refugee camps in Sudan. In late 1993 it claimed responsibility for several attacks on EPLF cadres in Eritrea's western lowlands, where both Islamic Jihad and the various "ELFs" command some support.

In accord with its 1987 embrace of a multi-party system, the EPLF's pre-victory platform included guarantees for political parties and associations to organize after independence. However, upon coming to power the EPLF postponed multipartyism until after the referendum. One month after the referendum, a PGE decree provided for the extension of the ban on competitive parties for up to four more years---at least until the Eritrean people ratified a constitution and established a permanent government. The EPLF apparently believes that as a broad "front," all acceptable perspectives are already represented within its ranks. Whatever the reason, long-time EPLF leader and now Eritrean President Issias Afewerki has made it clear that what he terms "pseudo-multipartyism"---a situation in which potentially divisive political parties specifically catering to ethnic, regional, or religious groups flourish---will not be permitted in Eritrea.

The post-referendum decree postponing multipartyism also established a National Assembly composed of members of the EPLF central committee and sixty others either directly nominated by the EPLF or rising up out of the earlier-created village, municipal, district, and provincial councils. Though members of the lower councils were popularly elected, candidates were routinely vetted by the Front. Afewerki was made president by vote of the Assembly. The decree also directed that a constitutional committee be selected to draft the document that is to usher in a non-transitional government by 1997. The president's cabinet of ministers, religiously and ethnically mixed, was in place by June 1993.

The PGE has repeatedly stated in the year since independence that its intention is to build up the institutions that would make multiparty democracy in Eritrea successful. However, the EPLF appears leery of giving civil society a meaningful role. Its revolutionary history was one stressing mass participation under the EPLF banner, with vanguard organizations in territory it controlled explicitly organized to lead Eritreans toward the type of radical social vision that it held. With the long-awaited day of independence having passed, the regime calls for renewed national consensus on the road forward. At the same time, it worries publicly that allowing freedoms and full political participation, before institutions that can support their responsible exercise are developed, will bring chaos. The leadership's expectations for discipline, order, and unity have become instinctive; its comfort with centralized decision-making lingers. Expressions of dissent are disfavored, and the president warns that expressing opinions doesn't mean one can "libel and insult others freely."

The state's commitment to social democracy is unmistakable. Paralleling its policy during the insurgency itself, a philosophically egalitarian regime has made certain that women play an integral part in reconstruction. Not only have they participated in the physical work of rebuilding alongside men, but women have also played a not insignificant role in administration. At the top, the Minister of Justice is a Muslim woman, while women make up an estimated one-quarter of the National Assembly. There is concern, however, that many women at the grassroots will be forced back into traditional roles now that independence has been won, as happened in Algeria, so that they will not compete with men in an extremely tight labor market.

Despite the regime's positive approach to women's rights, its record on other civil liberties is unsettling. Its pre-referendum platform guaranteed freedom of the press, speech, association, and peaceful assembly, yet several serious deviations from these commitments occurred as the balloting neared. Publication of independent points of view in Eritrea continued to be largely confined to church-based print media. Ethiopian journalists known to oppose Eritrean independence were prevented from freely visiting Eritrea in the period leading up to the referendum, and the activities of the one human rights group in Eritrea were temporarily suspended by the regime shortly before the balloting. Although the government has in truth provided space for local non-governmental organizations to form and operate, in every case they have been apolitical professional and social associations. Also disturbing are reports by Amnesty International indicating the disappearance of ten alleged Mengistu-regime collaborators and the detention without charge or trial of as many as 275 others suspected of opposing the EPLF. Government officials claim that the detainees are former collaborators with the worst record of abuses and an "ossified" attitude toward the new government---as if that justified disappearing them or denying them due process.

The danger is that, in the end, the very practices that enabled the EPLF to prevail in its struggle against Ethiopian dictatorship will undermine attempts to establish a truly representative government. Transparency and tolerance for dissent, for example, may be unthinkable during a military campaign, but are indispensable to any democratic system. Although the election of councils from the local to the national level offers a vehicle for the transmission of aspirations and complaints to the leadership, it is hard to imagine progress toward genuine democracy in an atmosphere in which Eritreans are not permitted the full rights of expression, association, and assembly.

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The glory of the EPLF military victory will not ensure national unity and popular endorsement forever. The EPLF might best ensure stability, and even its own longevity, by allowing the natural evolution of civil society while it still commands broad support. Forcing dissent underground, even if it is nonviolent, can be the ultimate destabilizer. It is as the inevitable disagreements over national policy emerge among patriotic Eritreans rejecting violence as a means of expressing difference with the regime that the EPLF's commitment to the type of pluralism that necessarily underlies democracy will be seriously tested.


Tragically, Ethiopia is best known internationally for its famines, leaving many Westerners with the false impression of a helpless, starving people who cannot manage their own affairs. The country is actually rich in resources, however, and though some of her agricultural failures have been precipitated by drought and locust infestations, the killing scarcities that resulted have been largely man-made---the result of super-power-supported state policies with hideous consequences for the civilian population.

In 1994, Ethiopia is one of the world's poorest and least developed countries. Located in the center of northeastern Africa, she is composed of numerous nationalities encompassing more than 80 language groups. Oromos constitute the largest ethnic group, spanning more than half the country's territory; Amharas, traditionally the cultural and political elite, are the second largest; and Tigrayans, the Amharas' historical competitors for political and cultural dominance, follow at a close third. Ethnic Somalis, found also in Djibouti and Somalia, and Afars, found also in Djibouti and Eritrea, command strategic if not numerical importance because they inhabit border areas that have been a source of international conflict.

In May 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Forces (EPRDF), a coalition of movements dominated by the initially Marxist-Leninist Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), marched into Addis Ababa and liberated the country from 17 years of one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has known. Under Mengistu Haile Mariam's communist reign of terror, tens of thousands of suspected political opponents were murdered while several times that were killed in a civil war that served as a convenient pretext for suspending freedoms and forbidding independent institutions. The EPRDF inherited a country infrastructurally, economically, and psychologically devastated by war and totalitarian rule.

Several months after taking power, the EPRDF convened a conference to which it invited 26 groups that had opposed Mengistu's rule. The July conference established the two-year Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) and adopted a national transitional Charter that embraced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ensured a host of freedoms, including the right to self-determination. The conference also established a transitional 87 member legislature---the Council of Representatives---in which the EPRDF held the largest number of seats at 32. The new government officially renounced Marxism and committed itself to building a democratic society respectful of human rights.

The TGE's first controversial act was to divide the country into 10 administrative zones established on the basis of ethnicity. Ostensibly, this policy was designed to diffuse inter-ethnic tensions by decentralizing power to semi-autonomous ethnic regions. Many believe, however, that "regionalization" was simply an EPRDF strategy to delegate tedious administrative problems to sympathetic regional surrogates while retaining complete control of all important political, economic, defense and foreign matters. The EPRDF's creation of "PDOs" (Peoples Democratic Organizations)---affiliates of the TPLF rooted in other ethnic groups---lends some credence to this view. Although the EPRDF would have the public believe that these ethnically based organizations spontaneously emerged to support the TPLF against older, more homegrown groups, most of these organizations were not only inspired but also funded} by the EPRDF.

Despite some skepticism about the "PDO system" and the Marxist-Leninist history of the TPLF, most Ethiopians were extremely optimistic in the early days about the new government's prospects for bringing about the democratization it promised. After all, the EPRDF had voluntarily entered into a coalition government with other ethnic and political groups; shown remarkable restraint with regard to those detained in connection with alleged human rights abuses committed by the Mengistu regime; exhibited a relatively high degree of discipline in policing the country; and allowed at least one major executive decision to be overruled by the court. During the July conference, the EPRDF-dominated interim government made human rights, including the right of nationalities to express themselves according to their cultural traditions, a central feature of the new Charter (the supreme law of the land during the transitional period). Freedom of expression and association were respected for the most part, and numerous public demonstrations indicated that freedom of assembly was also recognized. The Ministry of Justice appeared committed to an action program on human rights, with new leaders in Ethiopia requesting training on many human rights topics. At least five human rights groups established themselves soon after the July conference, although only one began monitoring abuses by the TGE. Indeed, in visiting Ethiopia during this period, one was overwhelmed by the striking contrast in atmosphere from the Mengistu era.

Later, the TGE ratified the international covenants on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and established a Special Prosecutor's Office (SPO) to handle the cases of over 2,000 detainees alleged to have committed human rights crimes during the Dergue's regime. Despite its slow start, the SPO has operated in a uniquely open manner. More recently still, a group of employees within the Ministry of Education started what they hope will eventually become an independent non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Society for the Advancement of Human Rights Education (SAHR). SAHR's mandate is to lobby for the inclusion of human rights in the national civic education curriculum.

The process of democratic change in Ethiopia has been far from smooth, however. Upon coming to power, the TGE faced enormous challenges, including the rehabilitation of a devastated and nearly bankrupt country, the orderly demobilization of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the prior regime, the prosecution of over two thousand accused human rights violators in detention, and the general absence of a democratic tradition. Local and ethnic clashes seemingly everywhere but the country's north posed a serious threat to security in the early days of the TGE, leaving several thousand people dead and many more homeless. Although the extensive conflicts that threatened the regime in its first year of existence seem to have quieted, the truce is fragile. Some ethnic groups would like to expel Amharas from regions now officially designated to other ethnic groups. Clashes still erupt from time to time in some of the most volatile areas such as Oromia, where local Oromos feel that they are under occupation by Tigrayans, and the eastern Ogaden area, inhabited largely by Somalis.

The EPRDF is understandably overwhelmed with the job of running such a country. To add to the litany of problems, some self-induced, that the regime faces, some self-induced, many Ethiopians with important skills to contribute are excluded from office (as well as from voting, foreign travel and a number of other citizens' privileges) because of their alleged association with the previous regime. Others, educated and skilled, were forced to leave Ethiopia during the Mengistu era and have now settled in other parts of the world. Finally, much of the political opposition utterly rejects the TGE/EPRDF's right to govern.

For the last 1 1/2 years, the EPRDF seems to have been grappling with the inherent tension between its twin desires to achieve democracy and respect human rights on the one hand, and stay in power on the other. Although the EPRDF may well have a genuine vision of a democratic Ethiopia, it appears apprehensive about tolerating alternative democratic visions and impatient of others' doubts about its own motivations. In short, anyone can play, so long as it's the EPRDF's game. However, as challenges to the EPRDF-dominated transitional government have mounted from increasingly disgruntled opposition forces, the TGE has taken measures to tighten its control of the political process and clamp down on certain freedoms. These actions have further polarized the EPRDF and its opposition, and have caused several important opposition parties to withdraw from the coalition government, leaving Ethiopia virtually a de-facto one party state.

It is easy for many observers to feel a measure of sympathy for the EPRDF's frustration with the opposition, as the TGE's detractors usually have been more interested in defaming and destabilizing the government than engaging in constructive dialogue. The opposition is fractured, and appears to lack vision and a clear and credible agenda of its own. Instead of building a strong coalition of forces and making genuine attempts to organize and spread their message in the countryside, they expend most of their time and energy in the capital trying to prove that the EPRDF-led government is worse than the previous Mengistu regime-----a charge that acts to discredit their cause. In contrast, the EPRDF is organized and "doing its homework." During the authors' December 1993 visit, TGE President Meles Zenawi was already campaigning in Amhara areas. Granted, the EPRDF has the significant advantage of having all state resources at its disposal, including the media and the means to restrict the activities of its competition. However, the fact remains that the EPRDF is working hard to gain Ethiopians' support while most of the opposition is focused on criticizing the TGE and appealing to foreign capitals.

In fact, there are few significant policy differences between the opposition and the government, and the most divisive issue---that of self-determination and the right of the ethnic regions to secede---divides the opposition itself. Political opponents have legitimate gripes, however, about the EPRDF's lack of genuine commitment to the participation in government of groups that threaten its agenda. And the opposition can point to real and significant instances of harassment and exclusion. Ironically, the political polarization in Ethiopia can be explained by each side's adoption of the same rigid approach to differences of opinion: "if you are not with us, you are against us; our way, or no way".

The tragedy is that the EPRDF does not need to thwart the opposition to guarantee its hold on power. Aside from the opposition's disarray, which alone minimizes the threat it poses, the EPRDF still enjoys widespread support in much of the countryside. The EPRDF need only leave alone peasants comprising the vast majority of the population to be popular. The peasants have few positive expectations of government, and are probably grateful that they or their children are no longer being forcibly dragged off to a futile war or to attend political meetings. The EPRDF's delay in taxing the peasants---probably a conscious move to guarantee their support for the upcoming June 5 Constituent Assembly elections---has further consolidated their popularity. The fact is that the EPRDF would easily take half the seats in a new and democratically elected Council of Representatives, which would ensure both its continued control and a credible opposition.

The EPRDF, however, appears to feel that nothing short of an election sweep is satisfactory. The June 1992 regional elections, meant to usher in a new era of political openness in Ethiopia, were widely viewed as fraudulent. In Addis Ababa, a center of government opposition, 84 of the 87 regional seats went to the EPRDF. This was reportedly accomplished through intimidation. The first set of national elections will be held this June 5 for a Constituent Assembly whose exclusive mandate is to approve the constitution. The Electoral Board, appointed by the EPRDF-controlled Council of Representatives to oversee the elections, is not expected to be independent. Among other reasons, it is headed by a member of the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) considered to be an ardent EPRDF supporter. Given the low level of public confidence in the independence of the electoral process, a looming challenge both for the EPRDF and the democratization process at large will be to ensure that groups outside the EPRDF coalition participate in the elections.

The whole constitutional process is viewed with great cynicism by elites in the capital, and probably not viewed at all by the peasants outside. As with the Electoral Board, the EPRDF's detractors dismiss the CDC as a puppet of the EPRDF, and accuse it of having already completed the constitution, rendering the recently initiated exercise of soliciting public input a sham. Whether or not the CDC has already completed a constitutional draft, its apparent plan for engineering public debate seems unlikely to give the process the necessary patina of legitimacy. In December, three-person panels were elected on the most local level to organize and preside over public discussions of various constitutional issues. The turnout for these elections was so low, however, as to make even special district elections in the United States look well attended, and some of those elected are rumored to have been cited for electoral shenanigans in 1992. Here, as in many other instances, the opposition's insistent rejectionism meant that an opportunity to co-opt the process from the EPRDF by putting forth their own candidates was lost.

One of the most contentious issues to be decided by the constitution is the meaning of the right to ethnic and national self-determination. Another is whether minorities residing in areas dominated by other ethnic groups will have a constitutionally protected right to live and work where they want. Those suspicious of the EPRDF do not trust that real debate can occur so long as it is orchestrated by people who they believe have already made up their minds on the subject. The opposition's perception that the whole process is rigged is reinforced by the increasing influence of the EPRDF's surrogate "PDOs" that captured most, if not all, of the regional government seats in the 1992 elections. As mentioned earlier in the survey of the Sudan, however, there is always the possibility that organs co-opted by the government can be co-opted back by the people. One activist told the authors that the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Oromo "PDO," has become increasingly dissatisfied with the EPRDF, and may be finding common cause with its former competitor the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the main organization traditionally holding itself out as representing Oromo interests. The OLF was the largest and most credible threat to the EPRDF prior to the Oromo group's withdrawal from the transitional government following the June 1992 elections. If the OLF were to be able to overcome its own internal divisions, these two opposition forces could represent the beginning of a strong opposition coalition.

Provoked by the EPRDF/PDO monopoly on the democratization process they saw developing, opposition groups based in Ethiopia and abroad held a "peace and reconciliation" conference in Paris in March 1993. A number of those attending the conference were from a coalition of parties from the southern part of the country that was, at the time, a part of the transitional government. At the conclusion of the Paris conference, participants issued a statement concluding that the transitional government and the Charter were not representative of the Ethiopian people and had failed to bring peace and democracy to the country. The attendees called for the dissolution of the TGE and a national peace and reconciliation conference to be held inside Ethiopia to resolve the crisis. TGE President Meles Zenawi responded by advising the southern coalition that they should quit a government whose dissolution they advocated, giving them seven days to either retract their statements or withdraw. A number of the members of the southern coalition did retract the Paris statement. Those who refused were expelled.

The EPRDF was initially cold to the idea of holding a later "peace and reconciliation" conference in Ethiopia, claiming there was already peace in Ethiopia, and groups did not need a conference to reconcile with the TGE. In December 1993, however, the EPRDF changed its mind and granted permission. The EPRDF never responded to its invitation to participate, instead taking note of the conference by arresting some of the incoming participants at the airport and sending security to visit the homes of others at its conclusion. Those who were able to attend, however, established a parallel Council of Representatives to take over the job of governing Ethiopia on January 15 when, by law, the TGE's mandate expired. Instead of asking for specific guarantees of their genuine participation in the constitutional process, participants created a parallel government. This ensured further polarization and the certainty that the TGE would ignore any legitimate issues raised at the conference. In January 1994, the TGE voted to extend its life for another 1 1/2 years.

Although a number of Ethiopian and foreign observers have noted that the EPRDF's record on civil rights is far better than its record on political rights, by the end of 1993 it was clear that the EPRDF had opted for stability over complete freedom of expression. The TGE is not cruel like its predecessor, but it does take opposition very personally. Like any liberation movement the EPRDF or, more accurately, the TPLF, feels that it made immeasurable sacrifices to rid the country of a dictator, and this entitles it to call the shots---particularly when it genuinely believes its agenda best for the country.

As a result, intimidation and harassment of political parties is occurring. Opposition offices have been closed and leaders detained. One activist referred to the government's actions as "soft intimidation" designed to frustrate organizing efforts. Even some government sympathizers admitted that members of the Ethiopian Democratic Union, the EPRDF's main competition in Tigray, have been discriminated against and harassed. Similarly, the head of the All Amhara People's Organization, Asrat Woldeyes, spent months in prison after being fired from his government job. Now that he has been released, it seems that both the government and his lawyer are dragging out the court proceedings---the former to maximize harassment, the latter to maximize the martyr status of his client.

The independent press is also being harassed. Although there is no official censorship in Ethiopia today, self-censorship is becoming more common and the TGE has other means of manipulation at its disposal should the press become too unruly. For example, the private press has no alternative but to buy paper from the state and use the state printing facility. Should the TGE want to muzzle a particular publication, it need only restrict its paper supply or access to the printing press, justifying the action on grounds that national priorities require the materials and facility to be used in the service of the state. The press law provides for complete press freedom with several vaguely defined exceptions, including instances where ethnic hatred is incited. However, journalists and publishers are being prosecuted under this law, as well as repeatedly hauled into police offices and the Ministry of Information to explain why they ran certain stories. Some have been arrested and detained. A number of publishers have been required to post "investigative bond" (like bail) though they were not charged with any crime. This bond is typically about $4,000, an enormous sum in Ethiopia, and more than sufficient to discourage publishers who cannot afford to post it. Street vendors merely selling the papers, many of whom are children, have also been harassed by police.

The EPRDF justifies the clamp down by charging that the press is libelous, obscene and inciting ethnic hatred. A sampling of allegations presented as fact in the "independent" media largely bears this out. Charges by the unofficial press include: priest burnings and student massacres by officials; CIA operatives posing as NGO activists; President Meles being an Arab; Eritrean and Arab conspiracies to take over the country; and even Meles being afflicted with herpes! Many of those now working for the independent media are former employees of the Mengistu press corps who were fired by the EPRDF, so some of the hostile and tabloid style reporting may be due to personal vendettas---not to mention the realization that sensationalism sells. The government's reluctance to talk to the press---partly out of arrogance and partly out of fear---also leaves journalists with nothing to follow but rumors. The fact remains, however, that the EPRDF has cast its net widely, even harassing several publications that are not only reputable but also have suffered attacks by the opposition for being too pro-government.

The effect of the government's "petty harassment" has been mixed. Several papers have taken to reporting mostly on international topics because of the difficulty in getting hard facts from the government, not to mention the potential risks of publishing unsubstantiated allegations. Other papers are now restricting themselves to straight news, ceasing all political commentary. The number of street vendors willing to sell papers has also swindled due to the fear of incurring the wrath of local police. In light of the fact that much of the independent press is hopelessly libelous, Ethiopia raises the question of whether there should be an absolute "right" to be irresponsible. Many westerners would argue that subversive advocacy is protected by free speech and that the antidote to hate speech is more speech. But the counter-argument is that Ethiopians do not necessarily have the resources to fight with more speech, and perhaps westerners cannot fully appreciate the impact of fueling ethnic tensions in a country such as Ethiopia where the potential for outbreaks of destablizing violence is much greater than, for example, in the U.S.

Where most of the independent press is embellishing and creating unpleasant news, the state media often avoids it altogether. The official press typically fails to cover events organized by the opposition or critical human rights groups. For example, the government did not cover a late 1993 press conference in which the American Ambassador clarified his position on a number of human rights issues, including whether the December peace and reconciliation conference should be allowed to go forward. Similarly, government coverage of a recent public demonstration distorted reality by showing interviews with a few individuals who seemed not to know why they were there. It is not clear whether the official press planted these people to be interviewed, or whether they simply edited out enthusiastic demonstrators, but their disingenuous coverage was laid bare by the fact that in the background, TV viewers could see demonstrators waving their arms and yelling "interview me; I'll tell you why I'm here!"

As with the press, students, human rights activists and academics are also subjected to "soft intimidation," and sometimes worse. In January 1993, police opened fire on university students demonstrating against the United Nations plans to monitor the Eritrean independence referendum, killing one student and injuring many others. In the aftermath of the demonstration, 42 academics from the university were dismissed and numerous students were arbitrarily arrested and detained. At least two human rights activists are embroiled in legal proceedings with the government. One of the cases was initiated by the activist himself, who is suing the government for breaking into his office without a warrant, beating up his employees as well as his children, and stealing his documents. There are also charges that the government has refused to obey court orders to release certain detainees, sometimes transferring them instead to other prisons.

Charges that government layoffs to date have been ethnically discriminatory are also common. In truth, there is probably some truth to the allegations that ethnic or political sympathies have played a role in government hiring and firing. However, charges frequently heard in Addis Ababa about Amharas being fired wholesale and replaced with Tigrayans and Eritreans appear to be greatly exaggerated. Now that the TGE is starting the decentralization process, many people are going to lose their jobs in a country where unemployment is already astronomical.

The independence of Eritrea has represented a major point of contention. Charges that Eritreans still living within the boundaries of Ethiopia are reaping all the benefits of Ethiopian citizenship without having any of the obligations are frequently heard, and much resentment is expressed about the "fact" that Eritreans are stealing their jobs and making them second-class citizens in their own country. Such feelings are fueled by the rising suicide rate among Ethiopians which some attribute to the lack of jobs even for those with graduate degrees. Some Ethiopians also fear that Eritreans have more cash and will therefore be able to buy up all of Ethiopia's land.

Amharas have further charged that they have been stigmatized as "neftegna" (settlers) in regions where they have lived for centuries, that they are prevented from engaging in entrepreneurial activities, and that they have been discriminated against in the allotment of public assistance. It is not clear whether these concerns about ethnic and political discrimination are warranted, and whether they are country-wide or merely distortions and fabrications of TGE transgressions generated by urban elites looking for reasons to further justify their hatred of the TGE.

Reports of more serious violations such as massacres, disappearances, indiscriminate shootings, and torture abound. Many of these claims are also grossly exaggerated, but ethnic clashes (some charge instigated by the EPRDF), shootings under mysterious circumstances, and beatings have occurred. The authors have not been able to establish the level of central government responsibility for such incidents, but suspect that in most cases the EPRDF turns a blind eye to the behavior of its local surrogates rather than instigating the violence itself. Unfortunately, most of the information regarding government abuses comes from opposition sources widely considered unreliable on such matters.

So what effect has the EPRDF's mixed record in the area of human rights and democracy-building had on independent citizen initiatives? Again, the answer is mixed. Ethiopians do seem to be taking more initiative at the local level. Citizens are setting up independent peasant associations, cooperatives and small businesses. At least 10 human rights organizations are now operating in the capital city, a few of which are trying to extend their reach into other cities and the countryside. These human rights groups engage in a range of activities from monitoring current government abuses and documenting human rights atrocities during the Mengistu era to human and women's rights education, training and legal aid. One human rights organization is working with community elders at the grassroots level to revive traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution. An independent association of journalists has also been organized, and some efforts have been made to start an independent bar association and trade union.

These civil institutions are struggling to generate a new ethic of citizen participation and action that goes against the grain of Ethiopian culture and experience. Civil society is extremely weak in Ethiopia, a country whose history took her directly from feudalism into communist dictatorship. Although there were some institutions that enjoyed a small measure of independence under the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopians had no experience with public institutions capable of making government accountable, and little tradition of standing up to authority. Local activists report that the vast majority of Ethiopians were so traumatized by the Mengistu era, when every institution---the urban and peasant associations, the unions, the women's associations, the press---was just another tentacle of the state, that they have become cowed, cynical and apathetic. Though the existence of a rapidly expanding number of human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations over the past 2 1/2 years is certainly encouraging, these groups are not only regarded suspiciously by the government, but also by a public waiting for them to reveal their hidden agendas. Those who are not suspicious are likely to be preoccupied with simple survival.

Working against an authoritarian tradition and apathy in order to build institutions reflecting diverse interests is an uphill battle, especially when the public can see that these groups run the risk of harassment from the government. The human rights community, however, has not been as constrained as the media. This may be explained by the fact that many of the human rights groups are engaging in seemingly non-threatening activities such as organizing educational fora and documenting past abuses. The one human rights organization that is engaged in monitoring current violations has repeatedly run afoul of the government.

The Ethiopian Minister of Justice's opening remarks at a recent human rights conference reflects the EPRDF's hostility to human rights organizations, and its fundamental misunderstanding of the role of NGOs. Among other things, the Minister stated that, "NGOs need to be more sympathetic to the real problems facing governments...." "NGO participation," he continued, "would do better if aimed at supplementing and complementing governmental efforts toward promoting respect for human rights."

At least one foreign human rights group was denied a visa to travel to Ethiopia following their circulation of a report critical of the TGE's human rights record. Local groups have also been attacked in the official press and one person lost her job because of the role she played in gathering human rights data. The government's main mechanism for discouraging human rights efforts, however, seems to lie in its registration policy, or rather non-policy. The civil code requires groups to register with the Ministry of the Interior in order to become legal. But invariably groups are sent on wild goose chases where they are shuttled from Ministry to Ministry, each denying that it has jurisdiction and sending them off to the next. The ambiguity about where to register enables the government to delay legalization indefinitely, and this gives it the option to deny permits to groups wishing to organize demonstrations and make it difficult for groups to open bank accounts, receive contributions, attract volunteers, etc. As long as the government denies a group legal status, there will be people who will be afraid to associate themselves with it. Governmentally imposed obstacles to registration have not stopped any of the human rights groups from functioning, however, and a dialogue started in July between the TGE and its most vocal human rights critic. This offers some hope that the relationship between the EPRDF and the human rights community will improve.

In general, it seems that the behavior of all parties---government, political opposition, and at least some civic institutions---can be explained by the interplay between their somewhat supportable paranoia about the others being out to get them, with their use of the "fact" to justify their refusal to deal genuinely those who disagree with them. Given Ethiopia's history, and the fact that the transitional government is controlled by those experienced in living by the sword, not by consensus, this is not surprising.

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With civil society at a still too-nascent level of development to fully challenge the TGE, and the balance of power within the branches of government tipped so strongly in favor of the executive, the strongest check on anti-democratic behavior continues to be the international community. Though the TGE has largely ignored or denounced local criticism of its human rights record, it has shown itself to be more vulnerable to external pressure, if only to keep the foreign aid flowing.

The next major indicator of the TGE's intentions regarding its tolerance for free expression while pushing for consensus will be the June 5 Constituent Assembly elections. If the regime is able to secure the participation of the opposition based inside the country, and conducts a free and fair election, some confidence-building and progress toward establishing a balance of power will have been achieved. And if the international community supports this progress by giving public support and concrete assistance to civil society---as well as to the TGE when it takes tough decisions in favor of human rights---while adopting punitive measures against the regime when it acts undemocratically, domestic checks on the abuse of power may be able to develop in time to stay the slide back toward authoritarian rule. If, however, the elections fail to build public confidence in the administration, it may very well spell the end of the era of at least partial accommodation, and Ethiopia may find itself back at war.


In January 1991, after a concentrated two-month assault on Mogadishu by insurgents, Somalia's President Mohammed Siad Barre and the remnants of his regime were forced to seek refuge in their traditional clan area in the southwestern corner of the country. With the end of Siad Barre's twenty-year-old dictatorship, it was widely hoped that peace and rule through consensus would come to Somalia after years of intensifying civil war. As the world well knows, this was not to be.

During the relatively peaceful interregnum before armed conflict again erupted in southern Somalia, a portion of the country decided to go its own way. In May 1991 the Somali National Movement (SNM), an armed rebel group composed largely of the Isaaq clan-family that had taken over administration of northwestern Somalia after the defeat of Siad Barre, unilaterally declared the independence of a break-away Somaliland. Since then, copious press attention has focused on famine and violence in the remainder of once-unified Somalia, the portion facing the Indian Ocean to the south and east. Meanwhile, conditions in the now-largely pacific Somaliland, which faces north toward the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Peninsula, have attracted little notice.

The name 'Somaliland' itself comes from that period dating from the end of the nineteenth century until Somalian independence in 1960, when this region of the Horn of Africa inhabited by Somalis was first a British protectorate and then a colony. Somalia to the east had been colonized by Italy, French Somaliland (now Djibouti) was on the west, and the vast inland Ogaden region to the south, also inhabited by ethnic Somalis, had been conquered by the Ethiopian Empire at roughly the same time that the Europeans were carving up the rest of the Horn. The Italian and British colonies were united into one independent country, with its capital of Mogadishu in the south, but many Somalis long cherished the hope of someday uniting the five fragments of their traditional homeland (including northeastern Kenya) into a "Greater Somalia."

Siad Barre, a southern Somali, had come to power on October 21, 1969 at the head of a military junta that overthrew a largely ineffectual civilian regime. In an atmosphere of hope and renewal, the new regime rallied Somalians to participate in volunteer reconstruction and re-vegetation projects. Mass organizations were launched to mobilize young people, women, and other social sectors in support of the new nationalism and government. Later, literacy campaigns taught a new Latin script to a people for whom Somali had been strictly an oral medium, and the regime began to institute the long-neglected education of girls. A family law promulgated in the mid seventies recognized women as fully competent legal persons.

The unfortunate flip side of these developmental measures was the suppression of civil society. Association and expression deemed to exacerbate clan divisions were banned, and this included the suspension of free political activity. Striking, viewed by the state as a form of economic sabotage, was legally punishable by death. The judiciary was an arm of executive policy, and as such readily meted out long prison sentences even to non-violent anti-government demonstrators. The media was totally state-run, and criticism of the regime not tolerated. Agents of the National Security Service habitually tortured political detainees, who were often held indefinitely without charge or trial. The paramilitary 'Victory Pioneers,' created to protect the gains of the Revolution, were repeatedly implicated in the rape of women from clans such as the Isaaq that resisted the regime. And in a harsh move reminiscent of the methods, if not the goals, of Sudan's current NIF regime, ten Somalian clerics were executed for insisting on publicly criticizing the Siad Barre government's policies favoring female emancipation.

The full cost to Somalians of the squelching of civil society was only appreciated as time passed. A single ruling party had been created in 1976 and a constitution went into effect three years later to give a civilian and de jure veneer to what was a military-dominated regime, but they only served to formalize the president's already absolute power. By the beginning of the eighties, the regime had lost any credit that it might have amassed as a government committed to broad national interests when Siad Barre began openly showing favoritism to a narrow grouping of clans to which he was linked by blood or marriage. Chief among the favorites was his own Marehan clan. Once the regime began openly discriminating against the majority of the country's clans and "privatizing" the state for the benefit of its own members, it had removed any possibility of independent forces holding it accountable without resort to violence.

The first clan-family to become openly rebellious was the Isaaq. The Somali National Movement (SNM), founded in London in 1981 and largely an Isaaq organization, did not mount a full-scale offensive from its base of operations in nearby Ethiopia until 1988. Surprisingly, within only a few months it was able to seize control of the major towns in the Isaaq heartland before being forced out into the countryside in a counteroffensive by Somalian troops. The action by the army was not only directed against SNM combatants, but also against civilians. Employing all-too-familiar tactics practiced against noncombatant populations throughout the Horn, the army and security forces destroyed water wells, burned off critical grazing areas, detained and tortured men, and gang-raped women. Military police rounded up people at random and publicly executed them both in reprisal for guerrilla attacks and to intimidate would-be rebel recruits and sympathizers. A campaign of destruction sent bombers and artillery batteries against civilian targets, devastating Hargeisa and other major cities in the region. As many as half a million northern Somalis fled, becoming refugees in neighboring Ethiopia and Djibouti. Many of them have not yet returned to a country now independent but still largely unrecovered.

After the SNM finally took charge of Somaliland in 1991, there was initial uncertainty as to whether the territory should ultimately dissolve its union with Somalia; opinion within the movement, as well as the population, was split. But sentiment for independence immediately increased in the North after the quick accession of Ali Mahdi, a member of the Hawiye clan-family of central Somalia, as interim successor to the overthrown Siad Barre. The SNM felt it had not been consulted in the choice of president, foresaw the creation of another regime in which northerners would be marginalized, and felt mounting popular pressure to cut ties after years of genocidal policies emanating from far-off Mogadishu. With independence, Abdurahman Ahmed Ali "Tur," chairman of the SNM, was named the first president of Somaliland by an all-national Guurti, or council of elders. By separating from the South, however, Somaliland had not ensured that it would avoid being drawn into the type of inter-clan conflict that was soon to rage in what remained of Somalia.

In fact, armed conflict sporadically erupted for the first year and a half after the SNM came to power. Almost immediately after victory over the Siad Barre regime was achieved at the beginning of 1991, there was fighting in and around the town of Borama, in the middle of traditionally Gadabursi territory to the west of Hargeisa. Elements of the Isaaq-dominated SNM, said to resent what was alleged to have been collaboration by the leadership of the Gadabursi with the Siad Barre regime, reportedly struck out in retribution at the smaller clan after the fall of that regime. The following month, an all-clan conference was held in the port of Berbera in an attempt to avoid such conflicts in the future.

But a year later fighting moved to Berbera itself and to Burao. Isaaq militiamen from different subclans sporadically battled each other during much of 1992 as their factions jockeyed for local control. When not directly involved in the maneuvering for advantage itself, the national government had been unable to impose order. The executive seemed incapable of persuading Somali clans to delegate it authority, and Hargeisa has been in no condition to impose either order or its own will by force. That it has come to recognize that fact is clear by its recent advocacy of a polity it terms "modified clan rule." The North's hard experience with Siad Barre's regime and army ensures that the likelihood of any more centralization than that is slight.

A conference finally convened in October to promote peace between the rivals, selecting a group of elders to resolve future disputes before they erupted into violence. This proved to be a turning point both in the search for national peace and in the organization of the country at the center. Women, alarmed that the clan conflict might fling the region back into the level of armed conflict experienced before liberation from the Mogadishu regime, reportedly picketed the seat of government in Hargeisa, holding signs that read, "We Don't Want to Flee Again" and "We Don't Want a Civil War."

At the start of 1993, representatives from both the Isaaq and minority clans, and members of the government met in Borama at a gathering of the national Guurti. At the conference, the man whom as prime minister had been deposed by Siad Barre's coup in 1969, Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, was chosen as the new president to replace the incumbent Abdurahman Ahmed Ali "Tur." "Tur" had been criticized for his inability to: attract international recognition and development aid; increase the non-Isaaq presence in the transitional government and SNM; and make progress on the demobilization of the various armed militias at large in Somaliland. Though clearly unhappy with his defeat, the now ex-president gracefully turned over his office.

In proceedings that went on for some three months, the Guurti also confirmed that it would formally transform itself into an upper legislative body in 1996 when the transitional regime was due to expire. It also drafted a transitional national charter, and appointed an interim parliament and supreme court. In seizing the initiative by taking such bold and sweeping decisions, the Guurti has shown itself to be a match for the chief-of-state and the ruling party's central committee, a balance of power rare in the Horn of Africa.

In fact, that the SNM leadership would acquiesce to Guurti direction is in accord with the party's long-time reputation of being "one of the most democratic movements in the Horn of Africa." Its party congresses, rather than being programmed celebrations of solidarity, have frequently been contentious, as various men vied for the position of chairman. This acceptance of pluralism and dissent has influenced the still-developing polity: the parliamentary vote in October 1993 to approve a 'clannishly-diverse' government and its program of action for the projected two-year transitional period was far from unanimous. Despite the relatively democratic, tolerant, and representative nature of the transitional government, the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity continue to refuse to recognize it as a sovereign state---a seal of approval that would facilitate access to desperately needed development assistance. To bolster its case for recognition, Somaliland is now considering the utility of a national referendum to convince the international community that the vast majority of northern Somalis support independence.

Despite the transitional government's unusual and expanding penchant for inclusive politics, Somaliland's minority clans remain largely unconvinced that they will have a significant voice in governing the new country. Sensing that they needed political organizations to champion their own interests, members of the Gadabursi, Dolbahante, and Issa clans proceeded after Somaliland's unilateral declaration of independence to form them. The Somali Democratic Association, which largely represents the interests of the Gadabursi, has put itself on record as opposing the split-up of Somalia, and the United Somali Party representing the Dolbahante and Warsangali leans in the same direction. The attitude of non-Isaaq clan leaders unaffiliated with any party continues to be ambiguous. Though the transitional government announced in July 1993 that political parties other than the SNM would not be allowed to operate until regulations governing their operation had been instituted, it is unlikely that it will hazard the breakout of interclan violence of the kind witnessed in Somalia by challenging the existence of these organizations.

Although a supreme court has been named, a comprehensive national judicial and legal system is not yet in place. Instead, local clan elders usually meet throughout the country to decide disputes and mete out punishments with resort to a traditional mix of Somali customary law and Islamic Shari'a. Often they must deal with the breakdown in security resulting from clan militiamen and shiftas (bandits) patrolling the highways in search of booty. With the hope that the rule of law can be made uniform and predictable in Somaliland, a group called Lawyers for Civil Rights in Hargeisa aims to supplement the use of customary law and Shari'a by presenting to the government proposed legal codes that are also based on useful precedents from Somalian and British law.

Even though the aim of the transitional government in Hargeisa is the modernization of Somaliland, it does not envision the total remaking of civil society. This acceptance of most forms of traditional social organization is a mixed blessing, however. On the one hand, clan autonomy seems to be largely recognized, as is the authority of local elders, making the imposition of the regime's will by force unlikely. On the other hand, the state's respect for tradition may well mean a lesser commitment to confront gender inequality than was the case even in the early years of the Siad Barre regime. The traditional practice of infibulation and female circumcision on young girls continues everywhere. Reports continue to filter out of the country of attacks by armed men on women, demanding either protection money or their property. Displaced women without the protection of near male kinsmen are especially subject to rape and abuse. Somali women's groups continue to respond to such lawlessness by denouncing those incidents of violence in public protests, and by demanding their inclusion in power-sharing arrangements at every level to assure government action against perpetrators.

The condition and status of women is further shadowed by the recent expansion of Islamic fundamentalism in Somaliland. The presence and influence of radical Islamists is felt everywhere. The government in Hargeisa has considered adopting Shari'a as the law of the land; feeding centers for the displaced are eagerly funded by wealthy Saudi fundamentalists; Koranic academies run by Somali fundamentalists are sprouting throughout the country to educate a significant percentage of the school-aged population; and clandestine centers training 'Islamic warriors' are reputedly scattered in various locations.

In storming against society's immorality and adoption of so-called Western habits, a significant portion of the condemnation of zealous imams and roadside preachers is directed against women. In a notorious incident of January 1993, a gang of young men and boys were incited by a local demagogue in Hargeisa to stone five women to death for prostitution. Others, who have appointed themselves to police community morals, rail against the increased commercial involvement of women, previously the province of men. That there are few avenues open to women---particularly war widows---who must sustain themselves and their families, is dismissed as of little account.

While clan affiliations divide, religion in Muslim Somaliland unites. On this basis, Islamists have made their pitch to the population that fundamentalism provides the only hope for preventing in the North the chaos that reigns in the South. In response to this, as well as to the lack of development everywhere in the country, non-Islamist Somalis of various clans have come together to represent the multitude of interests within the country that cut across clan affiliations. Muslims in a society where Islam has been traditionally moderate, they are alarmed by the slow but steady growth of fundamentalism, and so seek other vehicles for fostering national unity.

Such individuals have independently begun a number of relief and rehabilitation associations that provide income opportunities to the displaced and destitute, teach children, deliver health care, and promote community development. Various voluntary youth organizations run programs that divert energy from the direction of banditry, and aforementioned new civil rights group also evidences the resurgence of civil society. If the spread of fundamentalism is to be stemmed, groups composed of Muslims who reject the appeal of the Islamists while working for social change should be supported. In this way outsiders can reinforce a vital manifestation of the gradual but positive trend within Somaliland toward power-sharing, decision-making through consensus, respect for autonomy, and acceptance of differences.

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Unlike in the other four countries examined in this article, there are powerful checks on the power of the executive in Somaliland. The power of the clans, demonstrated in their reluctance to turn control of the national airport in Hargeisa and seaport in Berbera over to the national government, indicates that these are independent and diffused loci of potential resistance to the state. But clans and their leaders are not civil society; in Somaliland they are merely autonomous reproductions of the state on a smaller scale. And since each clan guards its sovereignty and separateness jealously, cross-clan interest coalitions have seldom formed for reasons other than to confront the menace of powerful alliances of other clans.

The national Guurti, however, is also a powerful check on the power of the executive, and here we can see the hand of civil society creating representative institutions. An interclan organization encompassing the variety of clans in the country, it collectively stands for interests that transcend the narrow preferences of any one. Those who serve, are both traditional agents and leaders of their people, though their selection is almost invariably on a basis that westerners would not identify as strictly democratic. A still fuller resurgence of civil society, of course, is seen in the creation of directly representative civic organizations over the past two years.

Whatever its future relationship with Somalia may be, if Somaliland keeps to its present path of cautious consensus-building and respect for local and regional autonomy, preparing for free and fair elections at the end of the transitional period in 1996, and extending the rule of law to prevent the type of criminal behavior that most notably victimizes women, then the future for civil society and human rights there may be the most hopeful in the Horn of Africa.


Authoritarianism has been the rule rather than exception during the past three decades in the Horn of Africa, as in much of the rest of the continent. Whether by coup d'etat, civil war, or a more gradual assumption of absolute power by those already in authority, small coteries have too often managed to hijack the state, and do so ultimately for their own benefit. Then, in order to pre-empt all challenge to their prerogatives, they have attempted to constrain the free development of civil society by refusing to recognize the rights of free association, speech, and assembly.

As we have seen, a vigorous civil society is always to be desired, but it is all the more important when there are no state institutions standing in the way of the unconstrained exercise of executive power. Independent centers of power arising from different ethnic or religious factions within a country provide no substitute for the countervailing force of civil society. Even if there is a transitory balance of power between the capital and other centers of power within the country that stays the hand of repression, a sudden shift of allegiances and power can dissolve the checks on the exercise of absolute power by creating new masters as arbitrary, corrupt, and violent as the old. The leader of an oppressed clan, sect, or ethnic group, protesting one president's dictatorial rule today, may himself be tomorrow's strongman. Examples include Hassan Gouled Aptidon in Djibouti, and potentially both John Garang, leader of the rebel SPLA in Sudan, and General Mohammed Aideed in Somalia. Verified reports of human rights abuses issuing from the territories respectively controlled by all the three men indicate that respect for human rights and civil society are as little regarded by them as by their past or present adversaries.

Civil society, however, may itself create a toxic environment in which civil society dies. This is particularly true in countries tentatively exploring the boundaries of a new order more respectful of civil liberties, as is the case in Ethiopia today. If opposition movements and independent institutions simply mirror or exaggerate the authoritarian and factionalist political culture found in the country's successive governments, they run the risk of providing just the rationalization needed by those currently in power to continue resorting to tried and true repressive measures. Thus, an anti-pluralist civil society will have closed the window of opportunity of which it took advantage to create itself.

Nor will the inclusion within the ranks of an undemocratic regime of certain "representative" members or organizations from the diverse groups comprising a given society ensure state accountability. It is usually deemed important by authoritarians to form mass organizations or surrogate political parties, and handpick members of each of the various important demographic groups, to give at least the appearance of incorporating all social sectors in administration. Cabinet officers are appointed (Djibouti), political parties linked to the ruling party are created (the Ethiopian PDOs), or regional administrators are selected (Southern Sudan) to present the facade of inclusivity and responsiveness. But the rulers are no more accountable to their tools than they are to the citizenry at large. If such individuals or associations have any duty at all beyond serving as window-dressing, it is to serve as instruments of unconstrained state power, transmitting demands and requirements from the top down rather than from the bottom up. Further, they are usually unable to stop those at the top from working their will, no matter how brutal, on the populations that these agents ostensibly represent.

But attempts at co-option can cut two ways. Individuals and organizations anointed by the state merely to give the appearance of independence can actually begin to act independently. Afar cabinet ministers in the Hassan Gouled regime have publicly acted to publicize abuses by the Djiboutian army against ethnic Afars in the north of the country. In Sudan, a trade union federation created by the regime to replace an independent labor movement decimated by arrests and detentions has begun to make wage demands on behalf of its membership. Sometimes dependent creatures of the state can take on a life of their own, actually promoting the interests of those that they were only supposed to feign representing. However the opening for it is created, civil society must develop to the point where it is capable of identifying for itself its interests and push for them.

Civil society's potential to hold government accountable depends, among other things, on how sensitive the government is to outside pressure and how much of an audience civil institutions have with foreign governments, particularly donors. While mass manifestations of civil society have proven weak in Djibouti since independence, a regime dependent on extensive Western aid has hesitated on the brink of decisively repressing independent and nonviolent citizen initiatives. The case is equally true now in Ethiopia, where the government is largely concerned with its international image.

However, concern with foreign perceptions can cause regimes to choose the opposite path if they wish to emphasize "stability." For a long time Djibouti habitually stifled dissent in the hope that foreign investors and donors would not be scared off by signs of public disaffection. Over the past two years, Ethiopia has also experienced episodes of suppression as the government attempted to present an image of social peace. The Sudanese regime, on the other hand, has only sporadically displayed concern about how the West views it. It has either tried to block foreign visitors from meeting with members of the underground human rights community---as happened during the visits of a UN Human Rights Rapporteur during 1993---or made cynical gestures of liberality toward the international community such as commemorating special NIF anniversaries with limited prisoner releases and allowing occasional entry visas to foreign human rights activists.

Given the West's varying degree of influence in the countries of the Horn, the most valuable contribution it can make to permanent democratization in the region would be to provide significant and sustained support to those individuals and groups there that are attempting to act outside the sphere of the state. Ignorance, deliberate or not, by Western governments of a popular struggle against despotism is unacceptable. The passive role of the United States in Djibouti is a case in point. The West should not, however, delude itself into thinking that it is capable of taking the lead in building, or rebuilding, a civic society in any of the countries in the region. The situation in Somalia gives witness to that.

In fact, the situation in neighboring Somaliland is instructive. Despite UNOSOM's stated intention of sending armed peace-keepers and administrators there, the government in Hargeisa's refusal to accept them was bolstered by civilian demonstrators throughout the country protesting against the planned deployment. Somalis asserted that the presence of the foreign troops, given the prevailing atmosphere of peace within Somaliland, was unneeded and therefore unwanted.

It is up to Somalis themselves---just as it is up to Ethiopians, Eritreans, Djiboutians, and Sudanese in their own countries---to empower and protect elements of their civil society. Rebuilding a nation presents challenges that can only be met by the locals themselves. What distinguishes Somaliland from the other countries of the Horn is that its people are reaching back into what is best in their cultural traditions: respect for diversity and the use of mechanisms for achieving consensus and compromise.

Date: Sat, 10 Sep 1994 01:34:00 -0400 (EDT)
From: Dale Bricker 
Subject: Consensus & Dissent in the Horn