Ethiopia: Status of Amharas

April 6, 1993











In May 1991, the brutal Mengistu Haile Mariam government was overthrown. The new government formed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of ethnic armies which had been largely formed to fight against the Mengistu government, came to power. The EPRDF allowed the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) to administer the territory of Eritrea independently, and agreed that Eritrea could become an independent country contingent on a referendum scheduled for April 1993. Other ethnic secessionist movements were persuaded to remain within Ethiopia by offers of power-sharing within the government on an ethnic basis. Many exiles, including those loyal to Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia who was deposed in the mid-1970s, are returning home.

By any standards, the Transitional Government established by the EPRDF is a vast improvement over the Mengistu government. Freedom of expression, political participation, and rule of law are at a much higher level than during the Mengistu era. Despite strong hostility by some Amharas to both their loss of control of power in Ethiopia, and to the EPRDF's decision to grant Eritrea its independence, the EPRDF does not appear to have retaliated against Amharas as a group. (The term Amhara is used in this paper to encompass not just ethnic Amharas, but also those who speak Amharic and identify with the concept of a unified, centralized Ethiopian state. See discussion below for more detail.)

However, Ethiopia continues to face major challenges, five of which could directly and seriously affect the status of Amharas in Ethiopia:


This profile addresses only the status of Amharas in Ethiopia, including those who were expelled from the territory of Eritrea. This focus was determined not because Amharas are, or are not, at greater risk in Ethiopia than other groups, such as the Oromo and the Afar. Rather, it was chosen because most Ethiopian claims for asylum in the United States are from applicants who describe themselves as Amhara.

The term Amhara encompasses not just the Amhara ethnic group, but also a broader category of Ethiopians who speak Amharic and who identify with the concept of a unified, centralized Ethiopian state. In the words of the former associate director of Africa Watch, Alex de Waal, Amharas comprise several groups:
One is the peasants of the northern regions. These people speak the Amharic language and have a cluster of cultural traits in common, including adherence to Orthodox Christianity, certain traditions of land tenure and social organization, and the use of certain agricultural technologies. Another group is the neftnennya, settlers in the southern regions who were closely associated with the land-owning, governing and military classes of the empire. A third category is the urbanized or government-related ruling class. Historically, these people have formed the core of an indigenous conquest state and have social attitudes to match. Many are assimilated from other ethnic groups, having "become Amhara" by adopting the Amharic language, Orthodox Christianity, and other cultural traits. These latter two categories formed the bulk of the army's officer class and the governmental bureaucracy.
Many of those commonly described in the western press as Amharas, including former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, members of the military junta which overthrew Haile Selassie, and deposed Ethiopian ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam, were either of mixed ancestry, or not ethnic Amharas. For clarity, some scholars refer to those who speak Amharic, were assimilated through university education, or military or civil service, and identify with the dominant culture, as "Ethiopian nationalists," or "centralists." Although this paper uses the term Amhara, it does so in the broadest sense. Information in this report will be relevant to those who are not ethnic Amharas, but who might be identified by others as part of the old ruling elite because of their positions in the military or civil service, their opposition to Eritrea's separation from Ethiopia, or their opposition to the EPRDF's system of ethnic representation.


Ethiopia and Liberia are the only African states which were never formally colonized by European powers. Ethiopia has existed as an empire for over two thousand years, dominated primarily by the Amhara and Tigre ethnic groups. Since the late-19th century, an ethnic Shewan Amhara royalty, and those who assimilated into the dominant Amhara culture, largely controlled political and economic power. The social structure of Ethiopia was feudal, with a variety of land tenure systems in which nobility could demand tributes or taxes and labor from serfs. The system was particularly exploitative in southern Ethiopia where the nobility was essentially an occupying force not sharing the language or culture of the local population.

Eritrea, colonized by Italy in 1890, was the only portion of Ethiopia to experience colonial rule. In 1935, fascist Italy defeated Ethiopia militarily and occupied the country until the British gained control in 1941-2, when Emperor Haile Selassie was returned to power. The British continued to rule Eritrea until 1952, when an autonomous Eritrean government in a federated union with Ethiopia governed the territory. This system remained in place until 1962, when the Eritrean assembly, many of whose members had been accused of accepting bribes, voted unanimously to turn Eritrea into a governorate. Eritrea's political party system was abolished, its relatively free press censored, Amharas were given most of the top administrative positions, and the principle of parity between Muslims and Christians ended. The secessionist Eritrean Liberation Front, formed in 1958 by Muslim separatists and joined soon after by Christians, turned to armed opposition to Ethiopian rule in 1961. The ELF remained the primary Eritrean opposition movement until 1970, when the breakaway Eritrean People's Liberation Front, initially more urban, intellectual, leftist and Christian than the ELF, gained ascendancy.

The failure of the aging Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, to halt the war in Eritrea, cope with prolonged drought and famine, or reform a grossly exploitative feudal system, led to a military coup in 1974. The new Ethiopian government, eventually headed by Major Mengistu Haile Mariam, embarked on an ambitious program of land redistribution and nationalization intended to completely restructure Ethiopian society.

Although the revolution was initially popular in southern Ethiopia, the former aristocratic class, wealthier peasants, and landlords in the north, opposed it. Widespread opposition to the Mengistu government formed within the first few years after the military coup. One source of opposition was from ethnic armies, including the Tigre People's Liberation Front, the Oromo Liberation Front, the Somali Abo Liberation Front, and the Afar Liberation Front. Another was from the political parties which were not explicitly ethnic-based, such as the Ethiopian Democratic Union and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party. Most of these ethnic and political parties were more committed to a socialist revolutionary philosophy than the Mengistu government, but opposed military rule or Mengistu's failure to accommodate the interests of those who had not assimilated into the dominant Amhara culture.

The failure of the Mengistu government to accommodate other ethnic groups, its early decision to oppose any form of federation or separation for Eritrea, and authoritarian forced resettlements introduced in an attempt to alleviate famine increased opposition. Facing insurgencies in most regions of Ethiopia, the Mengistu government resorted to increasingly brutal repression. Prolonged drought and war contributed to a series of devastating famines in the mid- to late 1980s, which alienated many of those who had initially supported the Mengistu government's attempt to restructure society. By 1977, the EPLF controlled most of Eritrea except for the major cities and roads. The TPLF-led EPRDF was capturing territory from its stronghold in northeastern Ethiopia, and in southern Ethiopia, the OLF was also engaged in battles with government troops. The Ethiopian government eventually agreed to negotiate with the various ethnic armies in an attempt to reach some form of political settlement.

While the talks were scheduled, EPRDF troops moved closer to the capital and EPLF troops in Eritrea captured the few remaining cities under Ethiopian military control. On May 21, 1991, Mengistu fled Ethiopia for Zimbabwe, apparently without informing his closest associates. A caretaker government led by Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, a former defense minister recently appointed Vice President, and Tesfaye Dinka, an ex-foreign minister appointed Prime Minister, released almost 200 political prisoners, and protected intact government security files containing information which is expected to help convict former Mengistu officials for human rights abuses and corruption.

In a final attempt at negotiation, the EPRDF, the OLF, Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka of the Mengistu government, and the EPLF met with United States Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen in London on May 27, 1991. Tesfaye Dinka attempted to include the COEDF, as one of the political forces in Ethiopia, in the negotiations. Although the United States did not specifically object to the COEDF's inclusion, it evidently accepted the EPRDF's resistance to this inclusion.

As the negotiations proceeded, Israel arranged to pay $35 million into the Ethiopian treasury in exchange for an airlift to Israel of most of the remaining Ethiopian Jews, commonly referred to as Falasha. Meanwhile, the EPRDF's army moved closer to the Ethiopian capital. The United States "recommended" that the EPRDF enter the capital "in order to reduce uncertainties and eliminate tensions." With the EPRDF in control of the capital, the London talks concluded with a promise of a multi-party conference in July 1991. Many Ethiopian exiles who were not aligned with the EPRDF or other armed opposition groups strongly criticized the decision of the United States to accept the EPRDF's control of Ethiopia, which in their view abandoned attempts to reach a political settlement. The United States government maintains that the July 1991 conference in Addis Ababa constituted a political settlement, although not all Ethiopian parties participated in the conference.

The first few months of the transition were tense. Many residents of Addis Ababa, most of whom are Amhara, were hostile toward the Tigrean-dominated EPRDF, which they viewed as an occupying army. In the first few months after the takeover, the EPRDF banned public demonstrations, citing the approximately 80,000 guns in the hands of the capital's residents as their justification. Amharas, mainly students and unemployed workers, in repeated defiance of this restriction, gathered in crowds, insulting the Tigreans, criticizing the United States for abandoning talks, and objecting to the EPRDF's decision to accept the EPLF's control over Eritrea. The EPRDF dispersed several of the demonstrations peaceably, but killed at least three people in one of the demonstrations.

In general, the EPRDF's troops proved to be well-disciplined, restoring peace in the capital and in many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. They also proved far more pragmatic and conciliatory than the TPLF's history as a hardline Marxist organization led observers to expect, attempting to form alliances and coalitions instead of relying solely on force. In a key strategic move, they managed to form an alliance with the Oromo Liberation Front, with whom they had clashed militarily in the past. Oromos represent 40% of Ethiopia's population, and the OLF is the largest of the Oromo armies. Although relations between the OLF and the EPRDF have been extremely tense throughout the post-Mengistu period, the EPRDF has managed to avert civil war.

As promised at the end of the May 1991 peace talks, the EPRDF held a national conference in early July to elect an interim government (the Transitional Government, whose legislative body is the Council of Representatives), form a constitution, and set goals for local and national elections. The conference proved more broad-based, open, and productive than even the most optimistic observers expected. The COEDF and its affiliates, such as the EPRP and MEISON, however, were not represented at the conference. The EPRDF allocated itself 32 of the 87 seats in the Council of Representatives it created. It allocated 12 seats to the OLF, and the remainder to smaller ethnic and constituent-based parties (including one for university professors and one for workers), many of which were created immediately before the national conference convened. The conference was attended by representatives of every major and most minor Ethiopian ethnic groups, and both Muslims and Christians. There was general agreement on a secular state, national parliamentary elections within a short period, regional or ethnic self-government, and self-determination for those groups which decided by referendum to form a separate state.

As will be discussed in greater detail below, although conditions in Ethiopia in general continue to be fairly positive, problems related to human rights and political participation have not been fully resolved. Opposition political parties outside the government coalition have been allowed to form and to advocate positions -- such as reunification with Eritrea -- which the EPRDF does not support. Over 100 political parties formed in the first year following the coup, and demonstrations were held weekly in Addis Ababa by groups advocating a full range of political views.

Conditions leading to and during the June 1992 elections, however, were not completely conducive to open political participation. The OLF and some other parties in the governing coalition, and some parties which did not hold seats in the Council of Representatives, including the All-Amhara People's Organization (AAPO), boycotted the elections. They charged, with validity, that unresolved problems with the process (discussed in the section below on elections) made free and fair elections impossible. International observers agreed that the elections were severely flawed, although they disagreed on whether the problems were due to poor management and training of election officials, or to a deliberate attempt by the EPRDF to intimidate voters and manipulate results.

Immediately following the elections, the OLF withdrew from the coalition government and fighting broke out between the EPRDF and the OLF. The EPRDF's troops, better organized and equipped, easily defeated the OLF. The EPRDF set up camps to detain Oromos. An estimated 19,000 Oromos were still in detention at the end of 1992, including not just OLF fighters, but also children and the elderly. The EPRDF has announced no plans either to release or charge these detainees.

In the months following the OLF's defeat, the EPRDF and OLF have agreed to try to negotiate a settlement through international mediators whereby the OLF can be reintegrated into the coalition government and elections can take place in those areas of Ethiopia where they were canceled in June 1992. A solution has not yet been reached. OLF members continue to reserve their right to secede, and object to the EPRDF's dominance over the national army, but the feared return to full-scale civil war has not taken place.

The OLF's primary interest appears to be persuading the EPRDF to agree that the June elections were fraudulent and hold them again. At present, while the government is willing to agree that the elections were flawed, and is planning to hold elections in areas where they were canceled, it does not appear willing to cancel the results of the June 1992 election. However, the Vice Minister of Internal Affairs, Kinfe Gebre-Mehdin, expressed the EPRDF's desire to re-integrate the OLF into the governing coalition: "To some degree, they [the OLF] accommodate the interests of members of the Amhara-Oromo elite who feel removed from the political process."

As of November 1992, Ethiopia's overall prospects seem fairly good. Make-up elections are being held in some of the regions where ethnic conflict prevented them in June 1992. In October 1992, the Transitional Government established by the EPRDF lifted remaining censorship laws. From a review of Foreign Broadcast Information Service reports, it is clear that the level of ethnic clashes in Ethiopia is at one of its lowest points since the coup, but there are unresolved issues which could continue to affect the human rights situation in Ethiopia. The OLF and some parties outside the governing coalition perceive the EPRDF as a single-party dictatorship. Some opposition groups continue to express concern that the EPRDF may drop its attempts to rule by consensus. Africa Watch and the widely respected Ethiopian Human Rights Council continue to report serious human right violations committed by the EPRDF, the OLF, and other political groups. These reports include arbitrary executions, detentions, political killings and a widespread suspension of the rule of law. Radio broadcasts continue to report violence against Amharas, as well as other ethnic groups, in rural areas. Although some violence is due to banditry, some appears to be ethnically motivated. Continued clashes in the Gojjam region indicate that remnants of the EPRP (discussed below) are still fighting.


Although the number of representatives allocated to each ethnic group in the new governing Council of Representatives reflected more their relative military strength than their percentage in the population, all ethnic groups, including Amharas, are represented in the Council of Representatives. In the first cabinet formed after the transition, there were four Amharas, including the Prime Minister, Tamarit Layne, six Oromos, three Tigreans, and three ministers from other ethnic groups in the 16-member cabinet. Although the ruling coalition appears to have a higher percentage of Christians than the approximately 50% in the general population, there are three people listed in the cabinet who are Muslim, and four more who are believed to be Muslim. The Indian Ocean Newsletter suggests that the EPRDF has created ethnic parties among the smaller ethnic groups and given them power out of proportion to their numbers in the population to prevent the elites of stronger and larger ethnic groups, particularly the Amharas and Oromos, from dominating the new government.

Tensions between the Transitional Government established by the EPRDF, and Amharas -- in the broad sense of both ethnic Amharas and those who have assimilated into the formerly dominant Amhara culture -- stem from a variety of related issues. The Amhara culture has dominated Ethiopia for over a century, first under a feudal aristocracy and then under military dictatorship. For many Amharas, the transition from Mengistu to the EPRDF represents a much greater perceived loss of social stature and personal security than the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. Since the EPRDF took power in May 1991, there have been numerous reports of Amharas or Amharic speakers taunting EPRDF soldiers, calling them "provincial," "bushmen," or worse.

Most Amharas also strongly disagree with the EPRDF's decision to allow Eritrea to break off into a separate country (pending a referendum). Those who assimilated into the dominant Ethiopian culture, Amhara-speakers and other Ethiopian "nationalists," view Ethiopia as a single nation that should not be broken apart. The EPRDF has for the most part been fairly tolerant of Amharas on these two issues -- problems adjusting to the EPRDF's accession to power and Amhara opposition to Eritrean independence. Observers commented on the relatively high level of discipline and restraint displayed by EPRDF soldiers when they took over Ethiopia. The EPRDF tolerates Amhara-dominated political groups within its coalition, such as the Ethiopian Democratic Union and the Ethiopian National Democratic Organization, which continue to protest Eritrean secession. Furthermore, predominantly or exclusively Amhara political parties such as the All-Amhara People's Organization have been permitted to form, and groups with predominantly Amhara agendas, such as those calling for a return of the Amhara monarchy, are permitted to demonstrate and publish material. Serious flaws with the June 1992 election call into question the extent of these political rights. Nonetheless, the EPRDF itself does not appear to be targeting Amharas solely on the basis of their ethnicity.

As mentioned in the introduction, however, there are serious unresolved political issues which do affect the status of Amharas in Ethiopia. Each of these -- ethnic clashes, continuing tensions between the COEDF and EPRDF, detention and disenfranchisement of former military, government and party officials of the Mengistu era, the expulsion of Ethiopians from Eritrea, and continuing deficiencies in the rule of law -- will be discussed in some detail below.

Continued Ethnic Fighting

Amharas are concentrated primarily in Addis Ababa and the north-west portion of central Ethiopia. However, as rulers of Ethiopia for more than a century, some Amharas have lived for generations in other areas of the country. The capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, while predominantly Amhara, is in a predominantly Oromo area. Furthermore, both the Ethiopian emperors and the Mengistu government relocated Amharas into ethnic Oromo areas of southern Ethiopia. Mengistu did so in part to severe drought conditions and insufficient arable land in traditionally Amhara areas. Amharas, therefore, are now an ethnic minority in many regions of the country.

In the post-Mengistu era, Amharas have been involved in ethnic clashes with various other ethnic groups. In the early days following the EPRDF's capture of Addis Ababa, the EPRDF killed a few Amhara demonstrators in the city. In an incident in January 1993, at least one student was killed in a demonstration reportedly organized by the All-Amhara People's organization. There have been few other documented reports of attacks by the EPRDF on ethnic Amharas, or clashes between Amharas and the EPRDF. (There have been clashes between the EPRDF and the now predominantly Amhara EPRP as a political/military group, as will be discussed below in the section on the COEDF.)

The EPRDF has attempted to pre-empt a number of potential conflicts between ethnic groups by introducing arrangements designed to protect minorities and compensate ethnic groups displaced by Eritrea's self-governance. The cities of Addis Ababa and Harar have been designated "chartered towns," in which minorities are guaranteed full legal protection, and towns in southern Ethiopia with Amhara minorities are also being given special status to protect all ethnic minorities. Although the EPRDF appears committed to these principles, it has not been able to enforce them except in Addis Ababa.

The issue of whether Amharas could be moved out of areas where they are a minority into predominantly Amhara areas is one human rights monitors and the media have not discussed. Based on available evidence, however, internal relocation does not appear a realistic option at present. As mentioned above, the EPRDF's apparent strategy is to try to protect ethnic minorities through legal means rather than relocation. The Ethiopian government is currently trying to cope with an estimated 350,000 demobilized soldiers, several million refugees who have returned to Ethiopia since May 1991, Ethiopians who have already fled ethnic violence in various parts of Ethiopia, and drought conditions which international aid groups estimate could leave more than eight million Ethiopians at risk of starvation. Although the Ethiopian government has dropped many of its socialist goals, it has remained adamant on government control of land nationalized under Mengistu. Land is not, technically, available to anyone relocating within Ethiopia except through the government. The government is currently allocating land to returned refugees, but the program is far too small to meet current needs. Jobs for wages are extremely scarce in Ethiopia, and aid from external donors is not presently sufficient to meet the needs of the existing refugee population. Given these conditions, there would be no guarantee of survival for someone attempting to relocate inside Ethiopia to escape ethnic violence.

There have been numerous clashes between Amharas and other ethnic groups, primarily but not exclusively the Oromos, since the May 1991 coup. (Ethnic clashes affecting other ethnic groups are also occurring, but are beyond the scope of this paper.) Although the number of clashes has dropped in the past few months, the tensions which led to such clashes have not been resolved. Some reports of clashes still occur, and conditions suggest that more widespread ethnic violence could flare up again. Below is a list (not exhaustive) of some of the typical reports of ethnic clashes which have involved Amharas:
The Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces (COEDF)

The Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces is a political umbrella group which was formed in the final days of the Mengistu era to unite a collection of political parties opposed both to the Mengistu government and to the EPRDF coalition. Although the COEDF is relatively new, most of the member parties of this coalition have existed since the mid-1970s. The differences between the philosophies of the EPRDF and the COEDF are for the most part not profound. Most of the member parties of the COEDF shared with the EPRDF a strong commitment to a hardline Marxist philosophy, which they also tempered in the final days of the Mengistu era. Most of the member parties are not ethnic based: the COEDF has been more skeptical than the EPRDF of the ultimate wisdom of ethnic-based parties. Although the EPRDF did not actually favor the EPLF's decision to declare Eritrea's independence, the COEDF is more actively opposed to the breakup of Ethiopia. While members of all of the major ethnic groups belong to both the EPRDF and the COEDF, Amharas appear to be over-represented in the COEDF, and are clearly under-represented in the EPRDF.

Both the EPRDF and some COEDF-affiliated groups fought against the Mengistu government, but also battled each other. The EPRDF's army is far larger and more effective than the armies associated with COEDF member groups (primarily the EPRP). For the most part, the EPRDF has forcibly subdued areas in which COEDF-associated forces were fighting. There have, however, been sporadic battles between the EPRDF and COEDF-associated forces since July 1991, and these have not yet completely stopped in the Gondar and Gojjam regions. It is not clear at present how much control the exiled political wings of political parties such as the EPRP and MEISON have over their internal armed resistance movements.

According to the United States Department of State and Africa Watch, when the government of Sudan expelled approximately 20 refugees into Ethiopia in June 1992, the EPRDF separated four EPRP activists from the group, and has been keeping them in indefinite detention. Africa Watch and a media source also report that a few EPRP activists were detained in 1991, and are still being held.

The EPRDF's position is that, in fighting back against the EPRDF instead of surrendering, member groups affiliated with the COEDF in effect declared war on the EPRDF, and therefore should not be included in the new governing coalition. The COEDF's position is that the COEDF, EPRDF and the Mengistu government had been engaged in political negotiations when the EPRDF took over the capital by force, and that the EPRDF should not be permitted complete control to decide the structure of the new Ethiopian government simply because it has superior military force. COEDF-associated forces claim that they are willing to negotiate a cease-fire, but that the EPRDF refuses to negotiate and is attempting to subdue armies associated with COEDF-member groups by force. Armies associated with COEDF-member groups claim that they are afraid to stop fighting unconditionally because the EPRDF has committed human rights abuses, and appears to be trying to "destroy" such armies.

The COEDF did not participate in the national conference of July 1-5, 1991 to determine Ethiopia's future, and is not represented in the 87-person Council of Representatives created at the conference. The reasons cited for non-attendance are confusing. A statement by EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi appears to indicate that the EPRDF claimed that it had not invited the COEDF because it considered the COEDF to be at war with the EPRDF. The acting Ethiopian Ambassador to Canada, Debalke Melaku, stated that the EPRDF would have given a COEDF-member group, the EPRP, seats at the conference if they had agreed to surrender and hand over their weapons. Paul Henze at RAND confirms that such an offer, with this conditionality, was made. Africa Confidential also reported that the COEDF was invited and refused to attend because of the EPRDF's demand that it first surrender. COEDF member groups claim that they wanted to attend the conference, but that the EPRDF refused to issue them visas to return to the country to participate.

The fact that one of the conference participants was a group with roughly the same name as the COEDF, but which was not associated with either the COEDF or any of its member groups, indicates that the EPRDF may have been using its standard strategy of creating rival organizations to replace or compete with those which it finds uncooperative. The Tigre People's Democratic Movement, a Tigrean ethnic party which had been a member of the COEDF and claimed that it quit the COEDF specifically to be allowed to attend the July 1991 conference, alleged that it requested to be allowed to participate in the conference and was refused. One of the groups that did or does belong to the COEDF coalition, the Ethiopian Democratic Union, was represented at the July 1991 conference by several of its most prominent members. It was not clear whether these members were officially representing the EDU, and if so whether the EDU left the COEDF to participate. There apparently was a split within the EDU, and a faction loyal to Mengesha Seyum participated in the July 1991 conference using the name EDU. The COEDF continues to claim that the EDU is still a member of the COEDF, the EPRDF that it is not.

The likelihood of resolution of the tensions between the EPRDF and the COEDF does not appear strong at this point. The vehemence with which the EPRDF attacks the COEDF in its official speeches and publications is remarkable, both because the COEDF does not pose a serious military threat to the EPRDF, and because the EPRDF has demonstrated pragmatism and creativity in many of its attempts to resolve disputes with other political and military groups in Ethiopia. The EPRDF had originally reserved six seats at the National Conference for groups which had not yet formed by July 1991 or had not yet agreed to join the new coalition government. Some observers had predicted that at least some of those seats might be given to the COEDF in exchange for an end to the fighting in areas where armies associated with COEDF-affiliated parties were still operating. The seats were instead allocated to relatively obscure small ethnic parties.

There is little information available about how COEDF adherents who are not actually fighting the EPRDF would be treated if they returned to Ethiopia. The COEDF's member groups were either fighting the Mengistu government and the EPRDF in rural areas, or were in exile. Most COEDF members do not appear to be returning to Ethiopia voluntarily. According to the United States State Department, the COEDF and its affiliates, including the EPRP and MEISON, are "not free to organize in the country." As is mentioned below in the section on the EPRP, some EPRP members who were forcibly returned to Ethiopia are still being held in detention by the EPRDF.

Below is a brief description of the major parties that belong to the COEDF. The COEDF claims that it has 37 member organizations, but did not provide a list:
Haile Selassie Supporters

From the early days of the EPRDF's accession to power, Meles Zenawi has attempted to gain cooperation from supporters and allies of the Haile Selassie government. Members of Haile Selassie's family and government were released from prison soon after the EPRDF gained control of Addis Ababa. Several member groups of the EPRDF's Transitional Government were once allied with Haile Selassie. The faction of the Ethiopian Democratic Union which is represented in the Council of Representatives, while apparently no longer royalist in ideology, contains many former Haile Selassie supporters. In February of 1992, the Transitional Government exhumed what is widely believed to be the body of Emperor Haile Selassie from beneath the floor of a latrine in the royal palace, where he had been buried by Mengistu government officials in 1975. Also exhumed were the bodies of over 60 former ministers and military officials of the Haile Selassie government. .

There has been some tension between royalists and the EPRDF over whether Haile Selassie was to be given an official state burial on the 100th anniversary of his birth, on July 23, 1992. Ultimately the government decided to allow the funeral to take place, and to permit the family to invite foreign dignitaries, but not to make the funeral an official state burial. Royalists decided to have a funeral on July 23, 1992, for those former ministers, military officials, family members, and the Orthodox church patriarch, who were killed by Mengistu. Some foreign diplomats attended the ceremony, and many Haile Selassie supporters returned from exile to attend the ceremony, held in Addis Ababa's Orthodox Trinity Cathedral. Royalists claim, however, that they will not hold a funeral for Haile Selassie himself until the EPRDF agrees to make it an official state funeral. There is no indication at present that the EPRDF is willing to do so. .

Haile Selassie supporters and monarchists are represented primarily by a political party formed recently in the United States, Moa Anbessa (Amhara for "The Lion of Judah," one of Haile Selassie's titles). There is some tension within Moa Anbessa over succession issues. In the early days following the EPRDF coup, Haile Selassie's son, Ahma Selassie, who crowned himself king in exile in 1988, appeared the likely contender. However, Ahma Selassie, estimated to be in his mid- to late 70s, is in poor health, and some Moa Anbessa members favor backing one of Haile Selassie's grandchildren as Ethiopia's emperor. .

There is some tension between the EPRDF and Moa Anbessa over government policy. As mentioned above, Moa Anbessa resents the EPRDF's decision not to give Haile Selassie a state burial, and to treat Ahma Selassie and other relatives of Haile Selassie as private citizens. Moa Anbessa is opposed to the EPRDF's decision to allow Eritrea to determine whether it will become a separate country, and the EPRDF's decision to establish a political system based on ethnic representation. Moa Anbessa maintains that a constitutional monarchy is the best system for Ethiopia; however, Moa Anbessa supporters continue to state that they are committed to democracy and will abide by the wishes of the Ethiopian people. There is no indication that Moa Anbessa would resort to military force to gain power, or that the EPRDF considers the group to be a security threat. Moa Anbessa supporters regularly demonstrate in favor of their position in the streets of the capital. A May 1992 report cited a peaceful demonstration of about 3,000 monarchists. Although Moa Anbessa is not represented in the Council of Representatives, it operates freely in Ethiopia and claims to have a following of three million, mostly Amharas.

Members of the Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE), Police, Military, and Government Officials

At the end of the Mengistu era, the new EPRDF government had to make decisions about how to deal with three overlapping categories of people associated with the old regime: government employees, military personnel, and members of Mengistu's sole political party, the Workers Party of Ethiopia. For lack of trained staff, the EPRDF retained many former government employees to continue to administer programs. Only officials of the Ministry of Information -- government journalists and broadcasters, for instance -- were completely replaced. In all, only about 300 people from a civil service of 200,000 had been dismissed during the Transitional Government's first year in power. Amharas and those who have assimilated into the Amhara culture are, according to Alex de Waal of Africa Watch, "grossly over-represented" in the bureaucracy. There have been reports more recently that far greater numbers of career civil servants are being dismissed. There is not yet any concrete evidence that Amharas are being targeted, that they are being replaced by Tigreans, or that the dismissals have any significance beyond an attempt to cut an admittedly bloated bureaucracy.

For the most part, foreign observers agree that officials carried over from the Mengistu era have proven conscientious and efficient in their work. To those who fled Ethiopia during the Mengistu era, however, there may be a sense that the official bureaucracy has undergone few changes.

Far greater changes have been made in other areas. The Workers Party of Ethiopia was abolished, top level Mengistu government officials dismissed, all Mengistu era police were relieved of their positions, and the Mengistu army disbanded. Most of the top level people from these agencies have been detained since May 1991, and estimates of the number of people still being detained are over 2,000. None of these people, however notorious in reputation, has been executed, subjected to a show trial, or deliberately tortured while in prison. Africa Watch reports that despite overcrowding and inadequate food, the treatment of detainees is "extremely good" by international standards, with no reports of deliberate abuse. The International Committee of the Red Cross and family members of prisoners are allowed to visit prisoners, and there are no reports that families of those in detention have been detained, mistreated, or deprived of civil rights by the Transitional Government. Most international observers agree that fair trials must be conducted to determine which members of these organizations were guilty of gross human rights abuses during the Mengistu era. In September 1992, the Transitional Government announced the name of the special prosecutor it had appointed, but trials had not yet begun as of the end of January 1993. These trials will be a major test of the government's respect for the rule of law.

Workers Party of Ethiopia

All former members of the Worker's Party of Ethiopia have been denied certain civil and political rights. Despite a promise made by the EPRDF, former members of the WPE were not allowed to participate in the national conference which determined Ethiopia's interim government, the Council of Representatives. Former WPE members are not allowed to vote or to stand in elections, are excluded from serving as judges, and have some restrictions placed on their ability to travel. These prohibitions extend to all WPE members, even those whom the Transitional Government has no plans to try for their conduct during the Mengistu era. Africa Watch "believes that the denial of civil rights to a category of people on sole basis of their membership of the WPE is not justifiable. Former WPE members should be held accountable solely on the basis of individual criminal acts." The Transitional Government has stated that the democratically elected assembly which will determine Ethiopia's permanent constitution may restore basic civil rights to WPE members, but appears to consider this a discretionary option.

No one appears to have compiled an estimate of the number of WPE officials detained at the end of the Mengistu era; judging from statistics for some individual regions, the total was probably over 10,000. A high percentage of these officials have either been "rehabilitated" and released, or were amnestied at the decision of their local communities. One community, for instance, reported that they were granting amnesty to 2,088 WPE members but holding over 300 more to be charged and tried. There is no question that some WPE members should stand trial for crimes, including systematic looting, corruption, and serious human rights abuses, they are believed to have committed. The concern is that they are being held in poor conditions, that they have already been held in detention for well over a year and have not yet even been charged, and that it is not certain that they will receive a fair trial.


Dismantling the police and military system of the Mengistu era has been fraught with problems. Most of the police force was simply dismissed, and replaced temporarily by EPRDF soldiers. Most police had not been paid in the final days of the Mengistu era, and have been unable to find work. Given the easy availability of weapons in Ethiopia, there is a real danger that they could resort to banditry to feed themselves. Few, however, appear to have been detained.


Mengistu's army was one of the largest in Africa with about 400,000 on active duty by the end of the war. It was also one of the most severely affected by war: according to one source, about 300,000 soldiers died in battle from 1974 to the end of 1990, and an additional 230,000 in the period from January to May 1991. Almost all non-commissioned soldiers were conscripted, and by the end of the war most foot soldiers were 13 to 15 years old.

Mengistu's defeated army was treated brutally by the Eritrean EPLF. Officers who had fled Eritrea for Sudan and were returned to the EPRDF in late July 1991 by the Sudanese government reported that around 2,000 soldiers had been killed by the EPLF after surrendering near Asmara. The EPLF allegedly killed another 2,000 near the Sudanese border. The EPLF has denied these allegations. The EPLF summarily expelled about 250,000 Ethiopians, most of them soldiers and their families, to the internal border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Among those expelled were soldiers who were wounded, some severely. The EPLF made no provisions for feeding the soldiers or transporting them to their home regions, and most walked home in various stages of malnourishment. International relief agencies did provide some aid once alerted to the situation.


Most former conscripts of the Mengistu army spent about 3 months or less in "rehabilitation" camps before being sent home. Those who have a certificate from a re-education center are eligible to vote and to participate freely in the political process. The main concern about ex-conscripts is that few provisions have been made to find them employment or land to farm. The Transitional Government made some effort to provide them with seeds and tools, or job training, but its resources are severely limited. Dismissed soldiers were given the equivalent of $65 and food from the Red Cross which lasted a few months, and most had to walk to their home villages. The easy availability of weapons, and the general lack of training, education or opportunities for this group, leaves the real threat that they may resort to violence, either banditry or joining armies opposed to the EPRDF. There are already credible reports that Oromos from the disbanded Mengistu army have joined the OLF and other Oromo militaries and are fighting against the EPRDF.

Officers and Career Soldiers

Nearly half of the Mengistu army was detained for up to six months in about 24 camps throughout Ethiopia, but officers and career soldiers were held in detention longer than conscripts, for "re--education." There were reports in October 1991 that 65,000 were freed, and other reports of releases at various times. As with conscripts, those who have gone through the camps and are released have the right to vote, hold office and other civil rights denied to many former WPE officials. There is no exact figure available on the number of officers still in detention, but the estimate of the total number of detainees from the Mengistu era, both civilian and military, is over 2,000. According to most sources, those still being held in detention are being held in poor conditions, with insufficient food, and no shelter from sun and rain. Although they have been detained for well over a year without being charged with a specific crime, there have been no reports of torture or other deliberate cruelty toward the detainees.

Mengistu Government Officials

In addition to WPE members and military officers, the Transitional Government is detaining several hundred top Mengistu government officials. These include former Vice President Fisseha Desta, ex-Premier Fikre Selassie Wogderess, and Public Security Minister Tesfaye Wolde Selassie. Most of these officials made no attempt to escape the country when Mengistu left, and the Public Security Minister guarded his security files, crucial for convicting top Mengistu officials, and handed them over intact to the EPRDF. As with military officers, government officials are being held in poor conditions with insufficient food, but there are no reports of deliberate abuse.

Prosecution of WPE members, police, military, and government officials

After its first few months in power, the EPRDF abandoned its references to creating a "people's court" and "letting the broad masses" decide the fate of detained army officials, WPE members and government officials. The EPRDF then stated that it would be setting up an independent judiciary which would try detainees, but that creating a new judicial system would have to wait until elections had been held and a new constitution decided upon. This decision was not necessarily vindictive. The Transitional Government is attempting to cope simultaneously with serious ethnic violence, famine in its civilian population, and the restructuring of the entire political process and economic system. The fate of officials of the previous regime is but one of many competing priorities.

In response to this decision, however, Ethiopian and international human rights activists, as well as potential donor countries, pressed the government to act more quickly. Ethiopian Human Rights Council chair Mesfin Wolde Mariam charged "blatant disregard of human rights" in the treatment of detained officers. In response to pressure, the Transitional Government decided to create a special tribunal to try detainees. In September 1992, a special prosecutor was appointed to try the estimated 2,000 Mengistu government officials and WPE members in detention, but the trials had not begun by late December 1992. Africa Watch has expressed some reservations about specific provisions of the planned trial arrangement, but does not yet consider the structure of the process to be unfair. Until these detainees are tried, it will not be possible to make a judgement about the fairness of the Transitional Government's judicial procedures, or whether in the course of these trials, additional arrests will be made related to war crimes.


The EPRDF has staged two sets of elections since it came to power in May 1991, local elections in early 1992, and regional elections on June 21, 1992. National elections are scheduled for the end of 1993 or early 1994. The EPRDF invited international observers, including human rights monitoring groups, the African-American Institute, members of the United States Congress, human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and observers from other foreign governments, to observe the elections. International observers concluded that the elections were "marred by widespread government intimidation of voters, harassment of opposition candidates, and a lack of any real choice in many parts of the country." One observer concluded that, "I don't think anyone is calling it a free and fair election." Another stated, "The transitional government had not established conditions to facilitate free political competition and choice and as a result several important organizations withdrew from the elections." Observers are divided over whether admitted abuses were the result of overzealous regional officials, poor organization and insufficient preparation, or if the EPRDF intended to manipulate the results. Most observers agree, however, that the EPRDF held elections too quickly and without sufficient preparation, in the hopes that foreign governments would consider them an act of good faith and begin to release desperately needed aid.

Pre-Election Problems

A number of political parties boycotted the June 1992 elections. These included some member parties of the EPRDF. It also included some of the parties represented in the Council of Representatives of the Transitional Government, most notably the Oromo Liberation Front. Several parties which formed after the July 1991 conference, and which were not represented in the Council of Representatives, including the All-Amhara People's Organization (AAPO) and the Ethiopian Democratic Action Group (EDAG), also boycotted the elections. The boycotters cited a wide variety of reasons, some related directly to conditions affecting certain political parties, some related to structural, logistical and procedural problems, and some related to documented or alleged acts of intimidation or abuse by the EPRDF.

These incidents included:

The All-Amhara People's Organization was one of the parties which boycotted the election. Among its reasons for withdrawing, it cited an alleged incident in which a commander of a local militia of the Oromo People's Democratic Organization, a member of the ruling EPRDF coalition, ordered the killings of Amharas in the central Shewa region, the area surrounding Addis Ababa. Although the AAPO did not give an estimate of the numbers killed, it stated that victims of the massacre were shot dead or burned alive in their huts on June 3-4, 1992. The EPRDF acknowledged ethnic violence in the Shewa region between Oromos and Amharas, but denied that there was a deliberate massacre.

Problems During the Elections

Despite these problems, some of which the EPRDF itself acknowledged, the Council of Representatives decided to proceed with the elections, postponing them indefinitely in certain areas -- including the Afar and Somali regions, the charter city of Harar, and eastern and western Oromo areas -- because ethnic clashes or poor access to polling places due to bad roads made elections impossible. In some parts of northern Ethiopia, including Addis Ababa and other major urban centers, international observers concluded that the elections were "procedurally regular." In other areas where elections were held, international observers pointed to a number of problems with the electoral process. As mentioned above, there was disagreement about whether the EPRDF organized, condoned, or was simply unable to control some of these abuses and difficulties:

[Not available]


Amharas -- largely Christian: comprise less than 25% of Ethiopia's population.

Tigreans -- largely Christian: comprise less than 10% of Ethiopia's population.

Oromo -- largely Muslim and traditional religions, comprise about 40% of the population, and are the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia.

Sidama -- largely traditional religions, comprise 9% of the population.

Shankella -- comprise 6% of the population.

Somali -- largely Muslim, comprise 6% of the population.

Afar -- (near Djibouti, nomadic) comprise 4% of the population, largely Muslim.

Gurage -- comprise 2% of the population.

Other groups: Some Semitic (such as the "Falasha"), Cushitic, and Nilotic groups.