Regime Stability and Peace Negotiations
The WPE regime's attempt to create conditions for popular acceptance of its legitimacy failed. Testimony to this was the attempted coup that began on May 16, 1989. The coup was the result of months of planning by senior officers, some of whom may have been members of the Free Ethiopia Soldiers' Movement, an opposition group that involved active-duty military officers and former officers in exile. The coup began shortly after Mengistu left for a state visit to East Germany. Top generals invited colleagues to attend a meeting at the Ministry of National Defense, where they delivered an ultimatum to the defense minister, Major General Haile Giorgis Habte Mariam, to join them or be jailed. Haile Giorgis refused and was shot dead. The shots were heard by two senior officers loyal to Mengistu, who ordered army tanks to encircle the ministry and guard the road to the airport.
Officers commanding units in Eritrea and Tigray also joined in the coup. They initially seized the Asmera radio station and issued a call to the "broad masses" to join in the effort to bring down the "tyrannical and dictatorial regime of Mengistu." However, Mengistu returned to the country and, with the support of the Presidential Guard and other loyal troops, regained control three days after the coup began.
The plotters' aim had been to establish a transitional military government. Exiled supporters of the Free Ethiopia Soldiers' Movement claimed that the coup-makers planned to negotiate a settlement in Eritrea, establish a ruling council, and return the military to their barracks. Senior officers had become desperate for a political settlement of the wars raging in the north. Pamphlets expressing their discontent had been distributed to the military rank and file by junior and middle ranking officers sympathetic to their cause. The new leader reportedly was to have been Major General Seyoum Mekonnen, the former head of military intelligence.
To wipe out his enemies in the military, Mengistu purged the officer corps. At least twelve generals were executed or committed suicide rather than be captured, and 300 to 400 officers suspected of being involved in the coup were arrested. Nearly all generals, division commanders, and political commissars assigned to units stationed in the north reportedly were detained. These individuals were replaced by Mengistu loyalists, many of whom lacked experience as military leaders.
The attempted coup and continuing problems related to war, drought, and famine caused considerable instability in the WPE's upper levels. Council of State members became increasingly critical of Mengistu's policies, and some even suggested that he step down. However, Mengistu mustered enough support to retain power. At the same time, by mid1989 the success of opposition forces, the Soviet Union's refusal to increase military assistance to Ethiopia, and pressure from Moscow had forced Mengistu to seek negotiated settlements to Ethiopia's various wars. The loss of East German military support because of the democratization movement that occurred later in the year also softened the government's stance toward negotiations.
On June 5, 1989, the National Shengo, in a special session, endorsed a proposal calling for unconditional peace talks with the EPLF. The EPLF accepted, and the two sides agreed that former United States president Jimmy Carter would mediate the negotiations. The first talks were held at the Carter Presidential Center of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in early September. WPE Central Committee member Ashagre Yigletu headed the Ethiopian delegation, and Al Amin Muhammad Sayyid led the Eritrean team. The two sides agreed on several procedural issues and set the next round of talks for November 1989 in Nairobi, Kenya.
At the second meeting, additional procedural issues were resolved, and former Tanzanian president Julius K. Nyerere was asked to co-chair further talks with former President Carter. The most difficult issue resolved in the eight-day talks was determining who would serve as international observers for the main negotiations. Seven observers were invited--each side had two unrestricted choices, and three others were chosen by mutual consent. The parties also concluded that additional observers could be invited later upon mutual agreement. At the end of the session, six observers had accepted invitations: Kenya, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). A seventh invitation was proposed for the UN, but because Ethiopia, a UN member, refused to endorse the idea, the UN declined to participate. Subsequent meetings in Washington in October 1990 and February 1991, chaired by United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, failed to resolve this issue. Even so, both sides agreed to continue their dialogue, with the next meeting tentatively scheduled for May in London.
The Ethiopian regime also agreed to peace negotiations with the TPLF, to be convened by the Italian government. Preliminary talks began in Rome on November 4, 1989. Ashagre Yigletu led the Ethiopian team, and Central Committee chairman Meles Zenawi headed the TPLF delegation. Because its troops were advancing on the battlefield, the TPLF refrained from making a cease-fire a precondition for participating in the talks. The TPLF called for the establishment of a provisional government made up of representatives from all major nationality groups and political organizations. The main task of this provisional government would be to draft a democratic constitution and prepare for free elections. Before the talks began, the Ethiopian government rejected the idea of a provisional government, claiming that the Ethiopian people had approved the 1987 constitution in a fair referendum and that a popularly elected parliament had put the new government in place.
The first round of talks lasted one week and ended with agreement only on procedural points. Although the TPLF had called for a national united front, it represented only itself at the Rome talks. It suggested, however, that the main item on the agenda should be its peace proposal. The Ethiopian delegation rejected this idea but offered no counterproposal.
The second round of preliminary talks opened in Rome on December 12, 1989. The two sides reached an agreement whereby Italy and Kenya would act as mediators and Nigeria, Sweden, Sudan, and Uganda would act as observers in future peace negotiations. The Italian minister of foreign affairs announced that the third round of preliminary talks would open in Rome on March 20, 1990.
Unfortunately, the Ethiopian delegation terminated these discussions nine days after they began. According to rebel spokesmen, the talks failed because Ethiopia insisted that the TPLF deal only with questions pertaining "to the autonomous region of Tigray" rather than with Ethiopia as a whole. Moreover, Ethiopia refused to accept a joint TPLFEPDM delegation at the main peace talks. The TPLF maintained that the EPDM, its ally in war, also should be its ally in peace. As a result of these differences, the negotiating process between the TPLF and Ethiopia ended.
On the military front, the TPLF pressed its offensive throughout the fall of 1989. By the beginning of 1990, its advances had bogged down, and the Ethiopian army had begun a counteroffensive. By mid-June 1990, however, the TPLF, operating as part of the EPRDF, had taken up positions within 160 kilometers of Addis Ababa. By contrast, the EPLF had reduced its military operations over the same period, perhaps to regroup. In February 1990, however, the EPLF mounted a major drive aimed at capturing the port city of Mitsiwa, the entry point for much of Ethiopia's food and military supplies. By mid-February the EPLF had overrun the port and severed the traffic that flowed from Mitsiwa via Asmera to the strategic garrison town of Keren. A few months later, however, Mitsiwa resumed operation in accordance with an agreement between the EPLF and government forces. By the end of the year, the EPLF had started conducting military operations in the vicinity of the Dahlak Islands and initiated an offensive toward the port of Aseb.
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