A general defects
Aug 17th 2006 | AXUM
From The Economist print edition
A further blow for a beleaguered leader
ETHIOPIA’S prime minister, Meles Zenawi, now spends most of his time heading off his enemies. In the capital, Addis Ababa, the government’s response to its defeat in last year’s contested general election was to shoot scores of opposition protesters and imprison the city’s elected mayor. This led to the suspension of aid from his previously loyal Western backers.
To the south, in the Ogaden desert, he has been fighting with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a rebel group that seeks autonomy for south-eastern Ethiopia. On August 11th Ethiopia reported having shot dead 13 ONLF fighters slipping across the desert from Somalia. Ethiopia’s recent military incursion into Somalia in defence of the Transitional Government in Baidoa threatens imminent conflict there against Islamist militias based in the capital, Mogadishu.
On top of this comes the distinct possibility of a conflict with Ethiopia’s arch-enemy Eritrea in the north, where perhaps as many as half of Eritrea’s young men are massed under arms on its side of the disputed border.
Eritrea’s increasingly totalitarian regime has become a regional menace; its foreign policy now appears to comprise nothing more than to support any enemy of Ethiopia’s, no matter the cost. On August 8th Eritrea announced its biggest coup to date; a brigadier-general heading the 18th division of the Ethiopian army defected to Eritrea with several ranking officers, hundreds of soldiers, and plenty of weapons.
The general, Kemal Gelchu, was an ethnic Oromo. Probably as many as half of Ethiopians are Oromo, a good number of them Muslim. According to the government’s system of ethnic federalism, the Oromos are meant to have a large stake in power. In reality, they are weak and neglected, just as they have always been. A few support the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)””another rebel group seeking a “fairer”? Ethiopia, meaning a shift of power from Mr Zenawi and his fellow Tigrayans, who account for, at most, 7% of the population, but who have dominated the government and the economy since taking power in 1991.
Mr Gelchu’s defection puts a face to the deep unhappiness in the non-Tigrayan bits of Ethiopia. He and his men will now undoubtedly join the OLF and fight the Ethiopian government. Force is the only language the government understands, Mr Gelchu says. Alas, force may be exactly what Mr Zenawi is going to get, and on many fronts.