Downfall Of The Dictator

For 14 years Mengistu Haile Mariam ruled Ethiopia with his own mixture of Marxist-Leninist ideology and medieval cruelty, bankrupting his country and terrorizing his people into submission. When he suddenly fled last week, the nation was stunned. "People are walking around in a trance," said one resident of Addis Ababa. "They don't seem to realize what it means that Mengistu is gone."Most were relieved. But many feared that one nightmare would only give way to another.

It would be hard to surpass Mengistu's excesses. In one hideous experiment with collectivization, he relocated some 700,000 peasants-aggravating the famine of 1984 that claimed up to a million lives. He used more than $10 billion in Soviet military aid to put down uprisings among his own people: Eritreans, Tigrayans and Oromos. By conscripting children as young as 12 and committing up to 60 percent of the economy to defense, he built the largest army in Black Africa while turning his country into one of the poorest in the world.

Mengistu released his stranglehold last week only after rebels had reduced his Army to a shambles and moved within 50 miles of the capital. His closest advisers warned him the regime's only chance for survival-a negotiated settlement with opposition forces at U.S.-brokered peace talks in London-was impossible unless he left the country. Mengistu, who often swore he would fight "to the last bullet," flew to Zimbabwe, joining his wife and children. "The man who was responsible for the bloodshed has left to save more bloodshed," proclaimed Ethiopia's state radio.

The rebels weren't mollified. Late last week they moved to the outskirts of the capital, ignoring pleas for a cease-fire from Mengistu's handpicked successor, Lt. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan. "We are fighting for a change of system, not a change of personalities," said a London representative of the Tigrayan insurgents, one of several factions battling for more independence in Ethiopia.

Tesfaye isn't even much of a change of personality. He was among the clique of young officers who toppled Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Three years later when Mengistu reportedly murdered his rivals and seized absolute power, Tesfaye emerged as a loyal henchman. Scrambling last week to distance himself from his former boss, Tesfaye freed 171 political prisoners convicted of plotting a 1989 coup. A statue of Lenin was toppled. Huge portraits of Mengistu were pulled down. But his hideous legacy remains: a bankrupt economy, a new famine threatening 7 million people, the prospect of further chaos to come.

The rebels' common war against Mengistu has masked their own underlying differences. Most have radical Marxist backgrounds themselves. The Tigrayans want to end the dominance of the Amharic minority-the ethnic group of the late emperor and Mengistu's inner circle. If the Tigrayans had their way, Ethiopia would be reorganized into autonomous units defined by culture and language. Eritreans have demanded and fought for decades for a referendum to choose among independence, autonomy and the federal status they enjoyed before 1962. The Oromos, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, want self-determination.

Those divisions may not emerge this week in the scheduled London peace talks, but eventually they will. Any hope for a sustained recovery in Ethiopia depends on mutual accommodation more extensive than the country has ever seen. In the spirit of concession, both sides allowed Israel to begin airlifting thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of the country. But meanwhile, the new famine is intensifying. Continued fighting cripples the already difficult task of delivering aid. Without a truce, relief workers say, many more Ethiopians may still be doomed.