'Cohen's Coup' In Ethiopia?

Throwing stones and wielding clubs, demonstrators took to the streets of Addis Ababa last week. They weren't protesting the remnants of the Mengistu government, whose 14 years of brutality brought Ethiopia to the brink of annihilation. Their target was America. Rioters blamed the United States for installing new rulers in the capital and supporting the separation of Eritrea, the Red Sea province. More than 2,000 people stormed the U.S. Embassy, waving placards and chanting anti-American slogans. When the crowd charged a car flying a U.S. flag, Tigrayan rebels opened fire, killing a demonstrator and wounding several others. Two days of protests left at least 10 people dead.

At the heart of the Ethiopian rage was the feeling that the United States was abetting the breakup of their country. Ironically, the anti-American protests came in the wake of U.S.-brokered peace talks in London early last week that were designed to bring about a cease-fire, avoid a forcible takeover of Addis Ababa and create a representative transitional government that would organize the country's first democratic elections. But plans went awry. After the flight of President Mengistu Haile Mariam, Addis Ababa was spinning into chaos. To avoid further bloodshed, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, who chaired the negotiations, had to jettison original plans and make unexpected alliances, backing the rebel seizure of the capital and Eritrean demands for self-determination, but warning that Ethiopia "cannot expect international cooperation without democracy."

Dismissing the London talks as "Cohen's coup," angry marchers in Addis Ababa complained of being cut off from their country's future. "Everyone who counts in a deeper sense in Ethiopia-people who never rebelled, who run the part of the economy that works-has been left out of all this," said Christopher Clapham, an Ethiopia specialist at Britain's Lancaster University. But a State Department official defended the U.S. role, arguing that a hands-off policy might have helped turn Ethiopia into another Liberia.

Cohen-and Ethiopia-had very few options. An orderly takeover of the capital was impossible. With rebel forces surrounding the city, Lt. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, Mengistu's successor, was in no position to coax a cease-fire from the guerrillas or keep his own Army--once Black Africa's largest--from disintegrating. Thousands of government soldiers simply walked away from the front, and officers deserted their posts. City streets teemed with renegades still in uniform, peddling AK-47s for $70. In the north, 100,000 government troops had already surrendered to Eritreans. In the capital, looting and fighting among government troops grew more frequent along with postcurfew gunfire. Conceding that he could no longer maintain order, Tesfaye told U.S. diplomats he was ready to capitulate, He would order a unilateral truce-and ask city residents to welcome the rebels.

As soon as word reached London, Cohen, who was chairing the peace negotiations, spoke with Tigrayan rebel leader Meles Zenawi. Given the chaotic situation, Meles told Cohen, entry into Addis Ababa could no longer be delayed. Cohen's reply: rebel forces should move on the capital "as soon as possible to help stabilize the situation." The decision enraged Tesfaye Dinka, Ethiopia's prime minister and delegate to the London talks. Residents of Addis Ababa, he said, would violently resist any rebel advance regardless of the cease-fire. In protest, he pulled out of the talks.

The rebels moved into Addis Ababa that night. Just before dawn, with a whoosh of rocket fire and the boom of close tank engagements, they stormed the hilltop presidential palace, where the dregs of the Mengistu military put up meager resistance. By midmorning it was over: rebels walked into the palace and set up a de facto government. The siege resulted in surprisingly few deaths. The real bombshell that day came out of London, where Cohen, a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service, reversed decades of U.S. policy by calling a referendum on independence for Eritrea-for which Eritrean nationalists have fought a 30-year war--a "good idea."

U.S. policymakers had little choice but to come around to that idea. "In the final analysis, [the rebels] were the only disciplined force left who could maintain law and order," says a State Department official. Mengistu long played heavily on ethnic antagonism, portraying Eritreans and other opposition elements as Arabs bent on taking over the country.

Still, U.S. involvement in Ethiopia hasn't exactly been a model of artful diplomacy. Washington approached Addis Ababa in late April to cut a deal to free Ethiopian Jews-only to find itself embroiled in an early-retirement plan for Mengistu and peace talks with avowedly Marxist rebels whom it once distrusted and now admits it doesn't know very well. The White House is nervously banking on rebel promises of free-market and democratic reforms, as well as cooperation in the stalled famine-aid efforts to relieve more than 7 million people at risk of starvation. As leverage, it's counting on Ethiopia's desperate need for economic aid. That dependence ensures that America's post-cold-war ties to Ethiopia will remain close, if not friendly.