102. Memorandum From Paul B. Henze of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Ethiopia—A Brief Political Assessment (U)

Mengistu is still very much in charge of the central government. He has consolidated his power at the expense of the PMAC which no longer functions as a junta, but more as a “central committee” staff for Mengistu. Mengistu has been careful to avoid total dependence upon the Soviets or the Cubans, however, and is clearly his own master in day-to-day governmental operations. In this respect he has been more clever than recent Afghan leaders. It is unlikely that the Soviets/Cubans could oust him easily if they wished. (C)

There are signs of gradually increasing strains between Mengistu and the Soviets/Cubans, but these appear to be containable. Mengistu continues to try to keep the Soviets under heavy obligation to provide at least a substantial share of the military support he needs by showing that he is a good “Socialist”—giving full propaganda support to the Russians, carrying out extreme measures, such as further nationalizations and collectivization of agriculture. These measures are now provoking antipathy, resentment and doubt among important sectors of the population who up until recently supported Mengistu and his revolution enthusiastically—the southern peasantry, e.g. (U)

The economic situation has steadily deteriorated and will go on gradually worsening. Shortages of many locally produced commodities are developing. Coffee is rationed (in the country where it originated!—and where it is still the major cash-earning export) and imports of food and consumer goods have practically ceased. The Soviets have consistently disappointed Mengistu’s high hopes for increased economic aid. Most recently, they have turned down his request for a secure petroleum supply at favorable prices. The high cost of petroleum is hitting Ethiopia very hard, since the country has no oil resources of its own. (C)

Eritrea remains Mengistu’s Achilles’ heel. The rebels have regained territory and imposed heavy costs on government forces during recent [Page 279] months. The rebel groups are no closer to unification than ever and have recently expended considerable energy fighting each other. Soviet efforts to try to bring about a mediated settlement have produced no results. It is unclear what Mengistu may be aiming to do in his current dickering with the Sudanese over a possible settlement; he may simply be playing for time. It is doubtful whether the Eritreans could ever feel enough confidence in anything Mengistu promised to enter into a settlement. Prospects, therefore, are good that the Eritrean insurgency will continue indefinitely. The longer it continues the greater a source of strain it is likely to become for the Soviets and the Cubans. (C)

The Somalia-supported Ogaden insurgency is a less serious problem for Mengistu. The net result of Siad’s policies has been depopulation of large areas of the Ogaden, thus relieving the Ethiopian government of responsibility for these people. The Ogaden situation does not engender tensions between the Ethiopians and the Soviets/Cubans—on the contrary it drives them closer together. And the continued Somali attacks on Ethiopia reinforce nationalism and Mengistu’s reputation as champion of Ethiopian territorial integrity. (U)

Mengistu has consolidated his control over the governmental machine and in the center of the country at the expense of losing influence in the periphery. He has alienated much of the population of the north and west to the extent that the central government no longer controls much in these areas beyond a few urban centers and the main roads between them. Tigre is largely under control of the TPLF; Gondar province is dominated by EPRP and successor elements of the EDU. The highly developed Gallas (Oromo) of Wollega have been alienated by persecution of the Mekane Yesus (Protestant) church and by agricultural collectivization. Since national/ideological parties were so viciously suppressed during the period of the Red Terror,2 resistance to Mengistu’s revolution and rule has taken the form, predominantly, of regional and nationality groups. This does not mean, however, that Ethiopia is fragmenting; national consciousness is still strong. The regional and nationality-based resistance groups have a potential for coalescing and coordinating their resistance activities. (U)

Ethiopia’s armed forces are now larger than at any time in its modern history—more than 250,000 and still growing. (At their peak, the armed forces we supported for Haile Selassie totalled 42,000 men! And a favorite leftist anti-American propaganda line then was that we were distorting Ethiopia’s development by encouraging the Emperor to devote disproportionate resources and manpower to military pur[Page 280]poses!) But Ethiopia’s soldiers are not fighting well. This, in itself, is bound to become an increasing source of tension between them and their Soviet/Cuban advisers and there are many signs that mutual resentments are increasing. There are also some signs of independent thinking among officers. The current Minister of Defense, Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan, is believed to be developing some degree of independence from Mengistu. (C)

Nothing the Soviets or Cubans could do could bring Ethiopia under smooth control and restore peace to the whole country. The longer the present disorder and tension persists, the more embarrassing the situation becomes for the Soviets and Cubans, because in Ethiopia they are in full view before all of Africa. Addis Ababa remains the seat of an enormous Pan-African bureaucracy (OAU, UNECA, ILO, etc.) which experiences daily the frustrations of the Soviet recipe for the future of Africa as applied in Ethiopia. (U)

All evidence indicates that Ethiopians remain, by and large, strongly pro-Western in orientation. Though sizable numbers of trained men have left the country and students and officials continue to escape abroad, the governmental machinery is still manned primarily by American and European trained and educated men and women. Soviet and Cuban efforts to win over Ethiopian youth seem to be having negligible success. Socialism as a lifestyle is no more popular in Ethiopia than it is in Eastern Europe. (U)

If Mengistu should be assassinated tomorrow, the Soviets are not well positioned to intervene to choose his successor. And there is no reason to assume that a successor to Mengistu would have either the ruthlessness or luck he has combined to maintain himself in power for over five years. Resistance in a situation such as exists in Ethiopia today is, however, inevitably a function of what the potential for change is perceived to be. Ethiopians today see no clear alternative. They fell into fatal disarray in 1974 because they had become accustomed to paternalism and relied upon Americans and Europeans to provide the support and stiffening necessary to bring them through a period of rapid change. No help materialized. No clear picture of the future has yet crystallized. But the misfortunes and strains resulting from the abortive efforts of the Soviets/Cubans to guide Ethiopia to “socialism” will have to intensify substantially before resistance to the present system generates pressures which either push Mengistu from power or force him to change course radically. (U)

There is debate both within Ethiopia and outside as to whether Mengistu has the potential to become a Sadat and expel the Soviets, setting his country on a new, constructive course. I am skeptical, inclined to believe that Mengistu has burdened himself with too many mistakes of judgment to be able to save himself: e.g., from the beginning, his [Page 281] genocidal policies in Eritrea; now collectivization. But it would be a mistake to write him off as hopeless until he proves that he is, or until history sweeps him from the stage. A convincing case that he is merely a Soviet puppet cannot really be made. (U)

There is no reason to conclude that Ethiopia is hopelessly locked in a permanent Soviet/Cuban grip—or that Ethiopians could ever reconcile themselves to such a condition. The Soviet/Cuban relationship, in fact, generates more tensions than Ethiopia has experienced before in its long history—and provides no reliable formulas for solutions. There is every reason to believe that Ethiopians will be responsive to evidence of heightened Free World interest in their situation. The West needs to maintain presence in, and communication with, Ethiopia. It is important for the United States to take actions, steadily and cumulatively, that will encourage Ethiopians to have greater confidence in themselves, to pool their strength to find alternate leadership that can chart a credible course into the future. It is also important for us to reassure potential alternate leaders that support in various forms will be forthcoming from the Free World as they work to disengage their country from its forced marriage to Soviet socialism. (C)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 21, Ethiopia: 1/80–1/81. Confidential. Copies were sent to Brement, Ermarth, Odom, Funk, Sick, and Griffith.
  2. The Red Terror in Ethiopia refers to the purge of Mengistu’s opponents after he took control of the Derg in February 1977. It continued into 1978. See Document 2.