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Chapter 5. National Security

by Thomas P. Ofcansky (A Senior African Analyst with the Department of Defense)

Lancers, adapted from an eighteenth-century religious manuscript. Traditional Ethiopian art depicts righteous warriors in full face, the enemy in profile.

FOR CENTURIES, MOST ETHIOPIANS understood that every able- bodied male might be called upon to perform military service. Despite the importance of a career as a warrior in Ethiopian society, however, it was not until 1942 that the country possessed truly national armed forces. To modernize the Ethiopian army, Emperor Haile Selassie I (reigned 1930- 74) relied on foreign military assistance and advisers. From 1942 to 1952, Britain was Ethiopia's major arms supplier as a result of its role in the liberation of Ethiopia. Between 1953 and 1976, the United States provided Ethiopia with most of its weapons and training. Starting in 1977, the Soviet Union was the country's closest military partner.

In 1974 Haile Selassie's imperial regime collapsed. Eventually, a Marxist dictatorship took power in Ethiopia. Having assumed the roles of chief of state and commander in chief, Mengistu Haile Mariam consolidated his hold on the armed forces by eliminating both real and imagined political opponents. Despite the transformation of the country's military establishment from an imperial force to an instrument of Marxist policy in the "vanguard of the revolution," the Mengistu regime continued to observe Ethiopian traditions concerning the preeminent role of the soldier in state and society.

In mid-1991 Ethiopia had the largest combined military and paramilitary force in sub-Saharan Africa (438,000 personnel) and, with 150 modern combat aircraft and about 1,300 tanks, certainly one of the best equipped. Although not an integral part of the defense establishment, the Mobile Emergency Police Force participated in counterinsurgency operations. In addition, the government had transformed armed civilian People's Protection Brigades from vigilante groups into local law enforcement units.

Competing nationalisms that confront each other in the Horn of Africa have posed the most serious threat to Ethiopia's national security. Since 1961, the Ethiopian armed forces have been fighting secessionists in Eritrea and, since 1974, insurgents in Tigray. Ethiopia, aided by a large Cuban combat force and Soviet logistical support, also fought a conventional war against Somalia over the Ogaden in 1977-78.

After the Provisional Military Administrative Council seized power in 1974, Ethiopia relied almost exclusively on the Soviet Union and its allies to prosecute its various wars. By the late 1980s, however, Moscow was no longer willing to provide unlimited amounts of military assistance to Ethiopia. Instead, the Soviet Union urged the Mengistu regime to seek a negotiated settlement with Eritrean secessionists and Tigrayan rebels. Cuba, having played a vital role in Ethiopia's 1978 victory over Somalia in the Ogaden, had withdrawn all its military personnel from the country. Moreover, the dramatic events of 1989 in Eastern Europe had prompted the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Czechoslovakia, and Romania to cancel all military agreements with the Ethiopian government. As a result, Ethiopia was seeking alternative sources of military assistance from nations such as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Israel. This strategy, however, failed to enable the Mengistu regime to defeat the Eritrean secessionists and Tigrayan rebels or even to ensure the survival of the regime in the new decade.

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