The Workers' Party of Ethiopia
Toward Party Formation
As early as 1976, the Soviet Union had encouraged Addis
Ababa's new leaders to create a civilian-based vanguard
party. The Ethiopian head of state and leader of the
Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC; also
known as the
--see Glossary), Lieutenant Colonel
Mengistu Haile Mariam, initially had resisted, arguing that
the revolution had taken place without such a party and that
there was no need for haste in creating one. However, in the
late 1970s, in the wake of the regime's near collapse under
the weight of armed opposition to its rule, Mengistu
believed the creation of a vanguard party would accomplish
the regime's goals of gaining political control over the
general population and of securing popular legitimacy.
Therefore, in December 1979 Mengistu announced the creation
of the Commission to Organize the Party of the Workers of
The establishment of mass organizations, such as the AllEthiopia Trade Union, the All-Ethiopia Urban Dwellers'
Association, and the All-Ethiopia Peasants' Association,
preceded the creation of COPWE. The Revolutionary Ethiopia
Youth Association, the Revolutionary Ethiopia Women's
Association, the Working People's Control Committees, and
various professional associations were instituted after
COPWE's establishment. The idea behind the proliferation of
mass organizations was to create a party that would
neutralize "narrow nationalism," or sectarianism, and that
would be based on broad, yet clearly defined, class
interests. In response to the fiasco that resulted from
efforts to create a union of Marxist-Leninist organizations
in the mid-1970s, the Derg determined that the party should
be one of individuals, not of political organizations. To
the extent that individual interests were represented, this
was to be done through mass organizations.
Mass organizations not only represented their membership at
party congresses but also guarded their interests on an
everyday basis. The mass organizations had educational and
developmental roles. The basic units of political
consciousness and involvement, then, would be party cells at
work sites or in mass organizations. Individuals could
belong to more than one mass organization at a time.
In determining COPWE membership, the regime tried to give
the impression that a broadly representative organization
had been created. Between 1,200 and 1,500 delegates from all
regions and all walks of life attended the three congresses.
However, the diversity of the delegates was questionable.
For example, at COPWE's first congress, in 1980, more than a
third of the delegates were members of the armed forces or
residents of the Addis Ababa area.
The first congress unveiled the membership of the COPWE
Central Committee and the Secretariat. The Secretariat,
which was supervised by the top Derg leadership, consisted
mainly of civilian ideologues. The Secretariat was
responsible for the day-to-day administration of Central
Committee business. Regional branches under the direction of
military officers in each region complemented COPWE's
central leadership. However, the positions of chief regional
administrator and COPWE representative were divided in late
1981, with the party posts assuming greater importance.
Within a year of the first congress, it was clear that COPWE
was being transformed into a party that could be used by the
state as an instrument of control.
By mid-1983 the COPWE bureaucracy stretched from the
national center to the fourteen regions and thence to the
subregional level, to peasant associations and urban
dwellers' associations (
--see Glossary), and on down
to the party cell level. At that time, there were an
estimated 6,500 COPWE party cells, with a total membership
estimated at 30,000 to 50,000.
Party membership, however, was not open to all. The main
criterion for acceptability was loyalty to the regime rather
than ideological sophistication. Although Mengistu had
stressed the need for ideological purity and for only a few
"committed communists," concern over ideological purity
appeared to be a facade for the Derg's efforts to neutralize
or preempt its opponents and thus establish the party's
exclusive role in defining the normative order.
Once COPWE was in place, the Derg projected itself into the
most important sectors of the central bureaucracy. Derg
members served as the administrators of twelve of the
fourteen regions. An additional thirty Derg members took up
influential posts in subregional administration and in
central ministries. After 1978 the presence of military
personnel in the bureaucracy expanded so greatly that not
only members of the Derg but also other trusted military men
served in such roles.
The organizational model followed by COPWE was Soviet
inspired. Even though there was tension between self-styled
communists and nationalists in the Derg, there was an
understanding that their collective position as a ruling
group was unassailable. This could be seen in the
distribution of power within COPWE. The most important
policy-making bodies in COPWE were the Executive Committee,
whose seven members all came from the Derg, and the Central
Committee, which consisted of ninety-three full members and
thirty alternates. Of the 123 members of the Central
Committee, seventy-nine were military men or police
officers. There were at least twenty Derg members in this
group, and others held important regional posts in the
bureaucracy as well as in COPWE. At the time of COPWE's
demise, military personnel represented more than 50 percent
of the congress that established the vanguard party.
Data as of 1991