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 ablebodied 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.
Data as of 1991