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Tribe Boycotts Ethiopian Vote

One year after rebels of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front seized Addis Ababa, ethnic factions are key factors in Ethiopian politics

ONE year after rebels captured Addis Ababa, hopes for a resolution to Ethiopia's tough ethnic and political squabbles are fading.

Regional elections planned for Sunday are threatened as the main opposition group decided Wednesday to boycott and in some districts, the vote has been postponed for technical reasons.

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"Politics are still defined in Ethiopia along ethnic lines and by one's relationship to the old regime," says a senior Western diplomat.

"The elections will be confused and uncertain, and the EPRDF [the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front] has the unenviable task of holding things together," the diplomat says.

The Tigrean-led EPRDF swept down on Addis Ababa from the north in late May 1991 and forced Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam to flee to Zimbabwe.

President Mengistu had ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for 17 years. As the commander of Africa's largest army - estimated at 400,000 men under arms - he fought simultanious civil wars on many fronts against ethnic-based rebel groups.

In the year since Mengistu's overthrow, ethnic violence has flared between the Oromo group in eastern Ethiopia and government forces. The Oromos make up 40 percent to 50 percent of the country's 45 million people; their Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has been bristling under EPRDF rule.

The resulting violence has left hundreds dead in recent months and prompted the United States State Department to warn that "there could be a return to civil war."

Since last July, the EPRDF has headed a coalition transitional government consisting of 30 political parties. Under its new federal system, the majority Oromos - and more than 80 other tribes - would exercise self-rule in the 14 new ethnic-based regions.

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But now the OLF has decided to pull out of the elections, claiming they would not be free and fair. The Oromos say that the EPRDF is their "new colonizer" from the north and contest the presence of EPRDF forces who are stationed throughout the country.

"We will work for peace if the rights of our people are recognized by all sides through democracy," says Nadhi Gammada, the political head of the OLF. "But if guns are used by the EPRDF to decide the fate of our people, then there will be no peace."

Since December, most roads in the region have been unsafe to transport food, and in March the Mozambican head of the the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Dire Dawa was killed.

But according to Barry Rigby, the deputy regional representative of UNHCR, an OLF-EPRDF cease-fire has allowed the amount of food brought from Djibouti to almost 700,000 needy refugees and returnees to triple in May.

Analysts speak of an "inferiority complex" among OLF troops because of the small role they played in Mengistu's overthrow. "They must realize," says a UN analyst, "that the north won this war."

Much of the problem lies in the confusion among Oromos themselves about what they want, analysts say.

For decades, Oromos have dreamed of their own ethnic state called "Oromia," which would cut through central Ethiopia and include their ancient rich homeland. The new ethnic map lays out such a region, but local OLF officials still fight for total independence.

OLF leaders in Addis Ababa, however, say they now are willing to play by the transitional government's rules: greater regional autonomy but no separation.

ACCORDING to the UN analyst, "The EPRDF are the only ones to address the ethnic issue.... The ethnic groups are still at the stage where everyone stands up and shouts at the same time."

"The OLF could have made a few steps to be more accommodating" of the government's rapid pace toward elections, says a Western diplomat. "The EPRDF says the OLF has pulled out because it does not have its act together. They know they are going to lose."

Though the strong arm of Mengistu has been gone for a year, Ethiopia still suffers from the same problems it did when forced collectivization and war left millions of people hungry.

President Meles Zenawi opened an "Ethiopian Rehabilition Campaign" last month and told worn-out donors that 7.8 million Ethiopians needed food assistance this year - the second highest level ever.

He said that Ethiopia "wants to move away from relief dependency and focus on rehabilitation and reconstruction."

The World Bank in April approved a $657 million grant to jump-start the economy. But international private investors have so far held back from Ethiopia, the government has yet to devalue the currency (which is worth one fourth of the official rate), and the massive bureaucracy inherited from Mengistu remains intact.

Despite the country's problems, though, Western analysts cannot see a better alternative to "ethnic federalism" - if it can be done more carefully than in Yugoslavia or the former Soviet Union.

EPRDF efforts one year after their euphoric victory show the new face of democracy in Ethiopia, says Ben Parker, an information officer of the UN Emergency Prevention and Preparedness Group in Ethiopia.

"The EPRDF are sending their boys to every corner of Ethiopia ... to fight for people who are throwing stones at them."

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