Ethiopia's Contras

published in MER145

In his February 1986 Message to the Congress on Foreign Policy, Ronald Reagan announced his support for “growing resistance movements now [challenging] communist regimes installed or maintained by the military power of the Soviet Union and its colonial agents -- in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua.” In four of Reagan’s five regional hot spots, an avowed anti-communist contra-style force maintains a field presence against a regime allied with the Soviet Union. But in Ethiopia, Congressional findings determined that “talk in Washington of supporting ‘democratic freedom fighters’ in Ethiopia defies the reality in the field, because the simple fact is that there are no ‘democratic freedom fighters’ on the ground in Ethiopia, only Marxist guerrillas fighting a Marxist government, and they both speak the same Marxist language.”

As Washington struggles to clarify the meaning of the “Reagan Doctrine” in Ethiopia, the anti-communist opposition is begging for support. Jonas Deressa and his brother Dereje are made-to-order contras, slick and quick with statements such as “Ethiopians are not communists.” They argue in the media that “for one tenth of what the US spends to arm freedom fighters against Marxism in Nicaragua, we can have a free Ethiopia and deliver a devastating blow against Soviet imperialism in Africa.” Jonas is ostensibly head of a humanitarian organization connected to the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Alliance (EPDA), of which his brother is secretary-general. Born of the rightwing feudal opposition that emerged following the downfall of Haile Selassie, the EPDA maintains offices in the United States and Europe and claims that it can field 50,000 fighters in western Ethiopia if the US will just provide the military support.

In 1981, Reagan signed a presidential finding under the National Security Act authorizing the CIA to conduct a “non-lethal” campaign to support the “democratic resistance” to Ethiopia’s Mengistu. Since then, the EPDA has received an estimated $500,000 annually from the CIA and the assistance of a Washington-based public relations firm for the promotion of anti-Mengistu propaganda within Ethiopia and among the exile communities in the United States. Though as yet it has received only limited support from the administration, the EPDA is the darling of the New Right. Deressa made impassioned speeches to both the World Anti-Communist League conference in Dallas in 1985 and the “contra summit” in Washington in the summer of 1986. Though the CIA turned down an 1982 EPDA request to train 350 field commanders for its fledgling army, there are reports that the Alabama-based Civilian Material Assistance (CMA) has taken up the call. CMA officials confirm that they have volunteers in Sudan, but will not say whether they are involved in Ethiopia or the conflict in southern Sudan.

Rightwing members of Congress are quick to call on the Deressa brothers to provide testimony in ongoing sessions considering economic sanctions against Ethiopia, and Senator Orrin Hatch has publicly called for US military aid to the EPDA. Given Washington’s success in establishing relations with the Ethiopian government and effecting some influence over the movements, the EPDA is not yet a candidate for full US support, though Jonas Deressa claims that Ronald Reagan informed him during a 1986 meeting that the US would take up his cause once administration policy in Central America had proven effective.

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