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Ethiopia Table of Contents


People's Militia

Proclamation No. 71, issued by the Derg in 1975, established the People's Militia to "safeguard the revolution." The government intended to raise a representative force on a regional basis to carry out police duties, to protect collectivized property and crops, and to enforce the decisions of peasant association tribunals. However, the militia remained largely a rural organization, despite the fact that Addis Ababa had directed urban dwellers' associations ( kebeles --see Glossary) and workers' associations to "elect" constituents to serve in the militia.

In May 1976, the government conscripted 30,000 to 40,000 peasants into the People's Militia from the predominantly Amhara areas of Shewa, Welo, and Gojam. After only two weeks of training, Addis Ababa dispatched the militia, armed with World War II-vintage rifles, to Eritrea. There, the militia's mission was to repel the "invading Arab infidel." A month later, Eritrean guerrillas, carrying relatively modern arms, decimated this force by launching a preemptive attack on the Zela Anbesa militia camp. In the spring of 1977, Mengistu reconstituted the People's Militia as the socalled Red Army and authorized its expansion. He armed the militia with modern weapons and ordered all conscripts to undergo a twelve-week basic training and weapons familiarization course at camps in Tatek, Shashemene, Awash, Fiche, and Azezo. The government then deployed People's Militia units to Eritrea and the Ogaden to serve with the regular army. This decision proved to be disastrous because, in fighting against Eritrean guerrillas in northern Ethiopia and against the Somali National Army in the Ogaden, the People's Militia suffered heavy casualties. On occasion, antigovernment elements in the militia experienced bloody confrontations with Ethiopian army regulars (see Morale and Discipline, this ch.). In addition, captured militiamen often denounced the government's military strategy to foreign journalists.

By 1980 the People's Militia numbered 150,000 troops organized into ten divisions. Those assigned to Eritrea were known as the Northern People's Divisions; those in the Ogaden were known as the Eastern People's Divisions. Militia units were usually equipped with AK-47 rifles and rocketpropelled grenade launchers, and most units possessed mortars and antitank weapons. Cuban advisers provided infantry and artillery training.

During the early and mid-1980s, the People's Militia declined in importance, largely because of increased pressure for equal pay and survivor benefits. The May 1983 enactment of the National Military Service Proclamation required all able-bodied Ethiopian men aged eighteen to thirty to undergo six months of military training followed by two years of active duty. After their terms of active duty ended, these men would be placed on reserve status until age fifty. National military service negated the necessity for the large-scale militia call-ups that had been common in the late 1970s. Nevertheless, the government continued training militia recruits, especially from resettlement villages in frontier areas such as Asosa in Welega (see The Politics of Resettlement, ch. 4).

By 1991 the People's Militia numbered about 200,000 but no longer had to contend with a serious threat in the Ogaden. However, the deteriorating situation in Eritrea and Tigray required that militia units support the regular army's counterinsurgency operations. At the end of 1989, Addis Ababa mobilized the militia to stop the advance of the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement. These and several other groups had joined forces and became known as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Data as of 1991