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Morale and Discipline


A patrol boat at the naval base at Mitsiwa

Before the February 1974 unrest that led to the ouster of the emperor, military morale was thought to be high. Although the demands for redress of professional grievances that precipitated the 1974 coup had created doubts about the level of military morale, the public's basic respect for the fighting man and the enduring belief that military life was an avenue of advancement helped sustain the military profession's somewhat diminished stature. Also, when the revolutionary government designated the armed forces as the "vanguard of the revolution," many officers consequently were able to assume senior military and political positions relatively early in their careers. In addition, the pay, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by Ethiopian service personnel gave them an above-average standard of living. Despite the political turmoil that accompanied the establishment of a revolutionary Marxist government, as well as the insecurity caused by purges within the military and the dangers of combat, military life still managed to attract enough volunteers to staff the uniformed services.

However, the uncertainties caused by the events of 1974 and the subsequent turnover in command personnel caused a crisis of confidence that would last until the introduction of large numbers of Soviet and Cuban advisers in training and command positions in the late 1970s. Prolonged exposure to combat and political disaffection contributed to desertion, attacks on officers, and war-zone atrocities. Incompetence among commanders in the field was also a problem. For instance, in 1975 the government tried and executed several officers for indiscipline and for a lack of military judgment resulting in the death of soldiers in battle. From 1976 to 1978, the command leadership crisis grew worse because of the army's rapid expansion. As a result of this growth, junior officers and NCOs often advanced to fieldgrade rank without adequate preparation. Purges and defections by officers of Eritrean origin were also factors in the poor quality of field leadership. Growing disaffection throughout the army prompted several mutinies by front-line troops, including one at Jijiga in 1977, during which officers and NCOs demanded Mengistu's resignation. Further, the disparity in pay and lack of survivor benefits embittered the People's Militia.

Although the 1978 victory over Somalia in the Ogaden War and the Soviet Union's growing support of the Ethiopian armed forces enhanced morale, troops in war zones still questioned or criticized the government's national security policy. However, a correlation existed between the quality of a unit's training and equipment and the state of its morale. The best-trained and best-equipped units--the air force and the army engineers--also had the highest morale.

During 1978 and 1979, the government reorganized units in Eritrea and the Ogaden in an effort to reduce dissatisfaction and prevent conspiracies. This strategy backfired because many soldiers resented having to leave their original units. The threat of radical land reform that affected the holdings of military personnel also caused bitterness. Additionally, combat units found it difficult to sustain high morale in a war of attrition in Eritrea that permitted few clear-cut victories. After the 1979 government defeat at Nakfa, troops in Asmera distributed antigovernment pamphlets. Western journalists also reported that large numbers of Ethiopian soldiers had switched sides, deserted, or surrendered, sometimes as units, without resistance to the Eritreans. Throughout this period, Ethiopian authorities refused to recognize the existence of the prisoners of war, who numbered about 6,000, held by Eritrean secessionist forces. To make matters worse, Mengistu told combatants who faced capture by the enemy to "die [in battle] or kill yourselves."

Tension between regular army and People's Militia units existed on all fighting fronts. One of the factors that led to the 1977 Jijiga mutiny concerned complaints that the government had issued better weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles, to militia units. For their part, militia personnel complained about low pay, inadequate medical attention, and inferior food. Furthermore, they charged that regulars often refused to give them supporting fire during combined operations.

During the government's large-scale 1982 Red Star campaign in Eritrea, the EPLF victory further lowered the morale of government forces and prompted many Ethiopian army units to mutiny. For example, in late October 1982 the Ninth Brigade, which was serving on the Nakfa front, reported fighting between mutineers and loyal troops at Third Division headquarters. In February 1983, units stationed at Kudo Felasi, near Adi Ugri, also mutinied. There was also unrest among People's Militia conscripts. Throughout the 1982 Red Star campaign, thousands of government troops fled to Sudan to avoid combat.

Over the next few years, a series of battlefield reversals, coupled with the government's refusal to abandon its goal of military victory in Eritrea and Tigray, kept the armed forces demoralized. In October 1986, army officers held prisoner by the EPLF formed the Free Ethiopia Soldiers' Movement. Apart from distributing anti-Mengistu pamphlets in Ethiopia and abroad, the Free Ethiopia Soldiers' Movement sought "to organize men in uniform and prepare them for an overthrow of the government and a search for an alliance with all democratic forces." This organization also called for the creation of democracy in Ethiopia and a peaceful resolution of the Eritrean problem.

The next major mutiny occurred in mid-February 1988, when elements of the Second Revolutionary Army revolted in Asmera. Mengistu responded to this crisis by making a muchpublicized sixteen-day tour of units stationed in the north and by ordering the arrest and execution of several NCOs and officers, including at least five generals. Morale fell further after the EPLF won a victory at Afabet in March. By the end of that year, veterans and discontented soldiers, many of whom had war injuries, demonstrated in Addis Ababa to pressure the Mengistu regime to end the war and increase veterans' benefits. The government suppressed the demonstration, killing several men in the process.

Continued battlefield setbacks in Eritrea and Tigray throughout early 1989 demoralized many senior officers who previously had been supporters of Mengistu's military policy in northern Ethiopia. On May 16, members of the armed forces staged a coup to oust Mengistu. With the exception of the minister of defense, Major General Haile Giorgis Habte Mariam, those directly implicated in the coup, or at least not hostile to the decision to oust Mengistu, included the entire army command structure from the chief of staff on down. The commanders of the air force and the first, second, third, and fourth revolutionary armies also supported the coup. After returning to Ethiopia, Mengistu, who had been in East Germany on an official visit, used his Presidential Guard and other loyal military personnel to reestablish his authority. Subsequently, he ordered the arrest or execution of hundreds of senior officers. Mengistu then named many of his political supporters, some of whom lacked any military experience, to replace those who had been purged. Although Mengistu succeeded in eliminating effective opposition in the armed forces (at least for the short term), morale problems continued to plague most military units, especially those assigned to war zones in northern Ethiopia, whose ranks were often filled with teenagers. In late 1989, for example, thousands of government soldiers deserted, and scores of units disintegrated after the TPLF launched a major offensive.

Data as of 1991

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