Mengistu Haile Mariam
Mengistu Haile Mariam
Chairman of the Derg and Head of State of Ethiopia
|In office |
3 February 1977 – 10 September 1987
|Preceded by||Tafari Benti|
|Succeeded by||Himself, as President of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia|
|In office |
10 September 1987 – 21 May 1991
|Succeeded by||Tesfaye Gebre Kidan|
|Political party||Workers Party of Ethiopia|
Mengistu Haile Mariam (መንግስቱ ኃይለ ማርያም, pronounced [məngɨstu hi lə maryam]) (born 1937) was the most prominent officer of the Derg, the military junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, and the President of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia from 1987 to 1991. He was originally dispatched from Harar. He oversaw the Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977–1978, a repression campaign against the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party and other anti-Derg factions. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 at the conclusion of a long rebellion against his government, and remains there despite an Ethiopian court verdict finding him guilty in absentia of genocide.
Mengistu's father, Haile Mariam, was a former slave who was in the service of an aristocratic sub-provincial governor, the Shoan landowner Afenegus Eshete Geda. Eshete encountered Haile Mariam while he was on a hunting expedition at the administrative district of Gimira and Maji (in Southern Ethiopia), then under the governorship of Dejazmach Taye Gulilat. Afenegus Eshete Geda was the half-brother of Dejazmatch Kebede's wife, Woizero Yitateku Kidane, and it was through this connection that Mengistu's parents are alleged to have met.
Mengistu's grandmother, Totit (literally "monkey", a name used to call slaves), was still alive when he seized power, and had become an Orthodox nun. Supposedly, on the special orders of her grandson, the nationalization of land did not apply to her. She continued to own the land near the Holetta Military Academy just 30 miles from Addis Ababa, which Empress Zauditu had granted her for services prior to her expulsion from the palace in 1928. Popular legend however states that the elderly nun did not thank her grandson for this favor, and indeed used to curse him for deposing the Emperor.
As a child Mengistu endured comments about his appearance, rooted in the Konso background on his father's side. His features were far more "Negroid" than the average highlander Ethiopian, which Paul Henze believes gave him an inferiority complex; Henze also notes that while receiving military training in the United States, Mengistu experienced racial discrimination, which led him to a later strong anti-American sentiment (Henze, however, was unable to find evidence of any such incidents). When he took power, and attended the meeting of Derg members at the 4th Division headquarters in Addis Ababa, Mengistu exclaimed with emotion:
In this country, some aristocratic families automatically categorize persons with dark skin, thick lips, and kinky hair as "Barias" (Amharic for slave)... let it be clear to everybody that I shall soon make these ignoramuses stoop and grind corn!
Professor Bahru Zewde notes that Mengistu was distinguished by a "special ability to size up situations and persons" Although Bahru notes that some observers "rather charitably" equated this ability with intelligence, the professor believes this skill is more akin to "street smarts": "it is rather closer to the mark to see it as inner-city smartness (or what in local parlance would be called aradanat)."
Mengistu graduated from the Oletta Academy, one of the two important military academies of Ethiopia.
The rise of the Derg
In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie's regime had lost public confidence within Ethiopia following a famine in Wello province, leading to the Ethiopian revolution. As a result, power came into the hands of a committee of low ranking officers and enlisted soldiers led by Atnafu Abate, which came to be known as the Derg. Originally, Mengistu was one of the lesser members, officially sent to represent the 3rd Division because his commander, General Nega Tegnegn considered him a trouble-maker and wanted to get rid of him. Between July and September 1974, Mengistu became the most influential member of the shadowy Derg, but preferred to work through figureheads like Aman Andom and later Tafari Benti.
Haile Selassie died in 1975. It is rumored that Mengistu smothered the Emperor using a pillow case, but Mengistu has denied these rumors. Though several groups were involved in the overthrow, the Derg succeeded to power. However there is no doubt that the Derg under Mengistu's leadership ordered the deaths without trial of 61 ex-officials of the Imperial government on 23 November 1974, and later of numerous other former nobles and officials including the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Theophilos, in 1977. Mengistu himself has acknowledged that the Derg ordered these deaths, but refuses to accept blame saying he was personally not responsible for the deaths. Members of the Derg have contradicted him in interviews given from imprisonment saying he inspired and was in full agreement with their decisions.
Leadership in Ethiopia
Mengistu did not emerge as the leader of the Derg until after the 3 February 1977 shootout, in which Tafari Benti was killed. He then formally assumed power as head of state, and consolidated his position with the execution of his close associate and potential rival, Atnafu Abate, on 13 November of that year for allegedly having "placed the interests of Ethiopia above the interests of socialism" and other "counter-revolutionary" activities. Under Mengistu, Ethiopia received aid from the Soviet Union, other members of the Warsaw Pact, and Cuba.
The Red Terror
From 1977 through 1978, resistance against the Derg ensued, led primarily by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Mengistu cracked down on the EPRP and other revolutionary student organizations in what would become called the "Red Terror." The Derg subsequently turned against the socialist student movement MEISON, a major supporter against the EPRP, in what would be called the "White terror."
The EPRP's efforts to discredit and undermine the Derg and its MEISON collaborators escalated in the fall of 1976. It targeted public buildings and other symbols of state authority for bombings and assassinated numerous Abyot Seded and MEISON members, as well as public officials at all levels. The Derg, which countered with its own counter-terrorism campaign, labeled the EPRP's tactics the White Terror. Mengistu asserted that all "progressives" were given "freedom of action" in helping root out the revolution's enemies, and his wrath was particularly directed toward the EPRP. Peasants, workers, public officials, and even students thought to be loyal to the Mengistu regime were provided with arms to accomplish this task.
Col. Mengistu gave a dramatic send-off to his campaign of terror. He shouted "Death to counterrevolutionaries! Death to the EPRP!" and then produced three bottles of what appeared to be blood and smashed them to the ground to show what the revolution would do to its enemies. Thousands of young men and women turned up dead in the streets of the capital and other cities in the following two years. They were systematically murdered mainly by militia attached to the "Kebeles," the neighborhood watch committees which served during Mengistu's reign as the lowest level local government and security surveillance units. Families had to pay the Kebeles a tax known as "the wasted bullet" to obtain the bodies of their loved ones. In May 1977 the Swedish general secretary of the Save the Children Fund stated that "1,000 children have been killed, and their bodies are left in the streets and are being eaten by wild hyenas . . . You can see the heaped-up bodies of murdered children, most of them aged eleven to thirteen, lying in the gutter, as you drive out of Addis Ababa." Mengistu Haile Mariam is alleged to be responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Ethiopians between 1975–1978.
Military gains made by the monarchist EDU in Begemder were rolled back when that party split just as it was on the verge of capturing the old capital of Gondar. The army of the Republic of Somalia unleashed aggression upon Ethiopia in the Ogaden region, and was on the verge of capturing Harar and Dire Dawa, when Somalia's erstwhile allies, the Soviets and the Cubans, launched an unprecedented arms and personnel airlift to come to Ethiopia's rescue. The Derg government turned back the Somali invasion, and made deep strides against the Eritrean secessionists and the TPLF as well. By the end of the seventies, Mengistu presided over the second largest army in all of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a formidable airforce and navy.
In the 1970s, Mengistu embraced the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, which was increasingly popular among many nationalists and revolutionaries throughout Africa and much of the Third World at the time. Some have argued that Mengistu, whom his commanders did not consider to be an intellectual, was more of a nationalist than a convinced Marxist, but that Marxism provided the best ideology for those trying to resist the dominant world powers, a policy that had been skilfully followed by previous Ethiopian leaders not least Emperor Menelik II.
In the mid-1970s, under Mengistu's leadership, the Derg regime began an aggressive program of changing Ethiopia's system from a mixed feudo-capitalist emergent economy to an eastern bloc style command economy. Shortly after coming to power, all rural land was nationalized, stripping the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Imperial family and the nobility of all their sizable estates and the bulk of their wealth. During this same period, all foreign-owned and locally owned companies were nationalized without compensation in an effort to redistribute the country's wealth. All undeveloped urban property and all rental property was also nationalized. Private businesses such as banks and insurance companies, large retail businesses, etc were also taken over by the government. All this nationalized property was brought under the administration of large bureaucracies set up to administer them. Farmers who had once worked on land owned by absentee landlords were now compelled to join collective farms. All agricultural products were no longer to be offered on the free market, but were to be controlled and distributed by the government. Despite progressive agricultural reforms, under the Derg, agricultural output suffered due to war, drought and misguided economic policies.
In the early 1986, under Mengistu's direction, Ethiopia adopted a constitution modelled after that of the Soviet Union and saw the establishment of the Marxist-Leninist Worker's Party of Ethiopia (WPE), now the country's ruling party. On 10 September 1987, Mengistu became a civilian president under a new constitution, and the country was renamed the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Those members of the Derg who still survived all retired from the military and as civilians made up the Central Committee of the Polit Bureau of the WPE.
Following the demise of imperial rule, the provisional military government dismantled the feudal socioeconomic structure through a series of reforms that also affected educational development. By early 1975, the government had closed Haile Selassie I University and all senior secondary schools, then deployed the approximately 60,000 students and teachers to rural areas to promote the government's "Development Through Cooperation Campaign". The campaign's purposes were to promote land reform and improve agricultural production, health, and local administration and to teach peasants about the new political and social order.
Primary school enrollment increased from about 957,300 in 1974/75 to nearly 2,450,000 in 1985/86. There were still variations among regions in the number of students enrolled and a disparity in the enrollment of boys and girls. Nevertheless, while the enrollment of boys more than doubled, that of girls more than tripled. However many critics say most of the statistics provided during Mengistu's regime were inaccurate since no neutral body or international organization was allowed to validate them and there was a political aim for the regime to appear productive in general. With most of the rebel controlled northern Ethiopia regions as well as parts of Somali and Oromo regions out of the government's control, most of its claims were not perceived to be comprehensive.
The number of senior secondary schools almost doubled as well, with fourfold increases in Arsi, Bale, Gojjam, Gonder, and Wollo. The prerevolutionary distribution of schools had shown a concentration in the urban areas of a few administrative regions. In 1974/75 about 55% of senior secondary schools were in Eritrea and Shewa, including Addis Ababa. In 1985/86 the figure was down to 40%. Although there were significantly fewer girls enrolled at the secondary level, the proportion of females in the school system at all levels and in all regions increased from about 32% in 1974/75 to 39% in 1985/86.
Among the revolutionary government's successes was the national literacy campaign. The literacy rate, under 10% during the imperial regime, increased to about 63% by 1984. In 1990/91 an adult literacy rate of just over 60% was still being reported in government as well as in some international reports. As with the 1984 data, it was wise to exercise caution with regard to the latest figure. Officials originally conducted the literacy training in five languages: Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Welamo, and Somali. The number of languages was later expanded to fifteen, which represented about 93% of the population.
By 1974 it was clear that the archaic land tenure system was one of the major factors responsible for the backward condition of Ethiopia's agriculture and the onset of the revolution. On 4 March 1975, the Derg announced its land reform program. The government nationalized rural land without compensation, abolished tenancy, forbade the hiring of wage labor on private farms, ordered all commercial farms to remain under state control, and granted each peasant family possessing rights to a plot of land not to exceed ten hectares. The land reform destroyed the feudal order; changed landowning patterns, particularly in the south, in favor of peasants and small landowners; and provided the opportunity for peasants to participate in local matters by permitting them to form associations.
In 1975 the government disestablished the church, which was a substantial landholder during the imperial era, and early the next year removed its patriarch. The PMAC declared that all religions were equal, and a number of Muslim holy days became official holidays in addition to the Christian holidays already honored.
Starting in 1975, the government embarked on the formulation of a new health policy emphasizing disease prevention and control, rural health services, and promotion of community involvement and self-reliance in health activities. The ground for the new policy was broken during the student zemecha of 1975/76, which introduced peasants to the need for improved health standards.
A number of countries were generous in helping Ethiopia meet its health care needs. Cuba, the Soviet Union, and a number of East European countries provided medical assistance. In early 1980, nearly 300 Cuban medical technicians, including more than 100 physicians, supported local efforts to resolve public health problems. Western aid for long-term development of Ethiopia's health sector was modest, averaging about US$10 million annually, the lowest per capita assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. The main Western donors included Italy and Sweden. The UN system led by UNDP and including such agencies as FAO, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNIDO, UNFPA and WHO, continued to extend assistance as they had to the Emperor's regime. In the early 80s, at least one UNDP representative, a former minister in a Caribbean country, had the credibility to get access to Mengistu, and may have moderated his excesses in some instances. The World Bank also continued to provide assistance during his rule recognising the surprisingly conservative and prudent fiscal discipline the regime tried to follow.
Famine and economic collapse
Ethiopia had never recovered from the previous great famine of the early 1970s, which was the result of a drought that affected most of the countries of the African Sahel. The famine was also caused by an imbalance of population which was concentrated in the highland areas, which were free of malaria and trypanosomiasis. Both the Emperor's and Mengistu's regimes had tried to resettle people in the lowlands, but the Mengistu regime came in for heavy international criticism on the grounds that the resettlements were forced. In fact the government did offer peasants inducements to re settle but coercion may also have been involved.
There has been an approximately decade long cycle of recurrent droughts in this part of east Africa since earlier in the 20th century and by the late 1970s signs of intensifying drought began to appear. By the early 1980s, large numbers of people in central Eritrea, Tigray, Welo, and parts of Gonder and Shewa were beginning to feel the effects of renewed famine.
A drought that began in 1969 continued as dry weather brought disaster to the Sahel and swept eastward through the Horn of Africa. By 1973 the attendant famine had threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian nomads, who had to leave their home grounds and struggle into Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan, seeking relief from starvation. By the end of 1973, famine had claimed the lives of about 300,000 peasants of Tigray and Welo, and thousands more had sought relief in Ethiopian towns and villages.
The Derg's limited ability to lead development and to respond to crises was dramatically demonstrated by the government's reliance on foreign famine relief between 1984 and 1989. By 1983 armed conflict between the government and opposition movements in the north had combined with drought to contribute to mass starvation in Eritrea, Tigray, and Welo. Meanwhile, drought alone was having a devastating impact on an additional nine regions. This natural disaster far exceeded the drought of 1973–74, which had contributed to the demise of the Haile Selassie regime. By early 1985, some 7.7 million people were suffering from drought and food shortages. Of that number, 2.5 million were at immediate risk of starving.
As it had in the past, in the mid-1980s the international community responded generously to Ethiopia's tragedy once the dimensions of the crisis became understood, although the FAO had been warning of food security problems for several years before the famine hit. Bilateral, multilateral, and private donations of food and other relief supplies poured into the country by late 1984. In 1987 another drought threatened 5 million people in Eritrea and Tigray. This time, however, the international community was better prepared to get food to the affected areas in time to prevent starvation and massive population movements. According to Library of Congress studies, "many supporters of the Ethiopian regime opposed its policy of withholding food shipments to rebel areas. The combined effects of famine and internal war had by then put the nation's economy into a state of collapse." Also according to Human Rights Watch's reports and research, Mengistu government's
- counter-insurgency strategy caused the famine to strike one year earlier than would otherwise have been the case, and forced people to migrate to relief shelters and refugee camps. The economic war against the peasants caused the famine to spread to other areas of the country. If the famine had struck only in 1984/5, and only affected the "core" areas of Tigray and north Wollo (3.1 million affected people), and caused only one quarter of the number to migrate to camps, the death toll would have been 175,000 (on the optimistic assumptions) and 273,000 (on the pessimistic assumptions). Thus between 225,000 and 317,000 deaths—rather more than half of those caused by the famine—can be blamed on the government's human rights violations.
Asylum in Zimbabwe
In May 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forces advanced on Addis Ababa from all sides, and Mengistu fled the country with 50 family and Derg members. He was granted asylum in Zimbabwe as an official guest of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Mengistu left behind almost the entire membership of the original Derg and the WPE leadership, precluding their escape; in fact, one officer was caught twice while trying to escape from Addis Ababa. Almost all were promptly arrested and put on trial upon the assumption of power by the EPRDF. Mengistu has claimed that the takeover of his country resulted from the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, who in his view allowed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the termination of its aid to Ethiopia.
An assassination attempt against Mengistu occurred on 4 November 1995, near his home in the Gunhill suburb of Harare; Mengistu was unharmed. Solomon Haile Ghebre Michael, an Eritrean, was arrested and tried for this assassination attempt, pleading not guilty in a Zimbabwean court on 8 July 1996. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, while Abraham Goletom Joseph was sentenced to five years. They said that they had been tortured under Mengistu, and on appeal their sentences were reduced to two years each due to "mitigatory circumstances".
Mengistu still resides in Zimbabwe, despite the Ethiopian government's desire that he be extradited. He is said to live in luxurious circumstances, and it is claimed that he advises Mugabe on security matters; according to one report, he proposed the idea of clearing slums, which was implemented as Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, and chaired meetings at which the operation was planned. State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa strongly denied that Mengistu was involved in Operation Murambatsvina in any way, saying that Mengistu "does not interfere at all with the affairs of our country. We also do not allow him to interfere with his country from Zimbabwe."
Genocide trial and conviction
Mengistu was tried in an Ethiopian court, in absentia, for his role in the killing of nearly 2,000 people during the Red Terror. Mengistu's charge sheet and evidence list was 8,000 pages long. The evidence against him included signed execution orders, videos of torture sessions and personal testimonies.
The trial began in 1994 and ended in 2006. Mengistu was found guilty as charged on 12 December 2006, and was sentenced to life in prison in January 2007. It should be noted that Ethiopia defines genocide as intent to wipe out political and not just ethnic groups. In addition to the genocide conviction, he was also found guilty of imprisonment, illegal homicide and illegal confiscation of property.
Some experts believe hundreds of thousands of university students, intellectuals and politicians (including Emperor Haile Selassie) were killed during Mengistu's rule. Amnesty International estimates that a total of half a million people were killed during the Red Terror of 1977 and 1978 Human Rights Watch describes the Red Terror as "one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa." During his reign it was not uncommon to see students, suspected government critics or rebel sympathisers hanging from lampposts each morning. Mengistu himself is alleged to have murdered opponents by garroting or shooting them, saying that he was leading by example.
106 Derg officials were accused of genocide during the trials, but only 36 of them were present in the court. Several former members of the Derg have been sentenced to death.
After Mengistu's conviction in December 2006, the Zimbabwean government said that he still enjoyed asylum and would not be extradited. A Zimbabwean government spokesman explained this by saying that "Mengistu and his government played a key and commendable role during our struggle for independence". According to the spokesman, Mengistu assisted his country's guerrillas during their liberation war by providing training and arms, and after the war he had provided training for Zimbabwean air force pilots; the spokesman said that "not many countries have shown such commitment to us".
Following an appeal on 26 May 2008, Mengistu was sentenced to death in absentia by Ethiopia's High Court, overturning his previous sentence of life imprisonment. Eighteen of his most senior aides also received a death sentence. It is not clear if a change in government in Zimbabwe will result in his extradition.