Sunday, March 7, 2010

Major Mengistu Haile Mariam and The Ethiopian Red Terror

The Quest of Absolute Power, The Cost of Absolute Corruption.
Major Mengistu Haile Mariam became the Ethiopian president after overthrowing emperor Haile Sellassie 1 on 12th September 1974. Under the Marxist-Lenin communist regime, Mengistu wanted to change the aristocratic feudal land system which caused the first revolt.

The statement of dethronement which Emperor Sellassie1 never rejected read in part:

“Not only left the country in its current crisis by abusing at various times the high and dignified authority conferred on him by the Ethiopian people but also, being over 82 years of age and due to the consequent physical and mental exhaustion is not more able to shoulder the high responsibility of leadership”

Major Mengistu was later to be infamous world wide for his over a decade and half of red terror.

On 23rd November 1974 Major Mengistu executed the emperor’s grandson, two former prime ministers, high emperor’s associates and other sixty prominent prisoners amidst a world wide call for leniency.

Emperor Sellassie 1 died a prisoner a year later on 27th August. The Derg- a military council which started the revolution- said he died of circulatory failure. They refused to show his body. The emperor’s followers believed he was suffocated by a wet towel.

His body was hidden beneath a lavatory at the Emperor’s palace.

Once in power Mengistu meet a lot of opposition and survived 9 assassinations attempts from different rival functions.

Mengistu had a fetish for absolute power. To have the undisputed power he controlled the Derg by murdering 7 members who opposed him using an AK47 assault rifle.

Ethiopia was soon to be engulfed in strife and turmoil as grievances flared up. At the North-Western province of Begemdiri aristocrats raised The Ethiopian Democratic Union army to capture Gondar Town.

The North-East Afar tribesmen started Afar Liberation Front and launched guerrilla attacks on the country’s only oil refinery in Assab. Eritrea helped to form a large army of Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Tigray province.

On the other hand Somali in a bid for ‘lost’ land of greater Somaliland entered the fray by supporting Oromo Liberation Front in the South and the Western Somali liberation front in Ogaden.

The fiercest opposition and the one which gave Mengistu enough headaches was the Eritrea secessionist who wanted independence from 1962 annexation to Ethiopia.

At the capital Addis Ababa too offered no peace. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EARP) wanted a civilian control of the revolution from the military.

To survive Major Mengistu raised a campaign of ‘Red Terror’ licensing civilian groups and avid supporters of young intellectuals supporting the army revolution to crash the opponents. At a rally in Addis Ababa in April 1977 Mengistu crushed three bottles filled with red substance representing the EARP supporters.

“It is an historical obligation to clean up vigilantly using the revolution sword. Your struggle should be demonstrated by spreading red terror in the camp of reactionary.” He told his supporters.

The EARP members where persecuted by people with aid of the government.

In the raw greed of power, once the EARP was destroyed in mid-1977 Mengistu turned to young intellectuals he considered a threat and wiped them out. They were arrested and were lost in interrogation rooms with a trace.

With support from 17,000 Cuban combat forces and Soviet military artillery and aid revolts was curbed country wide.

Once in complete control of his desire: power, Mengistu changed from a communist revolutionary. He turned to bourgeoisie and aristocratic lifestyle. The basis of the initial revolt.

Dawit Wolde Giorgis’ a member of the committee recalls in Red Terror: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia (Red Sea Press, Trenton. 1990):

“he (Mengistu) grew more abrasive and arrogant. The real Mengistu emerged: vengeful, cruel and authoritarian. He begun to openly mock God and religion.” He concludes “we are supposed to have a revolution of equality: now he had become the emperor”

Mengistu’s worst follies came in 1984-5 when he used $150- million to celebrate the 10th anniversary of overthrowing emperor Haile Sellassie 1 regime on 10th October while citizens were dying of famine.

5 million Ethiopians were at risk.

His main indifference was that the famine areas, Wollo and Tigray provinces were backdrop of Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. By 1983, two years before the famine Mengistu had used aerial bombardment six times to destroy grain houses, burns crops and kill livestock.

Over a half a million farmers were displaced by the war thus had no farms.

To wrangle the farmers further, Mengistu started the Agricultural Marketing Corporation which imposed a grain quota on them despite the famine. The peasants were taxed heavily and prevented from engaging in any other business,

Mengistu further refused aid from donors even after government officials termed it as an open grave in 1984.

Famine neglect, the blame on Emperor Selassie 1 on the 1973 Wollo famine which claimed 10,000 lives came back to haunt the regime. What a paradox!

Dawit, by then an official of Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) recalled approaching Mengistu respectfully about the issue and he replied;

“Don’t let these petty human problems that always exist in transition periods consume you. There was famine in Ethiopia for years before we took power. It was the way nature kept balance. Today we are interfering with what that natural mechanism of balance and that is why our population has soared to over 40 million”

The famine, like it was with emperor Sellasie 1 became his nemesis.

Truth was opened to the world when Kenyan photojournalist Mohammed Amin arrived in a small town of Korem which was RRC headquarters in the province.

Amin noted “there was this tremendous mass of people, groaning and weeping, scattered across the ground in the morning mist.”

The 7 minutes commentary which Mohamed Amin shot was broadcasted on the BBC on 23rd October and subsequently by 425 TV and numerous radios stations worldwide sending a wave of public horror and compassion which raised $ 1 billion within a year.

Michael Burke commentary on the film went;

“Thousands of wasted people are coming here for help. May find death. They flood in everyday from villages hundred of miles away; dulled by hunger, driven beyond the point of desperation………. Death is all around. A child or an adult dies in every twenty minute.”

The aid was curtailed by the government with only thousands being served as a million people died of starvation. When asked by donors in a press conference the acting foreign Minister, Tibebu Bekele blurted:

“Food is the major element in our strategy against the secessionists.”

In retaliation Mengistu forcefully resettled 600,000 people a year after famine in February 1986. 50,000 people who survived famine were killed during the resettlement.

“the people are like the sea and the guerillas are like fish swimming in the sea” Mengistu justified his actions “without the sea there will be no fish”

For the remaining population surviving on relief program Mengistu ordered an offensive, eighth in the area, bringing more devastation.

With weaning support from the collapsed soviet bloc, Mengistu was driven from what he desired most; power in May 1991 by a joint Eritrean and Tigray rebels.

He escaped to Zimbabwe to be the guest of Robert Mugabe.

(Vive la Revolution, Mengistu and Fidel Castro. Bottom Mengistu Photo: BBC Online)

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