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Mengistu Haile Mariam
Mengistu was one of several soldiers who in 1974 overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, whose regime had pursued some disastrous policies. The emperor died the following year, possibly strangled on orders from Mengistu himself. Although several groups were involved in the overthrow, the Derg (of which Mengistu was part) came out on top.
He assumed power as head of state and Derg chairman in 1977, after having his two predecessors killed. Mengistu's years in office were marked by a totalitarian-style government and the country's massive militarization, financed by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and assisted by Cuba. From 1977 through early 1978 thousands of suspected enemies of the Derg were tortured and/or killed in a purge called the "red terror." In response to guerrilla attacks from the anti-Mengistu Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), Mengistu declared that the EPRP had begun a White Terror and that for every revolutionary killed, the Derg would respond by killing a thousand counterrevolutionaries.
Such a declaration did not prove to be a major exaggeration. In response to guerrilla attacks from the EPRP, Mengistu gave the secret police and local governments unchecked authority in arresting, detaining, torturing, and murdering suspected "enemies of the revolution." From 1977-78, the Derg relentlessly pursued all people it viewed as a possible threat. In October of 1977 alone, it is estimated that an upwards of 3-4000 people were killed, and in one week of 1978 Mengistu's government is said to have executed 5000 students and detained 30,000 more labelled as anti-Derg sympathizers.
After systematically eliminating opposition from the EPRP, Mengistu turned on the other major Marxist group that had originally supported him, the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON), fearing that its members had more loyalty to their party than to the ruling Derg government. By 1978, he had effectively eliminated all potential opposition from the EPRP and MEISON through three phases of bloody purges; the first targetting the EPRP, the second targetting MEISON, and the third eliminating remnants of both groups.
By the end of 1978, due to Mengistu's relentlessly brutal suppression of all opposition, the Red Terror died down, but Ethiopia still remained a one-party totalitarian state, and Mengistu was very unpopular in the wake of widespread famine and a lack of international support, even from would-be allies.
Communism and international isolation
Communism was officially adopted during the late 1970s and early 1980s with the promulgation of a Soviet-style constitution, Politburo, and the creation of the Worker's Party of Ethiopia (WPE). All foreign-owned companies were nationalized without compensation.
Mengistu's government was faced with enormous difficulties throughout the 1980s in the form of droughts, widespread famine (notably the Ethiopian famine of 1984 - 1985) and insurrections, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu himself blames the collapse of his government on Mikhail Gorbachev for letting the Soviet Union collapse and hence cutting off its aid to Ethiopia.
Mengistu fled the country with around 50 Derg officials and was granted asylum in Zimbabwe. He still resides there despite attempts by Ethiopia to extradite him to face trial by the current Ethiopia authorities. Several former members of the Derg have been sentenced to death in absentia.
- Paul B. Henze. "Evolution, War, and 'Socialism': The First Decade of the Derg" and "The End of the Derg: The Victory of the Northern Guerrilla Movements" in Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: Palgrave, 2000. ISBN 0312227191
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