In the hierarchy of leftist monsters of the 20th century, Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Communist leader of Ethiopia from 1977 to 1991, is often lost. However, during the 14 years of his blood-soaked tenure, millions of Ethiopians fell victim to his regime’s murderous excesses, corrupt militarism, and economic devastation. The indelible image of his misrule is the picture of an entire land wracked by an avoidable, politically genocidal famine. The failures and crimes of this much-forgotten madman continue to haunt Ethiopians to this day.
Though Mengistu would use his humble origins to gain credence among the Ethiopian populace, his upbringing was anything but lowly. Considering that a vast majority of Ethiopians did – and still do – live in abject poverty at the time of his birth, Mengistu’s childhood and early adulthood was remarkably bourgeoisie and comfortable. He was born out of wedlock in 1937, his mother a member of the native aristocracy he would come to despise, and his father an illiterate corporal in the army. Mengistu’s education was minimal, a failing that did not prevent him from attending a state-run military academy. Through his government contacts, Mengistu secured a position in a foreign training program that sent him to Forth Leavenworth, Kansas, for instruction.
In 1967, Mengistu was sent for additional training at the Aberdeen Training Grounds in Maryland. While assigned to the base, Mengistu found time to enroll in classes at the University of Maryland, where he gained a rudimentary knowledge of English. Upon his return to his native country, Mengistu was placed in command of a mechanized battalion and later a military demolition unit. He was then promoted to the rank of Major.
It is thought that it was in this period that Mengistu began to cultivate and express some of the irrational tendencies that would later define his dictatorship. Falling under the sway of radically anti-American Ethiopian Marxists, Mengistu turned against the United States, betraying the country that had tutored and trained him. He also began to reveal his deep and abiding hatred for intellectuals, an animus that would be ruthlessly displayed over the 14-year span of his rule. Even as Mengistu was experiencing this personal radicalization, Ethiopia was beginning to fall victim to the political tribulations already overtaking much of the continent.
The regime of Emperor Haile Selassie had long been one of the more respectable and admirable independent governments in Africa. Having ruled the country for over four decades, many outside observers saw the Emperor as a welcome and stabilizing presence in the Horn of Africa. Into the early 1970s, Ethiopia had consistently managed to avoid the strife and devastation that were challenging other post-colonial African states of the era. Under the steady, if increasingly decrepit, leadership of the Emperor, Ethiopia appeared to be one of the continent’s few success stories.
This honeymoon of sorts came to an abrupt end in 1973, when Crown Prince Asfa Wossen, Selassie’s appointed successor, suffered a stroke. The stability of the regime was now threatened by a dynastic struggle, as future leadership of the kingdom became questionable. In the same year, poor agricultural management paired with drought led to famine conditions in the province of Wollo. Reacting to these events, Selassie attempted to please proponents of liberalization by making a government-wide personnel change. Unfortunately for the aging monarch, the purge of sorts had the opposite effect, signaling confusion and heightening mistrust in the ability of the government to make beneficial alterations to the centuries-old political system. Soon, the emperor was faced with strikes by both students and urban elites who espoused a whole host of philosophies, including most notably, Marxism.
Near the end of the Selassie reign, the nation was further threatened by an external threat, this time from the Soviet Union. Moscow’s efforts to destabilize the Selassie government came as a result of the Emperor’s efforts to restrict their activities. This secret war culminated in the expulsion of all Soviet and Warsaw Pact representatives in the mid-1970s, an action which provoked the Soviets into supporting student led Marxist-Leninist organizations which had been organized throughout Europe and Africa. This effort included arming the Soviet-allied regime in Somalia, forcing Selassie to respond with arms purchases from the United States.
The Soviets also began making preliminary contacts with a shadowy political organization made up of military officers. The small movement was later known as the Derg. Formed in February 1974, the Derg offered a disciplined and absolute approach to governance, unlike the dithering inaction frequently imparted by the aging Emperor. By June of 1974, the Derg was powerful enough to actively network with units deployed throughout the country. Numerous officers began to infiltrate back into the capital of Addis Ababa. Among them was a Major from Harar named Mengistu, who had been sent by his commanding officer because of his propensity for insubordination.
The Derg rapidly became a feared political force within Ethiopia. Bolstered by its far-reaching network within the military and the fear it generated, the Derg began calling for changes inside the government. Fearful high officials began resigning rather than face some unknown punishment at the hands of the Derg officers.
By July, the Derg felt confident enough to make their demands publicly known, drawing up a draft constitution and demanding the end of imperial authority. As part of their campaign to discredit the increasingly isolated emperor, the Derg began a propaganda initiative, charging Selassie with all forms of malfeasance. Their words ruined the respectable position of the Emperor to an extent that Derg officers were able to arrest him in September of 1974. He would be strangled to death a year later.
The overthrow of Selassie was relatively bloodless in comparison to the charnel scenes that had accompanied other military revolutions on the continent. However, the peaceful nature of the coup would not last for long. The Derg would soon turn on itself in a series of murders and assassinations, most of which ordered by the Derg’s rising star, Major Mengistu.
The newly ascendant Derg was quick to proclaim its absolute authority over Ethiopia. It immediately went to work destroying the Eritrean revolt that had been festering for years. While some Derg officers, such as Defense Minister Aman Andom, wanted to reach a peace settlement with the rebels, hard-liners like Mengistu would not settle for such equivocation. On the night of November 23 rd, 1974, troops loyal to Mengistu stormed Andom’s house, killing him during a lengthy firefight. That was not the end though. Before the night was over, 59 other government officials had been shot on Mengistu’s orders.
Mengistu was evidently not sated by the Derg’s command of the government. His thirst for individual power unquenched, Mengistu embarked on a vicious campaign to assume solitary command of the Party and Ethiopia itself. From 1974 to 1977, Ethiopia was buffeted by assassinations and countercoups, most of which were instigated by the power-hungry army officer. Much like his hero Stalin, Mengistu would target friend or foe alike.
Mengistu’s war against real and imaginary rivals was executed with ferocity and decisive action. In 1976, he turned against his colleague Major Jamor Sisay Habte, ordering his execution for supposed “right-wing tendencies.” In 1977, the increasingly deranged Mengistu personally executed five of his political opponents in his office. Also in 1977, Mengistu ordered a meeting of the Derg hierarchy to iron out an agreement over the proper administration of the provinces. His rival, Derg leader General Teferi Bante, was in attendance, along with other more moderate Party members. During the meeting, Mengistu suddenly ordered his bodyguards to open fire, machine-gunning most of the Derg leadership and forever solidifying his control over the Party and the country.
By 1978, Mengistu had shot his way into power, executing friends and former comrades at will. The Derg leadership was gutted by the upstart officer, and 80 of the 120 original Party leaders had been executed on his orders. Mengistu often justified the slaughter by suggesting the revolution needed to be fed by the blood of traitors, while expressing admiration for Lenin and his Bolshevik revolutionaries. Those who had relied on Mengistu to faithfully serve the revolution had clearly made a horrible mistake. The people of Ethiopia would now suffer the consequences of this misplaced trust.
The path of ruin toward which the Derg led Ethiopia began shortly after their assumption of power. In December 1974, the provisional committee proposed a new “Ethiopian” approach to economics and resource management, a policy which was extremely similar to the excesses of Stalin during the 1930s. This resemblance became evident early on, as the committee’s recommendations were put into practice. In March of 1975, the private ownership of land was abolished and all farm land was requisitioned by the government. The land ownership class was demonized and many killed, their families brutally murdered by angry peasants or Derg militia.
Frustrated the with the slow pace of policy execution, the Derg leadership ordered 50,000 Ethiopian youth, culled from high schools and universities, to take to the countryside in a movement known as the Zemacha (cooperation) campaign. There, they were to organize radical peasant organizations which would supposedly energize the population to embrace and expedite the overall land distribution scheme.
The agricultural situation in Ethiopia was surprisingly positive in the first years of Mengistu’s reign, mostly due to the fact that Ethiopian agriculture had been a booming industry in the later years of the Selassie government. The new socialist approach reversed these gains. By forcing peasants into cooperatives, the government was ostensibly preventing them from improving the status of their land. In addition, stringent price controls discouraged surplus productions, leading to fallow fields and wasted farmland. This decline would only accelerate in 1981, when Mengistu began to install a Stalinist type of collectivization and command agriculture industry. With further government interference, farm outlays declined precipitously. The results of Mengistu’s so-called “reforms” would continue to prove disastrous in the years to come.
One of the negative repercussions of the Zemacha campaign for the revolutionary government was the schism it caused among the youth sent to speed the Derg reforms in the countryside. Some of the students returned radicalized to the extent that they no longer recognized the legitimacy of the militarist Derg government. The government began to realize its mistake as the students started organizing peasant communities along the lines of Maoist thought, instead of sub-units directly loyal to the state. These disaffected elements soon formed rival Marxist organizations which opposed the Derg, such as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). The EPRP began engaging in low-level terrorist actions, which only offered a convenient excuse for the newly ensconced Mengistu to expand his authority through the implementation of mass terror.
The declaration of Mengistu’s total war against dissent came during a dramatic speech on April 17th, 1977. In front of a crowd of loyal supporters, Mengistu threw six bottles of what appeared to be blood to the ground; symbolizing the blood he was willing to spill in order to “defend the revolution.”
The slaughter began in earnest immediately following Megistu’s call to arms. With the aid of East German Stasi agents, Mengistu’s secret police soon fanned out throughout the country, jailing and killing thousands who were arbitrarily identified as enemies of the state. Of particular interest were university students and professors, thousands of whom were imprisoned in the opening days of the campaign. Soon, many were being shot in mass executions, their bodies dumped in the streets. To further the intensity of the purge, Mengistu’s secret police armed and encouraged the “Kebeles,” or neighborhood watch committees, to commit further outrages. These paramilitary groups would inform on residents, while forwarding lists of targets to the Party. After executing targets, the Kebeles would often present the bodies to the grieving families, forcing them to pay for the bullets used to kill their loved ones. Over 10,000 political assassinations are estimated to have taken place in the capital alone.
In October, Mengistu broadened the terror, targeting party members and Kebeles he deemed insufficiently loyal. This led to thousands of additional executions, including those of numerous public officials. A third wave of killing in 1978 was aimed at high school students, 5000 of whom were killed in a single week.
In addition to the firing squads, security forces used other, more gruesome tactics to suppress opposition. One tool was a nylon rope, or “Mengistu necktie,” used to slowly strangle prisoners or torture them into revealing acquaintances or plots. Other officers were fond of using the bastinado, which was used to brace the feet before smashing them into stumps. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were permanently crippled in this manner.
Witnesses spoke of unimaginable scenes of horror. A Swedish observer reported witnessing hundreds of dead children – killed by Mengistu’s secret police – dumped alongside the roads of the capital of Addis Ababa. Their bodies soon attracted packs of ravenous hyenas. Decapitated heads were swept into the gutters. In the countryside, mass graves were being filled with the bodies of thousands of supposed “counter-revolutionaries,” while hundreds of similarly accused individuals were imprisoned in dungeons or outdoor concentration camps. Meanwhile, the Derg propaganda machine celebrated the massacres, with banners extolling the “Red Terror.” Finally, in late 1978, after Mengistu had slaughtered all internal opposition in the countryside, the campaign’s intensity was lessened in order to stave off further disorder. The punishment for opposing the Derg and Mengistu had forever been established and would not soon be forgotten by Ethiopians.
All throughout his calamitous reign of power in Ethiopia, Mengistu made frequent use a classic communist tactic: the facilitation of class warfare. Whenever given the chance, Mengistu made mention of his love and appreciation for the “peasant class,” blaming all their problems on the wealthy oppressors he had heroically overthrown. He would often put his supposed deference to the poor on display, inviting beggars and street urchins to dine with him at his palace. Similar to most communist despots, Mengistu’s embrace of the lower-class was merely an attempt to build a reliable social base. It is doubtful that he ever genuinely believed in the strictures of Marx or Lenin, or that he ever actually understood their political philosophies.
His cosmetic identification with the underclass soon gave rise to a North Korean-style cult of personality, meticulously engineered by the Derg leadership to instill fear and respect among the citizenry. Portraits of Mengistu adorned the streets of Ethiopia’s largest cities, alongside pictures of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Mass rallies were organized by the government and the forces of the secret police, where Mengistu was hailed as “Our Beloved Revolutionary Leader.”
In reality, Mengistu was dismissive of the concerns of the peasant class, never addressing their poverty or suffering. In marked contrast to his piteous citizens, Mengistu held court in a massive palace in Addis Ababa, where he was served by an army of servants and liveried butlers. He was also an avid tennis player, although opponents were often shot in the street for having dared defeat the President.
As he lived the life of the Emperor he had helped overthrow, Mengistu’s disastrous policies of collectivization were laying the groundwork for one of the worst human catastrophes to befall an African nation. The extent of the famine that would eventually kill hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians shocked many in the West, who subsequently poured millions of dollars of aid into Ethiopia to alleviate the suffering. What many outside of Ethiopia failed to realize was that the tragedy was entirely avoidable, had Ethiopia enjoyed the leadership of one concerned with the well-being of his citizens.
As stated before, the Stalinist economics as employed by Mengistu literally destroyed the Ethiopian economy. Across the board, Ethiopia’s economic indicators collapsed, most notably its agricultural figures. The first signs of famine came in 1982, as sporadic food shortages led to chaos in several provinces. Still, Mengistu failed to fund any program which could reverse the trend, instead aggravating the situation by codifying already failed socialist policies. By 1984 thousands were dying daily, but the Derg decided to ignore the deaths because Mengistu reasoned the famine would lessen the chances of organized opposition. Instead, $100 million in government funds was spent on the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the revolution.
Mengistu, instead of attempting to alter the national economic infrastructure to aid the dying thousands, went on to blame the West for the famine, suggesting that aid agencies avoided Ethiopia for political reasons. In reality, Derg authorities were purposefully cutting off rural regions from food in order to destroy any perceived enemies of the regime. Aid officials were constantly harassed and barred from certain areas by Mengistu’s forces. By 1985, Mengistu decided to alleviate the problem by following a policy of massive resettlement, in which 2.5 million Ethiopians were forcibly torn from their villages and moved to other areas of the countryside where they could be better controlled. Tens of thousands died during this bloody process, which was only possible through large deliveries of trucks from Moscow.
The chaos and destruction following the famine was one of the first signals of the end for Mengistu and the Derg. Government forces were losing ground to rebels in the North while the little popular support the regime once enjoyed had all but collapsed. It is now thought that 1 million Ethiopians died during the famine.
Under Mengistu, Ethiopia was transformed into a belligerent armed camp, constantly forced into unending civil and external conflicts that taxed its already destroyed economic infrastructure. Forced military conscription quickly became bedrock government policy, often leading to the recruitment of children as young as 12 years old. Child soldiers were thrown into battle on all fronts, thousands dying as Mengistu’s wars expanded. All throughout his reign, Mengistu would initiate campaigns into Somalia and the Northern provinces of his own country. The war in the North required an insatiable amount of Ethiopia’s limited resources and was carried out with consistent brutality, including intentional aerial bombing of marketplaces and use of chemical weapons.
Even as the famine led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, Mengistu delayed relief efforts by halting aid flights in favor of military operations. Planes loaded with supplies were grounded so their fuel could be transferred to Mengistu’s MiG fighter bombers. Mengistu’s military budget reached an all-time high in 1984, representing a staggering 60 percent of all national income just as the famine reached its height. This accumulation of material was in addition to the millions of dollars in Soviet arms that were donated every year.
From his ascension until his downfall in 1991, Mengistu funneled over half of the nation’s meager resources into the military budget, even as hundreds of thousands of people starved to death. This perennial state of war, scrupulously engineered by Mengistu, led to the creation one of the largest armies on the African continent, with Ethiopian forces eventually reaching 300,000 men under arms.
With the steady dissolution of colonial control across the continent, many Africans entered the second half of the 20th century with a sense of optimism. Their expectations were quickly dashed as Africa became a major battleground in the Cold War. In this zero-sum game, the Soviets were determined to expand their influence by supporting revolutionary movements, aid which included weaponry and large sums of cash. Ethiopia’s strategic position along the Red Sea made it a highly-valuable target of Soviet efforts. Mengistu, desperate for a powerful sponsor to fund his ever expanding wars and to secure his nation’s continuously failing economy, was more than willing to cooperate with the USSR’s African initiatives.
Upon the assumption of power by the Derg in 1974, some in the U.S. State Department believed that relations with the new military government were possible. Indeed, preliminary overtures were somewhat positive. However, as the figure of Mengistu rose, the fortunes of Ethiopian-American dialogue declined sharply. Mengistu clearly favored the Soviets over the United States, and frequently insulted American representatives. Nevertheless, desperate to maintain good relations with Ethiopia, the United States continued military assistance until 1977, when it was discontinued on the orders of Mengistu. The Ethiopian dictator soon made it clear, through his words and actions, which side he had chosen in the struggle between communism and capitalism.
The Soviets were somewhat wary of involving themselves too actively in Ethiopian affairs, because they were already allies with Ethiopia’s main rival to the East, Somalia. Hoping to present a united communist front in Africa, the Soviets invited Mengistu for a week-long state visit in 1977. Soon afterwards, the Soviets began shipping large amounts of weapons to Mengistu’s forces, including tanks, small-arms, and artillery. Soviet and Cuban advisors were also sent to bolster Mengistu’s security services and paramilitary forces.  In July of 1977, against the wishes of its Soviet ally, the Somali government of Siad Barre invaded Ethiopia. The offensive bogged down quickly, and was repulsed in part due to the presence of Cuban soldiers who had been airlifted in on Soviet aircraft.
After the defeat of Barre, the Soviets further signaled their wiliness to play an active role within Ethiopia by aiding Mengistu against the same Eritrean separatists Moscow had once supported. In 1978, Soviet Naval forces opened fire on rebel positions, a barrage which enabled Mengistu to reestablish offensive operations in the region, and leading to the deaths of thousands of Eritreans.
The Soviets, however, remained reticent to pledge themselves to the defense of the Mengistu regime because of his failure to set up a fully operational communist party, usually recognized as a requirement for entry into the Soviet orbit. Indeed, Ethiopian movement towards a full-fledged communist entity was far too slow for Mengistu’s Soviet handlers. The Ethiopian leader would wait until 1979 to establish a Commission for the Organization of the Ethiopian Workers’ Party, tasked with creating a classical communist party infrastructure replete with the familiar hierarchy.
Following the commission’s second congress in January 1983, Mengistu’s retrograde dalliance with formal communist became full-bore dedication. By 1984, the Soviets decided that Mengistu’s organizational development had progressed far enough to warrant official Soviet recognition with the establishment of the Ethiopian “Worker’s Party” (EWP), a hard-line neo-Marxist organization that was the last “vanguard” party recognized by the Communist Party International in Moscow. To celebrate the glorious event, the Soviet government shipped a monstrous statue of Lenin to be prominently displayed in the capital city of Addis Ababa.
Despite the best efforts of Mengistu and his Soviet handlers, the EWP was a catastrophic failure. Workers, already poisoned by the disastrous policies of the government, avoided the Party en masse, eventually making up less than one fourth of the total party membership. Peasants, the population portion that suffered the most at the hands of Mengistu’s farcical land reform movement, made up only 3 percent of EWP membership rolls. In reality, the EWP was mostly a collection of army officers and Derg ideologues masquerading as a popular movement. Of course, as all political organizations were required to do, the EWP swore abject loyalty to Mengistu and his controllers in Moscow.
By 1987, Mengistu had accrued enough influence in governing circles to declare a “People’s Republic,” the last such government to be established on Earth. The feeble Soviet leaders who attended served as a fitting analogy to the doddering Megistu regime, which was finally beginning to show the strains chronic of mismanagement and government-instigated violence. As the communist world began to falter, it was becoming more and more apparent that Mengistu had tied his fortunes – and those of Ethiopia – to the wrong side in the Cold War.
The Soviet Union’s support of Mengistu continued even as numerous Soviet leaders concluded that the dictator and his party had no future in the politics of Ethiopia. A split soon developed between Mengistu and Mikhail Gorbachev when the Ethiopian dictator outlawed discussion or even knowledge of glasnost or perestroika inside his country. Mengistu would later explicitly blame Gorbachev for the failure of his government. Conservatives in the KGB and elsewhere in the Soviet security apparatus, however, were loathe to disavow their long-time ally, and continued to pour aid into his national coffers to the tune of 1 billion dollars per annum. Total Soviet expenditures to the Mengistu regime would eventually reach $10 billion dollars.
In 1991, even Mengistu stalwarts in Soviet intelligence could no longer be counted upon to provide the much-needed aid. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Mengistu lost his most powerful ally, the one that had virtually guaranteed the stability of his regime for almost 14 years. It was hardly a coincidence that the fall of the Soviet Union would antedate the collapse of Mengistu by only a few months.
The tragic famine of 1984-86 –– largely induced by the nonsensical policies of Mengistu –– laid bare the inadequacies of his rule. Prior to the disaster, his failings had been unassailable due to tight control of national press and a brutal secret police system. However, with much of the country descending into disorder and economic devastation, Mengistu’s hold on power slackened rapidly.
One of the prime reasons behind this precipitous dissolution of Mengistu’s authority was the sagging fortune of Ethiopia’s military. A massive and well-armed force, the army found itself incapable of defeating a persistent insurgency that by the late 1980s had engulfed a significant portion of the country. The two main guerilla groups, the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front and the Tigrayan Popular Liberation Front, were Marxist oriented and earnestly fought for regional sovereignty. Until the mid-1980s, the organizations had rarely coordinated actions or presented a united front. However, by 1988, forces in the two groups began espousing free-market ideas and attacking the ideological underpinnings of the Derg. New opposition groups were urged to join a broad anti-Derg effort by the leaders EPLF and TPLF. Their willingness to collude on the battlefield also increased, threatening Mengistu’s position throughout the northern portion of his country.
Mengistu’s government reacted with customary brutality, launching a series of massive offensives in 1988 and 1989 aimed at crushing the rebellion. The Ethiopian army had a long history of war crimes in the North, a legacy which directly contributed to the fervor of the rebellion. In one horrifying example of their disregard for the rules of war, Mengistu’s army gathered together hundreds of starving Eritrean refugees into a shallow ditch where they were then crushed by T-55 tanks.
The native resistance was fierce, causing thousands of casualties among Mengistu’s forces. Nevertheless, the official media endlessly celebrated Mengistu’s triumphs. Their fantasy became unsupportable when rebel forces unleashed a massive counter-attack in February, 1989. The attack shattered four government divisions and forced 12,000 soldiers to surrender. The army was forced to withdraw from large swaths of territory as the rebellion spread. Mengistu reportedly flew into a rage, and demanded that the army halt its retreat, but surprisingly, he was overruled by his aides and commanders, clearly indicating his deteriorating position.
Even as the government media continued to suppress news of Mengistu’s battlefield defeats, the populace began to learn of the losses through foreign radio reports on Voice of America or the BBC. The defeat of Mengistu’s forces in the field along with the readily available examples of the government’s incompetence led to an increasingly hostile attitude among the populace. Members of the EWP began leaving their uniforms at home, while numerous lower-level officials began distancing themselves from the government. Police officials started to come under attack from angry residents who tired of their intimidation tactics. In the countryside, villages and small towns began ignoring edicts of the government, unafraid of the consequences that might ensue. By 1989, the apparatus of fear so meticulously designed by Mengistu was falling apart.
The signs of discontent within the regime itself were becoming more pronounced. In 1989, during a state visit to East Germany, the government’s leading generals took part in a coup, spurred on by the disastrous defeats in the North. The coup was poorly organized and ultimately unsuccessful, but important segments of the military and government were implicated. Mengistu rushed home and ordered his security forces to carry out extensive arrests. Twelve of his most senior generals were eventually executed.
Even as various international entities and prominent figures – such as Jimmy Carter – offered their services to negotiate a peace between the government and rebels, Mengistu insisted on continuing the war. He ordered aerial bombardments of cities which had fallen to the rebels, attacks which led to the deaths of hundreds. At the same time, Mengistu attempted to accrue some international backing by giving an address in March 1990 in which he promised modest reforms. The speech was little more than an attempt to curry favor, and no action was actually taken to enact structural changes in Ethiopia’s defunct economic and political model. Belying the blatantly politically motive behind the change of heart, Mengistu quickly resumed arresting and executing his political enemies.
By late 1990, as rebel offensives reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa, it became clear that Mengistu was doomed. His last days in power eerily resembled the frothing insanity of Hitler in his Berlin bunker, as Mengistu quickly lost all connection to reality. He alternated between defiance and suicidal statements. In a speech broadcast on April 19th, Mengistu stammered out an incoherent diatribe against foreign interests and “traitors.”
“I do not think that our country has ever been faced with such a problem as the one we now face. Although many are the times that traitors have come up against their country’s and the people’s weakness and brought about destruction, it was for the supremacy of one over the other, to gain authority.”
Following his speech and an emergency meeting of his cabinet, Mengistu ordered a full mobilization of the Party, including all males 18 years and older. He then informed Party leaders that all officers would be enrolled in military training, to “defend the country.” Considering his rule was now limited to the environs of the capital, few took Mengistu’s orders seriously. The leader of Ethiopia now controlled little outside of his palace. On April 26th, he seemed to finally realize that his position was becoming untenable and signaled a willingness to work with rebel leaders. He fired Derg hard-liners in his cabinet and attempted to form a multi-party alliance, but it was far too late for half-measures. The rebellion edged ever closer to Addis Ababa. Finally, on May 21st, Mengistu fled in a small airplane to Kenya, then on to the one nation that was willing to grant him asylum, Zimbabwe. The reign of Mengistu Haile Mariam had finally come to an end.
Following his abandonment of the country in 1991, Mengistu fled to one of the more comfortable locales for any mass-murdering despot: Robert Mugabe‘s Zimbabwe. Mugabe, evidently grateful for the aid Mengistu had rendered him during his various uprisings and civil wars, gave the disgraced Ethiopian leader a palatial home in the outskirts of the capital along with a police bodyguard. Even as the mass graves were discovered and his crimes became more graphically evident, Mugabe consistently refused to hand over his friend Mengistu to the new Ethiopian government or the International Criminal Court. Other Derg leaders were not as lucky, often receiving death sentences for the roles they played in the Red Terror and other atrocities.
Mengistu’s time in Zimbabwe was not without incident. In 1995, an Ethiopian citizen attempted to kill Mengistu outside of his home. The assassination failed and the gunman himself was killed by Mugabe’s police. Many have speculated that the Ethiopian government, which was exhausting every diplomatic avenue to have Mengistu returned, played a role in the operation, but they have consistently denied that allegation. In 1999, Mengistu was forced to leave Zimbabwe for medical care in South Africa. The South Africans, unwilling to sacrifice their friendship with Mugabe, refused to turn Mengistu over to Ethiopian authorities. To avoid further confusion concerning Mengistu’s standing while under the protection of Mugabe, in 2001 Mengistu was granted a permanent residence status in Zimbabwe. He has remained there ever since, emerging intermittently to issue brief and terse excuses for his regime’s egregious crimes.
Successor Ethiopian regimes lobbied the Zimbabwean government, without success, for Mengistu’s extradition on charges of genocide. He was tried in absentia and convicted of those charges in December 2006, and in 2007 was sentenced to life in prison. The prosecution subsequently appealed that decision, arguing that Mengistu’s crimes merited a more serious penalty; in May 2008 Mengistu was sentenced to death in absentia by Ethiopia’s High Court, overturning his previous sentence of life imprisonment. However, he has remained imprisoned in Zimbabwe ever since.
This profile is adapted almost entirely from “Leftwing Monster: Mengistu,” written by Patrick Devenney and published by Front Page Magazine on November 28, 2005.