- "In this country some aristocratic families automatically categorize people with dark skin, thick lips and kinky hair as "Barias"... Let it be clear to everybody that I shall make these ignoramuses stoop and grind corn!"
- —Mengistu Haile Mariam
Mengistu Haile Mariam (May 21st, 1937 - ) is an Ethiopian politician who was the most prominent officer of the Derg, the Communist military junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, and President of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia from 1987 to 1991. Effectively a dictator, he oversaw the Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977–1978, a campaign of repression against the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party and other anti-Derg factions. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 at the conclusion of the Ethiopian Civil War, and remains there despite an Ethiopian court verdict finding him guilty in absentia of genocide. Some estimates for the number of deaths his regime was responsible for are as high as 1.285 million.
Unsubstantiated accounts allege that Mengistu Haile Mariam's mother was the illegitimate daughter of Dejazmach Kebede Tessema, a high-ranking nobleman and Crown Councilor to Emperor Haile Selassie, and himself suspected of being the illegitimate son of Emperor Menelik II. These rumors of Mengistu being the grandson of Dejazmach Kebede are widely believed but have never been confirmed by either Mengistu himself or by the late nobleman's family. Mengistu was born on 27 May 1937 in Addis Ababa. Mengistu's father, Haile Mariam, 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 in the administrative district of Gimira and Maji (in Southern Ethiopia), then under the governorship of Dejazmach Taye Gulilat. He later became an enlisted man in the Ethiopian army. Afenegus Eshete Geda was the half-brother of Dejazmach Kebede's wife, Woizero Yitateku Kidane, and it was through this connection that Mengistu's parents are alleged to have met.
Mengistu's mother died during childbirth when Mengistu was only 8 years old. After the death of his mother, Mengistu and his 2 siblings went to live with their grandmother for a few years. He then came back to live with his father and soon after joined the army at a very young age. Mengistu's father Haile Mariam Wolde was very proud of his son's achievements, though some people believe the Ethiopian popular account that states that his family was far from proud of his political accomplishments. His grandmother, who was called Woyzero Abebech, was still alive when he seized power and had become an Orthodox nun (as is very common amongst elderly women in Ethiopia). Woyzero Abebech (Mengistu's grandmother) lost her land that she inherited from Empress Zewditu whom she had served as an attendant, as well as her husband. She continued to live in a place known as Addis Alem not far from Addis Ababa and was said to have been furious at the nationalization of her land by her grandson's government.
Mengistu's father, Haile Mariam, is said to have defiantly hung Emperor Haile Selassie's portrait on the walls of his living room in the villa that the Prime Minister, Fikre Selassie Wogderess, built for him in the middle-class district of Asmera Menged.
Servie in the Army
Mengistu followed his father and joined the army, where he attracted the attention of the Eritrean-born general, Aman Andom, who raised him to the rank of sergeant and assigned him duties as an errand boy in his office. Mengistu graduated from the Holetta Military Academy, one of the two important military academies of Ethiopia. General Aman then became his mentor, and when the General was assigned to the commander of the Third Division took Mengistu with him to Harar, and later was assigned as Ordnance officer in the 3rd division. A few years before his departure for training to the US he was in conflict with the then 3rd Division commander Geneara Haile Baykedagn who apparently hated the sight of him. It was said the general once said to him that he would "...chew him like chewing gum and make him suffer". At the time the Ordnance group was offered military technical training support in a large scale compared to other units of the Imperial Army. Despite his hatred, the general was obliged to release him and Mengistu went for six months' training in Maryland, USA. Returning after his training, he was expected to command the Ordnance Sub-division in Harar. Mengistu, without doubt, met General Haile Baykedagn, the man who treated him badly as a prisoner among other commanders, and later murdered him with the 60 ministers and generals.
Mengistu experienced racial discrimination (while studying in the United States), which led him to a later strong anti-American sentiment He equated racial discrimination in the United States with the class discrimination in Ethiopia. When he took power, and attended the meeting of Derg members at the Fourth 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)."
The rise of the Derg
In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie's government 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 Third 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 act through more public members like his former mentor, general 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 personal responsibility. Members of the Derg have contradicted him in interviews given from imprisonment saying he conspired 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 Banti was killed. The vice chairman of the Derg, Atnafu Abate, although with some support at this time, clashed with Mengistu over the issue of how to handle the war in Eritrea and lost leading to his execution with 40 other officers, clearing the way for Mengistu to become the complete master of the situation. He formally assumed power as head of state, and justified his execution of Abate (on 13 November of that year) by claiming that he had "placed the interests of Ethiopia above the interests of socialism" and undertaken other "counter-revolutionary" activities. Under Mengistu, Ethiopia received aid from the Soviet Union, other members of the Warsaw Pact, and Cuba.
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. In a public speech, 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."
Military gains made by the monarchist Ethiopian Democratic Union 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 invaded Ethiopia having overrun 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 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 civil war, drought and misguided economic policies. There was also a famine in 1984, which was the 10th anniversary of the Derg.
During the Ogaden War, learning that after the fall of Jijiga to units of the Somali army (2 September 1977) Ethiopian units had started to mutiny, Mengistu flew to the front and took direct control. According to Gebru Tareke, he ordered those suspected of leading the mutiny "bayoneted as cowardly and counterrevolutionary elements", then had the soldiers regrouped and ordered to recapture Jijiga in simultaneous attacks from the west and north. The Ethiopians recaptured the city on 5 September, but Jijiga remained within range of the Somali artillery, which shelled the city the whole night long. The next day the Somalis counterattacked, "considerably strengthened and ever more determined", and before he could be encircled inside the city, Mengistu fled back to Adew on the 7th where he boarded a plane back to Addis Ababa. The Somalis broke through Ethiopian lines, recapturing Jijiga on 12 September, and managing to overrun Ethiopian positions past the Marda Pass.
In early 1984, under Mengistu's direction, the Marxist-Leninist Worker's Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was founded as the country's ruling party, with Mengistu as general secretary. On 10 September 1987, a new constitution was adopted, and the country was renamed the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Mengistu became president, with sweeping executive and legislative powers. He and the other surviving members of the Derg all retired from the military and as civilians made up the Politburo of the WPE.
In the late 1980s, some Western critics of Mengistu, including Michael Johns of the Heritage Foundation, charged that Mengistu's economic, military and political policies, along with the Soviet Union's support for Mengistu, were key contributing factors to Ethiopian famine, which ultimately took over a million lives. Mengistu made seven visits to the Soviet Union between 1977 and 1984, as well as other visits to his political allies Cuba, Libya, South Yemen, and Mozambique. From 1983 to 1984 Mengistu served as head of the Organization of African Unity.
However, the government's military position gradually weakened. First came the Battle of Afabet in March 1989, which was a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, with 15,000 casualties and the loss of a great deal of equipment. This was followed up less than a year later by another crushing defeat at Shire, with over 20,000 men either killed or captured and the loss of even more equipment. Then on 16 May, while Mengistu had left for a four-day state visit to East Germany, senior military officials attempted a coup and the Minister of Defense, Haile Giyorgis Habte Mariam was killed; Mengistu returned within 24 hours and nine generals, including the air force commander and the army Chief of Staff, died as the coup was crushed.
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, while he was out walking with his wife, Wubanchi Bishaw, near his home in the Gunhill suburb of Harare. While Mengistu was unharmed, his alleged attacker, Solomon Haile Ghebre Michael, an Eritrean, was shot and arrested by Mengistu's bodyguards. He was later tried for this assassination attempt, pleading not guilty in a Zimbabwean court on 8 July 1996. The Eritrean Ambassador to South Africa, Tsegaye Tesfa Tsion, flew to Harare to attend the trial. The attacker was sentenced to ten years in prison, while his accomplice Abraham Goletom Joseph, who had been arrested in a police raid, 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". The Ethiopian ambassador to Zimbabwe, Fantahun Haile Michael, said his government was not involved in the assassination attempt, and that he heard about the incident from the media.
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."
Claims of genocide in Ethiopia
Mengistu was charged by the current Ethiopian government led by Meles Zenawi, in absentia, for the killing of nearly 2,000 people. 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. The court said Mengistu was guilty as charged on 12 December 2006, and imposed a life sentence on Mengistu in January 2007. In addition to the genocide conviction, the court claimed that he was guilty of imprisonment, illegal homicide and illegal confiscation of property.
Michael Clough, a US attorney and longtime observer of Ethiopia said in a statement that “The biggest problem with prosecuting Mengistu for genocide is that his actions did not necessarily target a particular group. They were directed against anybody who was opposing his government, and they were generally much more political than based on any ethnic targeting. In contrast, the irony is the [current] Ethiopian government itself has been accused of genocide based on atrocities committed in Gambella. I’m not sure that they qualify as genocide either. But in Gambella, the incidents, which were well documented in a human rights report of about 2 years ago, were clearly directed at a particular group, the tribal group, the Anuak.” 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 guerrilla fighters during the Rhodesian Bush 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 May 26th, 2008; Mengistu was sentenced to death in absentia by Ethiopia's High Court, overturning his previous sentence of life imprisonment. Twenty-three of his most senior aides also received death sentences that were commuted on 1 June 2011. On October 4, 2011, 16 of former Mengistu officials have been released from prison on parole, due to their old age and good behavior, while they were incarcerated. However, Mengistu's sentence remains unchanged. It is not clear if a change in government in Zimbabwe will result in his extradition.