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Published:January 16th, 2007 11:59 EST
From Revolutionary to President: Mengistu Haile Mariam

From Revolutionary to President: Mengistu Haile Mariam

By Krzys Wasilewski

As moral authorities are fiercely debating whether it was right to hang Saddam Hussein, a number of other former dictators patiently await their fate. Some are held in custody of one of international tribunals. Like Charles Taylor – former president of Liberia – who changed his comfortable presidential palace into air-conditioned, DVD-equipped cell in the Hague. Some has already escaped the justice – passing away peacefully, like Chile's Augusto Pinochet or Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. Others still, may enjoy their retirement, untroubled by anyone, in some remote places. This is how one of Africa's bloodiest dictators, Mengistu Haile Mariam, spends the autumn of his life. Although last week he was sentenced to life in prison, Ethiopia's former ruler does not seem to be worried.  When the verdict was read out in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Mengistu was thousands of miles away, basking on a terrace in his private villa in Zimbabwe. In 1991, when terrible famine struck Ethiopia and forces from neighboring Eritrea and Tigray were at the doorstep of the capital, the dictator was among the first to flee the country. Safe heaven was offered in Zimbabwe, where another of Africa's “big man,” Robert Mugabe, was carrying on his own social experiment. Mengistu has remained there ever since, bluntly refusing to go back and face a trial. 

Should Mengistu return to Ethiopia, he would have an interesting story to tell. His tremendous career began in 1974 when he and a group of other officers, called the Derg, ousted emperor Haile Selassie. The monarch was a Second World War hero and widely viewed as a reminder of the nation's almost two-thousand-year long history, but lost the entire support when his government was virtually impotent against drought, and famine that followed, leaving hundreds of thousands of people to starve. It was Mengistu – a young army sergeant infected with socialism – to save the nation and give it back the respect and fame that it had always deserved. Officially, after the coup, the Derg was in charge; practically, three people, including Mengistu, accumulated the entire power. Year by year the ambitious sergeant eliminated his comrades, until in 1977, he became the sole ruler.

However, things were getting from worse to worse. The socialist dream that was to reshape Ethiopia completely and make it the most prosperous country on the continent, turned into a nightmare. The drought from 1974 had deeply exacerbated the already underdeveloped agriculture. Once the granary of the region, now had to rely on foreign aid. Of industry there was no sign – the money borrowed from the Soviet Union instead of building power stations, eventually funded new tanks, planes, and guns. In fact, if Mengistu's regime succeeded in anything, it was the military – by 1980, Ethiopia could boast the biggest army in the region. 

A big army as it was, it did not prevent the country from the crisis inside. When the first guerrilla attacks began in 1983, Mengistu resorted to terror to stabilize the country. That meant armed soldiers on the streets, mass arrests and execution without trial. In what later would be called the seventh worst genocide in world history, over 1,500,000 people lost their lives. The Red Terror, as the campaign was labeled, and pointed at not only the rebels and ordinary citizens; a number of Derg top apparatchiks were executed for alleged treason. After one year, the rebellion, real and imaginative, was crushed.

Mengistu got rid of the opposition, the crisis remained though. Another famine, this time more fierce than before, struck the north of Ethiopia. Millions of people, who survived the Red Terror, now had to die slowly of starvation, everything before the dictator's very eyes. As if nothing had happened, Mengistu and his disciples ordered a plane packed full with whiskey to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution. One bottle could have saved dozens of lives; instead every toast raised by the ministers or Mengistu himself sentenced another man, woman and child to death.

September 10, 1987 began a new era in Ethiopia's history. On this day, a new constitution was introduced and Mengistu Haile Mariam proclaimed himself the president of the newly established People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The Soviet Union and other countries of the socialist block welcomed the move. However, just like the communist motherland in Europe, also Mengistu's Ethiopia was on the brink of collapse. The end came four years later. With the rebels launching a full-scale offensive and the Soviet Union dissolved, Mengistu was left alone. The big army, which the sergeant-turned-president boasted about few years earlier, now was in disintegration – buying brand new tanks and planes, Mengistu had forgotten that none of his soldiers knew how to operate the complicated machines. 

Mengistu's presidency was abruptly ended in May 1991. The rebels from the Marxist Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) along with the foreign forces conquered the capital, facing no major resistance from the Ethiopian army. The defenders might have fought even less strongly, had they known that their president and commander-in-chief in one person had long fled the country. Being aware of the fate awaiting him, Mengistu eagerly accepted the personal offer from Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and by the time the first rebel forces reached Addis Ababa, he had been safe in a palatial villa on the suburbs of Harare. Less lucky were other Derg officials. According to one of the first decrees issued by the new authorities, all of them were arrested and accused of conducting genocide and treason. At the same trial that charged Mengistu, over 70 former Derg members were sentenced to life in prison. 

It is highly unlikely that Mengistu will ever return to Ethiopia. Were he to do so, he would establish a precedent in Africa's long and troublesome history of dictatorship rule. Neither Idi Amin, Uganda's notorious ruler responsible for the death of 500,000 people, nor Zaire's all-time president, Mobutu Sese Seko, nor dozens of other Africa's big men ever met justice. Amin died peacefully in exile in Saudi Arabia, whereas Mobutu ruled Zaire until the last day of his life, watching his empire crumbling to dust. So far, only one African former dictator, Liberia's Charles Taylor, has been arrested and put on a trial; and even this after years of tortuous negotiations with the Nigerian government where Taylor found asylum. Now, in the Hague, the Netherlands, he is awaiting the verdict of the International Tribunal of Justice.

When Mengistu sized power, he was only 37 years old. His ruthless rule left Ethiopia destabilized, devastated and demoralized. Sixteen years after he fled the country in a desperate escape, his dark legacy still haunts Ethiopia: the EPRP, which ousted the dictator, stamps on any form of democratic opposition.


At 70 years old, Mengistu can enjoy life to its fullest, unlike millions of Ethiopians whom he once promised paradise on earth.