Mengistu, Haile Mariam

views updated May 18 2018

Haile Mariam Mengistu



Haile Mariam Mengistu was a popular army officer who was installed as ruler of Ethiopia following the country's 1974 revolution. He remained in power for the next seventeen years, and his attempt to mold the country into a Soviet-style socialist paradise plunged it into a brutal reign of terror instead. Ethiopia's government-sanctioned campaign of political repression resulted in an estimated 150,000 deaths, and Mengistu became known as "the Butcher of Addis Ababa" for it. Fifteen years after his 1991 flight into exile, he was tried in absentia and found guilty of genocide. He remains in Zimbabwe, in a walled compound, but the legacy of his long and bloody rule was to destabilize the Horn of Africa and reshape the borders of its countries through the armed rebel groups that worked to unseat him.

Mengistu's background and childhood have been the topic of rumor and even myths connecting him to Ethiopia's royal bloodline, but actual information on his family and upbringing is scarce. Darker-skinned blacks like himself, however, had long been discriminated against by Ethiopia's elite, and this prejudice may have been the basis for some of his later punitive acts as leader. He was born in 1937 in Walayta, a district in the southern part of Ethiopia, and his father was a soldier in the Ethiopian army. His mother, a domestic, may have brought him to live with her in a well-connected household in Addis Ababa, the capital, where she had taken a job. As a young man, Mengistu enlisted in the Ethiopian army, then trained at the Holeta Military Academy. He graduated in 1966 with the rank of second lieutenant, and in the late 1960s he was one of four thousand Ethiopia military personnel sent to the United States for advanced military training.

After returning to Ethiopia, Mengistu rose quickly through the army's ranks, becoming a major by 1974. During the summer of that year, however, growing internal dissatisfaction began to destabilize Ethiopia. Since 1916 the country had been under the control of Emperor Haile Selassie, who styled himself as a god on earth and doled out favors and resources to a select group of nobles. For generations before Selassie, however, Ethiopia had been plagued by periodic draughts, and its arable land was a lone, precious resource. By the time of Mengistu's childhood, nearly all the land in Ethiopia was owned by nobles, while peasants toiled on these estates in conditions approximating slavery.

Famine Hastened Rise to Power

Unlike nearly every nation on the African continent, Ethiopia was unusual in that it was colonized only briefly, in the late 1930s, and by Italy—a somewhat lax overseer compared to Britain or France. Furthermore, Ethiopia's formidable mountains had protected it from invasions for centuries, and it boasted one of the oldest national identities in the world. These factors converged to keep the country in near-feudal conditions until the early 1970s, when word of the achievements in the newly democratic nations of Africa began to filter in. Then, in 1972 draught and famine struck once again, this time in the Wollo province, and an estimated 150,000 people died from it. The catastrophe was covered up by the Selassie government, who was also suspected of withholding emergency food supplies to Wollo in efforts to squelch antigovernment rebels in the region. In light of these events, the political outlook of many young Ethiopians began to take a dangerous shift to the left, and Mengistu was among that group.

An impressive number of Mengistu's colleagues in the army were also eager to see change and began taking action. In June of 1974 a Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army was established, and it became known by its shortened version in the Ge'ez language as the Derg. It was originally established as an internal-investigations unit to root out corruption but soon took on characteristics of a military junta. Its membership roster of roughly 126 officers was then closed to new members, and Mengistu was elected to chair it in July. The Derg began to seize foreign-held properties under a new nationalization policy called Ethiopia Tikdem ("Ethiopia First"), and it also moved to isolate Selassie and his government at the royal palace. The emperor agreed to sweeping concessions demanded by the Derg, but the end of the monarchy was near. In September Selassie was formally deposed. Less than a year later, it was announced that the former emperor had died during prostate surgery.

The overthrow of the Selassie government was a popular uprising until November of 1974, when sixty members of the imperial government were executed. From that point forward, Mengistu and the Derg controlled Ethiopia, and antigovernment sentiment was deemed counterrevolutionary and punishable by prison or death. Newly allied with the Soviet Union, the Derg began implementing a sweeping reform program carried out under Marxist-Leninist principles. The estates of the landowning class were seized, and the land was redistributed to peasants. All major industries were nationalized, and the country's college- or foreign-educated management class were stripped of their perks and property and, in some cases, were jailed or died in custody; others fled the country permanently. "That left nobody who could run anything," a report in the Economist explained years later. "Soviet ministries were ordered to fill the gaps, and sent their discards. Ethiopia became a punishment station for rejects from one the world's most incompetent bureaucracies."

Red Terror Launched

Mengistu remained in charge as head of the Derg, but he seized power more firmly in February of 1977, when he became commander in chief of the Ethiopian armed forces. Two months later, he spoke at a rally and promised that all enemies of Ethiopia's historic revolution would be brought to justice, and he smashed bottles that he claimed were filled with blood to emphasize his point. The Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977-78 began with that speech, and hundreds of suspected enemies of the regime were arrested, detained without trial, tortured, and even killed. The victims were primarily university students and bureaucrats who had voiced dissatisfaction with the pace or tenor of Mengistu's Soviet-style revolution. Some elements of the Red Terror were borrowed from Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution in China that began a decade earlier, following a well-defined plan of action to find, punish, and reverse what was deemed bourgeois—and therefore counterrevolutionary—thought.

Some estimates place the number of Red Terror deaths as high as half a million. Scores more fled the country, some settling in other Horn of Africa nations and others establishing the first serious communities of Ethiopians in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Inside Ethiopia, as well as in Somalia, Sudan, and other neighboring countries, Mengistu's opponents joined various armed groups established to fight the Derg and its harsh rule, but these groups had competing ideologies and goals that ranged from continuing the socialist revolution to restoring the monarchy. A secessionist movement in Ethiopia's region of Eritrea, which had begun long before Mengistu came to power, was also problematic. Eventually, there were serious insurgency movements in all the provinces of Ethiopia, and the country descended into outright civil war.

At a Glance …

Born in 1937 in Walayta, Ethiopia; son of a soldier and a domestic; married Ubanchi Bishaw; five children. Education: Graduated from Holeta Military Academy, 1966; received advanced military training in the United States, late 1960s.

Career: Officer with the Ethiopian army, after 1966; head of Ethiopian government, 1974-91; Armed Forces Coordinating Committee (Derg), member, 1974-91, and chair, after July 1974; Provisional Military Administrative Council, first vice chair, 1974-77, and chair, 1977-92; commander in chief of the Ethiopian armed forces, February 1977-May 1991; Workers' Party of Ethiopia, secretary general, 1984-91.

Addresses: Agent—Embassy of Zimbabwe, 1608 New Hampshire Ave., Washington, DC 20009.

In 1980 Mengistu announced the formation of the Committee to Form the Party of the Workers of Ethiopia, with himself as chair. Four years later a full-fledged Party of the Workers of Ethiopia was established, modeled on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and again Mengistu was its chief. The political killings continued. "In the mid-1980s it was not uncommon to see students, suspected government critics or rebel sympathisers hanging from lampposts each morning," wrote Jonathan Clayton in the Times of London. "Ordinary people were too terrified to talk to Western reporters. Other people were executed in the notorious state prison on the edge of the capital, Addis Ababa. Families had to pay a tax known as ‘the wasted bullet’ to obtain the bodies of their loved ones. At the height of his power, Mengistu himself frequently garrotted or shot dead opponents, saying that he was leading by example."

Ouster Triggered by Famine

Once again, mass famine altered the political landscape of Ethiopia, though it took several more years for Mengistu to finally resign from office. In 1983 draught hit areas of Wollo, Tigray, and Eritrea, and the Derg government's policy of agricultural collectivization had exacerbated, not eradicated, the cycle of draught and starvation the 1974 revolution had once promised to end. This time the famine was well-publicized thanks to a British Broadcasting Corporation documentary, which resulted in a massive outpouring of media attention and sympathy in the West, and Mengistu was forced to accept relief aid from other nations. Despite the help, an estimated one million Ethiopians died between 1983 and 1985.

Mengistu even began to grant some interviews with Western media, sitting down with two journalists from Time magazine in 1986 to defend Ethiopia's forced resettlement program, known as villagization and criticized for its widespread human-rights violations. "It is only when you have peasants together in villages that they can benefit from science and technology to combat difficult conditions," he told the magazine's Henry Muller and James Wilde. "Why is this well-intentioned strategy viewed with prejudice in some quarters in Western countries?" he wondered. The Time article noted that Mengistu "spoke softly, [but] his words carried a tone of icy, uncompromising certitude. Not once did his eyes focus on his guests; at times he appeared to be speaking to an unseen audience, or to the portraits on the wall."

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 hastened the inevitable collapse of Mengistu's regime. Less than two years later, Soviet-backed regimes elsewhere had collapsed, and then the Soviet Union itself, and the flow of rubles that had kept the Derg in power dried up for good. Anti-Derg rebel militias began winning significant victories, and finally in 1991 the United States brokered an agreement between Mengistu and rebels: he was to resign from office and leave the country, and in exchange the capital city of Addis Ababa would not be targeted and widespread bloodshed there could be averted. Mengistu fled on May 21, 1991, and was given refuge by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mengistu and his family, which included five children, settled into a villa near Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. He has been seen in public only twice since 1992—once in a restaurant and another time in a bookstore. In 1999 he went to South Africa for medical treatment but was forced to flee back into his protected exile in Zimbabwe when an extradition order was issued.

Convicted in Absentia

That order came from the post-Derg Ethiopian government, which launched an inquiry into the Red Terror era soon after taking power in 1991. Mengistu was tried in absentia for genocide, along with seventy-three other members of the Derg. Only then were the actual details—which many had already suspected—of Selassie's death finally revealed: Mengistu had ordered the emperor's death, and the eighty-three-year-old monarch was smothered by a pillow and then buried under a bathroom floor in one of his palaces. Mengistu's trial began in 1994 and included eight thousand pages of charges and evidence linking him to two thousand specific deaths. The Ethiopian High Court found him guilty on December 12, 2006, but because Zimbabwe refuses to comply with the extradition order, Mengistu remains at his Harare home. There are rumors that he is a heavy drinker and abusive to the remaining family and associates who are close to him.

The rebel groups that sprang up to combat the Derg would later play a significant role in shaping the political landscape of the Horn of Africa. Eritrea finally gained its independence in 1991, but factions that took root in Somalia, Sudan, and other neighboring countries grew in strength or split off, and these groups continued to exert their influence via force. Few countries in the area have enjoyed stable, democratic governments in the years since.



Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale, 1998.


Economist, May 25, 1991.

New York Times, December 13, 2006.

New York Times Magazine, June 4, 2006.

Time, August 4, 1986.

Times (London, England), April 20, 1991; December 13, 2006.


"Profile: Mengistu Haile Mariam," BBC News, (accessed December 26, 2007).

—Carol Brennan

Mengistu Haile Mariam

views updated May 29 2018

Mengistu Haile Mariam

Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam (born 1937) became the head of state of Ethiopia and chairman of the ruling military government (the Derg) after a 1974 revolution deposed Emperor Haile Selassie. He was also the head of the central committee of Ethiopia's Socialist Workers Party. Mengistu resigned as head of state in 1991 and fled into exile.

There are few details available on the early life of Mengistu. He was born in 1937 in the southern Ethiopian district of Walayta. His father was a soldier and his mother a servant. Some accounts of his youth maintain that at a young age he moved to Addis Ababa with his mother and grew up in the household of a prominent nobleman Ras Kebbede Tesemma.

Rose to Position of Power

As a young man Mengistu joined the army and served as a private before attending Ethiopia's Holeta Military Academy. He graduated in 1966 with the rank of second lieutenant and was assigned to the logistical and ordnance section of the Ethiopian army's Third Division in Harar, a strategically important southwestern market town. By 1974 Mengistu had risen to the rank of major and had developed effective leadership skills which made him popular among his fellow junior officers and the rank and file of the Third Division. These talents proved important in his rise to the top of Ethiopia's military government in the political vacuum during the revolution.

Mengistu rose to prominence as a result of the military's key role in the Ethiopian revolution that in September 1974 deposed Emperor Haile Selassie, who had ruled Ethiopia since 1916. The revolution began in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, revelations that the Haile Selassie government had covered up a major famine in the north, and general dissatisfaction in the modern sector with the rule of Ethiopia's elite classes. In the rural south and west absentee landlords from the north imposed heavy taxes and tributes on peasant farmers whose lands had been conquered by northern armies a generation earlier. In the political vacuum which followed the fall of the imperial government Ethiopia's military gradually took control, a process which culminated in the massacre of 60 members of the Haile Selassie government in November 1974.

Emerged as Leader

In the summer of 1974 the new 126-member Provisional Military Advisory Council (PMAC), or Derg, had nationalized many key foreign investments and declared a policy of Ethiopia Tikdem (Ethiopia First). In July 1974 the PMAC elected Mengistu as its chairman. When the PMAC was formally organized in September he was named first vice-chairman, a position he held until he took complete control in February 1977.

As the program of the PMAC grew more socialist in orientation between 1974 and 1977 struggles for power ensued in which higher ranking and conservative officers were pushed out by younger and more politically radical officers. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the most effective—and ruthless—of these. Under his leadership the military government of socialist Ethiopia had made a number of social and economic reforms, including a major land reform in 1975 and large-scale nationalization of foreign-owned banks, factories, insurance companies, and agricultural projects. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1976 and commander-in-chief of the Ethiopian armed forces in February 1977. During 1977 and 1978 the military government withstood a major challenge from radical students and bureaucrats during the period of the "Red Terror." Many young Ethiopians were killed and imprisoned when the struggle for power between civilian and military factions erupted on the streets of the capital.

By the time Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1977 Mengistu had become the dominant political figure in the country. When the United States refused to ship arms to the Ethiopian government to defend its eastern front with Somalia, Mengistu and the Ethiopian government turned to the former Soviet Union as their source of military hardware and political advice. After the defeat of the Somali army, Mengistu and the Ethiopian government aligned the country's foreign policy and many internal programs toward the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Internally, Mengistu called for the collectivization of agriculture along Soviet lines and continued to push for a military solution to the problem of Eritrea, a former Italian colony and province of Ethiopia in which rebels had been fighting for independence since 1962.

Formed New Governing Body

In mid-1980 Mengistu announced the formation of COPWE (Committee to form the Party of the Workers of Ethiopia), intended to replace the PMAC as the ruling body of the country. Mengistu served as chairman of the executive and central committees of COPWE, whose seven-man central committee was made up of the PMAC's own central committee with Mengistu at the head. COPWE served for four years as an arm of the government which paralleled many of the functions of the Council of Ministers and which prepared the ground for the announcement of a new socialist party. Many observers felt that Mengistu and other top military officials resisted pressure from the former Soviet government to form such a party since it represented a threat to Mengistu's rule at the top.

Mengistu's foreign policy followed closely that of his allies, and he was recognized by Fidel Castro of Cuba as a true revolutionary leader. Between 1977 and 1984 Mengistu made seven visits to the former Soviet Union, and a number of other visits to political allies Cuba, Libya, South Yemen, and Mozambique. From 1983 to 1984 Mengistu served as head of the Organization of African Unity, a result of Ethiopia having served as site for the 1982 OAU meetings.

In September 1984 the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Ethiopian revolution culminated in the formal declaration of the Party of the Workers of Ethiopia, a Marxist-Leninist party designed to take over from the PMAC. Mengistu was named head of the party, retaining his titles as commander-in-chief, chairman of the PMAC, head of the Supreme Planning Council, and head of the Council of Ministers.

Used Military Force to Maintain Authority

Beginning in 1983 Ethiopia again faced a serious famine, possibly worse than the one that helped end the imperial government of Haile Selassie. In response, Mengistu's government turned to the West for food and technical aid while retaining its strong military and diplomatic ties to the former Soviet Union. The problems of chronic famine in the north, the continued war in Eritrea, and the overall lack of growth in the Ethiopian economy forced Mengistu to rely more heavily on military authority and close political allies.

Unrest continued in the country. Mengistu maintained control through ruthless dealings with the rebellious guerrillas. Eventually rebel groups won decisive victories against his political factions. In 1991, Mengistu resigned and fled the capital city of Addis Ababa into exile.

Further Reading

Details on the life of Mengistu Haile Mariam are not readily available. A number of books and articles, however, discuss his role in the Ethiopian revolution and the policies of socialist development and diplomacy for Ethiopia. For a description of the Ethiopian revolution see Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneax, The Ethiopian Revolution (1981) and Pliny the Middle Aged, "The Life and Times of the Derg" in Northeast African Studies 5, 3 (1984). □