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4 Facts About The Ethiopian Dictator Mengistu Who Overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie In 1974

Mengistu took control of the government after the overthrow of Haile Selassie, and served as its Communist head of state from 1977 to 1991. (Fair use image)



Haile Selassie was the last emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty that ruled Ethiopia until September 12, 1974, when he was deposed at the age of 82. Haile Selassie, born Ras Tafari Makonnen, was everything from monarch to the returned messiah as believed by the Rastafari movement which reveres him as God incarnate. He was also the Chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) from 1963 to 1964 and 1966 to 1967.

But his reign in Ethiopia was cut short by the Soviet-backed Derg military regime. Mengistu Haile Mariam, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Ethiopian Army, led the coup which ousted Emperor Haile Selassie from power. After Haile Selassie’s overthrow by the military following public discontent over economic inflation and low salaries, the emperor was placed under house arrest at the 4th Army Division in Addis Ababa and later imprisoned in a small apartment in his former palace, the Grand Palace. His imprisonment fatally ended after 11 months on August 28, 1975, when the state media reported that Haile Selassie had died the previous day after suffering from “respiratory failure following complications from a prostate operation”.

But many did not believe the story, and to date, it is widely believed that he was assassinated. Mengistu, who took control of the government after the overthrow of Haile Selassie, and served as its Communist head of state from 1977 to 1991, was accused of being behind the emperor’s death. Mengistu’s attempts to mold Ethiopia into a communist state threw it into a reign of terror instead, leading to the deaths of an estimated half a million people.

Here are some facts about the former Marxist-leaning leader, Mengistu, who was convicted of genocide in Ethiopia and remains in exile in Zimbabwe.

He was an “obscure” army officer

Born in 1937 in Walayitta, Ethiopia, Mengistu joined the army and graduated from military academy in 1966. He rose to the rank of major and in June 1974, he was made chairman of the Armed Forces Coordinating Committee (otherwise known as the Dergue), a committee of revolutionary soldiers, drawn from all regions of Ethiopia. As Reuters reported, Mengistu was an “obscure army officer” at the time of the 1974 revolution that ousted the emperor. Through power struggles, he made his way to the top in the military junta, emerging leader. He got rid of his rivals from within the Dergue and sent some sixty senior officials of the emperor’s government to the firing squad. Then his reign of terror began.


“Red Terror”

By 1977 when he was firmly in power, becoming commander in chief of the Ethiopian armed forces, Mengistu launched his campaign of terror that he officially dubbed the “Red Terror.” At a rally in April 1977, in front of a huge crowd in the capital Addis Ababa, he made it known that all enemies of Ethiopia’s historic revolution would be dealt with. To stress his point, he smashed bottles that he claimed were filled with blood representing the enemies of the revolution. True to his words, the “Red Terror” of 1977-78 would see hundreds of suspected enemies of the regime being arrested, detained without trial, tortured, and killed. Those targeted were university students, intellectuals, and professionals who had opposed Mengistu’s “Soviet-style revolution”. People suspected to be members of the anti-Mengistu Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) were also not spared. At the end of the day, an estimated half a million people were killed. “Thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire of the war against northern rebels and 700,000 peasants were forcibly resettled to starve the rebels of support,” Reuters reported. When Somalia waged war against Ethiopia around 1978, Mengistu relied on the Soviet Union for arms as America was not helpful. Cuban troops also came to his end.

His power weakened in 1991

In 1984, Mengistu saw to it that the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia was established. Two years after, he drafted a constitution for Ethiopia and then ensured the organization of an election by a new national legislature of himself as president in 1987. But during this same period, a drought adversely impacted the Ethiopian economy. It is recorded that an estimated one million people starved to death in a 1984-85 famine. At the same time, Mengistu faced insurrections in the northern regions of Tigre and Eritrea as well as coup attempts by “enemies within the regime”.

Will he ever face justice?

When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power, a court sentenced Mengistu to life in prison in absentia. The Ethiopian government subsequently requested his extradition in 2006, but Mugabe refused to hand over the former Ethiopian leader, who was then his adviser on Ethiopia’s security affairs, according to a report by DW. The report said Mugabe had given the ex-leader refuge to enable him “train and arm Zimbabweans during their liberation struggle in the 1970s.” On May 26, 2008, Mengistu was sentenced to death in absentia by the Ethiopian High Court, overturning his life imprisonment sentence. He remains in exile in Zimbabwe. Mengistu has been quoted as saying that the crimes he was accused of “are all lies perpetrated by my enemies.” In 2017, after Mugabe’s rule came to an end, many demanded the forced repatriation of Mengistu to Ethiopia where he can face justice. Now the question is, will he ever face justice? This is all in the balance.


Written by PH

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