Communism is often viewed as a European and Asian phenomenon, but in the 20th century it made a strong push into Africa as well: Angola, Benin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Mozambique all experienced actual or attempted “people’s revolutions.” The history of communism was no less brutal in Africa, with nearly two million people sentenced to die at the hands of insurgent regimes. Among these episodes, Ethiopia’s struggle with communism was particularly brutal, accounting for a quarter of the total number of deaths communism caused on the continent.
Ethiopia’s struggle with communism emerged just as things were potentially looking up for the young nation. Shedding the bonds of Italian colonialism under Emperor Menelik II in 1896, Ethiopia was briefly subjected again to Italian rule when Mussolini invaded in 1936, but Emperor Haile Selassie was able to secure military aid from the British through the League of Nations. Ethiopia was restored to full sovereignty in 1941. At the end of World War II, Ethiopia was able to return to the parliamentary monarchy established by Emperor Selassie in 1931, featuring a bicameral legislature and a court system. But this system would last less than 40 years.
A vicious drought gripped Ethiopia from the late 1960s through 1974, with the most severe years being 1970-1974, and Emperor Selassie’s government had no answer for the famine that would follow. The combination of a sustained lack of agricultural production and systematic corruption by the Selassie government (primarily through stolen foreign aid money) created significant unrest among the people and soon produced calls for a regime change. Widespread famine and unemployment led to a successful revolution against Emperor Selassie in 1974. After Selassie died in prison in 1975, the Marxist faction of the revolution rose swiftly to power through the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), popularly known as the Derg. Led by the Marxist Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg reigned with Mengistu as leader for seventeen years, 1974-1991.
The Derg killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians during their reign from 1975-1987. The Red Terror of 1976-78, where they brutally cracked down on external and internal opposition through three waves of purging, became the lasting legacy of the communist junta’s rule. Two groups of student-led movements, the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) and Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), vied for power in the wake of the Emperor’s death, with both groups believing they could make a real change. Seeing an opportunity to add legitimacy to their rule, Mengistu and the Derg allied with MEISON, successfully creating a one-party Marxist/Leninist system. In addition to their ideological differences, MEISON and the EPRP were divided among ethnic lines – MEISON being primarily the majority-group Oromo while EPRP was made up of the smaller Amhara group – which led to the Derg/MEISON coalition labeling anyone associated with the EPRP or their members as counter-revolutionaries subject to imprisonment and even execution.
The ethnic divide made the suppression of the opposition even stronger and the crackdown more brutal, embodied in the chilling Derg slogan: “for every revolutionary killed, a thousand counter-revolutionaries executed.” More frightening than the promise on its face is how close the Derg may have come to actually accomplishing this during Mengistu’s reign. The struggle of the Ethiopian people against the Marxist regime mirrored the original Red Terror in Soviet Russia that occurred after the Bolsheviks seized power – conservative estimates place the number of Ethiopians killed under Mengistu’s rule at 500,000, with higher estimates up to 2,000,000.
The first wave of the Red Terror targeted any and all opposition within the capital of Addis Ababa. Beginning as a response to EPRP assassinations of Derg and MEISON members with 21 executions of EPRP conspirators in October 1976, mass killings began after Mengistu executed opposition leader Gen. Teferi Bante in February 1977. Any supporters or suspected sympathizers of the EPRP were completely wiped out within Addis Ababa, and the resistance movement against the Derg was relegated to rural guerrilla warfare.
The totality of the first wave of violence was so complete that even children were not spared: according to French journalist René Le Fort, “Simply knowing how to read and write and being aged about 20 or less were enough to define the potential or actual ‘counterrevolutionary.’ The authorities were even able to institute a law authorizing the arrest of children between eight and twelve years.” The result of targeting anyone with even basic levels of education was to create a culture that grew suspicious and fearful of learning; this served to create a “lost generation” of Ethiopians where survivors had little, if any, formal education or technical training.
And then, the Red Terror turned in on itself. The second wave was a purge of MEISON by the Derg, turning the onetime ally into the next target. Haile Fida, the leader of MEISON, was detained in August 1977 as part of an effort to expel politicians loyal to MEISON from the legislature. Building a legislature that was homogenous at the highest level took political savvy, and the manner in which the Derg carried out this plan was tactically brilliant: infiltrating both MEISON and the EPRP, the Derg carried out assassinations that could be blamed on the other side, sparking a “civil war” between MEISON and EPRP which effectively left them killing one another and allowing the Derg to seize absolute power.
The third wave was carried out in the rural areas, spreading the reign of terror to towns such as Asmara, Gonder, Bahir Dar and Jimma, which had escaped the first two waves. This third wave generally followed the pattern of the first two—wipe out anyone deemed disloyal or “counterrevolutionary.” Merchants, especially grain merchants, were targeted mercilessly by the Derg due to their perceived role in the famines preceding the Derg’s rise to power. In reality, the Derg sought to capture a state monopoly over the grain markets. The end result of Ethiopia’s struggle with communism was nothing short of total economic and social destruction from which the country has only started to recover in recent years.
Like many communist regimes in the Eastern bloc, Mengistu’s reign was quickly terminated when Soviet funds stopped flowing. He is currently living safely in Zimbabwe, where he has resided since fleeing Ethiopia in 1991. Mengistu was put on trial for his crimes in 1994 along with 106 former Derg members, and after a lengthy trial with more than 8000 pages of evidence against him Mengistu was convicted of genocide and sentenced to death in absentia in 2008. Despite the Ethiopian government’s continued calls for extradition, Mengistu remains in Zimbabwe as an advisor to Robert Mugabe. Ensuring that the history of communism in Ethiopia is remembered accurately will provide the first steps towards true justice.