Mengistu Haile Mariam

former General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia

Mengistu Haile Mariam (born 21 May 1937) was the communist leader of Ethiopia (1974-1991) during the Ethiopian Civil War, and the most prominent member of the Derg, the military junta responsible for the deposition of Haile Selassie. Since his overthrow, he has been granted asylum in Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe.

Mengistu in 1978

Quotes edit

  • I am a revolutionary; my life is dedicated to freeing the people.
    • As quoted in David A. Korn (1986) Ethiopia, the United States and the Soviet Union, Southern Illinois University Press, page 61

  • what is important to me as it is for the Ethiopian people, is the unity of the country, the sovereignty of the country and I'm not ready to compromise on that.
      • 1990 interview to news maker.

  • When we planned our country's economic development, we had the strategic objective of our Revolution in mind. It was not planned for economic development [to be] solely an end in itself. There are some who have forgotten that the sole basis of our revolutionary struggle was the ideology and politics which we follow...
    • As quoted in John M. Cohen (1987) Integrated Rural Development: The Ethiopian Experience and the Debate, p. 213

  • All I can say is that living for 17 years without rest from fighting, dealing with problem after problem, war after war, and crisis after crisis, every day and every hour was very difficult.

interview to the Johannesburg daily, 'The Star

  • Henceforth we will tackle our enemies that come face to face with us and we will not be stabbed in from behind by internal foes... To this end, we will arm the allies and comrades of the broad masses without giving respite to reactionaries, and avenge the blood of our comrades double - and triple - fold.
    • February 5 (1977), as quoted by Dawit Wolde Giorgis (1989) Red Tears: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia, The Red Sea Press Inc., p. 31
  • One of the fundamental preconditions of successful socialist construction is to ensure the people's readiness to defend themselves from the ravages of probable regional or global wars on the basis of the balance of forces generating from the basic contradictions of our epoch.
    • As quoted in Edmund J. Keller (1991) Revolutionary Ethiopia: From Empire to People's Republic, Indiana University Press, p. 212
  • 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!
    • As quoted in Dr. Paulos Milkia's "Mengistu Haile Mariam: The Profile of a Dictator", reprinted from the February 1994 Ethiopian Review
  • [Haile Selassie] died a natural death, as far as I know. I can't deny that there were many of my men who would have been glad to kill him with their bare hands to avenge the fathers and brothers they had lost due to him. The doctor looking after him told me nothing about any deterioration in his health, so there was no way I could personally ascertain what happened.
    • As quoted in Riccardo Orizio, Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators, (Walker and Company, 2003), p. 145
  • When [Nelson Mandela] was in prison I admired him for his moral strength...
    Of his period in power I can see few results. Apartheid no longer exists, at least to all appearances, but no one understands what the new government in South Africa is doing.
    • As quoted in Riccardo Orizio, Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators, (Walker and Company, 2003), p. 148
  • I'm a military man, I did what I did only because my country had to be saved from tribalism and feudalism. If I failed, it was only because I was betrayed. The so-called genocide was nothing more than just a war in defence of the revolution and a system from which all have benefited.
    • As quoted in Riccardo Orizio, Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators, (Walker and Company, 2003), p. 150

About Mengistu edit

  • The Soviet willingness to overlook the bloody reign of terror of Haile Mengistu, the dictator of Ethiopia from 1977 to 1991, indicated the degree to which the attitudes associated with Stalinism continued thereafter, not least if circumstances contributed to the Soviet Union gaining traction outside Europe. As a reminder of the longstanding tendency for Soviet commentators to interpret developments in terms of Soviet history and ideology, the Soviet envoy, Anatolii Ratanov, saw a similarity between the brutal activities of Mengistu’s supporters within the Derg (Coordinating Committee) and the early revolutionary experience in Russia. There was certainly a parallel with the War Communism and Terror of the Russian Civil War. Far from being marginal, success in Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s gave many Soviets a renewed sense of pride in their own achievements, and a conviction that the Soviet Union could contribute decisively to breakthroughs for Communism elsewhere. The American (and French) willingness, in response, to support Sese Soko Mobuto, the corrupt, brutal and dictatorial President of Zaire from 1965 to 1997, revealed a more general preparedness to overlook multiple faults in order to ensure that ‘our bastard’ was in charge, a policy long followed by the Americans in Latin America.
  • Mengistu strikes me as a quiet, honest and convinced leader who is aware of the power of the masses. He is an intellectual personality who showed his wisdom on February 3. The rightists wanted to do away with the leftists on February 3. The prelude to this was an exuberant speech by the Ethiopian president in favor of nationalism. Mengistu met this challenge. He delayed the meeting of the Revolutionary Council by one hour and had the rightist leaders arrested and shot. A very consequential decision was taken on February 3. The political landscape of the country changed, which has enabled them to take steps that were impossible before them. Before it was only possible to support the leftist forces indirectly. Now we can do so without any constraints.*
    • Fidel Castro (1977) Minutes of the conversation between Comrade Erich Honecker and Comrade Fidel Castro, Sunday, April 3, 1977 between 11:00 and 13:30 and 15:45 and 18:00, House of the Central Committee, Berlin.[1]
Mengistu seemed to symbolize the revolution. He was the baria, the slave who overthrew the master, the member of the conquered tribe who got even with the conquerors, the poorly educated son of a servant who rose against the intellectual elite ~ David Ottaway
Mengistu is a barbaric and cruel creature who becomes happy with the death of human beings ~ Major Kasaye Aragaw
  • Mengistu seemed to symbolize the revolution. He was the baria, the slave who overthrew the master, the member of the conquered tribe who got even with the conquerors, the poorly educated son of a servant who rose against the intellectual elite.
    • David Ottaway (1978) Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution, Africana Publishing Company, p. 135
  • For me and for many others, Mengistu was the best choice [as chairman of the military council] for several reasons. He had come from a poor family background and was not an Amhara, the dominant ethnic group under Haile Selassie. As a person and as a junior officer he represented our rejection of past values. He would bring about a greater sense that all Ethiopians were equal, an end to class arrogance and racism. Many of us felt he would embody the spirit of the Revolution and symbolize the change we wanted to bring about.
    • Dawit Wolde Giorgis (1989) Red Tears: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia, The Red Sea Press Inc., p. 17
  • After Mengistu consolidated his power in 1978, his personality gradually began to change. His ability to listen and his patience faded away. We could now see these qualities were pretences only; he had been putting on his best behavior in his bid for support.
    • Dawit Wolde Giorgis (1989) Red Tears: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia, The Red Sea Press Inc., p. 48
  • Everything Mengistu has done since 1977 has been to place himself in a position of uncontestable power. Neither Haile Selassie nor any of the previous emperors had this insatiable thirst for power.
    • Dawit Wolde Giorgis (1989) Red Tears: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia, The Red Sea Press Inc., p. 56
  • Mengistu does not understand the meaning of self-determination, either historically or in the abstract. He cannot conceive of a nation as anything but an absolute centralized authority, totalitarianism, for his rule is nothing less than that now.
    • Dawit Wolde Giorgis (1989) Red Tears: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia, The Red Sea Press Inc., p. 112
  • Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam helped overthrow Emperor Haile Selassie, seized power in Ethiopia; murdered his own ministers with a machine-gun, imposed a brutal Leninist tyranny and repressive police-state, ordered the murder of millions of his countrymen and created, by policy and blunder, a famine that killed millions more. He ranks as one of Africa’s most disastrous monsters.
  • Until its overthrow in 1991, Mengistu and the Dergue was responsible for the deaths of millions of Ethiopians. In an echo of Pol Pot’s brief regime in Cambodia in the later 1970s, hundreds of intellectuals, particularly those with any association with the old regime, were rounded up and shot in order to purify the country in the name of revolution. The rival Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party suffered particularly over the following years — membership was enough to secure abduction and near certain death. The Dergue governed by cultivating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. Local committees, called ‘Kebeles’, were set up across Ethiopia, with the power to monitor and name potential ‘enemies of the revolution’. The names of suspects were then filed by the central administration and soon rounded up by militiamen in the pay of the regime. Many bodies turned up the following day, or weeks later; others were never found. In the event that the bodies were returned for burial, the Kebeles demanded that the victim’s family pay for the cost of the bullets used to kill their loved one.
  • By 1977 Mengistu, with ruthless efficiency, had established himself as the leading force in the army, and in the Dergue. As Ethiopia adopted an aggressive approach to neighbouring Eritrea, Mengistu shot a fellow Dergue member who had argued for a more cautious foreign policy. He personally purged the Dergue by executing rivals and opponents with a machine-gun. He also ordered the assassination of any other former comrades who stood in his way, and in 1987 declared himself president for life. As president, the first changes that Mengistu implemented made some progress in dismantling Ethiopia's archaic, almost feudal land system. But the mass forced relocations of people to new collective agricultural settlements proved disastrous, and caused further tragedy. Mengistu not only killed his own people but fought a long and bloody war with his rival leftist dictator Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia. Hundreds of thousands died.
  • The suffering of the Ethiopian people was to some extent ameliorated by support from the Soviet Union, to whom Mengistu had offered up his country as a satellite state, although much of the Soviet aid was spent on military expenditure. When the Soviet Union began to flounder in the mid-1980s, the withdrawal of aid meant that Mengistu’s response to the devastating famine of 1984-5 was entirely ineffectual. When news of the famine first broke, the regime condemned it as enemy propaganda; but it was only international aid that prevented the death toll rising beyond the already shocking figure of 1 million. In 1991 Mengistu was finally deposed by the Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front, a military coalition of opposition groups, as well as Eritreans and Tigrayans. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe. In December 2006, after a 12-year trial, an Ethiopian court convicted Mengistu in absentia of genocide — the death of untold millions — and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, the former dictator continues to live in comfort in Zimbabwe, on a large ranch.
  • Ethiopian communists were hardly more effective in setting up a stable regime. Stirrings in the armed forces against Emperor Haile Selassie led in 1974 to the formation of the Co-ordinating Committee (Derg). This body steadily stripped the Emperor of his powers. Its own members were deeply divided and its first leader Lieutenant General Aman Andom was killed in factional strife. The radical wing of the Derg, headed by Major Mengistu Haile Mariam, took dictatorial control. Mengistu declared rural land to be ‘the property of the Ethiopian people’ and distributed it to peasant cooperatives. He quickly moved to a communist ideological commitment. Supporters of the Imperial regime resisted him even after the murder of the Emperor in August 1975. Ethnic groups, especially the Eritreans and the Somalis, fought to secede from the Ethiopian state. Mengistu also confronted opposition in the Derg. His response was to conduct a Red Terror. This finally lost him financial aid from the USA, which supported him against the Soviet-backed Eritrean rebels; but by then he could count on support from the USSR, which had ceased to favour the Eritrean rebels. In February 1977 Mengistu killed his surviving rivals and critics in the Derg. Finance, arms and military advisers in large quantities were transported to Ethiopia from Moscow. Cubans too were dispatched. Ethiopia had become a geostrategic outpost of world communism in the Horn of Africa.
  • Although the Derg’s fighting capacity increased, the basic difficulties of communist rule got worse. Eritreans and Somalis kept up the struggle against a government which used brutal methods of suppression. Economic mismanagement was severe. Whole regions of the country experienced famine. The assault on religion and social customs caused enormous resentment. Mengistu even annoyed his Soviet advisers. They thought his propensity for political violence counter-productive; they were also disappointed by his failure to construct a communist party, mobilise the ‘masses’ and resolve inter-ethnic enmities. The continual executions were regarded as undesirable. Mengistu had built a confinement ward almost to rival Pol Pot’s in the lunatic asylum of communist politics. Far from being controllable, he had used Soviet and Cuban assistance more or less as he liked.
  • From now on you must pray for your people and yourself three times a day.
    • Mother Teresa, as quoted by Dawit Wolde Giorgis (1989) Red Tears: War, Famine and Revolution in Ethiopia, The Red Sea Press Inc., p. 213
  • The style of Mengistu's exercise of power is very much in the traditional imperial pattern. He really is a sort of second-rate Communist emperor. In March 1988 during my most recent visit to Ethiopia, I found it striking how attitudes toward him resemble attitudes toward previous Ethiopian rulers. But there are important differences between Mengistu and his predecessors. The system is highly authoritarian and paternalistic but much more coercive than the previous regime of Haile Selassie, and much more intrusive in all aspects of life.
    • Paul B. Henze, as quoted in James Finn (1990) Ethiopia, the politics of famine, University Press of America, p. 11
  • Menghistu had the problem of coming from... a very dubious background socially of coming from the South West of the country from a border region he didn't have good Ethiopian credentials. Good blue blood of any kind. There were rumors in later years that supposedly he had descended from some Ethiopian emperor, but there was no evidence whatsoever that this was the case. Therefore Menghistu felt necessary to prove his nationalism and he had to prove he was as tough as anybody else and he was desirous of protecting Ethiopia's interests.
  • When as an American emissary I met him in September 1977 in his office in the Menelik Palace, I was struck at how much darker he was than his portrait on the wall behind him. The fact that he was more Negroid than the average Ethiopian highlander gave him an inferiority complex.
    • Paul B. Henze (2000), Layers of time: a history of Ethiopia, C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, p. 290
  • Africa's downfall has always been the cult of the personality. And their names always seem to begin with M. We've had Mobutu and Mengistu and I'm not going to add Meles to the list.
    • Meles Zenawi, as quoted in Jonathan Dimbleby, "Ethiopia proves there can be life after death", The Guardian, 28 July, 2002.
  • Major Mengistu Haile Mariam sounds like someone who likes Ethiopia very much, and as someone who has a great love for his country. But he has no love for anyone save for himself. He gives the impression of someone who has dreams for the growth, development and prosperity of Ethiopia, though he doesn't know how development and prosperity come about. He is an extremely cruel person who doesn't know pardon, forgiveness or kindness. He readily listens to what others tell him about someone, then acts upon that information without verifying the truth. He defends those who favoured him... He is very happy when he is flattered, but doesn't trust anyone, and is even suspicious (afraid) of his own shadow. He will do anything to promote his personal interest. He has the good habit of carefully listening to someone else's ideas and subsequently presenting those ideas as if they were his own (as if these ideas originated from him). He is very jealous and suffers from an inferiority complex. My dear friend Major Mengistu Haile Mariam lies a bit too.
    • Major Endale Tessema, as quoted in Captain Tesfaye Riste (2009), Misekerenet Bebaale Seltanatu Andabet.
  • Mengistu is a barbaric and cruel creature who becomes happy with the death of human beings.
    • Major Kassaye Aragaw, as quoted in Captain Tesfaye Riste (2009), Misekerenet Bebaale Seltanatu Andabet.

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