Why the imperialists hate Mengistu

Greg Butterfield theredguard at SPAMhotmail.com
Fri Dec 24 06:43:47 MST 1999

Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Dec. 30, 1999
issue of Workers World newspaper


By Deirdre Griswold

The revolution that swept Ethiopia in the 1970s got the
most oblique of references from the imperialists this week.
And then it was only to complain that South Africa had
allowed the leader of Ethiopia's revolution, Col. Mengistu
Haile Mariam, to leave for his home in exile in Zimbabwe
after having received medical treatment.

The U.S. and other imperialist countries had put strong
pressure on South Africa to seize Mengistu for "war crimes."
The Western media add the word "dictator" to his name as
though that were his title.

Who is Mengistu and why do the imperialists hate him so
much? Is it true he is a brutal war criminal?

Ethiopia is the second-largest country in sub-Saharan
Africa. Its economic potential is enormous, but its people
are still among the poorest in the world.

Mengistu became its leader in the 1970s at a time of great
revolutionary ferment after the feudal monarchy of Emperor
Haile Selassie was weakened by peasant rebellions, student
demonstrations and strikes by the small working class
following a terrible famine.

Ethiopia had never been subjected to the worst brutalities
of colonial rule in the same way as the rest of Africa,
having defeated an Italian expeditionary force in 1895 at
the battle of Adawa. But it was invaded by Mussolini's army
in the 1930s. Selassie survived the occupation in exile in
Britain, and returned to the throne after Italy's defeat in
World War II.

>From then on, the emperor collaborated with U.S. and
British imperialism. For many years, the largest U.S.
monitoring post for the Middle East was at its Kagnew air
base in Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia. However, Selassie
retained a reputation in the world as the leader of a proud
and independent African state.


It was the class struggle within this feudal society that
eventually produced the revolutionary military government
led by Mengistu. The working class was too small to take the
power directly. The aroused peasants were too dispersed,
although they fought in the same way that peasants fought
their wars in Europe hundreds of years ago--rising up
against the landlords or their managers, seizing the land
and then trying to survive off subsistence farming.

With the country in turmoil, a struggle erupted in the
Ethiopian military, which was being called on to repress the
masses. Junior officers broke with--and even shot--those of
their officers who supported the old feudal system. They set
up a 125-member Provisional Military Administrative Council
to run the country.

In successive struggles, the leadership of this council
kept moving to the left. Mengistu, a colonel who came not
from the elite but from a people who had been serfs, emerged
as the leader with a socialist orientation. The PMAC deposed
Emperor Haile Selassie and his Crown Council.

The social transformation in Ethiopia combined elements of
both a bourgeois and a socialist revolution. Its first
sweeping act was to nationalize all land and extra houses in
1975, thus breaking the back of the landlord class. This was
followed by the nationalization of the banks, insurance
companies and what little industry existed.

All this was greeted with enormous popular support--
except, of course, from the former rulers and their agents.
Some of them formed a counter-revolutionary army-- called
the "Ethiopian Democratic Union," interestingly enough--that
mounted attacks on the revolution from neighboring Sudan.

The PMAC organized a huge peasant army in response. This
writer visited Ethiopia twice in 1978, after the landlord
army had been thrown back. In the countryside, peasants'
associations had formed with the support of the government.
They greeted visitors with signs that read: "We'll never let
the landlords come back."

In Addis Ababa, the capital, barefoot militias guarded
public buildings with Kalashnikov rifles. Women were also
armed in the urban kebeles, or block associations.

The kebeles organized cooperative markets that sold basic
goods at low prices, getting around the price-gouging
merchants. One proud tender of a stall told me about her
hard life as a serf before the revolution. She had escaped
physical abuse by walking for days to get to the capital.

The growth of popular organizations paralleled a mass
literacy campaign. In eight years, literacy was boosted from
10 percent to 63 percent throughout the country.

As hostility to the Ethiopian Revolution grew in the West,
support came from the Soviet Union and countries in Eastern
Europe. The German Democratic Republic in particular helped
with technical training and items like clothing and toys for
the small children attending kindergartens for the first
time in Ethiopian history.


The U.S. could not be seen as overtly organizing the
overthrow of an African government, but the media here were
full of outrage at Ethiopia's orientation toward the
socialist countries. And behind the scenes, the CIA was busy
trying to dismember the country by assisting, or having its
allies assist, separatist movements and outright invasions.
With 90 different ethnic groupings that had been brought
into a central state through the conquests of a feudal
empire, Ethiopia was vulnerable.

One such invasion came from Somalia in 1977. It was
depicted in the media here as a liberation movement by
Somali people in the Ogaden plains of eastern Ethiopia. In
fact, army troops with tanks and heavy weapons penetrated
far into the Ethiopian highlands before being repulsed.

The editor of Newsweek, Arnaud de Borchgrave, revealed in
the Sept. 26, 1977, issue of that magazine that the Somali
president had received a secret message from President Jimmy
Carter encouraging him to seize Ethiopian territory. The
U.S. soon arranged $500 million in aid from Saudi Arabia--
equal at that time to two years' gross national product for

Although Ethiopia won the war, it was at a stiff cost for
a poor country attempting to reorganize society.


The thorniest problem for Ethiopia was the Eritrean
separatist movement. This pro vince on the Red Sea contained
Ethiopia's only ports. Its struggle for independence had
begun under Haile Selassie, and its leaders were originally
anti-imperialist. But once the revolution happened in
Ethiopia, a subtle shift began. The Eritreans began
receiving more support from Arab regimes in the region.

The Eritrean leaders characterized the PMAC as fascist and
collaborated with all its opponents, including even the army
of landlords known as the Ethiopian Democratic Union.

The war between Ethiopia and the Eritrean movement was
fierce. But the leader who replaced Mengistu with the
blessings of the U.S. and Britain, Meles Zenawi, has also
waged a bloody war with Eritrea over the past year. No one
in the West is calling him a dictator.

There are no demands from the State Department or the
White House to bring proven mass murderers like General
Suharto of Indonesia to justice. Suharto killed a million
Indonesians and hundreds of thousands of East Timorese. But
he took power in a military coup with U.S. support, and was
an anti-communist ally in Asia favored all along by

Mengistu, on the other hand, told the Organization of
African Unity in 1977 that "We have cut the umbilical cord
to imperialism." Could this be why the imperialists still
want his head?

In a deal brokered in London, the umbilical cord was
restored in 1991 when the PMAC was overthrown and Mengistu
resigned. The USSR had been broken up and the prospect of
building some form of socialism in Ethiopia, predicated on
assistance from the socialist camp, had been scuttled.


In 1993, the new regime accepted a program of
privatization laid down by the international imperialist
banks. However, the travails of the revolution were not
totally in vain. It produced lasting results that cannot be

The anti-feudal aspect of the revolution achieved its
objective. Today, Ethiopia describes itself as a place where
"land is public property." The peasants hold subsistence
plots on lease from the government. Foreign investors also
can lease land for modern agriculture. But the days when the
peasants had to turn over 75 percent of their crops--and
often their very bodies--to the landlords have passed into

In essence, every class society is a dictatorship of one
class over another, whether the political form is that of a
democracy or a totalitarian state. The huge prison
population and the armies of police in the United States,
the self-proclaimed most democratic of the imperialist
countries, are evidence of the underlying class struggle and
the brute force needed to contain it.

Nevertheless, the imperialists, wallowing in cash, find it
suitable at this point in history to buy legislatures and
presidents in their home countries rather than nurture
military regimes--although they have engineered the most
autocratic and openly brutal forms of rule in oppressed
countries when the masses there challenged the status quo.

The imperialists hate Mengistu not because he was a
dictator, but because the dictatorship in Ethiopia was one
exercised by the oppressed classes over the bourgeoisified
feudals and their imperialist allies. And for that very
reason, Mengistu has earned his place in the history of the
unfolding African revolution.

                         - END -

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