Sunday, July 24, 2016

Revolutionary Agitation Inside the Ethiopian Air Force, 1975

EPRP: Provisional People's Government Through Armed Struggle
I am pleased to post an extraordinary document below. It is the text of a long leaflet written by revolutionary soldiers within the Ethiopian Air Force in late 1975, as translated from Amharic and published by the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Party's foreign section in the journal Abyot in 1976. In the tradition of the Russian Bolsheviks, whose agitation among disaffected rank-and-file Russian soldiers in the waning days of the First World War was a crucial part of the revolutionary effort, the EPRP here addresses soldiers with high-level political arguments reflecting the remarkable tenor of the times.

I have included the original introduction and clarifying edits from the Abyot staff below. I have retyped this from the published manuscript, and with a couple minor exceptions, not attempted to add any of my own editing or corrections.

Following the original text, reproduced here in full, I will add some reference notes on unfamiliar terms and names, and offer a few thoughts of my own analysis. ish


“Voice of the Air Force” and the Struggle of Democratic Soldiers.
From ABYOT, Vol. 1, No. 2, January 30, 1976

The struggle of rank and file soldiers and progressive officers played a significant part in the February revolution. Even though, this movement has been recuperated there are still persistent indications that the struggle is continuing within the armed forces for a democratic and socialist society. The number of progressive officers from the Engineering Unit, Army Aviation, Body Guard, etc executed by the Derg testify to this. Truly, the democratic current within the soldiers has a long way to go; but there is no denying that the continuing mass struggle is accentuating the polarisation within the armed forces itself. Beyond and above the rumors of coup attempts and internal power struggle within the Derg, there is an agitation, weak but persistent, within the armed forces for the same demand as the popular masses. Despite the bloody purges the soldiers and democratic officers have made their opposition heard. Such is the case of the anti-junta leaflet distributed by members of the Army Division fighting in Eritrea, in which they expose and oppose the junta's war there. Below, we present a translation of the leaflet distributed clandestinely by by the democratic elements within the Ethiopian Air Force. Though much of the biting irony and forceful tone of the document is lost inevitably through translation, ABYOT believes that it will give a good insight of the developing current within many units of the Armed Forces and show the isolation of the junta.


The member of the Air Force, united with the oppressed Ethiopian masses (the proletariat, peasantry, progressive students and teachers, oppressed soldiers) has played a significant role in the popular revolution that has been going on since February 1974. The Air Force still struggles and will continue to do so.

During this time [February - ABYOT] the Air Force, along with the struggling comrades, demanded — long before the Derg proclaimed its government — major rights including:
1. democratic liberties to the oppressed masses;
2. the establishment of a revolutionary provisional government.

However, since the Derg was obsessed with power it swore that "the military will return to the barracks as soon as the people are organised and we hand them power". The Derg also started to propagate that to allow democratic liberties will give the reactionaries the chance to dupe the people. This propaganda of the Derg was able to dupe for a short period of time. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian masses, who had understood the necessity of democratic rights in order to organise the people, strengthened their struggle demanding full democratic rights (free speech, press, freedom to organise, assemble) for the oppressed, and dictatorship over oppressors; the people struggled to be organised by intellectuals who come from their midst (who have the masses' confidence) and to take over power. The Air Force, on its part, demanded the adoption of socialist democracy.

However, the Derg, though it still continued to trumpet that "we will go back to the barracks as soon as the people get organised to take power",
  1. proclaimed anti-democratic, anti-organisation and counter-revolutionary laws that denied the basic rights that are crucial for organisation;
  2. based on these proclamations it massacred many progressives and arrested countless others;
  3. instead of organising the unorganised, it dissolved existing mass organisations (CELU, Teachers' Association, students unions, peasant associations), arrested or killed their leaders
  4. within the Air .Force it· (Derg) arrested the progressives like Yigezu;
  5. it killed progressive students and Zematchoch whom it villified as "reactionaries"; it arrested them en masse;
  6. ignoring the opposition of the Air Force, it went ahead to squander money on a square [the "Revolution Square" which was built by the junta at huge cost —ABYOT] while the masses suffered from the famine; it, again ignoring the opposition of the Air Force, spent money on new uniforms for soldiers in an effort to buy their allegiance;
  7. it has unleashed its security agents over the masses and imposed on them a fascist regime like Franco of Spain and Salazzar of Portugal.
Understanding this, refusing to be a colonialist over one's own peoples, affirming its oneness with the masses, the Air Force has said NO to the junta's rule. However, the Derg believing wrongly that the Air Force will not bother about the masses once its interests are kept, considering us as mercenaries, as people who do not care about the masses, it (Derg) tries to allege, that the opposition of the Air Force is motivated by “the internal disagreements between ·officers and others”. And with an underestimation of the Air Force, the Derg speaks separately to officers and others [in the A.F. — ABYOT] acting as "a mediator between husband and wife. All this is to cheat us like innocent children the Air Force that has fully opposed their (the Derg’s) rule.

Hence, from now on, as we have fully understood the situation and as we love our country and class comrades more than. any stage character (clown) we affirm that the Air Force will never be tricked by the sweet words and fake smiles of a hundred actors of the likes of Major Sisaye [he is a top member of the Derg and a former Air Force officer known for his ultra-fascist tendencies — ABYOT].

We shall deal below with the reasons for the present attempt (by the Derg) to divert our attention from national issues to inter Air Force ones·by analysing the origin, nature and solutions for the contradictions·in our midst. At present, while we have risen up to oppose the fascist proclamations made, in the name of the ·revolution, against the masses and the Air Force, Major Sisaye and likes are flocking here [to the Air Force base at Bishoftu —ABYOT] uttering one nonesense after another in the belief that the maintenance of the internal contradictions in the Air Force will be advantageous to them.
TPLF/EPRDF rebels capture Bishoftu Airforce Base in 1991

This means that they intend to practice their divide and rule techniques by making sure that the internal problems keep us from following the crimes they commit at the national level and push us to concentrate on battling within ourselves. Now that we have rise up understanding the suffering and injustice prevailing in the country and realised that the oppression and injustice we suffer inside (the Air Force) is just a part, and a small one at that, of the overall fascist oppression existing in the country, and now that we have up together with our class comrades — workers, peasants, progressive intellectuals and students — they (the Derg) want to separate us from our class brothers, to make us "reconciled" even for a short time and to make us continue to bomb and support their fascist massacres (of the masses) by making us believe that the other sections of the oppressed masses are as “free” as we in the Air Force. This attempt reminds us of the attempt made by General Mulugeta [Chairman of the High/Military/Security Commission, a reactionary organisation set-up by the then prime minister Endalkatchew Makonen to control the soldiers' movement —AB] to push us to sacrifice ourselves and the people in defence of a monarchy that the masses hated and wanted removed. Similarly, the Derg at present is trying to make us support it while the masses want it removed and hate it (the Derg). We have fully realised that this attempt is a trap to make us act against the masses!!

The contradictions that exist within the Air Force are, at present, as follows:
  1. between officers and others;
  2. between soldiers (officers included) and civilian employees of the Air Force;
  3. between the Air Police and Airmen, between technicians and cadets.

Of all these, the first one is primary and antagonistic. And this is because the officers and the others stand for quite different and contradictory interests. If one satisfies his interest it will inevitably be at the expense of the others.

The officers, with the exception of a few progressive ones, consider the other soldiers as human animals (beasts) employed to carry out their orders. They consider them ignorant, stupid, incapable of thinking or giving opinions. On the other hand, the officers consider themselves as angels, as learned (philosophers), as those whose orders should always be obeyed because all that they say and do are at all times and places correct, as those whose words are always to be believed as they never "lie"!! If an officer eats with other lower-rank soldiers in one mess hall, if he sleeps with them in one compound... he considers himself degraded/profaned. If soldiers with lower ranks enter the officers' mess hall the officer considers himself and the mess hall profaned. Such is the Air Force officer, the human angel living separately in a special compound. This is the reality that no amount of denial can hide or wish away.

In a society divided into classes, the ruling and oppressed classes have their own distinct outlooks (ideologies). While the ruling class in our Force considers us, the oppressed, in the manner described above, we the oppressed have also our own outlooks on the rulers/officers. We say the officers are human, we say that they (despite their decorations and baseless self-aggrandisement) are in many cases inferior to lower rank soldiers, be it in work or knowledge. We say that the lower-rank soldiers are as human as any other. With the exception of a few paid agents and reactionaries, we all believe this to be true. In fact, officers are reactionary and contra change. As such, lower-rank soldiers oppose the divine respect accorded to these reactionaries and demand the abrogation of the special privileges accorded (hospital, lodging, assignment, gasoline) to these anti-change officers. The soldiers say that to obey anti-revolution officers is to be counterrevolutionary oneself. This is correct. Hence, the lower-rank soldiers (NCOs) say: “let the angels who do want to bear our hardships and who do not want to eat on the same table with us return to the country of the angels”!! They say: “let us administer ourselves by electing for ourselves and by ourselves those who have the capability, the dedication and the knowledge to lead us”.

This contradiction cannot be solved separately from the objective situation that exists in Ethiopia. It can only be solved, and to forget this is foolish/utopian, when a genuine socialist revolution is made in Ethiopia and only when the present army (structure/set up, etc) is destroyed and a new one built. Aside from the contradictions with the officers all the other contradictions within us are now antagonistic, they can be solved in a democratic way.

With the exception of a few reactionaries, all of us NCOs, civil employees and progressive officers within the Air Force demand the implementation of the following demands so that we can solve our own minor differences and struggle together with our class comrades for liberty, equality and a scientific socialist revolution:

1. Demissew and his likes (officers) who say that they have gone to the Soviet Union to learn how to form a political party should stop declaring that "democratic liberties should not be accorded to the masses during revolutionary times." They should stop their deceitful actions because we know fully that they want to cling to power under the pretext that the "masses are not still organised."

We know (and we did not have to voyage to the Soviet Union to know this) that "a revolution without an organisation and an organisation without democratic liberties" cannot just come about. "Revolution is a festival of the oppressed", and we know quite clearly that popular democracy is necessary (crucial) during the time of revolution. HENCE WE DEMAND THAT DEMOCRATIC LIBERTIES BE ACCORDED TO THE OPPRESSED MASSES: (emph. added)

2. We have heard that these persons taking courses in the Soviet Union have erased from Marxist books what Marx and Marxists have said on (a) the need to destroy the army set-up by the oppressing classes and build a new (people's) army and (b) the incapability of soldiers to lead the socialist revolution. Our intelligent·philosophers (!) have made this revision on the ground that ''Ethiopia's revolution is different from all other revolutions"! Bravo socialists!! But this is not socialism.

WE HAVE REALISED THAT THE DERG'S REGIME IS NOT SOCIALIST BUT FASCIST. If it was not so how does one account for, at least, the problems caused by the reactionary officers within the Air Force? The workers, peasants, progressive students and intellectuals as well as oppressed soldiers are struggling to recuperate the rights that the Derg forcefully deprived them. The masses are struggling in an organised manner. Hence, the Derg should immediately stop its attempts to make us believe that the soldiers are the vanguard of the socialist revolution, and it should cease its attacks against the struggling masses whom it accuse of "greedily vying for power" or “of sabotaging the revolution". It is the Derg that is greedily vying for power, it is the Derg that is sabotaging/reversing the revolution. Power, belongs to the masses and it is the masses who are demanding to have power, to have what is justly theirs. It is the Derg that is vying for power and to deny this or blame the people instead of the Derg is like blaming the mother for the father's mistakes.

3. The Derg should stop telling us to obey "our superiors" by claiming that "popular discipline should exist" or that "in the Soviet Union also there are those who are superior and those who obey orders". The Derg dries for discipline, while it assigns to high positions for reactionaries like Demissew, officers who were arrested during the February Revolution, anti-revolution officers like the Air Force general and the agents of the C.I.A. Popular discipline can exist and popular decisions passed in a democratic way can be put in practice only when our superiors are officers who are progressive, who-are elected democratically and whose interests are not contradictory to ours. Otherwise, we say NO. We refuse to conspire and act against the revolution and the revolutionaries by allying with counter-revolutionaries!!

4. WE DEMAND THE REJECTION OF EXPANSIONISM THAT THE DERG TRUMPETS and all such blatant declarations. Major Sisaye's statement that "the Derg is not opposed to Djibouti's independence but will not allow it to be member of the Arab League" is an expression of such expansionism. By independence we understand the right of the people to decide its destiny freely, and thus Sisaye's statement not only manifests expansionism but also a contempt for (underestimation of) intelligence/understanding.

5. To proclaim one fascist law after another over the people and to slaughter individuals.who present revolutionary ideas/options and at the same time to declare "tell us your problems, ask us questions” is no more than an invitation to present ourselves (sheepishly) for sacrifice. Hence, if democratic discussions are really desired, all the present anti-democratic, anti-people and anti-organisation proclamations must be repealed/revoked. Prisoners like Yigezu Benti (Air Force), the labour union leaders, the teachers' association leaders and progressive zematch students should be immediately released.

6. PEASANTS AND WORKERS SHOULD BE ARMED so that the revolution can be victorious, so that they can control their localities and so that they can put an end to the activities of feudal bandits. LANDLORDS SHOULD BE DISARMED. The Derg should stop asking us to bomb whole villages on the grounds that there are bandits.


The struggle of the Oppressed Soldiers and the Broad Masses will be Victorious!!!
(NB — the above document was distributed at the end of NOV/75)

— end of original document —

Derg — a committee of military officers that seized government during the course of 1974. At this time Ethiopia was administered by a junta, the PMAC or Provisional Military Administrative Council, run by two Derg officers as vice chairs (Mengistu Hailemariam and Atnafu Abate) and a non Derg member as head of state, General Teferi Bente.

Zematch, Zematchoch — The Zematch was a national development campaign begun at the very end of 1974 where thousands of urban teachers and students were sent to the countryside to uplift the peasants as the Derg rolled out its reforms. The Zematch students proved to be unruly, and a fertile breeding ground for revolutionary opposition. The Derg attempted to abort the Zematch, executing hundreds of students. Returned campaigners became a mainstay of the EPRP's Youth League, EPRYL.

Major Sisay Habte was a member of the Derg. He was executed along with several other officers in mid-1976 after what the Derg claimed was a coup attempt. It's not clear to me if there were substantial policy differences between Sisay and the rest of PMAC.

CELU was the Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions, a major force during the revolutionary year of 1974; by the time of this writing it was in the process of being effectively dominated by the EPRP.

Demissew — I think this refers to Derg member Lt. Demissew Kassaye, who was tried by the Meles government after the fall of Mengistu for crimes committed during the Red Terror. Despite the officially allied relationship between “Socialist” Ethiopia and the United States at this time, hundreds of members of the military including the dwindling numbers of Derg cadre were sent to the Soviet Union for political training starting in 1975.

Djibouti is of course the former French Somaliland; the last colonial holding of France on the African continent. A strategic port claimed variously by both Ethiopia and the Republic of Somalia, at the time of this writing it was slated for independence, which was finally achieved in1977.

I was really excited to read this document. It is important evidence of several things: first, the high political sophistication of participants in the Ethiopian revolution, especially of course, the EPRP which produced it. Critics have derided the EPRP as nothing but the children of the upper classes running amok in a situation above their heads: but clearly their involvement in the ranks of the military and the labor movement belies that view.

The writing is matter of fact, clear and patient; it's also notably better than the cliched triumphalist left-speak that often crept into later writings of the EPRP diaspora, heavily influenced by the sects of the North American New Communist Movement.

Like the EPRP, the Russian Bolsheviks
addressed class conscious soldiers but
they did not use the army of the old state
as a vehicle for seizing power.
Flyer from 1917.
Second, the EPRP actually had a consistent and revolutionary point of view in advocating mass democracy through a civilian government as a path to transforming the democratic revolution into a socialist revolution. The critique leveled against the Derg and its supporters herein is solid, well based in Marxism-Leninism, and convincing in opposition to the self-serving cynicism and rationalizations of the Derg and its Soviet and civilian left advisors. It is extraordinary to me that the EPRP's call — perfectly clear here — for revolutionary socialist democracy was overlooked by most of the world left, who passed it over in favor of claiming revolutionary precedent in the actions of a military junta which had set itself on top of the unfolding popular uprising. This leaflet's derision of the Derg's cynicism is biting and, I think, correct. It makes me shake my head that there are left tendencies that today, decades later, continue to uphold the Derg; the Derg which would began to bloodily uproot the EPRP from Ethiopian society just a few months after this revolutionary leaflet was circulated.

My research into the EPRP's activities in the labor movement has showed me something similar to this leaflet's perspective: how different the EPRP's orientation was to that of the Derg and by extension, the Ethiopian left who attached themselves to the Derg looking for leverage over the revolutionary process. The EPRP's class orientation within the military is as clear as it was in the labor movement: the EPRP is appealing in this case not to the officer corps but to “oppressed soldiers” to join the mass movement. The EPRP actually expresses faith in the organizing potential of the popular masses rather than in attempting to create state institutions to control and steer them. For this they earned the reputation of being “anarchists,” an insult which ought, from my point of view, to make suspect the ideological revisionism of the Soviets and the Derg supporters who rushed in to give provide ideological backing for the Derg's close grip on state power. It seems absolutely true that the revisionists were terrified of the people in revolutionary motion, and could think only of creating institutions of control over the mass movements.

One of the more controversial positions of the EPRP here is that the Derg was not only undemocratic but “fascist.” In a country that was actually occupied by the Italian fascists before World War Two, I think it would be useful before dismissing the EPRP's line here as utterly fantastic, to consider what this word means in the Ethiopian context. And it really should be noted that the Derg was very quick to solve issues of political conflict with the brute finality of simple violence, state repression, and execution. I would like to delve further into the EPRP's analysis here in the future, as some critics have made appropriate observations about the ramifications of calling the Derg “fascist” in the coming showdown between the Party and the government.

It's hard to avoid seeing that the then-Marxist-Leninist EPRP correctly and presciently diagnosed the key challenges for a revolutionary Ethiopia: both of those — popular democracy and the national question — proved to be the undoing of the Derg's regime in the 1991 civil war that finally removed Mengistu from power. They're arguably the key issues in post-Derg Ethiopia today as well.

The EPRP produced a number of clandestine journals and leaflets: eventually possession of these materials was often an instant death sentence from the “Red Terror” death squads. I'm deeply grateful that Abyot preserved and translated this one.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Quick Review: Marina and David Ottaway

ETHIOPIA, Empire In Revolution
By Marina and David Ottaway, Africana Publishing Company/Holmes & Meier, hardcover 1978, 250pp.

I had the pleasure of reading a recent essay by Professor John Markakis entitled “The Revolution and the Scholars,” in the 2016 issue of Northeast African Studies journal. In the essay Markakis, co-author of the landmark Class and Revolution in Ethiopia, surveys from today’s decades-later vantage point some of the volumes written during the Derg period which have become standard reference works on the revolution. These include René Lefort’s Ethiopia, An Heretical Revolution; Halliday and Molyneux's The Ethiopian Revolution, and Marina and David Ottaway’s Ethiopia, Empire in Revolution, among others. I am pleased to report that Markakis’s judgment of the Ottaways’ book can be quoted to neatly summarize my own view of the Ottaways’ work:
“Having failed to to draw the political implications of class and ethnic contradictions, the Ottaways are unable to account for the popular upheaval that irrupted in 1974. Instead, they go to some lengths to discount the contribution of the social groups involved in it.” (NEAS 16:1, p. 92)
The Ottaways were based in Addis Ababa during the early years of the revolution. She was an academic, he a journalist, both presenting leftish views in the fashion of the post-Vietnam era. Though they describe having to ship their primary resources, research notes and draft writings out of the country just ahead of being expelled from Ethiopia in mid-1977 during the Red Terror, their book seems to have become an edifice of pro-Derg Western leftist apologia writing. The book is quite full of detailed information, including some garnered from behind the scenes via interviews and the period of massive public debate in the first two years of the revolution. It reproduces a number of Derg proclamations in full as appendices, and as such is certainly a valuable historical record.

The book was written in mid-1977, after Mengistu’s seizure of power in February 1977, but before his decisive elimination of potential counter-leadership within the Derg in the Fall of the same year. But the fact that this book is a dated or incomplete picture of the revolution is not really the problem with it.

The Ottaways wind up legitimizing the Derg’s claim to the mantle of socialism by sneering at the social forces outside the military.
“The EPRP [Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party] conceived of revolution in terms of a mass movement from the bottom up. No such movement ever existed in Ethiopia, however, and the EPRP implicitly recognized this historical fact in drafting its plans for a people's government. Its proposed alliance of workers, peasants, progressive intellectuals, and progressive elements of the petty bourgeoisie was to be implemented through direct interest-group representation.” (p. 119)
And yet, it is this “non-existent” movement that actually manifested the 1974 revolution and the massive political turmoil of the following two years. They note that the EPRP proclaimed itself in 1975, while casting doubts that the EPRP’s claim to existence as a pre-party tendency in the period before 1975 was in any way significant. In fact my research leads me to see how the revolutionaries that revealed themselves in 1975 on both sides of the pro/anti military divide had been carefully preparing for the possibility of revolution for years, in fact in ways remarkably similar to the Russian revolutionaries before 1917.

Elsewhere the Ottaways seem fixated on the small size of the Ethiopian working class, and take a sneering attitude toward the Ethiopian labor movement as it attempted to find its voice and exercise its power in the aftermath of February 1974. They seem disdainful of Ethiopian working class activists, suggesting that they should have just lined up behind the provisional military government.
“The position of the CELU [Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions] during this transitional period was obviously confused. Despite its lack of a coherent vision, the confederation assumed it would continue as an autonomous organization, and even enjoy the protection of the government against management. But since the government had now become the largest employer in the country, CELU's hopes were quite naive.”  (p. 107)
While the Ottaways attempt to document the conflict between the Ethiopian civilian left and the Derg and its leftist allies, they completely wave away the principles behind that conflict.
“...The inability of like-minded politicians to compromise or cooperate remained a constant impediment to the revolution. It gave rise to the civilian left's bitter hatred for the military left; it spawned some half-dozen splinter leftist civilian groups with practically identical ideological platforms....This attitude caused the...[EPRP] to reject all cooperation with the military even though there was little difference between its program and that of the Derg.” (p. 101)
Somehow the Ottaways fail to understand that the EPRP’s demand for a people’s provisional government free of the military was one of two centrally defining factors not only to their program but to their growing base of support. (The other was the EPRP’s approach to the national question). It wasn't just a “little difference” and it wasn't just banal infighting: these were thought-out matters of principle about the nature of the revolution itself. Again and again throughout the course of the period when leadership of the revolution was under contention, it was this difference of mass democracy versus military control that virtually defined the dynamic of the period. Perhaps now, long after the defeat of all the players of the 1970s, it’s possible to see how the untried path charted by the EPRP offered more than the unfolding of history actually delivered.

Without getting into an extended discussion of the EPRP's ideological foundation in Marxism-Leninism or compassing its exact location in the ideological debates on the left, it is often presumed by observers that intense struggle within the left is a matter of mindless, self-defeating infighting. But any student of actual revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Mao — neither of whom could be accused of being wedded to comfy armchairs by a perverse love of internecine conflict — quickly comes to the conclusion that revolutionary struggle is marked by fierce competition between contending lines of politics and leadership just as much as it is marked by the combat in the streets between opposing class or societal forces. So the Ottaways’ insistence that the differences between EPRP and Meison were trivial, or that CELU was just naive and stubborn reflects something important about the Ottaways’ views about the issues themselves.

The Ottaways recognize that at the time of their writing, things are unsettled. But in this volume and its follow-up, 1981’s Afrocommunism, they express a surprisingly willingness to give the Derg the benefit of the doubt. The cheerleaders of the Derg among the world left, chiefly those in the orbit of the Soviet bloc, would build on the Ottaways’ arguments.

Ethiopia, Empire in Revolution is out of print but seems to be readily available.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Symbolic Confusion: More Hammers & Sickles

1975 Amharic edition of the EPRP Program

I'm pleased to present another gallery of images from the Ethiopian Revolution featuring the use of the iconic Hammer and Sickle by competing sides in the revolution. Other galleries of images and some explanation of the politics behind these images can be found by clicking the “Symbolic Confusion” label at right. If you click on the images you can see them larger.

Above are the front and back covers from the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party program, as issued in Amharic on the public announcement of the party’s existence in 1975. The full document can be read in Amharic only on the Ya Tewlid website. Click around for the link to a PDF. This cover bears a grid where someone has used an old-fashioned analog trick for enlarging art for a poster or banner.

EPRP logo from “Abyot”
Pro-EPRP poster, probably USA ca 1975–76

“Long live the worker peasant alliance!” reads the solidarity poster at right.

Back cover of POMOA’s “Abyotawit Ityopya”
POMOA was the “Provisional Office for Mass Organizational Affairs,” the Derg’s office for building support, one might say for co-opting, support among Ethiopia's left organizations. POMOA established EMALEDH, the Union of Ethiopian Marx-Leninist Organizations, in what proved to be a futile attempt at “partybuilding.” EPRP rejected participation in both POMOA and EMALEDH. Meison, Waz League, Echat, and Malerid joined with the military party Abyotawit Seded, though all were eventually serially purged from EMALEDH during the “Red Terror” except Seded. Abyotawit Ityopya was the journal published by POMOA, and this version of hammer and sickle was the one used by EMALEDH.

An Amharic edition of EMALEDH's
“Yehibret Demtse”

An EMALEDH sign featured on an issue
of “Abyotawit Ityopya”

Two more items from EMALEDH: An Amharic issue of their journal (I've previously featured an English language cover of one), and EMALEDH supporters holding up a sign at a rally featured on a cover of Abyotawit Ityopya from 1977.

Below are some further uses of the hammer and sickle. First is an illustration symbolizing unity of worker and peasant, but from the Derg’s perspective, again an issue of POMOA’s Abyotawit Ityopya. The worker and peasant are rather gruesomely using the hammer and sickle to dangle three symbolic corpses, which makes sense since this is from the height of the Red Terror. After that are several militia-themed items from the Derg. First, “Revolutionary Unity Through Struggle” with a fairly modernist design. Followed by a cover of Milisya, the Derg’s militia publication, showing the militia logo incorporating a hammer and sickle. Finally, a photo showing an Ethiopian woman passing under a poster of a worker and soldier bearing a hammer and sickle flag, date unknown. The military mobilizations against the Somali invasion of 1977-1978, and subsequently against Eritrean rebels, proved to be an effective tool for undercutting the civilian left.

With the abandonment of EMALEDH and POMOA and the establishment of the “Committee to Organize the Party of the Working People of Ethiopia” and the eventual founding of the “Workers Party of Ethiopia” by Mengistu in the 1980s, a version of the hammer and sickle went on to become an enshrouded national emblem.

A cover of “Abyotawit Ityopya” from 1976

“Revolutionary Victory Through Struggle”

A cover of “Milisya” from 1979.

I'd like to express my thanks to donors of graphic material.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

From EPRP’s Democracia: “A Revolution Is Not A Straight Line”

Clandestine printshop in revolutionary Ethiopia.
The following is an English translation of a special issue of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party’s underground newspaper, “Democracia.” Archives of much of “Democracia” are available on the web, but very little of its content has been translated into English. This one issue makes me hungry for more. I found this translation at the website Ya Tewlid, The Generation, an excellent repository of information mostly in Amharinya on the EPRP and the years of the “Red Terror.” It was retrieved from the US Library of Congress’s Thomas L. Kane collection, and is probably one of Kane’s own translations. He seems to have been an American diplomat with a keen interest in Ethiopia. This is described as the “Special Issue” from Feb. or Mar. 1976, presumably the Ethiopian month of Megabit. I have retyped the document from PDF.

The subject of this document is largely the national question. It’s safe to say that the 25 years since the Derg’s fall have borne the truth to Democracia’s predictions, as the national question continues to bubble over in today's reorganized Ethiopia. 


A revolution is not a straight line — it is zigzag. Although it will be late, the victory will belong to the people. The aim of the fascists and reactionaries to confuse the people by creating temporary problems will not save them from the destiny of history.

When the government of the "elite" is pressured by peoples struggle, it concedes and makes certain proclamations. But, wen the peoples struggle cools, the government tries to sabotage the struggle anew. It has massacred those people who have promoted the revolution. Many people have been massacred in Eritrea, Gojjam, Afar, Gujji, Wollo and Kaffa. In Awash the Government has killed many workers. Whenever the Government finds any threat to its power, it begins killing people. It is not enough for them to take weapons, which should have been used against anti-revolutionaries, and use them against revolutionaries. It is not enough for them to massacre the people. They are now trying to make the people cut their fingers by the fingers, in other words; in other words, they are trying to turn the people against the people.
An issue of Democracia from
about the time of this article.

The government of the elite military officers” secretly gathered peasants from Begemdir, Tigre, Wollo and Gojjam. For example three people from each woreda, 84 in all, were called and stayed at “Kottebe” from Begemdir. While the peasants of Begemdir and Tigre were sent back, others stayed here. This was in the beginning of Megabit. Later in Megabit an emergency decree was issued in Begemdir and Tigre. This decree was to encourage and empowerof the people of Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia to kill. The fascist action will create a great danger to the Ethiopian revolution and is a sign of revisionism. It did this because its previous fascist actions did not succeed.

One of the main issues of the Ethiopian revolution is the question of nationalities, i.e. the right of nations for self-determination. But, instead of solving the Eritrean problem, it tried to crush the movement by force. It spread a false national feeling through the mass media, but this propaganda was not accepted by the people.

There are no principal contradictions between people of different nations. Therefore, Ethiopian people will not go and fight the Eritrean people. The enemies of the people are feudalism, imperialism, bureaucratic capitalism; and the fascist government that is the puppet of the above three in practice.

The prominent fascist leader, Hitler, during the Second World War, said that the enemies of the Germans are Jews. He then proceeded to have millions of Jews massacred. The American imperialists in Cambodia, Vietnam, etc. tried to make the people of one nation fight each other, but their attempts were in vain.

In our country, too, Menelik did the same thing, when he was expanding his reign southward. The notorious feudal Dejazmatch Gebre Huywot, did the same thing with the Tigre rebellions and caused much damage. The present fascist government is trying to do the same thing.

What will be the effect of the proclamation? It will create civil war. The ongoing revolution will be reversed. Instead of class struggle, the people will be concentrating on a secondary question. This will weaken the peasants associations and strengthen the reactionary elements. It will improve the situation for those reactionaries, like Nega Tegegne and his followers, who are trying to revise the revolution. It will widen the gap between nations. The previous government used national chauvinism in order to stay in power. In all gathering places, it instigated tribal disputes. But the present government has taken an even worse step which will make people of different national groups fight each other and fight those who are residing in cities.

— The manpower and finances that could have been used to promote revolutionary progress is tobe used for revising the revolution.

— It encourages feudalism, which has been outlawed, at least on a proclamation basis.

— It encourages looting which was prevalent during the reign of Nobility.

— When the peasants are busy fighting, the danger of starvation will be intensified.

PEOPLE OF NORTHERN ETHIOPIA! To hinder the revolution, they have tried to weaken your associations. They have forced the Zemacha to desert you. They have opposed your attempts to disarm by sending troops to kill you. They are training an army called “Nebelbal” by Israelis. All these steps are still not enough. They are even instigating you to fight your own Eritrean brothers. Take care and do not be deceived by the fascists. As they had you fight the Eritrean people, they will send others to fight you when you proceed with your revolution. They will make Christians fight Moslems, Northerners fight Southerners, etc. You must realize that “Tomorrow it will be me”.

Proletariats, Students, Zemechas, Teachers, and Progressives — wherever you are. Expose the attempts of the fascists to revise the revolution. The differences between the Eritrean and the Ethiopian people is not primary. The solution to the Eritrean problem is Democracy.



Notes: Zemecha refers to the national development campaign launched at the end of 1974 when thousands of students and teachers were sent to the countryside. The campaign backfired on the Derg, as the mobilized and empowered young people proved to be a fruitful site of recruitment for the EPRP. 

By “fascists” Democracia is referring to the ruling military junta or Derg.—ish

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Derg Slanders EPRP, continued

Last month I quoted a number of Derg sources on the EPRP, and noted a US Embassy cable describing an anti-EPRP demonstration in 1976 with picket signs accusing the EPRP of CIA connections. I ran across video footage from that demonstration: The pictures above are screen shots from very low resolution video, so apologies for the quality. It's Reuters footage, and the clip can be seen at ITN Source.

Both pictures show English-language signs distorting the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP). The top one shows a sign reading, “Down With Ethiopian Princes Restoration Party.” The second, riffing off the name of the clandestine EPRP newspaper Democracia, reads “Death to DemocraCIA.” These are, of course, shop-worn slanders, rationales for dehumanizing EPRP members who were soon to be rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed, in their thousands.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Quick Review: Blair Thomson & Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Emperor Haile Selassie arrested in 1974, escorted to a VW Bug

A pivotal event in the Ethiopian Revolution was of course the arrest of Ethiopia's monarch, the Emperor Haile Selassie, in September of 1974. It must be acknowledged that this was a very long time ago, and the forty-two years that have followed have certainly left many Ethiopians weary of politics and struggle. The nostalgia for better, more peaceful and certain days seems to manifest itself — at least judging from the internet — as nostalgia for the Emperor himself. Everyone loves a legend: certainly Haile Selassie himself knew this, for he carefully cultivated his own legend as the freedom fighter against fascism, the founder of the Organization of African Unity, and the heir to the rich historical legacy of the centuries-old Ethiopian monarchy. Indeed in the West Indies he is even worshiped as a divinity. It's no surprise that this image of Haile Selassie is the one remembered by those looking to recall greatness in the Ethiopian, especially the Amhara, past. Seemingly forgotten in the horrors that followed were the horrors of his last years when he ordered guns turned on unarmed students and turned a blind eye to thousands dying in a famine while his pets dined richly on fresh meat.

Which is why these two slim volumes were a timely read, splashing cold water on the selective memory that holds Haile Selassie in glowing and soft-focused fond regard.

ETHIOPIA, The Country That Cut Off Its Head: A Diary of the Revolution
By Blair Thomson
Robson Books Limited (London), 1975 paperback, 160pp.

Blair Thomson was a BBC correspondent in Addis Ababa. He witnessed the revolutionary events of 1974 from his reporter’s perch, and was more or less forced to abandon his post in early 1975 by the military government. This book, long unavailable, seems to have been rushed into print to capitalize on unfolding events, probably the Emperor's death, and while it is riddled with careless production (so many typos!), it’s actually an exciting week-by-week account of that first revolutionary year as it happened. Thomson was not any kind of insider: his reportage and insights are the sort one would read in a good newspaper or magazine. He had access to government press conferences and seems to have been a sound reporter with certain connections, but this is not a behind-the-scenes exposé. Indeed some of the most interesting things here are the musings of the conventional wisdom of the time about the social forces involved.
“Had Haile Selassie been a man of unshakable integrity, he might have been able to keep the system free of graft. But he himself used either force, or more usually, bribery — in the form of cash, lands or positions — to get what he wanted, and many of the men around him took their cue from the top. Thus over the years vice and corruption in top places became the rule rather than the exception.” (pp. 20-21)

Thomson chronicles some of Haile Selassie's more egregious acts, like the time he sold some of his extensive financial holdings to the state and then continued to collect profits. He presents an aristocracy isolated and out of touch with an advancing society. The Emperor tries to make limited reforms, but only if there seems to be profit in them for himself. And so Thomson paints a picture of Haile Selassie's last year; watching the Emperor acquiesce to the gathering revolution, futilely making changes to government while trying surprisingly passively to preserve the ancien regime by pretending nothing was happening. Haile Selassie gradually loses all of his intangible moral or regal authority and is soon openly challenged and disrespected in public. In the aftermath of the February revolution, the military committee known as the Derg gradually seizes the reigns of government leading up to the coup of September 1974 and the violence of November 1974, the Emperor's presence seems to shrink.

Thomson doesn't really have time to investigate the revolutionaries. He notes student radicalization, the new confidence of the Ethiopian labor movement under CELU, the waves of leaflets and open debate in the press.
“The combined effect of the Yekatit Riots [February revolution] and the army pay mutinies gave the country's radicals an opportunity to take the initiative. It also opened the way, for the first tie since the 1960 coup attempt, for those deliberately created divisions in the aristocracy and military to come to the surface. And it forced the Emperor to appear at least to be giving up his almost god-like hold over the nation.” (p. 46)
Interestingly, Thomson presumes that it is Chinese communists, not Soviets, who are behind the radicalization of the military by the end of 1974. And he (like the US embassy reported here before) calls Atnafu Abate, not Mengistu Hailemariam, the key leftist in the Derg: “...Major Atnafu was believed to be the real ‘brains’ behind the socialist — now increasingly Communist — programme.” (p.142)

It’s worth quoting from the almost hilarious promotional copy on the back cover of this paperback: “Here, revealed for the first time, are the incredible plots and counter-plots in the struggle for control of a country in the grip of a multi-sided tug of war between Peking, Moscow, Washington and the Arab world, and of a people so politically unsophisticated that their language has no word for ‘socialism’.” While long out of print, and despite this bit of condescending sensationalism, I'm really happy I tracked this book down.

THE EMPEROR, Downfall of an Autocrat
By Ryszard Kapuscinski
Vintage International, 1989 paperback, (Original 1978/1983)

Kapuscinski’s book is beautifully written. While the Polish journalist spent the tumultuous year of 1974 in Ethiopia, the book roughly covers the period from the abortive 1960 coup up until Haile Selassie’s arrest and deposition in September 1974. He intersperses his own experiences of life in Ethiopia with what one assumes are heavily embellished post-deposition interviews with former members of the royal staff, from courtiers and aristocrats to servants. These interviews drip with bitterness and sarcasm.

In stunning prose he weaves a picture of life at the court in Addis Ababa. It's a picture of a man in absolute control of his country who cannily if ruthlessly exercises all of his survival skills to remain in power and control amidst unimaginable luxury in one of the poorest countries of the world.
“It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor's great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor's lap and pee on dignitaries' shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years.” (p. 5)
The Emperor turns out to have been a micromanager, personally engaged in decisions both great and small. One former Palace staffer describes how late in his reign, Haile Selassie replaced his staff with people with shorter memories and less experience:
“They had no past, had never taken part in conspiracies...indeed they didn't even know anything about conspiracies, and how were they going to find out about them if His Noble Majesty had forbidden the history of Ethiopia to be written?... They could not know...that in the face of Italian invasion he had sworn publicly to spill his blood for Ethiopia and then, when the invaders marched in, had gone by boat to England and spent the war in the quiet little town of Bath....” (p. 80)
As with Blair Thomson’s book, the description here of the Emperor’s last year is riveting, and Kapuscinski successfully and vividly contextualizes the almost languorous decline inside the palace with the turmoil, upheaval and gunfire out in the streets.

The Emperor is still in print. Together these two books have provided a really extraordinary portrait of the world in which the revolution was happening.