Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Derg’s Diary of Repression, 1976

A correspondent has forwarded to me a copy of a fascinating publication. (Thanks JM!) It's a magazine published by the PMAC on the second anniversary of the revolution in September of 1976, which means it dates from the period before Mengistu consolidated his power, and from the period of escalating internal violence and repression on the cusp of all out war between the Derg and the EPRP.

The publication is already a defense of the Ethiopian “Man In Uniform,” the rationalization for the military control of the revolution. As such, it is preoccupied with defending the revolution against “reactionaries” and calling for revolutionary unity. It does not name its enemies. An introduction from the Provisional Military Administrative Council itself says, “If members of the Ethiopian Armed Forces had not taken the necessary measures to safeguard the unity which is as precious as life to them whenever the situation so demanded, it is an incontrovertible truth that our Revolution would not have assumed its present form, shape, and direction.....The Struggle Continues! Reactionaries Will Be Liquidated! The People Will Be Victorious!” 

The photo-filled publication concludes with a several-page “Diary of the Revolution.” However, the diary soon becomes a list of executions. I'm not naive, I understand that revolutions are acts of political violence. The state is an institution of political violence itself. These are part of the basic understandings of Marxism, and recognition of these facts is not glorification of bloodshed. But this diary from the PMAC itself should set aside the notion that the EPRP instigated the violence which was soon directed against it.

To be honest I didn't have the heart to retype this increasingly disturbing list, so I am presenting scans of the last five pages. If you click on the photos, they should enlarge enough to be readable, at least on a computer monitor or tablet.

The deposition of the Emperor on September 12, 1974,  is on the first of these pages. The coup against Aman Mikael Andom is noted on November 23, with the mass executions of members of the previous regimes noted the next day. The execution of Meles Tekle is noted on March 19, 1975.  And of course the execution of Major Sisay Habte who we have been discussing here appears on July 13, 1976. As the months pass, the list of revolutionary achievements — and let it be clear, many of these were quite legitimate and impressive — alternate with an increasing number of repressive acts. It is not clear from most of this Diary, of course, which of these incidents involve actual opponents of the revolution, like the EDU, versus those who advocated civilian control of the revolution, like the EPRP.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fidel Castro and Mengistu Hailemariam

Today marks the 90th birthday of Fidel Castro, undisputed leader of the Cuban revolution that triumphed in 1959. An analysis of the Cuban revolution is certainly outside the scope of this blog, but Cuba played a central role in the consolidation of Mengistu's power in 1977 and 1978, so I felt it would not be out of place to note this historical milestone here. 

To be completely honest I am deeply conflicted about Fidel. I celebrate the achievements of Castro's Cuba, a bastion of world revolution separated by only a few short miles of water from the most deadly imperialist power the world has known. Certainly Cuba under Castro's leadership made some great achievements, along with a few mistakes. Castro's Declarations of Havana speeches from the early 1960s are absolutely canonical examples of brilliant anti-imperialist oratory. But it must be said that Castro's version of Marxism-Leninism is a deeply revisionist one, and Cuba's revolutionary praxis has always been tarred by these distortions and especially by its relationship with the Soviet Union. Is Castroism actually a path to socialism? One suspects the diplomatic rapprochement with the United States and the coming inevitable passing of power to a younger generation of Cubans will determine quite a lot on that score.

To be sure, Soviet aid was probably a key factor in the survival of the Cuban revolution; though it came at quite a cost. Cuba became an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. In the instance of Angola, Cuban forces helped defeat the armies of apartheid in the field. But in Ethiopia, Cuba's stated goal was the defense of a revolution against the foreign, imperialist-backed threat of Somali invasion while the result was not only the defeat of Somalia but the betrayal of the Eritrean independence struggle and the consolidation of a ruthlessly repressive regime. Castro's rallying to the defense of Mengistu came at the exact moment when Mengistu's “Red Terror” against his domestic left-wing opponents was at full-swing. The bullet-riddled bodies of young leftists were being left in the streets, and the prisons were full of torture and blood. Among those leftists were those who had been deeply inspired by the Cuban revolution and especially its leading member, the heroic guerrilla Ernesto Che Guevara. To me, Castro's involvement with Mengistu is the bitter stain, frankly, of betrayal.

Here are some excerpts from a fascinating document. The Wilson Center maintains a website of declassified diplomatic documents from the Soviet bloc. Among them is an extensive collection of documents relating to the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict. In part these documents reveal furious efforts behind the scenes to forestall the war between two nominally socialist nations. In the Spring of 1977 Castro himself engaged in shuttle diplomacy, visiting both Mengistu and Somali leader Mohammed Siad Barre. These excerpts are from a transcript of a conversation between Castro and East German  leader Erich Honecker that took place in Berlin in April of 1977 reporting on his visit to East Africa. I thought Castro's appreciation of the events of February where Mengistu eliminated PMAC leader Teferi Benti was absolutely fascinating and revealing. Also, I did not expect to hear Castro explicitly renounce the longstanding Cuban support of the Eritrean struggle, but he pretty much does just that. These words are Fidel Castro's:
“The next day I flew on to Ethiopia. We had earlier agreed that there would be no great reception for me, since at the time they were still fighting the civil war. Shots constantly rang out. Mengistu took me to the old Imperial Palace and the negotiations began on the spot. I found the information that I already had to be confirmed. We continued our negotiations on the following day. Naturally we had to take extensive security precautions. The Ethiopians had come up with a division, and I had brought a company of Cuban soldiers with me. The day of my arrival there were rumors of a coup. It did not happen....
Mengistu strikes me as a quiet, serious, and sincere leader who is aware of the power of the masses. He is an intellectual personality who showed his wisdom on 3 February. The rightists wanted to do away with the leftists on 3 February. The prelude to this was an exuberant speech by the Ethiopian president in favor of nationalism. Mengistu preempted this coup. He called the meeting of the Revolutionary Council one hour early and had the rightist leaders arrested and shot. A very consequential decision was taken on 3 February in Ethiopia. The political landscape of the country changed, which has enabled them to take steps that were impossible before then. Before it was only possible to support the leftist forces indirectly, now we can do so without any constraints....

Above all we must do something for Mengistu. Already we are collecting old weapons in Cuba for Ethiopia, principally French, Belgian and Czech hand-held weapons. About 45,000 men must be supplied with weapons. We are going to send military advisers to train the Ethiopian militia in weapons-use. There are many people in Ethiopia who are qualified for the army. We are supporting the training of the militia. Meanwhile the situation in Eritrea is difficult. There are also progressive people in the liberation movement, but, objectively,they are playing a reactionary role. The Eritrean separatist movement is being supported by the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Ethiopia has good soldiers and a good military tradition, but they need time to organize their army. Mengistu asked us for 100 trainers for the militia, now he is also asking us for military advisers to build up regular units. Our military advisory group is active at the staff level. The Ethiopians have economic means and the personnel necessary to build up their army. Rumors have been spread lately that the reactionaries will conquer Asmara in two months. The revolution in Ethiopia is of great significance.”

Monday, August 8, 2016

Video clip of Tilahun Gizaw

What an absolutely haunting short video clip. The speaker is Ethiopian student leader Tilahun Gizaw; soon to be murdered by the authorities. As he finishes speaking, the crowd starts singing "Fano tesemara." Everyone's eyes are so expressive; the future has been summoned.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Pivotal Moment: The Executions of 1976

The PMAC in the mid-1970s: at center are Mengistu, Teferi, Atnafu.
Continuing a series of reprints from the EPRP’s press of the 1970s, I'm happy to present two related unsigned articles from an issue of Abyot, originally published in August of 1976. These articles deal with the increasing repression by Ethiopia's military regime, foreshadowing the most violent period when the EPRP’s armed urban wing began a series of targeted counter-assassinations only to be met by the massive organized extermination campaign that came to be called the “Red Terror.” 

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; some of the writing in these articles is a little awkward.

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, and some correlating details. —ish

From Abyot, Vol. 1 No. 6, August 1976:


THE ETHIOPIAN PEOPLES REVOLUTIONARY PARTY has consistently affirmed that the regime of the Derg is terribly isolated, fascistic and inherently anti-democratic. For all those who had the common sense and the conviction to see through the regime's demogogy and the apologist press, it was/is clear that the Derg is wobbling on its feet and is clinging to power only due to the backing of US imperialism and the use of brute force against the popular masses. Events since May Day have proven the EPRP's affirmation and pointed out that the popular demand for the establishment of a popular provisional government is the only solution to get the country out of chaos by giving power to the masses.

The Derg's problem, which started the day it took over power and even first when it constituted itself and moved objectively to perpetuate the exploitative system, are insoluble and immense. Its demagogy, its radical rhetorics, its blind repression have not succeeded to arrest the mass struggle. In the cities and the rural areas, the class struggle rages on. It has put out fascistic laws curtailing all democratic liberties, it has outlawed strikes (punishable by death “in serious cases”), made contact with the EPRP a fatal “crime,” arrested and executed countless militants. But the defiant struggle of the proletariat and poor peasantry, as well as that of the democratic petty-bourgeoisie, continued unabated. The EPRP is getting stronger more and more. The forms of combat of the masses are diversifying and deepening. The contradictions within the Derg itself are exploding violently and manifesting themselves in bloody purges. The democratic movement of soldiers is gaining strength.

The Derg has led Ethiopia into a political and economic chaos that has never been seen before. It had crowned terror as its demagogy, which was supposed to have been improved by the Haile Fida group of pro-fascist intellectuals, fails miserably to confuse the masses. Within the present context of developing, rich, complex and difficult revolutionary process in which the EPRP is assuming the vanguard role, the neo-colonial regime of the Derg is doomed.


On July 13, the military regime announced that it has executed “19” persons. Among the executed figured Major Sisaye Derg member and chief of the Political and Foreign Affairs commission, General Getachew Nadew, military governor of Eritrea, seven individuals accused of “economic sabotage”, seven others accused of “leading the country into a bloodbath” (actually a junta monopoly!), two of taking “bribes” and one for “selling state secrets.”

To begin with all evidence points out that the number of executed goes up to 75–81 of whom many were arrested workers, students, etc. Secondly one is obliged to go deep into the reasons for these executions as the junta is a known liar and as it has a habit of mixing leftists and rightists and executing them together under the label of “counter revolutionaries.”

Meison leader Haile Fida, left;
with Negede Gobeze,
in Europe in the early 1970s.
The execution of Sisaye manifests the instability that grips the Derg at such a high level of its power-holders. Though Sisaye, a well-known rightist, was rumored many times to be in the process of preparing a coup d'etat, it seems unlikely that he actually attempted one as the Derg wants to make us believe. Sisay's fate was sealed when he came out in open (in a latest Derg meeting) and uncompromising opposition to the alliance between Major Mengistu (chief of the Derg) and the Haile Fida led intellectuals grouped around the “All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement”, a reformist outfit. Thanks to the backing of Major Mengistu, the Haile Fida clique not only started a purge within the military and the bureaucracy but was filling these vacant posts with its own loyal people. As ministers, political commissars, directors, executives of the powerful “Peoples' Organizing Office”, the Haile Fidas were becoming a threat to Sisay and his group. Their Peoples' Organizing Office was making his political commission powerless. They were sending his elements within the Derg to foreign countries on the flimsy pretext of “political education courses” (Sisaye's assistant, lieutenant Bewketu Kassa, refused to go to Moscow for such an education and is now in hiding). Major Kiros member of the Derg and reactionary head of the “zemetcha” (Campaign of students to teach in the rural areas), was also opposed to the Haile Fida group.

There is no doubt that Major Sisaye was a trusted man of the Americans. When Kissinger visited Kenya, Sisaye talked to him for three hours in the Nairobi Continental Hotel. No doubt they must have discussed the chronic instability of the Derg. America, which plays a double game of fully supporting the Derg and also trying to stabilise it via a coup from within it was no doubt symphatetic to the Major. All in all then, Sisaye's elimination is a victory for the Haile Fida group who have utilised the occasion to continue the purge of all the elements opposed to them. Within the Derg itself, the contradictions sharpen and become concretised between the colonel Atnafu and Major Mengistu groups.

In fact, it is reported that the seven civil servants executed under the charge of leading the country into a bloodbath are pro-Atnafu elements. All are Gojjame Amharas, and Atnafu (who is from Gojjam himself) have been known to use regionalist sentiments to find backing for himself. Reports of other pro-Atnafu elements are also coming in.

The death of General Getachew Nadew seems to have been precipitated by his support to the demand of soldiers in Eritrea who refused to fight and called on the Derg to find a peaceful solution. In fact, the general had brought such a message to Addis Abeba prior to his execution. Though politically a rightist, he was claiming to support the soldiers' demands. As to the other seven who were executed on charges of economic sabotage (for having kilos of red pepper) were added to the list of execution for colour. Some of them were mere guards of stores, one was an old man who rented a store to a merchant, one other was the son of a merchant who had escaped. These people, whom the Derg presented as rich traders were so rich that a collection of funds has been initiated at the Mosque in the market area for their bereaved and destitute families! The person executed for “selling state secrets” was an unemployed who had earlier been demoted (from Major) and expelled from the Army by the Haile Sellasie regime for no other reason than for having sold secrets if the state to a foreign country!

Considering the frequent executions that the Derg carries out from time to time (openly and in secrets), it may seem justified to think that it consults a witchdoctor who advices it to engage in such a practice to exorcise all problems! However, these executions are dramatic affirmations of the intense problems that the Derg faces. It is gripped with a developing mass struggle that in turn fuels and accentuates the internal contradictions of the Derg itself. Sisaye's execution may give space to Major Mengistu but is a poisoned atmosphere. The latitude of manoeuver is restricted by the masses who have entered the political scene with conviction and unity since February 1974 and are NOT at all disposed to assume secondary roles. The mounting repression against the masses show that the Derg's so-called programme has failed, it means that its alliance with the traitorous intellectuals led by Haile Fida has not brought it any solace. It means that we shall witness more executions in the near future as a result of the internal power struggle of the Derg.

Unlike the reformists, we do not have worries or nightmares speculating as to whether it will be the body of Major Mengistu or that of colonel Atnafu that will be riddled with bullets. We shall continue the struggle against the whole fascist batch and imperialism. If we have anything to add to this it is to caution the progressive world about the practice of the junta of killing known reactionaries together with revolutionaries and labelling the whole of them as “counter revolutionaries.” In november 1974 (when it executed feudalists along with more than six democratic soldiers and officers) when it executed Tadesse Birru and student leader Melese Tekle, recently in Agare when it killed militant Zematch student along with feudalists, the junta has shown its sly manoeuvre to cover up its anti-revolutionary actions and dupe the international progressive forces. Such forces, who should expose and attack the repressive junta, need to remain vigilant.

— End of original articles —


Sisaye or Sisay is Major Sisaye Habte, who was referred to in a previous post.

Haile Fida was the leader of the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement, or Meison, which we have discussed here at great length. Long active in the Ethiopian Student Movement in Europe, he returned to Ethiopia after the 1974 revolution, opened a left book shop, and began to act as a political adviser to left-leaning members of the Derg; he was a renowned Oromo linguist. Meison joined the Derg's POMOA, and became instrumental in guiding the repression of EPRP. When Meison fell out of official favor in 1977, Haile Fida went underground. He was captured and executed by the Derg in 1978.

Colonel Atnafu Abate was Vice Chairman of the ruling junta, the PMAC, with Mengistu Hailemariam. He has been briefly discussed in previous posts. At this juncture, 1976, the PMAC was led by non Derg-member General Teferi Bente. Teferi was to be killed in early 1977 when Mengistu seized control of the government. As predicted here, Atnafu and Mengistu eventually came to blows: Atnafu was killed by Mengistu later in 1977.

Tadesse Birru was an Oromo nationalist, a General in the Ethiopian Army under Haile Selassie. He was imprisoned by both the Emperor and the Derg for his activities, and executed in 1975.


One of the major revisionist narratives of post-revolutionary Ethiopian history is that the EPRP initiated the violence that ultimately consumed its urban strength and leadership, and therefore bears the brunt of responsibility for the massive bloodletting that was shortly to follow. It's been pretty clear to me from the course of my research that while EPRP may be accused of escalating the violence, or of unwisely pursuing an unwinnable urban guerrilla strategy, the EPRP was absolutely responding to the Derg's consistent use of brute force to inflict its will. These articles, published in advance of the EPRP's decisions to commence military action against the Derg and to violently retaliate against the pro-Derg civilian leftists like Haile Fida's Meison — who seemed, by the way, to have been more than instrumental in picking out targets for government repression — clearly document an already extant pattern of lethal the Derg, not the EPRP.

The political assassinations had actually commenced in November of 1974 when the Derg executed dozens of officials from the previous governments and the ranks of the nobility, adding in a few of its own members for good measure. Setting aside the ongoing military conflicts in Eritrea and the various localized peasant and national minority uprisings that continued to background the first few years of the revolution, the military regime showed an understanding of the utility of violence. The EPRP members executed along with the others in July 1976 were not the first EPRP members to be killed by the Derg, and they certainly wouldn't be the last.

What these articles also document, is that the military government was itself riven with internal conflict, and violence was a way of resolving those internal contradictions with a certain finality. Ironically it was to be a war with external enemies, the Ogaden war of 1977–78, that would ultimately swing the balance of popular support in the Derg's favor, and suppress for at least a while internal dissent within the regime.

Ethiopian red peppers..the motive
force of revolution?
Here's a fascinating sidebar to the story that Abyot reports. (Well, fascinating to me anyway because I am the world's biggest fan of hot pepper!) In researching the events described in these articles, I came across an article from the New York Times which reported on the execution of General Getachew and went on to describe the role of red pepper, alluded to by Abyot, in the Derg's summer 1976 repression. The article was written by Michael T. Kaufman, and entitled “Ethiopian Regime Puts 18 to Death, Charges Plotting.” It was published on July 14, 1976. Here's an excerpt:
“The refugees, mostly university students who fled what they described as harassment and repression by the military, rulers, say that the execution of some persons charged with the hoarding of red pepper underscores the council's inability to arrange effective food distribution to the urban centers despite one of the most bountiful crops in Ethiopian history.

Peasants in such fiercely independent regions as Gojam are reportedly refusing to harvest fields except for their own needs as a way of protest against what they view as Government interference with traditional cultural and religious practices.

The refugees say that in the last three months an underground group, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party has managed through unions and commercial organizations to get control over the sale and distribution of red pepper, a key ingredient in the preparation of the Ethiopian national dish, watandnjeri, a spicy, curry‐like stew.

The refugees say that the clandestine party had organized the distribution of pepper to villages but had withheld it from the army. They believe that the announced executions of the hoarders was a council attempt to quash the protest.”
The Abyot articles mention the Derg's relationship with the United States. I also checked in with Wikileaks for how these events were seen from the viewpoint of the US Embassy. An Embassy cable from July 23, 1976 reads in part:

The embassy cables go on to speculate at great length about ethnic conflict within the Derg.

There was clearly some massive mutual ambivalence between US imperialism and the Derg. Nominally, relations were good: some time around this period the US and the Derg agreed to a massive arms deal, which in the event conveniently failed to be consummated before the Derg's 1977 turn to the USSR. Oddly I think the US embassy's general observations bely the EPRP's suggestion that the Derg was a “neo-colonial” regime. While the US embassy was obviously always looking for evidence of communist meddling, their attitude to the military regime is pretty clearly advanced apprehension: they don't talk about the Derg like it was some American creature, a suggestion that historical evidence certainly doesn't validate. Anyway the cables continue to be fascinating reading.

The Ethiopian revolution was about to take a drastic turn. Popular support for EPRP was certainly at a high watermark. Unfortunately, Abyot's predictions about future violence was to be more accurately prescient than its revolutionary optimism about the instability of the Derg and its faltering popular support.