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History, The Mengistu Regime

EPRP, EPLF, new Ethiopia, urban guerrilla warfare, Ethiopian army

In February 1974 students, workers, and soldiers began a series of strikes and demonstrations that culminated on September 12, 1974, with the deposition of Haile Selassie by members of the armed forces. Chief among the coup leaders was Major Mengistu Haile Mariam. A group called the Provisional Military Administrative Council, known as the Derg, was established to run the country, with Mengistu serving as chairman. In late 1974 the Derg issued a program for the establishment of a state-controlled socialist economy. In early 1975 all agricultural land in Ethiopia was nationalized, with much of it then parceled out in small plots to individuals. In March 1975 the monarchy was abolished, and Ethiopia became a republic.

The overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the republic ushered in a new era of political openness. Ethnic groups that were brought into Ethiopia in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Oromo, Afars, Somali, and Eritreans, stepped up their demands for self-determination. Several of these groups even questioned the legitimacy of the Ethiopian state and created guerrilla forces to fight for independence. With the liberalization of politics, various ideologically based political organizations formed, each with its own view as to the preferred character of a new Ethiopia. Rather than allow democratic elections, the military regime attempted to co-opt potential opponents, giving the most significant political organizations representation in a deliberative body, the Politbureau.

By 1975 it was clear that Mengistu intended to consolidate his hold on power. This led to criticism from the civilian left, particularly after several top leaders of the Derg were killed in early 1977, reportedly on Mengistu’s orders. Chief among opponents was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which by the beginning of 1977 had launched a systematic campaign to undermine the military regime. The EPRP conducted urban guerrilla warfare against the regime, referred to as the “White Terror.” The government responded with its own “Red Terror” campaign. The government provided peasants, workers, public officials, and students considered loyal to the government with arms to help government security forces root out so-called enemies of the revolution. Between 1977 and 1978 an estimated 100,000 people suspected of being enemies of the government were killed or disappeared in the name of the Red Terror.

Increasing human rights violations led to tensions between Ethiopia and the United States (Ethiopia’s superpower ally of more than 20 years), culminating in a complete break in relations in 1977. The regime was weakened by the withdrawal of military aid, and opponents of the regime gained control of vast amounts of rural territory and destabilized life in the cities. By the summer of 1977 the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) controlled all but the major cities in the province of Eritrea; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), supported by the EPLF, had successfully captured significant territory in the Tigray region; and Somali separatists, aided by the national army of Somalia, had completely routed the Ethiopian army in the Ogaden region. However, by early 1978 the Mengistu regime had managed to secure military assistance from the USSR and Cuba, enabling it to regain control of lost territories and drive its opponents underground.

Following this success, Mengistu attempted to win popular support for his regime. He created the Worker’s Party of Ethiopia (WPE) in 1984 as Ethiopia’s official Marxist-Leninist party and prepared a new constitution to make Ethiopia a Marxist-Leninist people’s republic. In 1987 the new constitution was proclaimed and the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia declared, modeled after the Soviet system of government. Nominally a system of civilian rule, the new constitution abolished the Derg and established a new, popularly elected national assembly. Former Derg members remained in control, however, and the new assembly elected Mengistu as president of Ethiopia.

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