Ethiopian Treasures

The Derg (1974-1991)

Immediatley after Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown; in September 1974, a Military Committee (known as the Derg) was established from several divisions of the Ethiopian Armed forces. General Aman Amdon was elected as spokesperson for the Derg and implemented policies for the country, which included land distribution to peasants, nationalising industries and services under public ownership and led Ethiopia into the Socialism. The Derg was credited for these policies which at first gained mass support across the country.

Initially the Derg was popular following the coup against Haile Selassie who came to power under the slogan of "Ethiopia First", "Land to the peasants" and "Democracy and Equality to all". The Derg became deeply unpopular due to ill sought out policies and mass executions, which sent a shock wave across the country. The Eritrean conflict, Somalis invasion of Ogaden and other issues surfaced. In particular, General Aman disagreed with the policy on how to deal with the Eritrean crisis, as he wanted to solve the Eritrean conflict peacefully. He was put under house arrest by the Derg and executed two months later along with other high ranking officers and civil servants. Brigadier-General Teferi Benti was then elected by the Derg to lead the country.

However, the unpopularity of the Derg deepened. Opposition parties and Many ordinary Ethiopians became the victims of the Derg. Thousands of Ethiopians fled the country to neighbouring countries, Europe and North America. Many Ethiopians joined the opposition parties such as Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Party (EPRP), Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front (EPLF), Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU, lead by Prince Mengesha of Tigray, son-in-law of Haile Selassie) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

An internal struggle for power took place within the Derg; then the unknown figure, Mengistu Hailemariam, eventually emerged as an undisputed and ruthless leader. He executed Brigadier-General Teferi Benti and other high ranking officers and became the leader of the Derg. Mengistu adopted a Stalinist policy and declared the "Red Terror" (mass execution) in 1977. Ethiopia entered a new phase of chaos and a state of civil war in Eritrea and Tigray. The TPLF, EPRP, EPLF, EDU and OLF opposed and engaged in armed struggle to overthrow the Derg. Mengistu gave a free hand to his political cadres to carry out his policy. Thousands of students, teachers, workers and ordinary Ethiopians who were suspected of supporting opposition parties were imprisoned without charge, tortured and executed. This happened randomly across the country and bodies were left for up to three days on the streets, in front of public building, schools, universities in order to scare others into not to supporting opposition groups. Even the parents and relatives of victims were not allowed to mourn or collect the body of the victims and bury their loved ones. The government officials were only allowed to bury all the victims in unknown mass graves during the night.

In 1977, Somalia invaded Ethiopia and occupied Ogaden and its forces advanced to Harar. Western governments' politics played into and contributed towards the Somalia and Ethiopia conflict. The USA had abandoned Ethiopia when it adopted Marxist and Leninist ideology and switched its support to Somalia. Mengistu was desperate at the time; the Soviet Union once a partner of the Somalis changed their support from Somalia to Ethiopia. Mengistu received military and logistic support from the Soviet Union and Cuba. Thousands of Cuban and Russian personnel and armed forces came to the aid of the Mengistu regime and were involved in military planning and fighting against Somalia. Later they were involved in planning and fighting against the TPLF and EPLF in the north of the country.

War broke out between the EPRP and TPLE in Eastern Tigray. The TPLE drove the EPRP out of Tigray. The TPLF also drove the EDU out of the Western part of Tigray. The TPLF popularity grew and they became a major threat to the Mengistu regime. Mengistu retaliated by putting many Tigrayans in prison without charge. Many were tortured and executed in a cold blood.

The famine in 1984/5 was not helped by the Derg regime's politics, which contributed towards it and it was the worst in living memory. The Mengistu government imposed a restriction of movement on goods and aid to the famine affected regions. Hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation due to the Mengistu regime refused to allow aid to be transported to the regions affected by the famine, which were controlled by the rebels.

Instead, the Mengistu regime devised and implemented a policy of resettlement in the famine affected regions as a cover, to prevent people from supporting the rebels' causes. The government thought this might weaken the rebels and stop them getting the support of the people who live in the areas controlled by the rebels. The Mengistu regime carried out the resettlement programme by taking people by force from markets and their home and loading them to buses and lorries and transporting them to swampy areas ridden with malaria in the south and west of the country. As a result of the resettlement programme, many people died on their journey and on arrival because of the inadequate help from the government. Many families were separated from their loved ones and many people returned back home illegally.

The resettlement programme was a disaster; nobody volunteered to go but people were forced to resettle in unknown and inhospitable areas. The TPLF used the plight of the people and the resettlement policy to help its cause, and the TPLF popularity grew immensely. Many people chose to join the TPLF cause rather than being forced to resettle in an area they were not familiar with.

In September 1987, The Mengistu regime proclaimed Ethiopia as the Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Republic and the Derg became the Ethiopian Workers party (EWP). In the same year, the Amhara opposition group was known as the Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (EPDM) was formed and EPDM became a key ally of the TPLF. In 1989, TPLF and EPDM formed a coalition under the name Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Meles Zenawi Became a chairman for both TPLF and EPRDF. Under the leadership of Meles, large parts of Tigray, Wallo and Gonder fell to EPRDF. It then became clear that the Ethiopian army was not capable of defeating TPLF and its allies. The Mengistu regime requested Russian and Cuban military support to fight against EPRDF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

The coalition of TPLF and EPDM were victorious and took control of the whole Tigray, Wollo, and Gonder Regions and they then advanced on Addis Ababa. Meanwhile the EPLF in Eritrea took control of the major cities and began to advance to Asmara and Assab. The Mengistu government army was in completely disarrayed and defeated on every battle front.

In 1991, the EPRDF overthrew the Mengistu regime. Mengistu and other high ranking officials fled the country and many other officials were imprisoned and stood on trial accused of mass murder. The EPRDF took control of the government and led by Meles Zenawi.

In April 1993, a referendum took place in Eritrea and the Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence. Eritrea separated from Ethiopia and became an independent state, even though many Ethiopians did not support the Eritrean referendum.

In 1995, Ethiopia became a federation divided into 10 administrative regions based on ethnic lines. Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromo Libration Front (OLF) did not accept the EPRDF government and continued to fight against Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn governments.


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