In December 2006, Ethiopia’s former leader Mengistu Haile Mariam was convicted in absentia for “war crimes” after a 12-year show trial spearheaded by the current pro-imperialist government. He was sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 11.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, was the driving force behind the trial. He put Mengistu on trial along with 106


Mengistu Haile Mariam

additional former officers of the Derg. The Derg was another name for the Provisional Military Administrative Council, a group of Ethiopian military soldiers and low-ranking officers that overthrew the government of the monarch, Haile Selassie.

Mengistu and the other Derg officers were tried for their participation in the “Red Terror” of the late 1970s. Zenawi’s government accused Mengistu and his supporters of killing thousands of people. But these crude, anti-communist lies slander the policies actually pursued by the Derg-led government of Ethiopia.

Mengistu currently lives in exile in Zimbabwe. Its anti-imperialist leader, Robert Mugabe, has said that Mengistu will not be extradited to Ethiopia. A spokesperson for Mugabe told the Ethiopian weekly The Reporter that, “As a comrade of our struggle [against white colonial rule in former Rhodesia], Comrade Mengistu and his government played a key and commendable role during our struggle for independence and no one can dispute that.”

Revolutionary Ethiopia 

In Ethiopia, 1972-73 were years of severe drought and famine. Hundreds of thousands died. The ruling monarchy headed by imperialist puppet Selassie did little to resolve the crisis. Property relations were feudal and the landowners held supreme power.

Despite imperialist and religious propaganda that attempts to deify Selassie, workers, peasants and significant sectors of the middle class were oppressed, exploited and forced to toil in poverty under his rule. Ethiopia was also engulfed in a civil war with separatists in Eritrea.

During Selassie’s reign, Ethiopia’s life expectancy was only 38 years, and 90 percent of the country was illiterate. There was a narrow strata that constituted the privileged upper classes.

The famine and war created a deepening crisis for the Ethiopian government. In 1974, following a wave of strikes and other mass actions, Selassie was deposed by the communist-inspired Derg.

The Derg introduced broad and profound social revolution to the workers and peasants of Ethiopia.

The first act of the Derg government was to smash feudalism by expropriating without compensation all land over 25 acres and turning it over to the peasants. The peasants then worked the land either on cooperative farms or on small personal plots. Even on the personal plots, neighbors pooled their harvests.

The Derg quickly declared its goal was to establish a Marxist-Leninist state in Ethiopia. But Ethiopia’s economy remained highly underdeveloped because of centuries of colonialism and neocolonial rule. So the Derg declared that the task of the government and the people was to complete the national bourgeois democratic revolution to eliminate the vestiges of feudalism.

Facing imperialist opposition, but aided by the socialist bloc and Cuba, the Ethiopian revolution was able to quickly accomplish many important things. All land and most enterprises were nationalized, and there was a countrywide campaign to improve the status of women.

The Derg government also organized hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants into associations to defend nationalized property against active counter-revolutionary currents in society. The government recognized that only the vast majority of the Ethiopian people could move the revolution forward.

‘Red Terror’ fact and fiction

The Ethiopian revolutionary forces, led by Mengistu, did employ violence to counter the violence unleashed by the forces of counter-revolution and in order to defend and extend the revolution. Marxists recognize that the employment of force and violence is the inevitable consequence of the class struggle in the highest phase of confrontation in the revolutionary process. Both sides employ force in defensive and offensive operations.

The bourgeois press paints revolutionary violence as excessive and horrific. But this leaves out the reason why violence can be necessary—the ruling class never gives up its massive amount of wealth and class privilege without a fight. So, even after the Ethiopian revolutionaries triumphed, the imperialists and their counter-revolutionary proxies continued to organize and overthrow the revolution. In this pursuit, the counter-revolutionaries in Ethiopia, as elsewhere, used untold violence and terror.  

Because of the intense imperialist pressure on the Ethiopian process, different political factions began to develop inside the Derg. One faction opposed Mengistu because they did not think building socialism in Ethiopia could succeed. Instead of principled opposition, these forces began to ally themselves objectively, and then outright, with the imperialists. They began attempting to disrupt the revolutionary process by attacking peasant farm collectives and factories, killing many workers and farmers.

In response, the pro-socialist Derg leaders rallied the Ethiopian people to defend the revolution. The country’s peasants’ associations, with 6 million members, raised a force of 500,000 to protect Ethiopia’s social gains. This army of the people was trained and armed by the Derg.

Additionally, every important factory and mass organization also raised a militia to defend their workplace.

It is this army and the people’s militias that are now dubbed the “Red Terror” by the imperialists and their lackeys, like Zenawi.

Contrary to what the capitalist press claims today, the “Red Terror” was not some repressive secret police force. Rather, it was the armed organizations of the Ethiopian people defending the gains of their revolution. Yes, they used force, sometimes necessary deadly force, all to prevent a return to the days of exploitation under Selassie.  

Zenawi’s hypocrisy

It should be no surprise that Meles Zenawi does not recognize the difference between genocide and revolutionary violence. He is a stooge of imperialism. Zenawi and his followers—armed and funded by U.S. imperialism and African client regimes, like Eritrea—overthrew the pro-socialist Derg government in 1991.

The many years of drought and famine under Selassie’s rule were difficult for the Derg to overcome, despite registering significant social and economic advances. The overthrow of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc also dealt the Derg a crushing blow. The government relied on the Soviet Union and its allies for critical funding and military support. By 1991, all that support was gone.

Mengistu was forced out of Ethiopia that year as Zenawi and his cronies ascended to power. Immediately, the Zenawi government reversed many of the Derg’s land reform policies and other progressive gains.

Since 1991, Zenawi’s rule has been marked by an authoritarian bent. Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned or killed, many of them Derg supporters. In June 2005, Zenawi’s police killed hundreds of anti-government protesters who demanded a voice in Ethiopia’s government.

In late December 2006, Zenawi oversaw the invasion of Somalia by the Ethiopian military. It was a proxy invasion initiated and directed by the United States to impose an unpopular puppet government on Somalia and displace a potentially anti-imperialist government in formation.

The actions of Zenawi and his government towards former Derg officials is no more than an attempt to rewrite history. The government wants to wipe away the achievements of Ethiopia’s revolutionary period. It also wants to divert attention away from the much-hated violent policies of the pro-imperialist Zenawi.

All revolutionaries and progressives should question claims of “genocide” and “senseless violence” when imperialists and their stooges use them against anti-imperialist governments or organizations. In the case of Ethiopia, the actions of the Mengistu government and the workers and peasants supporting it were taken to defend the pursuit of true equality.