Ethiopia: The Struggle for Power, 1974-77

Posted: February 19, 2008 in History
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The Struggle for Power, 1974-77

revolutionary_monument_extols_the_virtues_of_communism_ethiopia.jpg
Revolutionary monument extols the virtues of communism.
Courtesy Paul Henze

Although not a member of the Derg per se, General Aman had been associated with the Derg since July and had lent his good name to its efforts to reform the imperial regime. He was a well-known, popular commander and hero of a war against Somalia in the 1960s. In accordance with the Derg’s wishes, he now became head of state, chairman of the Council of Ministers, and minister of defense, in addition to being chairman of the PMAC. Despite his standing, however, General Aman was almost immediately at odds with a majority of the Derg’s members on three major issues: the size of the Derg and his role within it, the Eritrean insurgency, and the fate of political prisoners. Aman claimed that the 120- member Derg was too large and too unwieldy to function efficiently as a governing body; as an Eritrean, he urged reconciliation with the insurgents there; and he opposed the death penalty for former government and military officials who had been arrested since the revolution began.

The Derg immediately found itself under attack from civilian groups, especially student and labor groups who demanded the formation of a “people’s government” in which various national organizations would be represented. These demands found support in the Derg among a faction composed mostly of army engineers and air force officers. On October 7, the Derg arrested dissidents supporting the civilian demands. By mid-November, Aman, opposed by the majority of the Derg, was attempting unsuccessfully to appeal directly to the army for support as charges, many apparently fabricated, mounted against him within the Derg. He retired to his home and on November 23 was killed resisting arrest. The same evening of what became known as “Bloody Saturday,” fifty-nine political prisoners were executed. Among them were prominent civilians such as Aklilu and Endalkatchew, military officers such as Colonel Alem Zewd and General Abiye Abebe (the emperor’s son-in-law and defense minister under endalkatchew), and two Derg members who had supported Aman.

Following the events of Bloody Saturday, Brigadier General Tafari Banti, a Shewan, became chairman of the PMAC and head of state on November 28, but power was retained by Major Mengistu, who kept his post as first vice chairman of the PMAC, with Major Atnafu as second vice chairman. Mengistu hereafter emerged as the leading force in the Derg and took steps to protect and enlarge his power base. Preparations were made for a new offensive in Eritrea, and social and economic reform was addressed; the result was the promulgation on December 20 of the first socialist proclamation for Ethiopia.

In keeping with its declared socialist path, the Derg announced in March 1975 that all royal titles were revoked and that the proposed constitutional monarchy was to be abandoned. In August Haile Selassie died under questionable circumstances and was secretly buried. One of the last major links with the past was broken in February 1976, when the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Tewoflos, an imperial appointee, was deposed.

In April 1976, the Derg at last set forth its goals in greater detail in the Program for the National Democratic Revolution (PNDR). As announced by Mengistu, these objectives included progress toward socialism under the leadership of workers, peasants, the petite bourgeoisie, and all antifeudal and anti-imperialist forces. The Derg’s ultimate aim was the creation of a one-party system. To accomplish its goals, the Derg established an intermediary organ called the Provisional Office for Mass Organization Affairs (POMOA). Designed to act as a civilian political bureau, POMOA was at first in the hands of the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (whose Amharic acronym was MEISON), headed by Haile Fida, the Derg’s chief political adviser. Haile Fida, as opposed to other leftists who had formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), had resourcefully adopted the tactic of working with the military in the expectation of directing the revolution from within (see Political Participation and Repression, ch. 4)

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