Political Participation and Repression

The period immediately following the overthrow of Haile Selassie was a time of open political debate. The new regime did not have a clearly defined ideology, but it was swept along by the growing radical discourse among members of the civilian left. Initially, the Derg tried to win the support of the Ethiopian left by declaring its socialist intentions in its program statement, Ethiopia Tikdem (Ethiopia First). The economic and social policies articulated in this document were populist in tone and did little to co-opt the civilian left.

Once it became clear that the Derg had assigned to itself the vanguard role in the revolution, elements in the civilian left began to criticize the new regime. Chief among such critics was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). By 1976 the EPRP had become engaged in a systematic campaign to undermine and discredit the Derg. The party was successful in infiltrating the zemecha, the CELU, and even the Provisional Office for Mass Organizational Affairs (POMOA), the precursor to the Yekatit ’66 Ideological School. At the height of its activities, the EPRP included students, intellectuals, teachers, merchants, and government bureaucrats. It even had sympathizers within the military.

During the late 1970s, apart from the military, the Derg relied for support on the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (whose Amharic acronym was MEISON). Rather than challenge the vanguard role of the military, MEISON entered into a strategic alliance with the Derg, accepting its hegemony at least for the short term. In the highly charged political climate of the moment, MEISON engaged in vigorous debate with the EPRP over the most appropriate strategy for reconstructing Ethiopian society. The debate between the two groups first took place in their organizations’ newspapers and in pamphlets but later moved to the streets in the form of bloody assassination and counterassassination campaigns. The differences between MEISON and the EPRP were fundamental. The EPRP pressed uncompromisingly for a genuine “people’s democracy,” whereas MEISON favored “controlled democracy” and was prepared to give the Derg some time to return to the barracks.

The friction between the two groups inspired the Derg to become more radical in its ideology and public policies. The regime determined that to survive it would have to alter its program and co-opt or destroy its civilian opponents. It pursued both goals simultaneously by setting up three organizations: the PNDR, the Yekatit ’66 Ideological School, and a political advisory body called the Politburo (not to be confused with the Political Bureau of the WPE).

The Derg seemed hesitant to permit free and open political competition, although it attempted to create the impression of openness by allowing political groups to operate in a limited fashion. Organizations resembling political parties were not allowed to organize on a mass basis, but they could participate in politics through representation on the Politburo; in fact, both the EPRP and MEISON were represented on the Politburo. Also represented were Abyot Seded (Revolutionary Flame), founded in 1976 by members of the armed forces and led by Mengistu himself; the Waz (Labor) League, which claimed a working-class base and shared the EPRP’s radical populist tendencies; and the Revolutionary Struggle of the Ethiopian Masses (whose Amharic acronym was ECHAAT), a largely Oromo political organization. The Politburo provided a forum where the differences among the various political groupings could be clarified and where the Derg could monitor the tendencies of its opponents.

By late 1976, MEISON had become the most influential civilian group on the Politburo. However, the growing power of Abyot Seded was also evident, as it challenged MEISON and the EPRP within the Politburo and in grass-roots institutions such as kebeles and peasant associations. To counter this threat, the Derg began to prepare Abyot Seded to assume the role of chief adviser on ideological, political, and organizational matters. The aim seems to have been the creation of a cadre of Abyot Seded members with sufficient ideological sophistication to neutralize all civilian opponents, including MEISON. Abyot Seded members received ideological training in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Cuba. On their return, they were assigned the task of politicizing the rank and file of the military.

The EPRP’s efforts to discredit and undermine the Derg and its MEISON collaborators escalated in the fall of 1976. It targeted public buildings and other symbols of state authority for bombings and assassinated numerous Abyot Seded and MEISON members, as well as public officials at all levels. The Derg, which countered with its own Red Terror campaign, labeled the EPRP’s tactics the White Terror. Mengistu asserted that all “progressives” were given “freedom of action” in helping root out the revolution’s enemies, and his wrath was particularly directed toward the EPRP. Peasants, workers, public officials, and even students thought to be loyal to the Mengistu regime were provided with arms to accomplish this task.

Mengistu’s decision resulted in fratricidal chaos. Many civilians he armed were EPRP sympathizers rather than supporters of MEISON or the Derg. Between early 1977 and late 1978, roughly 5,000 people were killed. In the process, the Derg became estranged from civilian groups, including MEISON. By early 1979, Abyot Seded stood alone as the only officially recognized political organization; the others were branded enemies of the revolution. Growing human rights violations prompted the United States, Ethiopia’s superpower patron, to counsel moderation. However, the Derg continued to use extreme measures against its real and perceived opponents to ensure its survival.

When he assumed office in early 1977, United States president Jimmy Carter curtailed arms sales to Ethiopia because of its human rights abuses. In response, Mengistu severely curtailed relations with the United States, ordering all United States military personnel and most embassy staff to leave the country. In search of an alternate source of military aid, Mengistu eventually turned to the Soviet Union. However, before the Soviet Union and its allies could establish an effective presence in Ethiopia, opposition groups stepped up their campaigns against the Derg.

In addition to the urban guerrilla warfare being waged by the EPRP, nationalist movements such as the EPLF, the OLF, the TPLF, and the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) also stepped up their military campaigns in the countryside. By the end of 1976, the Eritreans had made substantial gains in rural areas, forcing Ethiopian troops into garrisons and urban centers in Eritrea. Meanwhile, armed groups such as the OLF and the TPLF were severely testing the regime, and in 1977 the WSLF, with the assistance of Somali troops, occupied most of the Ogaden. The Ethiopian government, however, with aid from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Eastern Europe, reasserted its authority over contested areas by the following spring (see External and Internal Opponents, ch. 5).

Once it had reestablished control, the Derg resumed the creation of institutions that would enhance its political hegemony and legitimacy. After having almost met its demise, the Derg decided to form a vanguard party. In June 1978, the Derg announced that Abyot Seded would be joined with the factional remnants of the Waz League and the MarxistLeninist Revolutionary Organization (whose Amharic acronym was MALERED), a small splinter group of MEISON, in the allembracing Union of Ethiopian Marxist-Leninist Organizations (whose Amharic acronym was EMALEDEH). The task of the front was to identify strategies for the creation of a vanguard party. The following year, Mengistu announced that he would form a commission to develop a framework for the longawaited vanguard party.

By 1978 all civilian opposition groups had been destroyed or forced underground. The EPRP had been driven out of the cities and into the mountains of the central highlands, where it tried unsuccessfully to develop the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Army (EPRA). The OLF had been driven into refugee camps in Sudan and Somalia; the WSLF had sought refuge in Somalia; the TPLF and the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU), a group of former nobility and officials of the Haile Selassie government, had been pushed into Sudan; and the EPLF had been forced back into its strongholds along the Sudanese border. The task then facing the Derg was to establish its popular legitimacy among the various ethnic communities opposed to its rule. The most vigorous opposition came from the EPLF and the TPLF. The OLF, the EPRP, and the Afar Liberation Front (ALF) were experiencing revivals but had yet to become militarily effective.


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