In 1974, the tottering regime of 82-year-old Emperor Haile Selassie, which had been overthrown by Mussolini in 1936 and restored by the Allies in 1941, collapsed under the pressure of the Wollo famine, rising energy prices, and student riots.
A military committee called the Derg seized power and overthrew the Ethiopian monarchy. Over the next three years, the Derg proclaimed the advent of Ethiopian socialism and nationalized all the banks and insurance companies in Ethiopia, followed by all industrial and commercial companies, and finally all rural and urban land and urban houses and apartments.
In 1976, Mengistu Haile Mariam appeared on radio and television to announce that Marxist-Leninism had become Ethiopia’s official ideology. In typical Marxist fashion, Mengistu progressively eliminated his rivals in the Derg and launched a series of purges to consolidate power and destroy all opposition to his regime.
The Black Undertow of the urban ghettos was organized into “neighborhood defense squads” called “kebeles” and was armed with the “revolutionary sword” to spread “Red Terror” into the camp of the reactionaries.
During the Ethiopian Red Terror, 10,000 to 20,000 “counter-revolutionary” students, teachers, and intellectuals – most of whom were Marxists who had supported the collectivization of agriculture – were rounded up and executed. The corpses of thousands of children were publicly displayed in the streets of Addis Ababa attached with signs that labeled them “oppositionists.”
The Ethiopian Civil War broke out when the Derg seized power in 1974 and raged until 1991 when Mengistu was finally driven out of power. Eritreans in the north were fighting the Eritrean War of Independence. Somalia invaded the Ogaden in southeast Ethiopia to annex their kinsmen to “Greater Somalia.” Tigray secessionists in the north also attempted to breakaway from the Mengitsu regime.
Ethiopia under Mengistu aligned itself with the Soviet Union and became the most important communist satellite in Africa. A friendship treaty between Ethiopia and the Soviet Union was signed in 1978.
Massive assistance from the Soviet Union and Cuba followed including a Soviet airlift and sealift of tanks, aircraft, artillery, armored personnel carriers, a 17,000 strong Cuban fighting force, and up to 10,000 experts and specialists of various kinds from the Eastern bloc. The Somalis were crushed in the south and the Eritreans and Tigrays were pushed back in the north.
It was in the context of Mengistu’s nationalization and collectivization of agriculture, the shift to state farms in the south, the subordination of the peasantry to urban workers in the cities, and especially the civil war against the secessionists in Tigray and Eritrea – in which everything from mines to napalm to poison gas was used by the military against the rural insurgency – that the disastrous Great Ethiopian Famine of 1984 struck Northern Ethiopia.
Tens of thousands starving Ethiopian peasants descended upon Save The Children relief centers. The sensational images of starving black children were broadcast around the world and became one of the most memorable scenes of the 1980s. The West responded with over $1 billion dollars in relief assistance. Bono organized the Live Aid concert which became one of the most watched television events in history.
While the Great Ethiopian Famine of 1984 was striking Tigray and Wollo, Mengistu was more interested in spending $150 million dollars to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the Ethiopian Revolution. A “Great Hall of the People” was built on the Chinese model. With the help of North Korean engineers, triumphal arches with revolutionary slogans were constructed in Addis Ababa with gigantic red stars displaying the hammer and sickle. Huge posters of Marx, Lenin, and Mengistu were hung around the city.
The slogans around Addis Ababa included “Forward with the Revolutionary Leadership of Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam,” “The oppressed masses will be victorious,” “Marxism-Leninism is our guideline,” “Down with American imperialism” and “Temporary setbacks shall not deter us from our final objective of building communism.”
In between the Ethiopian Red Terror, the Ethiopian Civil War, and the Ethiopian Great Famine of 1984, 1 million to 1.5 million Ethiopians lost their lives under the “revolutionary leadership” of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
OD commemorates Black History Month 2012 by remembering the greatest disaster in Ethiopian history, not its brief conquest and occupation by Mussolini’s Italy in 1936, but the Red Terror of Comrade Mengitsu from 1974 to 1991 who used the “food weapon” against his political enemies.