The Economist on Mengistu Hailemariam
Haile Mariam Mengistu was a popular army officer who was installed as ruler of Ethiopia following the country’s 1974 revolution. He remained in power for the next seventeen years, and his attempt to mold the country into a Soviet-style socialist paradise plunged it into a brutal reign of terror instead. Ethiopia’s government-sanctioned campaign of political repression resulted in an estimated 150,000 deaths, and Mengistu became known as “the Butcher of Addis Ababa” for it. Fifteen years after his 1991 flight into exile, he was tried in absentia and found guilty of genocide. He remains in Zimbabwe, in a walled compound, but the legacy of his long and bloody rule was to destabilize the Horn of Africa and reshape the borders of its countries through the armed rebel groups that worked to unseat him.
Mengistu’s background and childhood have been the topic of rumor and even myths connecting him to Ethiopia’s royal bloodline, but actual information on his family and upbringing is scarce. Darker-skinned blacks like himself, however, had long been discriminated against by Ethiopia’s elite, and this prejudice may have been the basis for some of his later punitive acts as leader. He was born in 1937 in Walayta, a district in the southern part of Ethiopia, and his father was a soldier in the Ethiopian army. His mother, a domestic, may have brought him to live with her in a well-connected household in Addis Ababa, the capital, where she had taken a job. As a young man, Mengistu enlisted in the Ethiopian army, then trained at the Holeta Military Academy. He graduated in 1966 with the rank of second lieutenant, and in the late 1960s he was one of four thousand Ethiopia military personnel sent to the United States for advanced military training.
After returning to Ethiopia, Mengistu rose quickly through the army’s ranks, becoming a major by 1974. During the summer of that year, however, growing internal dissatisfaction began to destabilize Ethiopia. Since 1916 the country had been under the control of Emperor Haile Selassie, who styled himself as a god on earth and doled out favors and resources to a select group of nobles. For generations before Selassie, however, Ethiopia had been plagued by periodic draughts, and its arable land was a lone, precious resource. By the time of Mengistu’s childhood, nearly all the land in Ethiopia was owned by nobles, while peasants toiled on these estates in conditions approximating slavery