Posted by: mmeazaw | May 10, 2011

African Dictators

Idi Amin Dada   

president of Uganda from 1971 until 1979

Idi Amin Dada

Idi Amin was president of Uganda from 1971 until 1979. A former boxer, Amin rose through the ranks of the Army in the 1960’s, and seized power in a military coup against Uganda’s first president, Milton Obote.
His reign was marked by brutal repression, torture and other violence. Bodies were found with genitals, noses, livers, and eyes missing. Prison camps began filling up with common citizens, where prisoners were forced to bludgeon each other to death with sledgehammers. Most sources suggest that around 300,000 people were killed by Amin’s forces.
Another 60,000 Kenyans of Asian descent were expelled from the country. In 1976, Amin declared himself president for life. Amin’s Uganda was highly militarized, with ‘Military tribunals placed above the system of civil law, soldiers appointed to top government posts, and civilian cabinet ministers informed that they will be subject to military discipline’.
Citing ‘ancient tribal ownership, Amin invaded Tanzania in 1978, in an apparent attempt to deflect world attention from Uganda’s impending economic collapse. This move failed, since Amins troops were routed by the Tanzanians, who forced him to flee to Saudi Arabia, where he still lives today, reportedly with the aid of a monthly payment of US $1,400 per month from Saudi officials. Amin left Uganda with an estimated debt of US $250 Million. Amin has been proclaimed as ‘Africa’s Adolph Hitler’.


Haile Selassie 1892–1975

Former Ethiopian emperor

The last Solomonik dynasty king

Haile Selasie

On June 30, 1936, a short, seemingly frail man wrapped in a long, black coat addressed the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. He was striking, with chiseled features, light brown skin, a curly black beard, and dark, deep-set, penetrating eyes. His rigid bearing and dignity, almost as much as his impassioned words, captured the attention of the assembled delegates.

Haile Selassie, exiled emperor of Ethiopia, denounced the then-recent invasion and conquest of his country by Italy, a precursor of the continued aggression that would lead to World War II. He demanded the League take concerted action against the Italians, warning, “It is a question of collective security; of the very existence of the League; of the trust placed by states in international treaties.… It is international morality that is at stake.” He prophetically stated, “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

Despite the failure of the League to act upon his appeal, Haile Selassie’s dramatic speech turned him into an international figure overnight. No longer was he just the obscure ruler of a little-known northeast African kingdom. Instead, he became recognized as a world leader and an acknowledged symbol of resistance to fascism—the dictatorial system of government that grew in various European nations during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

With British help, Ethiopia was liberated from the Italians in 1941 and Haile Selassie returned to rule for more than 30 years with the absolute power of a medieval king—holding court, dispensing gifts from a golden cashbox, and throwing coins to peasants on trips throughout his empire. Abroad, he was worshipped as a divine figure; in Jamaica, he is still considered by Rastafarians to be the spiritual leader of blacks worldwide.

As many African nations gained independence from European domination in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Haile Selassie stood out as an international statesman. His leadership in the subsequent Pan-African movement was rewarded when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) established its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. But growing social unrest, the continued poverty-stricken existence of most Ethiopians, and then a widespread famine led to his overthrow in 1974; he died the following year.

At a Glance…

Born Tafari Makonnen, July 23, 1892, in Ejarsa Goro, Harer province, Abyssinian Empire (later Ethiopia); died August 27, 1975, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; son of Ras Makonnen (governor of Harer province and chief adviser to Emperor Menelik II) and Yishimabet Ali; married Wayzaro Menen (name some times spelled Waizero Menin; great-granddaughter of Menelik II) in 1911; children: seven (six with his wife, one before his marriage). Education: Private European tutors. Religion: Coptic Christianity.

Commander of local militia, 1905; provincial governor of two progressively larger provinces, 1906-10, culminating in governorship of Harer province, 1910-16; aided overthrow of Ethiopia’s emperor, 1916, becoming prince, regent, and heir to the throne; negotiated Ethiopia’s membership in the league of Nations, 1923; toured European nations, 1924; named king, 1928; crowned emperor, 1930; defeated by invading Italian army, went into exile, then addressed League of Nations, 1936; returned to power, 1941; helped establish Organization of African Unity (OAU), 1963; overthrown by coup, 1974. Author of autobiography My life and Ethiopia’s Progress, l892-1937.

Haile Selassie was born in a round mud-and-wood hut near the ancient walled city of Harer in 1892, when Ethiopia was still known as the Abyssinian Empire. Named Tafari Makonnen, he was the tenth child born to Ras Makonnen, a prince (or ras) and. governor of the Harer province, and his wife, Yishimabet Ali; he was the only one of their eleven children to survive through adulthood.

Abyssinia was little changed through the centuries: a poor, proud, fiercely independent African empire with several religious groups—Christians, Muslims, Jews, and ani-mists—ruled by a constantly warring network of kings, princes, dukes, and lords. Tafari was an Amhara, the dominant ethnic group that had adopted Coptic Christianity in the year 325 AD. Coptics hold that Christ was solely divine, a belief later denounced as heretical by most of the Christian world except in Egypt and Ethiopia.

His father, Makonnen, was a cousin, confidant, and chief adviser to Emperor Menelik II, a shrewd and powerful ruler. After Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1895, Menelik’s army soundly defeated their forces at the battle of Adowa the following year, preventing the country from being colonized. Over the next few years, Menelik enlarged his empire, establishing Addis Ababa in the center of the kingdom as his capital. He began to centralize power and modernize the country, ending centuries of constant warfare.

When Tafari was 18 months old, his mother died giving birth to one of his siblings. Young Tafari grew up with a sound education in Abyssinian and Coptic traditions, and he was tutored in European thought and ideas by Father Andre Jarosseau, a French missionary priest. Such exposure to foreign ways and thinking was extremely rare for an African son. Tafari proved to be a model student— intelligent, hardworking, with an excellent memory and attention to the smallest detail—capacities that would serve him well throughout his life.

Recognizing his abilities, his father proclaimed him de-jazmatch (commander) of a local militia in 1905 at the age of 13, and established a separate household for him with his own servants and soldiers. Makonnen died the following year, entrusting Tafari to the care of Menelik II. The emperor summoned young Tafari to court and appointed him governor of a small province.

Reform and Intrigue

Tafari was a progressive administrator whose policies increased the power of the central government at the expense of the feudal nobility. He developed a salaried civil service, lowered taxes, and created a court system that extended legal rights to the peasantry. Promoted to a larger province in 1908, two years later he was made governor of Harer, just like his father. And in 1911, he married Wayzaro Menen, a great-granddaughter of Menelik. During the course of their marriage, they had six children, and they remained together until her death in 1961.

Menelik died in 1913 and his grandson, Lij Yasu, became emperor. But Yasu was seen as pro-Muslim, alienating Ethiopia’s Christian majority. Tafari became the rallying symbol for opposition noblemen and high church officials, who cunningly maneuvered Yasu’s overthrow in 1916. Zauditu, Menelik’s daughter, became empress, the first female to rule the nation of Ethiopia since the Queen of Sheba, while Tafari was named a prince (ras) as. well as regent and heir to the throne. Ras Tafari was interested in modernizing Ethiopia; Zauditu was conservative and more concerned with religion than politics. The two maintained an uneasy alliance as various rival factions of nobles vied for power.

The young prince proved to be the master of intrigue and survival. Gradually, he replaced conservative members of the Council of Ministers with his own pro-reform supporters. By 1919 he felt secure enough to begin his program of modernization by creating a centralized bureaucracy. Two years later, he established the first regular courts of law in the country. Ethiopia’s first printing press began operating in 1922, soon followed by the introduction of a regularly published newspaper, as well as motorcars, electric generators, telephone service, and a reformed prison and justice system.

International Recognition

Greater success awaited. Ras Tafari turned his attention to foreign affairs, gaining Ethiopia’s admission to the League of Nations in 1923. The following year, he visited France, Italy, Sweden, Greece, and England, garnering favorable recognition from the international press.

His trip coincided with the growing interest among North American blacks in rediscovering their cultural heritage. Seeing a noble, dignified African leader of an independent nation dealing as an equal with European rulers made an indelible impression. Jamaicans, in particular, were in awe, identifying him as the future king of blacks everywhere in the world. These idolizers, called Rastafarians, started a new religion in his honor that continues today.

Back home, Ras Tafari profited financially from his modernization program and international contacts by enacting a tax on all imports. He used his new fortune wisely, financing the foreign education of a new generation of future Ethiopian government ministers and buying the loyalty of the army. In 1928 his growing supporters demanded that Zauditu name him king. With only limited followers of her own, the empress agreed, appointing Tafari negus (king). Two years later, rebels allied with her attacked the capital but were defeated by Ethiopia’s armed forces. Two days after the battle, Zauditu died—some claimed from poison. Tafari was coronated as emperor, taking the name Haile Selassie ( “Power of the Trinity”), in a ceremony widely covered by the international press.

The new emperor enacted Ethiopia’s first constitution in 1931. It proclaimed all Ethiopians equal and united under one law and one emperor; it also created a two-chamber parliament with a popularly elected lower house, though the emperor retained the right to overthrow any parliamentary decision. Traditional church law was supplanted by the country’s first legal code, and all children born to slaves were eventually freed.

His continued efforts toward modernization and centralizing power were cut short in 1935. Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader, was eager to avenge his country’s 1895 defeat by Menelik and enhance his belligerent image. He dispatched a 250,000-man modern army equipped with superior weaponry, airplanes, and poison gas to invade and conquer Ethiopia. It was the first exhibition of the fascist aggression that would eventually lead to World War II. Defeated, Emperor Haile Selassie fled his country in 1936, appealing without success to the League of Nations for assistance before going into exile in England. Ethiopia had lost its independence for the first time in recorded history.

Once World War II began, a joint force of British soldiers and Ethiopian exiles recaptured Addis Ababa, restoring Haile Selassie to power in 1941. During the next decade he improved health care, enhanced transportation, increased foreign trade, expanded education, and created the country’s first college. But he made no attempt to reform the feudal agricultural system that maintained class distinctions and limited land ownership. Throughout the 1950s he extended his power in Ethiopia’s outlying provinces and maneuvered to annex its neighbor, the former Italian colony of Eritrea, to provide landlocked Ethiopia with a port on the Red Sea. Success finally came in 1962 when Eritrea became an Ethiopian province.

Haile Selassie celebrated his 25th year as emperor in 1955, using the occasion to present a revised constitution. Though it gave the appearance of liberalizing the political system and broadening the power of parliament, in reality all power still resided in the emperor and his one-party government. As proof, the country’s first general election in 1957 resulted in a parliament composed almost entirely of members of the landlord class. But the outward show of reform stimulated the desire of many for a taste of the real thing. When the emperor was visiting Brazil in 1960, dissidents backed by the Imperial Guard and students at the university seized control of Addis Ababa. They demanded a constitutional monarchy with genuine democracy, fundamental economic and agricultural reform, and a concerted effort to end the chronic poverty of most Ethiopians.

The coup failed and many of its leaders were publicly executed. But their demands pinpointed the growing dissatisfaction with Haile Selassie’s rule at home. The attempted overthrow also jolted his sense of security. From this point on, he began to side with Ethiopia’s conservative faction rather than its modernizers. No longer would he be a force for change within his own country.

Instead the emperor turned his attention to foreign affairs, partly to enhance his international status and partly to take his compatriots’ minds off the lack of domestic reforms. Instead of focusing on Europe as in the past, he concentrated on Africa, becoming a role model and elder statesman to many leaders of the newly independent African nations.

Haile Selassie became a leader in the Pan-African movement, stressing African unity to deal with common problems and concerns. He supported independence for former European colonies, condemned South Africa’s foreign and internal policy of racial segregation (apartheid), and sought to limit French nuclear tests in the Sahara. He also took a leading role in the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Having the organization establish its permanent headquarters in Addis Ababa further enhanced his international prestige.

More and more of Haile Selassie ‘s time was spent traveling in foreign countries and away from Ethiopia. He successfully mediated the border dispute between Morocco and Algeria in 1963 and then intervened on the side of Nigeria during its bloody civil war, which began in the late 1960s when Christians in the South broke away and formed a separate nation called Biafra. (Biafra later surrendered to federal troops.)

Unrest at Home

While he was being honored abroad, trouble was brewing at home. Islamic Eritrean rebels had begun a civil war in 1962, seeking their independence from Christian Ethiopia. The struggle would last into the 1980s. Neighboring Somalia demanded the return of the Ogaden region. That conflict, too, would escalate to warfare in 1977. The United States and Israel, fearful of an Islamic Eritrea and Somalia, supported Ethiopia with advisers and military aid. Meanwhile, demands by dissidents and students continued to escalate. The educated elite’s mounting frustration with the lack of jobs and democratic reforms in Ethiopia was fueled by economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and growing urban poverty. In December of 1969 a student protest turned violent; guards opened fire, killing 23 and wounding 157.

In 1973 a drought and crop failure caused a widespread famine. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians starved while the emperor reportedly denied the existence of any problem. Angry students aided foreign journalists to surreptitiously observe and then report on the desperate conditions. Western governments began to distance themselves from the fading emperor. At the same time, the Arab oil embargo quadrupled the price of oil, depleting the Ethiopian treasury and sending prices skyrocketing. The government responded with austerity measures; the frustrated populace countered with major demonstrations.

The next year, many of the army’s junior officers mutinied, forcing the emperor’s cabinet to resign. The successful mutineers formed a dergue (military junta or council) and began vying for total control of the government, accusing the emperor of embezzling millions and causing the famine. Finally, in September of 1974, 82-year-old Haile Selassie was arrested and taken away to prison. More than a half century of actual rule by the emperor had come to an end. He was never seen in public again and was reported to have died and been buried without ceremony the following year.

During the violent years after his overthrow, Ethiopia nearly disintegrated. Infighting among members of the dergue became deadly. Hundreds of former political leaders were executed. Major (later Colonel) Mengistu Haile Mariam took over and turned the country into a Marxist state. Thousands of internal political opponents were massacred. The wars with Eritrea and Somalia drained the budget and devastated the countryside. Combined with another drought and crop failure in 1983, millions of Ethiopians either starved or fled to refugee camps in the Sudan and Somalia.

Some of Mengistu’s internal opponents allied with Eritrean guerrillas in 1989 to topple his rule two years later. A semblance of peace descended on Ethiopia, though the ethnic and tribal conflicts unleashed during the 17-year military dictatorship still threatened to undo the kingdom that Haile Selassie had spent a lifetime creating.

The Legacy

When Haile Selassie took power as regent in 1916, Ethiopia had progressed little through the centuries. Though independent, it was dominated by feudal lords wielding nearly absolute power, ruling through archaic laws and traditions. He set about modernizing the country, abolishing ancient practices, promoting reform, and creating a powerful centralized government. Ethiopia was opened to the outside world and its emperor became recognized in international circles.

But Haile Selassie always ruled absolutely. As times changed and his citizens demanded more political freedom and democracy, he grew more conservative. At the same time, poverty and illiteracy were taking their toll on the Ethiopian people. Having lost touch with political reality, the emperor refused to surrender his power and was overthrown. However, despite his downfall, he continues to be remembered as “Lion of Judah, King of Kings, Elect of God”—and as a charismatic, near-mythic figure in Ethiopian politics for more than half a century.

Colonel MengistuHaile Mariam

Mengistu Haile Mariam

Mengistu Haile Mariam1

1st President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

Date of Birth: 1937
Place of Birth: Walayitta, Ethiopia

Career: Graduated from the Oletta Academy, 1966; Sent for advanced military training in America, 1966-71; instrumental, though in a minor position, in the coup against Haile Selassie, 1974; took control of the Derg, 1977; Chairman of the Derg and Head of State of Ethiopia, 1977-1987; President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 1987-1991; regime overthrown by TPLF forces in 1991; has lived in lavish exile in Zimbabwe since fleeing Ethiopia in 1991; found guilty in absentia of genocide in 2006 and sentenced to life imprisonment, 2007, this sentence was changed to the death penalty after an appeal, 2008

Mengistu Haile Mariam  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.

Famine Hastened Rise to Power

Unlike nearly every nation on the African continent, Ethiopia was unusual in that it was colonized only briefly, in the late 1930s, and by Italy—a somewhat lax overseer compared to Britain or France. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s formidable mountains had protected it from invasions for centuries, and it boasted one of the oldest national identities in the world. These factors converged to keep the country in near-feudal conditions until the early 1970s, when word of the achievements in the newly democratic nations of Africa began to filter in. Then, in 1972 draught and famine struck once again, this time in the Wollo province, and an estimated 150,000 people died from it. The catastrophe was covered up by the Selassie government, who was also suspected of withholding emergency food supplies to Wollo in efforts to squelch antigovernment rebels in the region. In light of these events, the political outlook of many young Ethiopians began to take a dangerous shift to the left, and Mengistu was among that group.

An impressive number of Mengistu’s colleagues in the army were also eager to see change and began taking action. In June of 1974 a Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army was established, and it became known by its shortened version in the Ge’ez language as the Derg. It was originally established as an internal-investigations unit to root out corruption but soon took on characteristics of a military junta. Its membership roster of roughly 126 officers was then closed to new members, and Mengistu was elected to chair it in July. The Derg began to seize foreign-held properties under a new nationalization policy called Ethiopia Tikdem (“Ethiopia First”), and it also moved to isolate Selassie and his government at the royal palace. The emperor agreed to sweeping concessions demanded by the Derg, but the end of the monarchy was near. In September Selassie was formally deposed. Less than a year later, it was announced that the former emperor had died during prostate surgery.

The overthrow of the Selassie government was a popular uprising until November of 1974, when sixty members of the imperial government were executed. From that point forward, Mengistu and the Derg controlled Ethiopia, and antigovernment sentiment was deemed counterrevolutionary and punishable by prison or death. Newly allied with the Soviet Union, the Derg began implementing a sweeping reform program carried out under Marxist-Leninist principles. The estates of the landowning class were seized, and the land was redistributed to peasants. All major industries were nationalized, and the country’s college- or foreign-educated management class were stripped of their perks and property and, in some cases, were jailed or died in custody; others fled the country permanently. “That left nobody who could run anything,” a report in the Economist explained years later. “Soviet ministries were ordered to fill the gaps, and sent their discards. Ethiopia became a punishment station for rejects from one the world’s most incompetent bureaucracies.”

Red Terror Launched

Mengistu remained in charge as head of the Derg, but he seized power more firmly in February of 1977, when he became commander in chief of the Ethiopian armed forces. Two months later, he spoke at a rally and promised that all enemies of Ethiopia’s historic revolution would be brought to justice, and he smashed bottles that he claimed were filled with blood to emphasize his point. The Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977-78 began with that speech, and hundreds of suspected enemies of the regime were arrested, detained without trial, tortured, and even killed. The victims were primarily university students and bureaucrats who had voiced dissatisfaction with the pace or tenor of Mengistu’s Soviet-style revolution. Some elements of the Red Terror were borrowed from Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution in China that began a decade earlier, following a well-defined plan of action to find, punish, and reverse what was deemed bourgeois—and therefore counterrevolutionary—thought.

Some estimates place the number of Red Terror deaths as high as half a million. Scores more fled the country, some settling in other Horn of Africa nations and others establishing the first serious communities of Ethiopians in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Inside Ethiopia, as well as in Somalia, Sudan, and other neighboring countries, Mengistu’s opponents joined various armed groups established to fight the Derg and its harsh rule, but these groups had competing ideologies and goals that ranged from continuing the socialist revolution to restoring the monarchy. A secessionist movement in Ethiopia’s region of Eritrea, which had begun long before Mengistu came to power, was also problematic. Eventually, there were serious insurgency movements in all the provinces of Ethiopia, and the country descended into outright civil war.

At a Glance …

Born in 1937 in Walayta, Ethiopia; son of a soldier and a domestic; married Ubanchi Bishaw; five children. Education: Graduated from Holeta Military Academy, 1966; received advanced military training in the United States, late 1960s.

Career: Officer with the Ethiopian army, after 1966; head of Ethiopian government, 1974-91; Armed Forces Coordinating Committee (Derg), member, 1974-91, and chair, after July 1974; Provisional Military Administrative Council, first vice chair, 1974-77, and chair, 1977-92; commander in chief of the Ethiopian armed forces, February 1977-May 1991; Workers’ Party of Ethiopia, secretary general, 1984-91.

Agent—Embassy of Zimbabwe, 1608 New Hampshire Ave., Washington, DC 20009.

In 1980 Mengistu announced the formation of the Committee to Form the Party of the Workers of Ethiopia, with himself as chair. Four years later a full-fledged Party of the Workers of Ethiopia was established, modeled on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and again Mengistu was its chief. The political killings continued. “In the mid-1980s it was not uncommon to see students, suspected government critics or rebel sympathisers hanging from lampposts each morning,” wrote Jonathan Clayton in the Times of London. “Ordinary people were too terrified to talk to Western reporters. Other people were executed in the notorious state prison on the edge of the capital, Addis Ababa. Families had to pay a tax known as ‘the wasted bullet’ to obtain the bodies of their loved ones. At the height of his power, Mengistu himself frequently garrotted or shot dead opponents, saying that he was leading by example.”

Ouster Triggered by Famine

Once again, mass famine altered the political landscape of Ethiopia, though it took several more years for Mengistu to finally resign from office. In 1983 draught hit areas of Wollo, Tigray, and Eritrea, and the Derg government’s policy of agricultural collectivization had exacerbated, not eradicated, the cycle of draught and starvation the 1974 revolution had once promised to end. This time the famine was well-publicized thanks to a British Broadcasting Corporation documentary, which resulted in a massive outpouring of media attention and sympathy in the West, and Mengistu was forced to accept relief aid from other nations. Despite the help, an estimated one million Ethiopians died between 1983 and 1985.

Mengistu even began to grant some interviews with Western media, sitting down with two journalists from Time magazine in 1986 to defend Ethiopia’s forced resettlement program, known as villagization and criticized for its widespread human-rights violations. “It is only when you have peasants together in villages that they can benefit from science and technology to combat difficult conditions,” he told the magazine’s Henry Muller and James Wilde. “Why is this well-intentioned strategy viewed with prejudice in some quarters in Western countries?” he wondered. The Time article noted that Mengistu “spoke softly, [but] his words carried a tone of icy, uncompromising certitude. Not once did his eyes focus on his guests; at times he appeared to be speaking to an unseen audience, or to the portraits on the wall.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 hastened the inevitable collapse of Mengistu’s regime. Less than two years later, Soviet-backed regimes elsewhere had collapsed, and then the Soviet Union itself, and the flow of rubles that had kept the Derg in power dried up for good. Anti-Derg rebel militias began winning significant victories, and finally in 1991 the United States brokered an agreement between Mengistu and rebels: he was to resign from office and leave the country, and in exchange the capital city of Addis Ababa would not be targeted and widespread bloodshed there could be averted. Mengistu fled on May 21, 1991, and was given refuge by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mengistu and his family, which included five children, settled into a villa near Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. He has been seen in public only twice since 1992—once in a restaurant and another time in a bookstore. In 1999 he went to South Africa for medical treatment but was forced to flee back into his protected exile in Zimbabwe when an extradition order was issued.

Convicted in Absentia

That order came from the post-Derg Ethiopian government, which launched an inquiry into the Red Terror era soon after taking power in 1991. Mengistu was tried in absentia for genocide, along with seventy-three other members of the Derg. Only then were the actual details—which many had already suspected—of Selassie’s death finally revealed: Mengistu had ordered the emperor’s death, and the eighty-three-year-old monarch was smothered by a pillow and then buried under a bathroom floor in one of his palaces. Mengistu’s trial began in 1994 and included eight thousand pages of charges and evidence linking him to two thousand specific deaths. The Ethiopian High Court found him guilty on December 12, 2006, but because Zimbabwe refuses to comply with the extradition order, Mengistu remains at his Harare home. There are rumors that he is a heavy drinker and abusive to the remaining family and associates who are close to him.

The rebel groups that sprang up to combat the Derg would later play a significant role in shaping the political landscape of the Horn of Africa. Eritrea finally gained its independence in 1991, but factions that took root in Somalia, Sudan, and other neighboring countries grew in strength or split off, and these groups continued to exert their influence via force. Few countries in the area have enjoyed stable, democratic governments in the years since.

  Muammar Gaddafi

Libiya President

  • Born: 1942
  • Birthplace: Near Sirte, Libya
  • Best Known As: Dictator of Libya, 1969-present

Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya as the African country’s dictator for more than four decades. Born a Bedouin tribesman, he attended military college and almost immediately set about plotting to overthrow Libya’s ruler, King Idris I. He succeeded in 1969, taking power in a bloodless coup. Muammar Gaddafi was 27. He took the title of colonel, and in the 1970s he seemed to have philosophical pretentions, publishing his so-called Green Book of political philosophy and leading Libya in a path of “Islamic socialism” while ruthlessly suppressing dissent. But in the 1980s he tangled with the U.S. and President Ronald Reagan; Reagan called Gaddafi “the mad dog of the Middle East” and ordered U.S. Air Force bombings in Tripoli in 1986 that killed Muammar Gaddafi’s daughter. The 1988 bombing of a Pan Am passenger airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, was blamed on Libyan terrorists, which led to international sanctions on Libya throughout the 1990s. Libya took responsibilty for the bombings in 2003, easing the sanctions and leading to better relations with the West. Throughout all, Muammar Gaddafi has remained firmly in power and has built a reputation as a shrewd, if eccentric, dictator. In 2011, he attacked protesters in his own country, leading an allied group of Arab and Western countries to attack Libyan air defenses and establish a “no-fly zone” over Libya.

Muammar Gaddafi was born in the desert, so no specific place of birth can be listed; the BBC and other sources say it was near the town of Sirte… His son, Seif al-Islam el-Gaddafi, was widely seen as his successor before the public protests of 2011 threw that into doubt… His Arabic name has been translated variously as Quaddafi, Qaddafi, and Khaddafi as well as Gaddafi and al-Gaddafi… He is famous for his all-female contingent of bodyguards, and for his habit of receiving visitors in a Bedouin-style tent.

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Mobutu Sese Seko

Date of Birth

14 October
1930, Likasi, Belgian Congo

Date of Death

7 September
1997, Rabat, Morocco (prostate cancer)

Birth Name

Joseph Désiré Mobutu

Mini Biography

Mobutu Sese Seko was born Joseph Mobutu in Lisala, Belgian Congo. His father was a cook, who died when Mobutu was a child, and his mother was a maid in a hotel. She used her earnings to send him to a Christian Brothers Catholic boarding school for his education. In 1949 he joined the Force Publique, an internal security force of Congolese troops but with Belgian officers, and rose to sergeant. He stayed there for seven years, leaving to become a newspaper reporter. It was in that position that he met Congolese nationalist Patrice Lumumba, and Mobutu was so taken with him that he joined Lumumba’s political party, the Congolese National Movement (MNC).

When the Congo became independent on June 30, 1960, a coalition government led the country, with Lumumba as Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu as President. Mobutu was appointed Army Chief of Staff. Lumumba and Kasavubu then locked horns in a struggle for political supremacy, and on Sept. 14, 1960, a military coup overthrew Lumumba and installed Kasavubu as overall leader. One of the key figures in the coup was none other than Lumumba’s old friend, Mobutu. It turned out that both the American CIA and the Belgian government mistrusted Lumumba, who they thought to be a Communist or at least pro-Communist, and wanted Kasavubu in power, as they believed–correctly, as it turned out–that Kasavubu and Mobutu would be more “pliable”. Five years later, though, Mobutu led a coup against Kasavubu, who had just managed to oust his rival, popular Prime Minister Moise Tshombe. Upon taking power, Mobutu banned all political parties and declared the equivalent of a state of emergency, taking on almost dictatorial powers. He later formed his own party, the Popular Movement of the Revolution, which all Congolese were obliged to join. He ordered all existing trade unions to form a single union, the National Union of Zairian Workers, and placed it under the control of the government.

Although there were several uprisings and attempted coups, all were crushed. In 1970 Mobutu held an election in which he was the only candidate and in which voting was mandatory. Not surprisingly, he got 99% of the vote. In 1971 he began a program of “cultural awareness” and renamed the country the Republic of Zaire. He ordered all Congolese with Christian names to drop them and change to African ones, baptism of children was outlawed and Western-style clothing and ties were banned. The next year he renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Nbendu Wa Za Banga, although for convenience’s sake he allowed others to refer to him as Mobutu Sese Seko. He also fostered a cult of personality in which his picture appeared everywhere, from postage stamps to the country’s paper currency.

His erratic, corrupt and authoritarian rule resulted in several coup attempts and attempted secessions. Mobutu’s solution was to stage public executions of those who were actual, potential or imagined threats to his regime, but he later found that it was much less trouble–and garnered much less bad publicity worldwide–if he just bought off his enemies, which he proceeded to do. He also nationalized foreign-owned firms and deported their European owners and managers. He handed the firms over to his family members and political allies, most of whom immediately robbed the companies blind, selling off their assets and keeping the money. The resulting economic damage caused by these actions forced Mobutu in 1977 to bring the Europeans back. In that same year a force of several thousand rebels–followers of the executed Tshombe–invaded the province of Katanga from their bases in neighboring Angola. They were well-trained and led mainly by professional mercenaries from South Africa and Europe, and they swiftly and decisively routed Mobutu’s ragtag, poorly trained and ill-disciplined army. He appealed for aid from France, which airlifted several thousand Moroccan paratroopers, who eventually defeated the Katangan rebels. However, a year later the rebels attacked again, but this time with more troops than before. Mobutu’s army fared no better than the last time and was soundly defeated again, with many of its soldiers tearing off their uniforms, throwing away their weapons and fleeing into the jungles. Katanga, with its vast mineral, diamond and ore deposits, was on the verge of being lost, and once more Mobutu appealed for international help against the “Communists”. France and Belgium dispatched troops to put down the invasion, with the US supplying logistical and material help, and the invading forces were driven back across the border into Angola.

Despite these crises, Mobutu still had time to build up his personal wealth, which by 1984 was estimated to be at least $5 billion. While he amassed a fortune the country was going broke, and in 1989 it defaulted on loans from Belgium–Mobutu and his family and cronies having looted the country for years almost nonstop, the treasury simply ran out of money. The country’s financial straits resulted in many roads, bridges and other elements of its infrastructure beginning to literally collapse because there was no money to maintain them, and most government workers were paid sporadically if at all, resulting in rampant inflation and a level of corruption that was mind-boggling even for Africa. The sheer scope of mismanagement, embezzlement and outright thievery by Mobutu and his allies resulted in economists coining a new word for his form of government–kleptocracy.

In addition, he and his government fostered a massive personality cult. Pictures and portraits of him were everywhere, government employees had to wear buttons with his photograph on them, and on TV broadcasts he was seen descending from the sky through clouds. He also awarded himself such titles as “Lion Warrior”, “Savior of the Nation” and “Supreme Combatant”.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 did not bode well for Mobutu. He had always been able to count on support by Western governments, no matter how much they disliked his domestic policies. Because of the Congo’s huge size and strategic location, he was able to paint himself as a bulwark against Communism in Africa, and the fact that his country held vast untapped reserves of gold, silver, diamonds, timber, etc., didn’t hurt, either. However, now that the Soviet Union no longer existed, Mobutu’s claim to be an anti-Communist bastion in the heart of Africa was irrelevant. Under pressure from western governments and because of economic problems and internal disturbances, Mobutu ended the ban on political parties and brought opposition figures into the government. Despite his attempt to co-opt the opposition by playing different factions against each other, however, the main opposition parties joined in one single organization in 1994, forcing him to appoint one of their members as his Prime Minister. In addition, Mobutu’s health began to deteriorate, and he started to spend more time in Europe for medical treatment. In 1996 Tutsi rebels took advantage of one of his absences by launching a rebellion and taking control of the western half of the country. Other rebellions were launched from eastern Zaire, and in 1997 the combined rebel forces finally defeated Mobutu’s army and took Kinshasha, the capital. Mobutu fled to neighboring Togo and then to Morocco, where he took permanent residence.



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