By: Gebru Tareke


Thirty years ago this year, a popular movement began in Ethiopia whose process and outcome had no parallel anywhere in Africa. It began peacefully, but the “bloodless revolution”—as it was initially dubbed by its instigators—soon evoked overpowering passions and frictions that degenerated into spiraling violence without precedent in the country and with consequences that were unimagined by even those who initiated it as a legitimate weapon of political struggle. In the maelstrom of the Red Terror, as it was officially called, thousands of lives were lost and maimed. Was this bloodshed inevitable or could it have been prevented? Who were the real victims and the real perpetrators? What is its legacy? These queries cannot be answered in the abstract but need to be situated in their historical and social contexts readily available elsewhere[i]. This paper reexamines the Red Terror in light of Arno Mayer’s recent and controversial theoretical propositions. Such an approach will help us to see the Ethiopian tragedy in a broader historical perspective.


Though it is difficult to imagine exact historical parallels, only by comparing it with other cases of political violence can it be established whether or not the Red Terror was a uniquely Ethiopian phenomenon. In his monumental study of the French and Russian revolutions, Arno Mayer makes several theoretical formulations regarding the dialectical link between revolution and violence/terror. The Ethiopian Revolution did share some basic similarities with its two European antecedents, but it also markedly diverged from them in some respects. This is not to say that the French and Russian historical experiences were contradicted by the Ethiopian one, for each had its own national peculiarities. But it would seem to suggest that either the French and Russian revolutions were more similar to each other than they were to others, or the Ethiopian experience was manifestly exceptional. The strong similarity between the European revolutions leads Mayer to infer bold theories with universal implications. The Ethiopian Terror significantly deviates from his theses, however, casting doubt on their universal validity. The task now is, first, to identify the author’s postulates, pointing out the extent to which they are supported or contradicted by the Ethiopian revolution. Second, a compressed narrative of the main events leading to the Red Terror and its features follows. It will be shown that the key factor that made revolutionary violence possible was the lack of democratic norms and skills, and that the Terror was an outcome of the interlacing of three factors: contingent circumstances, ideological motivation, and political ambition. Though galvanized by the same basic beliefs and visions, the radical wing of the intelligentsia seeking to appropriate the revolution was driven by violent feuds at a time when the government was buffeted by a tangled web of domestic and external pressures. It was decimated following an opprobrious defeat in a three-sided conflict at the hands of extraordinarily ambitious soldiers who went on to erect a durable military dictatorship. But first Mayer’s hypotheses and their relevance to the Ethiopian experience.


First postulate:” [T]here is no revolution without violence and terror, without civil and foreign war, without iconoclasm and religious conflict, and without collision between city and country. The Furies of revolution are fueled principally by the inevitable and unexpected resistance of the forces and ideas opposed to it, at home and abroad.[ii]This premise is not fully sustained by the Ethiopian revolutionary experience. Like the European revolutions, the Ethiopian Revolution was waged under the strains of war, but it was unlike them in at least three important areas. First, there was minimal class warfare; second, the rural-urban cleavage was much less pronounced, and third, though there were counter-revolutionaries, what “principally” incited and fed the Terror were not “forces and ideas” inevitably opposed to the revolution but the violent vying for power among factions supporting or leading the revolution. The Terror was neither inexorable nor necessary.


Surely, the Ethiopian Revolution was markedly violent, but there was little social strife in which gentry and peasantry battled each other; nor was there any clash between secularists and theocrats or between godless revolutionaries and ardent believers. The Revolution began as a heterogeneous urban protest movement that posed only a mild challenge to monarchical autocracy, also the principal target of Mayer’s two European revolutions. But as the sectarian grievances coalesced and leadership slowly fell into the hands of militant progressives, the popular upsurge began to envision, much like the French and Russian social upheavals, “a radical re-foundation of both polity and society.”[iii] This meant transforming village Ethiopia where more than 90 percent of the population lived and eked out a subsistence living under a social hierarchy not unlike that of European feudalism. In its endeavor to establish a more egalitarian and just social order, the new revolutionary leadership disinherited the predatory landed classes with a single legal order, provoking violent confrontation between uprooted feudal lords and empowered peasants. The reaction of the dispossessed and waning classes was not unanticipated; the unknown factor was whether it would be extensive, cohesive, and lasting. It turned out to be none of these because the social block was internally segmented along ethnic and regional lines. The resistance was localized, uncoordinated, remarkably feeble and with no staying power, both in the countryside and city. Similarly, although the Orthodox Church, pillar of the fallen monarchy, was divested of its land holdings, the minimal financial remuneration or compensation granted it (a privilege denied to the nobility) by the new authorities was sufficient to keep it calm. There was no open clerical resistance to the emerging order as in France and Russia, and the revolution was devoid of any religious conflict. Attempts to mobilize the peasants of the eastern periphery under the banner of Islam were fruitless.


Nor were there tangible collisions between city and country. In fact, the revolution was made for, not by the peasants, with the slogan ‘Land to the Tiller’. There were no jacqueries that tried to starve the towns immediately before or after the spontaneous upheaval of 1974. Both in its origin and genesis this most radical African revolution that freed the peasantry from its feudal fetters was mainly an urban phenomenon; and of the three million city dwellers in a country of about 32 million, scarcely 300,000 or 10 percent were directly and actively involved.[iv] The peasants were drawn to mass politics subsequent to the land proclamation of 1975 when they created their own associations, under the auspices of the state, to protect the gains of the revolution, as well as to manage their own affairs with minimal intervention by the state. Even though some rural people were drawn into the localized, and thus fragmented, risings led by former landlords and aristocrats, by and large the peasants were for the revolution. Their Associations helped seal the political fate of their class enemies. However, when the regime in Addis Ababa began to institute policies that were detrimental to the interests and welfare of the rural producers, they felt alienated and many began to abandon it. Radical agitators from the cities succeeded in stirring and mobilizing them for what they called `national liberation’. In their ideological posturing, these ethno-nationalists presented themselves as the authentic socialists, at once opposed to `national chauvinists’, the Derg (Military Council), whom they curiously dubbed `fascist’, and `Soviet social imperialism’. Their movements, therefore, were unlike the reactionary peasant uprisings in the French Vendee and Russia, especially in the Ukraine and the Volga region, which pushed the Jacobins and Bolsheviks, respectively, to employ techniques of terror in defense of their revolutions.[v] This leads to Mayer’s second thesis, which, in a way, is a restatement of the first.


Second postulate: “There can be no revolution without counterrevolution; both as phenomenon and process, they are inseparable like truth and falsehood. The struggle between the ideas and forces of revolution and counterrevolution was a prime mover of the spiraling violence to the French and Russian revolutions[vi]What happened in Ethiopia was quite different. It is all too evident that every revolution breeds a counterrevolution, the intensity and durability of which varies from one situation to another; but in vivid contrast to France and Russia, the terror in Ethiopia was never the result of a primary clash “between the ideas and forces of revolution and counterrevolution.” The fratricidal killings that marked the early years of the revolution actually took place among the idealistic intellectuals and activists themselves. And there were no irreconcilable ideological differences among the intellectual authors of the Red Terror; they were divided only by the choice of tactics regarding the conquest and reorganization of political power in order to make the social revolution. Otherwise, they all resorted to Marxist canons and Leninist or Maoist tactics to validate their behavior and actions.


Third postulate: “The establishment and operation of the reign of terror was inseparable from the tangled contingencies of civil war, foreign hostility, economic disorganization, and social dislocation, which called for quick, centralizing, and coercive action.”[vii] The Ethiopian experience does validate this hypothesis. As in France and Russia, the revolutionaries in Ethiopia were confronted with numerous challenges from within and without that demanded concerted and speedy response. In addition to the Eritrean insurgency, which began in 1961, and the Somali aggression, which ignited a regional war in 1977, the revolution sparked multiple ethnic and regional uprisings. Without question, these hostile forces posed a grave danger not only to the survival of the revolutionary regime but also to the national state, fully corroborating Mayer’s inference. The stratagem or means adopted to deal with the entangled social conflicts and the exigencies of war, and the manner those measures were interpreted and implemented, were determined by a complex web of political, ideological, psychological, and personal factors. What is clear is that the ascending ethno-regional conflicts, the external enmity, as well as the socio-economic disruptions caused by the political upheaval gave justification for both the reassertion of a strong centralizing authority and the use of large-scale coercion. In other words, the restoration of state authority and the protection of public safety provided the rationale for coercive powers by the men at the helm. Nevertheless, it would not be correct to correlate the sheer magnitude of the indiscriminate violence inflicted upon the populace with the multiple pressures and stresses bearing upon the fledgling government. A glimpse at the terror’s history will make this contention abundantly clear.


In its beginnings the Ethiopian Revolution was an inchoate urban uprising with no person or organization to lead it and no ideology to guide it. It was unplanned, unforeseen, instantaneous, but widely popular and generally bloodless. It was not long, however, before several potential contenders for power emerged only to find themselves engulfed in a three-dimensional bloody conflict that culminated in the Red Terror. The opponents of the fallen regime were spurred by different sets of historical circumstances, competing or conflicting interests, and disparate aspirations. They had been temporarily and precariously united by their common opposition to the existing social order, not by a shared vision of the future. Once autocracy was removed, the emerging contenders for state power found themselves deeply divided over tactics and strategy; each faction wanting to reconstruct state and society according to its own vision and plan. As factional differences sharpened, political allegiances that grew out of deeply held principles and convictions of justice and injustice, right and wrong, democracy and dictatorship, or from opportunistic and shifting stances in the multidimensional rivalries, were scrutinized as never before. The struggles were not always waged or fought for lofty philosophical and political ideas and principles; they were exacerbated by competing ambitions and personality clashes that turned extremely violent. Political rhetoric that extolled violence, and the lack of a culture of democratic dialogue, compromise, and tolerance, combined to make fratricidal conflict almost inevitable.


The first phase of the revolution, running from June 1974 to February 1977, was mainly but not exclusively played out in Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital, between three contending forces that viewed each other with an ambiguous mixture of contempt and fear. On the one hand was the Derg or composed of 120[viii] men of different ranks, ranging from private to major, and hastily drawn from the various branches of the armed forces, police and territorial army. At a historical moment when the old ruling classes were in complete disarray and the fragmented lower classes unable to fill in the vacuum, it seized power in June, roughly six months after the first soldiers’ mutiny which had sparked the popular upsurge. Two months later, it reconstituted itself as the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) following its dethronement of the autocratic emperor Haile Selassie I on September 12, 1974. It alluded to rights of a common citizenship but fear of a mobilized citizenry drove it to exclusion and repression. It immediately passed decrees that restricted democratic rights of speech and assembly and, despite its name, the Council showed no sign of sharing power with the civilian sector, let alone surrendering it, anytime soon. Power, once forcibly acquired, is seldom freely relinquished.


But this was an amorphous and unwieldy political body with no objective base in the economy, and one that was both intellectually and technically ill-equipped to deal with the multiple social and political contradictions that had given rise to it in the first place. Half of its members were illiterate or semi-literate soldiers of petty bourgeois orientation who nourished vague notions of liberty and equality; not even their better-educated mutinous officers had a clue of how or by what means to attain them.[ix] Typically Bonapartist, they thought they could navigate the revolution above social classes and without class struggles[x]. They wanted to stabilize, not intensify the revolution. The men were patriotic populists who genuinely but mistakenly believed that, following the removal of the emperor and his henchmen, all the forces clamoring for a new order would gratefully and gleefully rally behind them and that societal ills would be resolved peacefully. It was a chimera, for they could not even settle their internal disputes nonviolently. They breached their motto, `Ethiopia First, but without bloodshed’ on the evening of November 23 when, first, they liquidated their chairman and minister of defense, General Aman Mikael Andom, along with two Council members, and then frantically killed 57 political prisoners, all former high civil and military officials. The tragic episode, which dispelled the illusion that a sweeping social revolution could be waged without violence, was triggered by disagreements on how to handle the secessionist movement in Eritrea, a political problem they inherited from the previous government. The massacre foreshadowed the reign of terror.


Opposed to the PMAC, itself undergoing a metamorphosis, were not only the languid remnants of the vanishing order but also, and more importantly, the inspired rival claimants to leadership of the new order. The aspirants were the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (better known by its Amharic Acronym, Meison), byproducts of the international Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s. Both surfaced in Addis Ababa soon after the political upheaval and had, to varying degrees, become influential enough to merit the concerned attention of the PMAC. In the transition, when the old was dying and the new was not yet consolidated, to echo A. Gramsci, there was a flowering of political ideas and activities. In the extraordinarily permissive atmosphere, leftism thrived though only transiently. More successful was the EPRP: Ingratiating itself to the domestic branch of the student movement, it had significantly penetrated civil society by establishing cells in the trade unions, the Teachers’ Association, the youth, and the middle layers of the civilian bureaucracy, all opposed to military rule. Its Democracia was the most coveted and widely read clandestine paper. Meison’s efforts at recruitment were less efficacious and for the same reason, its Voice of the Masses not as avidly read. The political tactics of the parties would reflect their relative strengths and weaknesses. As the two distrustful rivals feverishly strove to unseat the new power-wielders, they ruinously clashed against each other. The animosity, the intrigue, the skullduggery, and the inflexibility would eventually and tragically consume both of them.

The tangled events leading to the Terror began to unfold in 1975, a year that saw the passage of landmark reforms as well as the steady escalation of violence in which domestic conflict grimly merged with external aggression. The PMAC was radicalized in the process, but as it drifted leftward with the dominant political current, it would wipe out the Left. Although unwilling to concede power, the PMAC did take some radical measures in response to popular mood and in the hope of mollifying its leftist critics. Already at the end of 1974 it had introduced as its convention `Ethiopian Communalism’, a variant of the nebulous `African Socialism’. Prodded by its civilian advisors and in an apparent response to its radical opponents, the Council shaded its Bonapartist stance, moving beyond this ideological dimness to strike a blow at the whole system of social domination and exploitation in March 1975: It abolished feudalism by nationalizing all rural land and undermined nascent capitalism by confiscating excess urban land and houses, all major industrial enterprises and financial institutions. Its dilemma at this stage was how to consolidate and institutionalize these decisive and definitive achievements without a mobilized and organized popular support. The PMAC found it expedient, therefore, to establish a modus vivendi with the leftist organizations for at least three reasons: First, to enlist their political and ideological support and even guidance in the ongoing struggles to transform society; second, to use them as channels through which it could expand its narrow social base, and third, short of co-opting them, to appropriate their ideas, vocabulary, and organizational skills. It was a shrewd and practical approach, but its relative success deepened the rift between the EPRP and Meison.


The two self-styled Marxist organizations got embroiled in a seemingly insoluble dispute regarding the tasks and tactics of the revolution and the role of the military men in it. The heated debates and acrimony swirled around three main issues two of which they could not reconcile. These were the transition from feudalism to socialism, the erection of popular sovereignty, and the question of nationalities in a multi-ethnic empire-state. On the question of transition, they both subscribed to the two-stage theory: Before a semi-feudal society like Ethiopia could move to socialism it had to wage a national democratic revolution led by a vanguard party and supported by an alliance of workers, peasants, and the progressive elements of the petty bourgeoisie. Only the liquidation of feudalism and concomitant defeat of imperialism would ensure the dawn of socialism. For Meison, the soldiers had gone far enough in this respect to deserve `critical support’ from Marxist revolutionaries. As for the masses they had to settle for some kind of guided democracy alternately characterized as `national dictatorship’ and `provisional revolutionary government’ until they could represent themselves directly. Condemning this as an opportunistic ploy that would tame the revolution by entrenching military rule, the EPRP rejected such tactical partnership and called for an immediate and unconditional formation of a `provisional people’s government’, in which all sectors of society, with the exception of those opposed to the revolution, would be represented. Meison saw the EPRP’s stance as infantile and contradictory, for a government, it argued, cannot be popular and provisional at the same time. It was not even vaguely clear to most observers why there could not be a provisional popular government. In fact, Meison had flirted with the idea until it abandoned it altogether for seemingly tactical reasons.


With regard to the third issue, both organizations recognized the Leninist principle of the right of nationalities to self-determination, but with one important difference. The EPRP argued for the right to include the option for secession whereas Meison held that such a right ought to be exercised only within the “limits of Ethiopia’s sovereignty”. Obviously, Meison’s position diverged from the Leninist formula but was more palatable to the government; while its offer of critical support recognized and bolstered the PMAC’s legitimacy, its option for a vaguely conceptualized regional autonomy was not at all incompatible with the government’s centralist policy. Actually, it afterwards granted limited autonomy to some regions. The political differences, often couched in ambiguous ways, were thus quite basic and each side firmly stood its ground. Further hampered by personal antipathies and rivalries inherited from the external wing of the student movement, the organizations could not find a middle ground for accommodation. The stage was set for a violent confrontation that would impair the antagonists and derail the social movement they aspired to lead.

Meison’s decision to collaborate with the soldiers seems to have been predicated upon two tactical calculations. First, it believed that access to state resources would enable it to fight its unshakable rival more effectively. Second, by organizing a revolutionary vanguard party under the aegis or in collaboration with the PMAC, it hoped to supplant the latter from the apparatuses of state power eventually. It was evident that Meison’s tactical alliance was at once indispensable and self-defeating; indispensable because the organization was weaker than the EPRP, and self-defeating because it grossly underestimated the soldiers’ own ambition to cling to power and their capacity to acquire the rhetoric of radicalism and new concepts and modes of political organization. Not surprisingly its maneuver would misfire. For the time being, though, it had succeeded in outflanking its rival.


The alliance immediately initiated policies and created new organs that would advance the revolution while safeguarding its gains. In December 1975 the government established the Provisional Office of Mass Organizational Affairs (POMOA), consisting of five unmatched political groups -- the PMAC, Meison, Wazleague (labor), the Ethiopian Oppressed Masses Unity Struggle (Echat) and the Ethiopian Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Organization (Emalered) – and the Yekatit (February) 66 Political School. Chaired by Meison’s ideologue, Haile Fida, POMOA was to mobilize and organize mass support while the school recruited and trained Marxist cadres, laying the groundwork for the formation of a workers’ party. Meison took advantage of its dominant position in the Provisional Office to establish and extend parallel networks of its own party in the state apparatuses and civic organizations throughout the country. In early 1976 POMOA launched the Program for the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) that envisioned a socialist people’s democratic republic led by the proletariat in alliance with the peasants and the backing of the petty bourgeoisie. Existing professional associations including the Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions (CELU) in which the EPRP had ensconced itself were dissolved; those that replaced them were placed under Meison’s cadres or surrogates. POMOA also brought the urban neighborhood (dwellers’) associations which would play a critical role in the multifaceted conflict under its umbrella, facilitating Meison’s infiltration. Further, the party swiftly planted itself in the state’s civilian bureaucracy by placing its senior members in key positions. By mid-1976 Meison had come close to achieving its first tactical objective. Its spectacular ascendancy sent tremors in the EPRP’s camp, provoking it to embark on a self-destructive adventure.


Realizing that it had been deftly upstaged, the EPRP or, more correctly, its politburo, tried violently, but futilely, to defeat its opponents. It did so without seriously considering the sentiments, sensibilities and interests of the populace, nor the viability of urban warfare. The party seems to have been deluded by the personal and cliquish squabbles within the Derg which had already resulted in a major purge. That its rural base in the far north was extremely precarious may have also driven it to seize power through a short cut. This was a grievous miscalculation. In September 1976 it began a campaign of terror in the capital which it mistakenly saw as the Derg’s weakest spot, gunning down Meison’s cadres and other visible “collaborators” whom it callously characterized as mercenaries. Just as ominous was its abortive attempt to assassinate, on September 23, the first vice chairman of the PMAC, Major Mengistu Haile Mariam. What would have happened had it succeeded is only a subject for conjecture. The bungled affair in any case would boomerang catastrophically. As the EPRP and Meison slaughtered each other the vice chairman was enmeshed in the third and final crisis within the Derg from which he emerged winner, intent to punish his enemies.


The bloody discord that gave rise to the man was set off by his establishment of the Abiotawi Seded (Revolutionary Flame) sometime between September and October, a flame that would lay waste a generation. In founding the party, with the help of Derg members who had been sent to the Soviet Union for political education, Mengistu appears to have had two goals: To counter the growing threat of Meison in the short term, and to make Seded the core of the proposed vanguard party in the long term. That would have deprived Meison of its second and most ambitious objective—the seizure of power. His action frightened some of the PMAC’s leading members who were excluded from the party’s leadership. Seeing it as potentially eclipsing the PMAC, they conspired to clip the Major’s powers before he could prune theirs. But Mengistu was a man who thrived in crises. In a dazzling move that none had anticipated, he and his cohorts slayed seven of them including the chairman, General Teferri Banti, on 3 February, 1977. This effectually abolished the PMAC as an unsteady collegiate body. It marked the end of Bonapartism and the beginning of military dictatorship. After three years of chaotic and sporadically violent struggles, Mengistu rose as the undisputed strongman, combining the titles of chairman of the PMAC, head of state, and commander of the armed forces.[xi] His rise heralded a dark era in the country’s history. The path to his reign of terror was paved with blood and tears. During the three tumultuous years, Ethiopians had acquired what Crane Brinton called “the habit of violence,”[xii] a state of mind perhaps more attuned to terror. But few of them could have ever envisaged what lay ahead. Nothing in their recent experience could have prepared them for it.


Only a day after his assumption of absolute power, Mengistu declared, `We shall beat back White Terror with Red Terror’, vowing to avenge the fallen comrades `double-and-triple fold’. According to Mayer, “Vengeance is an integral part of both the Red and the White Terror in revolution. There is, of course, vengeance without terror, just as there is violence without terror. But for there to be terror there must be vengeance and violence.”[xiii] Mengistu inaugurated his rule with a pledge for vengeance, the main target of his frightful pronouncement being the EPRP. At this stage the conflict was no longer between two distrustful and stubborn rivals as it directly involved state agencies of repression. Thus began the `Red Terror’ which lasted nearly two years and exterminated a generation of Ethiopians without regard to class, ethnic, religious and gender distinctions. In the process society endured so much hardship and indignity that the ideas that nourished the revolution were thoroughly degraded and the ideals for which it was fought completely nullified.


The Red Terror occurred in two overlapping phases. Its purpose was to eliminate political enemies, intimidate potential opponents and, in its latter phase, to beat down society into total submission. It was premeditated, planned, deliberate and pitiless. The Terror began in a highly polarized environment, amidst an intense spasm of violence on March 23, 1977 in Addis Ababa and quickly engulfed the whole country, its incidence varying from province to province. There was no town or city that did not see some measure of violence.


Those, like the EPRP and the ethno-nationalists who condemned the Derg as fascist, may argue, along with Mayer, that this was in fact a clash between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries; that the military represented the right wing and that its violence against the left was typical of revolutionary violence directed against an ideological opponent. This is not entirely tenable because the soldiers were not opposed to the political objectives of the revolution, going as far as forming alliances with Marxist groups; they only wanted to direct it by sitting on the saddle of power. The men have argued, with some justification, that what drove them to take extreme measures was the extraordinary confluence of adverse circumstances threatening central authority, and that those measures were initially endorsed and supported by a segment of the radical intelligentsia.

Although the Terror was launched under the overall supervision of Mengistu, its first phase was inspired and coordinated by Meison with such slogans as `White Terror with Red Terror’, `Intensify the Red Terror’, and `Democracy with the gun’. Though it knew too well that the ghastly contest was between progressives, Meison nevertheless inappropriately reinvented terms in order to cast the EPRP in the mold of the Russian reactionary generals who prosecuted `White Terror’ against the revolutionary Bolsheviks who responded with `Red Terror’. It was a self-flattering but false analogy. It also mischievously attacked the leaders of the EPRP as the disgruntled children of the dispossessed classes, calling them anarchists and nihilists in order to stir up class animosity. It worked direfully against the EPRP which had already alienated a cross-section of the urban poor by its ill-considered attempt to kill Mengistu; the dispossessed and underprivileged saw him as one of their own, a plebeian, because of his humble social origins and the progressive image he portrayed. The rhetoric or psychological warfare was as wicked as the physical violence was appalling.


The contest quickly became a mismatch, and the sheer scale of the brutality committed beggars the imagination. Code-named Operation Mentir (pluck), the offensive to wipe out the EPRP in the capital comprised the Union of Marxist Organizations ( Emaledh)[xiv], the “revolution defense squads”, the 291 urban dwellers’ associations, and the security and paramilitary forces that were the praetorian guards of the PMAC. The operation was waged relentlessly for five months during which time two major house-to house searches, lasting three to five days, were conducted to flush out EPRP’s cadres, to seize its duplicating machines and publications, and to disarm the populace. Society was trapped in an escalating and vicious violence. The party immediately lost some of its leaders and began to fracture, many of the hastily recruited cadres deserting or shifting sides to save their own lives. Many more became informers on their former comrades. In the witch hunt that followed, individuals were coerced to denounce and renounce their membership in the party and to expose others. The Terror was not limited to activists but reached anyone suspected of harboring anti-government sentiments. And in the rapid flow of events, the turmoil and panic, things got out of control and grievous mistakes were undoubtedly made. During the mayhem some families lost up to four children, and thousands vanished never to be seen or heard from again.[xv] The defense squads, the vigilantes, mostly made up of resentful, vicious, and vengeful lumpen, were turned into death squads empowered to harass, arrest, detain, torture and kill almost at will. Most of them probably believed that they were only defending a revolution that promised liberty and social equity. But many individuals exploited the near-anarchic situation to settle accounts or personal vendetta. And there were the psychopathic assassins like Girma Kebede, Berhanu Kebede, and Ghesgis who summarily executed without the slightest concern for judiciary procedures. Victims of the extra-judicial killings were left by the roadside, often in prominent places with placards that condemned them as anarchists, anti-people or counterrevolutionaries. Tens of hundreds were thrown in unmarked mass graves. Rarely was a notice about their death or disappearance delivered to their relatives. It was intended to torment the living.

The EPRP had suffered a great strategic defeat and was perilously close to extinction in the cities, but Meison’s success was a fluke. It did not partake in the next phase of political violence, for the party itself fell victim to the barbarity it had urged and kindled. This campaign that finally decimated the Left began in August 1977 and went on for about a year. Seded had not been happy with the power and prominence Meison had attained. The dubious alliance fell apart rather dramatically following the Somali invasion of Ethiopia in 1977. Both Meison and the EPRP had taken ambiguous and politically harmful positions on the event which contributed to splits in the armed forces. While condemning the aggression, both withheld full endorsement of the national resistance under the PMAC’s leadership. Moreover, Meison overreached itself by wanting to take control of the 100,000 militia that were drafted in response to the invasion. Mengistu seems to have seen this as a plot or putsch. Seded wasted no time in pointing the dagger at Meison while still killing suspected supporters of the EPRP. In a state of panic, Meison’s entire leadership disappeared from the political scene on August 21, abandoning their cadres and supporters to the wolves. Like the EPRP, they had not prepared an exit strategy in the event their plans failed. They were easily hunted down, executed or incarcerated. A few managed to flee the country and some switched allegiance to Seded, serving the military dictatorship until its fall in 1991. The brutal annihilation of Meison was soon followed by that of Emalered and Wazleague. In a succession of blind furies the Sededists had consolidated their hold on power by nearly eradicating the Left, whose missteps and disgraceful feuds they exploited so cunningly.[xvi]

How many perished in the Terror? One keen observer has written:

History offers few examples of revolutions that have devoured their own children with such voraciousness and so much cruelty. It can be estimated that, of ten civilians who had actively worked for a radical transformation of Ethiopia, one escaped arrest, imprisonment, torture, execution or assassination. The revolution swallowed the whole of the young generation of Ethiopian intellectuals, that is literate.[xvii]

It is an acute but inaccurate observation. The Terror destroyed the Left but did not exterminate the intelligentsia. We will never have an exact reckoning of the death total. Estimates vary from a couple of thousand to a quarter of a million.[xviii] The number of deaths may have been in the neighborhood of 25,000. Behind the grim statistics though lay the larger and gruesome picture of a revolution eating its own children and of a society utterly crushed and traumatized.


Part of the trauma was caused by torture, the other face of the Terror. State organized and civic associations were turned into monsters of criminality. The neighborhood associations, the police, the revolution defense squads, and the security services all had vast powers to apprehend people and hold them in their respective detention, interrogation and torture chambers, and other secret locations disguised as sports or professional clubs. They held them indefinitely, sometimes without revealing their identities and without giving them access except to government officials. There is overwhelming evidence, most of it coming from the victims themselves, that those who were kept for years in dingy and overcrowded cells were subjected to all kinds of physical, psychological or mental torture. The most common punishments included sleep deprivation; burning bodies with cigarettes and electric current; hanging by the arms from bars or ceilings and beating the soles of the feet with coiled wires; asphyxiating by ducking the head in a plastic bucket of filthy water, or choking by stuffing dirty cloth into the mouth; flogging or whipping; mock executions, denial of access to toiletry and medical services. There are more lurid stories of rape or sexual assaults and threats of rape to wives and daughters; of prisoners made to stand for hours on end with their arms outstretched or forced to kneel on gravel (pebbles) or rough cement; of finger nails ripped out, testicles crushed, and electric shocks applied to the breast, rectum and genitalia. In some instances, these unimaginably cruel techniques resulted in broken ribs, paralysis, loss of hearing or eyesight, and potency. Torture was used to extract information or to crush the willpower of individuals so that they abandoned their beliefs or changed allegiances. Incredibly, not a few endured the pain to hold onto their principles or beliefs,[xix]a testimony to the unconquerable human spirit.


What was the justification for all the ferocious repression? In other historical contexts, “revolutionary terror” has been attributed either to ideological motivation, historical exigency, or lust for power. These ingredients are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as Mayer points out[xx] and, to varying degrees, all three contributed to the genesis and intensification of political violence that culminated in the Red Terror in Ethiopia. The principled devotion to ones’ beliefs and the multifarious strains on the central state authority were just as critical as the desire to grasp or to cleave to power, perhaps the overriding reason for the furies.


Ideology was indeed intrinsic to the Terror in Ethiopia. As a coherent system of beliefs, ideology was used “to foster social and political solidarity, to legitimate and justify” ones’ actions and programs as well as to criticize, refute or discredit those of adversaries.[xxi] It defined political positions and determined choices. Those Marxist civilian forces that instigated the terror were driven by powerful ideas or beliefs. Convinced of the justness of their cause, they were determined to remake the world. However, the violent urban struggles that reached their feverish pitch by early 1977 were not between opposing forces guided by conflicting visions and aspirations but between rival factions in the revolution. The ideas that inspired their social vision and justified their political decisions and actions were fundamentally the same. Although unified by a socialist imagination, they splintered in their interpretation of such central issues as self-determination and the reorganization of state power. They all subscribed to the Leninist proposition that there is no social revolution without the seizure of state power. The trouble was that each faction saw itself as the custodian of the revolution and power as its entitlement. Unbending in their formulations and interpretations of the tasks and tactics of the revolution, the radical intellectuals disastrously resorted to violence to settle their dispute. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, if it were not for their rigidity and precipitous actions, there probably would never have been an internecine conflict on such a scale in the cities. In fact, and contrary to Mayer’s assertion, there could have been a revolution without terror because the counter-revolutionary forces turned out to be rather feeble.

Both the EPRP and Meison claimed that they resorted to violence only in self-defense, each blaming the other for having provoked it and for the fact that both were victims of the Terror. Meison has history on its side, for it was the EPRP that ignited the urban civil war. But Meison aggravated it by providing the Sededists ideas that justified and legitimized it. Evidently, ideology was “the cause and engine of terror,”[xxii] which was as much the outcome of political ambition as it was of circumstance. Conforming to Mayer’s model, the general chaos and threats created a situation that made internecine violence more possible.


The Derg pleaded that the Terror was imposed on it by domestic opposition and international reaction which combined to endanger both the revolution and the integrity of the state. That is to say, the Terror was a defensive and legitimate response to the multiple problems and pressures facing the new government. Indeed, the civil war at the center intensified precisely at a time when the state was confronted with insurrection and external aggression at the periphery. The Eritrean insurgents were poised at the gates of Asmara, the provincial capital; the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU), a counter-revolutionary organization supported by some western governments and such reactionary regimes of the Sudan and Saudi Arabia, had captured a couple of frontier towns and was advancing toward the interior; government institutions and organizations were being harassed or assaulted by ethno-nationalist movements that had sprung up in several provinces, for communitarian self-affirmation, and in the midst of it all the Somalis attacked from the east. Moreover, the government’s relationship with the United States, the country’s traditional ally and arms supplier, had deteriorated to a breaking point. The array of hostile forces was bewildering, the rapidity and intensity of the flow of events mostly unanticipated and perplexing. The country seemed to be staring into the abyss. Under these conditions, as in France and Russia, the government “had no choice but to make grave and perilous decisions…for which there was no rational criteria.”[xxiii]These contingent circumstances provided the environment and rationalization for the government’s call for the violent repression of the urban opposition. The soldiers saw the termination of the urban turmoil as the most urgent and essential prerequisite to the restoration of state authority and public order at the center in order to deal with the insurrection and war at the periphery. The force exerted to achieve that goal was nonetheless disproportionate and indiscriminate, and in an unexpected way wiped out the cream of the revolution. It was state terror ostensibly perpetrated to safeguard the revolution and save the country, but it also served as a mechanism with which to concentrate and solidify power in the hands of one man and to stifle dissent everywhere

That the mounting social disorder demanded resolute action is hardly disputable, but not on a scale of the Red Terror to which men’s ambitions and vainglory contributed considerably. The military men were driven by practical considerations of power than by either ideology or contingency when they chose to erase the two radical parties. The extermination of the Left had little rational justification other than the monopolization of power. Sadly, though, it was the Left that initiated the violence. An overestimation of their own relative strengths led, first, the EPRP into a misadventure of defeating Meison and the Derg, and then Meison’s failed attempt to control the militia aroused Mengistu’s wrath. The challenge they posed to the regime as the countervailing forces of resistance or power at a time when the country was teetering on the edge of dissolution gave added justification to the counter-terror. The Terror gradually became the exclusive instrument of Seded to liquidate the Left, silence society, and install a regime on a totalitarian model.[xxiv] The victory against Somalia in March 1978 enhanced Mengistu’s nationalist image, making it easier to discredit and crush his leftist adversaries while officially retaining the socialist rhetoric. Even though the EPRP was a spent force in the urban areas by the end of 1977 and Meison had quietly abandoned the terrain of struggle by the same time, the repression of their cadres and sympathizers continued well into late 1978. Invoking contingency cannot absolve Mengistu and his Sededist clan from their criminal responsibilities.


What about the Terror’s legacy? What broader lessons can we draw from this sordid and sorrowful chapter in contemporary Ethiopian history? In 1981 Rene Lefort intriguingly asked whether Ethiopia’s was “an heretical revolution?” He should have added whether the Red Terror, itself an aspect of the revolution, was also an historical aberration. What marks off the Ethiopian revolution from the other two classic revolutions that Mayer studied is not only the fact that it was spearheaded by ordinary soldiers from the barracks, but also by the extreme fanaticism and extraordinary recklessness that the radical intellectuals exhibited in their pursuit of power and egalitarian goals, something that Lenin perhaps would have chided as `infantile disorder’ or Trotsky as `a dull caricature of the tragic intransigence of Jacobinism.’. The philosophical differences within the Jacobin ranks that led to the execution of some of their towering leaders like Georges J. Danton and the factional conflicts between the Bolsheviks and Social revolutionaries (SR) that nearly claimed Lenin’s life, seem to pale in comparison with the Ethiopian fratricidal horrors. To a considerable degree this was the result of the lack of political maturity and of a deep understanding of the society they sought to emancipate and transform.[xxv]

Clearly, there were areas of political conflict as well as congruence between the goals and interests of the soldiers and their radical opponents. Meison did grasp this and tried to seize the moment by collaborating with the soldiers, but the EPRP remained intransigent and plunged into a war it was fated to lose. It claimed that its adoption of urban warfare, as an appropriate method of struggle, was based on a concrete analysis of the existing situation.[xxvi] However, other than the untenable assertion that the Derg in 1976 was much weaker in the cities than the Chinese Nationalists or Guomindang were in1927[xxvii], there was no such objective knowledge. Where conditions were extremely fluid and rapidly changing, and where alliances were constantly shifting, the EPRP’s perspective could only be described as static and dogmatic. Halliday and Molyneux’s observation that, “The real roots of its erroneous approach lay in the kind of militaristic and highly dogmatic leftism its members had inherited from their exile student days,”[xxviii] is valid. Because it was deceived by the ebb and flow in the fortunes of the Derg, the EPRP mistakenly, and fatally, underestimated the Derg’s capacity to rebound and then unleash the repressive organs of the state. On the other hand, though it initially demonstrated greater sobriety and flexibility, Meison terribly misjudged the unbridled lust for power by Mengistu and his acolytes. The violence it initiated to combat the EPRP ate it, too, leaving society between empathy and aversion, awe and fear. The urban population was immobilized, the revolution alienated from the social classes that it sought to empower.


The first lesson of this tragedy is that it is myopic not to make tactical changes when situations demand them. The grand failure of the Ethiopian Left was its inability to harmonize theory with reality. By utterly failing to re/adjust their political imaginations to the hard realities that confronted them, the adversarial parties made their sanguinary repression imminent. In hindsight, rather than fracturing the progressive block, they should have harnessed the diversity of its energies to establish a solid grass roots base. Only by negotiating the unity of all civilian progressives could they have hoped to rally or outmaneuver the radical soldiers. And unity was feasible, even achievable, through a compromise on the question of provisional popular government, perhaps the most divisive issue. Had the two parties been more open to dialogue and coalition building, for their differences were not unbridgeable, and had they focused on popular mobilization while tactically refraining from challenging the grasping Mengistu so long as he was demonstrably willing to embrace their socialist vision and programs, they would have spared society the devastation inflicted on it and saved a generation at the same time. There may not have been revolutions in France and Russia without terror, as Mayer has asserted, but the terror and counter-terror in Ethiopia were neither determined nor inescapable; the Red Terror was indeed an aberration.


If there is another lesson to be drawn from the harrowing Ethiopian experience it is that the revolutionary conquest of power is impossible unless the social, political, cultural, and psychological conditions are propitious, or as Marx put it more aptly, history is not made wistfully. It was not socialist revolutionary commitment the Ethiopian militants lacked, although that transcendent commitment often derived from a fleeting knowledge of Marxism, but an adequate knowledge and appreciation of their own society, and the temperament for sober democratic dialogue and compromise. They proved unable to break out from the pre-revolutionary political culture that tended to cultivate secrecy, mendacity, suspicion , and intrigue while devaluing openness, trust, and candor-- really survival devices in a society marked by extreme inequities and scarcity in a world of gross and abominable inequalities. Is it any wonder that, while stubbornly trying to snatch power from the soldiers, all the militants sunk in the mud? For lack of flexibility, they destroyed and devoured their own ideals. The train of tactical errors they committed made it possible for the Sededists to win and erect a brutal military dictatorship that tyrannized society for fifteen long years with an admixture of vacuous revolutionary rhetoric, fatuous state patriotism, and brute force.


Ideas inspire and drive people to action. They simultaneously unite and divide political actors. Yet of the three interweaving factors that historically produced political violence elsewhere, ideology was the least significant in the Ethiopian case. Ethiopian Marxist revolutionaries were unified in their commitment to egalitarian goals and to the reshaping of their world, but hopelessly and tragically splintered in their elusive pursuit of power. Unable to compromise on secondary differences, they all perished in the “mutual carnage” they themselves initiated. They fell victim to a regime that used contingency as a rational or pretext to wipe them out. What Mayer wrote about France and Russia holds true for Ethiopia: “The virtual breakdown of authority in an environment of swelling social disorder aggravated by foreign and civil war demands resolute action in which innovation is dictated as much by critical circumstances as by the rage to remake the world.”[xxix] Overwhelmed by a bewildering array of forces and events, the radical soldiers sought to restore centralized authority and sovereignty by reclaiming the monopolistic control of legitimate coercion.

But to say no more would be to absolve the Derg which, in the process, liquidated its civilian rivals in the revolutionary camp, terrorized society, and installed a regime far more tyrannical or brutal than the one it replaced so that a criminal gang of its members would quench its lust for power. What thus began as a violent campaign to eliminate the EPRP developed into a totalizing system of repression the hallmark of which were death, immiseration and stagnation. Sedad used the Terror to tighten its grip on political life by eradicating the civic organizations that stood between society and itself in the cities. Dissent was completely muted there, civil society held captive.

Arno Mayer’s rational model for explaining why people torture and murder on a grand scale is highly illuminating, but falls short of elucidating the Ethiopian conundrum. That the Terror happened despite the meekness of counter-revolutionaries supports his contention that there is no revolution without terror. However, contrary to his postulate that terror is the inevitable outcome of a clash between forces of the old order and those of the new, the Red Terror was exclusively an affair of the revolutionaries. It was comrades against comrades. In this sense, it was an aberration which Mayer’s explanatory tools do not help to decipher.


[i] Gebru Tareke, Ethiopia: power and protest, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Christopher Clapham, Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univerisity Press, 1988); Marina and David Ottaway, Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution (New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1978); Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution (London: Verso, 1981), and Rene Lefort, Ethiopia: An Heretical Revolution? (London: Zed Press, 1983).

[ii] Arno Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions ( Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 4, 23.

[iii] Ibid., 4.

[iv] Andargachew Tiruneh, The Ethiopian Revolution 1974-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 55-56.

[v] See, for example, John Young, Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: The Tigray People’s Liberation Front 1975-1991 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[vi] Mayer, The Furies, 45.

[vii] Ibid., 119-120.

[viii] The size of the Derg has been a source of debate. Mengistu has finally confirmed that there were 120 members. Genet Ayele Anbese, Reminiscences of Lt. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam –Amharic (Addis Ababa: Mega Printers, 2001), 125.

[ix] See Genet, 1-13, 122-5.

[x] Addis Hiwet, Ethiopia: from autocracy to revolution, Occasional Publication No 1, Review of African Political Economy, London: Merlin Press, 1975, 113-4.

[xi] For a fuller picture, see Ottoways, Ethiopia and Lefort, Ethiopia.

[xii] Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, revised and expanded (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 198-9.

[xiii] Mayer, The Furies, 126.

[xiv] This was a union of the five political organizations that made up POMOA. It was formed in July 1976.

[xv] Donatella Lorch, “Where Tyrants Ruled, Thousands Cry for Justice”, The New York Times, November 11, 1994. The author reported that at the time 1,300 had been arrested and 3,500 others implicated in the Terror.

[xvi] For details of the Terror see Andargachew Assegid, A Long Journey Cut Short: Meison in the Struggle of the Ethiopian Peoples -Amharic- (Addis Ababa: The Central Printing Press, 2000), 409-27; Kiflu Tadesse, The Generation: The History of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party –Amharic- (Silver Spring, MD. : Independent Printers, 1998), vol. II, 306-26; Kiflu Tadesse, The Generation –Amharic- (Addis Ababa: Image Printing Press, 2000), vol. III, 127-54; Tefaye Makonnen, To the Protagonist –Amharic- (Addis Ababa: Artistic Printing Press, 1992) 188-247; and Babile Tola, To Kill A Generation: The Red Terror in Ethiopia (Washington, D.C.: Free Ethiopia Press, 1989), 72-164.

[xvii] Lefort, Ethiopia, 257.

[xviii] Mengistu does not believe the total exceeded 2,000. Genet, 198. Tola in To Kill gives a figure of 250,000.

[xix] Tola, To Kill, 165-200; Kiflu, The Generation, II, 147-50.

[xx] Mayer, 96-8.

[xxi] Mayer, 9.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Mayer, 9. See also Genet,

[xxiv] Mengistu has tried to wash his hands off by assigning full responsibility to the rival civilian political parties and the urban associations. He categorically, but unbelievably, denied that both Seded and the security forces were involved in the Terror. Genet, Reminiscences, 198-9.

[xxv] Halliday and Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution, 141.

[xxvi] Democracia, 4, II, nd.

[xxvii] Kiflu, The Generation, II, 286.

[xxviii] Halliday and Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution, 127.

[xxix] Mayer, 37.

[Opinions in this article are solely that of the writer.]


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