Mengistu Haile-Mariam speaks

By Eskinder Nega / July 31, 2010
 As a brutal dictator, Mengistu lived violating the sovereignty of the people (1974-1991). As a ruthless mercenary, Meles Zenawi lives on violating the sovereignty of both the people and the country”Ethiomedia 
<a class= "As a brutal dictator, Mengistu lived violating the sovereignty of the people (1974-1991). As a ruthless mercenary, Meles Zenawi lives on violating the sovereignty of both the people and the country”Ethiomedia

Ethiopia’s impenitent ex-dictator, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, is back in the limelight -- nineteen years after his ouster and just before the publication of his much anticipated memoir in the US.

The second series of interviews between him and Genet Ayele, daughter and ex-wife of soldiers in the army he had once transformed into one of the best and largest in Africa, but now married to a Frenchman and comfortably settled in Paris, came out to little fanfare in Addis last weekend.

The astounding triumph of the EPRDF in acquiring the publishing rights of the first series of interviews, some eight years ago, had been significant not only as an obvious public relations bonanza, but no less for the damage to the power of the message when it was dismissively published by the chief culprit of its content. Genet’s rather insensitive (and ill-advised) attempt to dismiss the controversy this generated to “old retarded journalists” (Yedero ajuza gazetenoch, as she rowdily calls them) is at best inane, but most probably signifies her increasing proximity to people in power; one of whom, Endrias Eshete, she unabashedly lauds in flowery words in the first pages of her new book.

Why then would Mengistu receive her at his residence in Harare several more times and oblige her with interviews for a second book? Perhaps he is telling the EPRDF that they had not succeeded in thwarting him, that it was he who had in fact outmaneuvered them by making them think that they would steal his thunder by publishing him, and used them to relay his message to the people. Or maybe not. And he could just be too isolated and confused to keep abreast of current events. We will have to wait for his memoir, and hopefully he will provide us with an unambiguous (and truthful) answer there.

This is a far thinner book than the first, which is several hundred pages more. Of the hundred and ninety pages of the new book, less than ninety carry Mengistu’s words. The rest -- in effect more than half the book -- are interviews with an array of unnamed officials of his regime. Amazingly, almost twenty years after the collapse of the regime, all but one, Dawit Welde-Giorgis , still insists on speaking anonymously. Priced sensibly at 35 birr, it falls reasonably within the reach of the urban elite. Vendors have displayed it prominently, and cheerfully affirm that sales are robust.

Few are surprised that sales are strong. The Ethiopian public has frequently adored its strong leaders. And when they are visibly absent from the public domain in confusing times (as is the current aftermath of EPRDF’s outlandish 99.6% “win”), nostalgia for them -- even those of the wrong genre -- becomes overpowering.

Perhaps it is instinctive, implanted in Mengistu’s genes; or it could be his most cherished lesson from his training as an Officer; or it could even be the most enduring mark of his seventeen years in politics, but what ever its origins, doubt not that he lives by the adage that pronounces: “the best defense is a good offense.” Reading his words, it’s easy to imagine him speaking with his head held up, his eyes intense as ever, his tone habitually defiant, and his charisma still dangerous, infectious and intact.

But it is also confidence that is at times direly overplayed. A case in point is when he is confronted with calls for his act of contrition, the need for him to publicly seek for the nation’s absolution. He stubbornly refuses to budge: “We fought them (his opponents) when they sought to dismember the nation. Is this why I should seek exoneration?” he asks defiantly. But it was not only armed separatists that had lost their lives, nor were they only the ones who were tortured, imprisoned and forced into exile during his years in power. Many others became victims needlessly. How, for example, could the bombing of Howzen be explained? Or the wanton destruction of Massswa? Or the Red Terror, which demanded “the death of a thousand anarchists (EPRP members) for every life of a revolutionary?” His ornate rhetoric notwithstanding, he clearly falls short here. He will have ample room to correct himself in his memoir.

“If I had resigned on my own accord, to whom would I have transferred the reigns of power?” he inquires rhetorically at one point, musing over the reluctance of African leaders to give up power. “To Weyane?(Laughs!)” Even nineteen years later, his eloquent criticism of the diminished patriotism of EPRDF leaders remain forcefully (and disturbingly) biting as ever. And his contempt for his successor is more palpable. “We did not even know his (Meles’) name,” says Mengistu. He criticizes him personally for “petitioning the UN to dismember his own country.” No leader in history has ever done that, Mengistu insists; clearly implying that the judgment of history will be far harsher on Meles than it will be on him.

His anti-Americanism remains livid as ever. “We thought that the proletariat would eventually run the world. But it is the Americans who have assumed that position,” he tells Genet remorsefully. “The American people have changed,” he says, and speaks of their opposition to the war in Vietnam. He criticizes them for supporting the invasion of Iraq. “Is there no (international) law? (to protect the weak from the strong)” he asks. Of Africa, he speaks of a crippling culture of corruption. “Ethiopia did not have the same problem. African leaders looked at us with envy.”

Mengistu spoke of a web of conspiracies that had always plagued his regime. “There were nine assassination attempts against me,” he maintains, “but people know of only one.” And he details of an alleged plot hatched by a General, Gezmu (last name not given), in which his deputy, Fikre-Selassie Wegderese, and his security chief, Tesfaye Welde-Selassie, are possibly (but not definitely) implicated. “I heard about it after I left Ethiopia,” he reveals, a bit menacingly.

With his benefactor, Robert Mugabe, now over eighty years old and most probably serving his last term in office, isn’t Mengistu worried about extradition? “Mugabe fought and liberated his country from colonists. But I am here as a guest of the Zimbabwe people. I am not a personal guest of Mugabe. And veterans of the liberation struggle are well aware of this fact.”

Finally,his book. “We (his regime) have been likened to Mussolini and Hitler and sullied,” says Mengistu of those who write of his legacy. “Repeat lies often enough and they will be mistaken for the truth. I have to set the record straight.” The book will have four parts. The first part is slated for a deliberation on history, which Mengistu feels is grossly misconstrued, but will also deal with the war against Somalia, in which he was one of the principal actors. “The second part will address the Eritrean issue and the war in the north in general,” says Mengistu. The third part will be an overview of his regime’s international relations. The last part, the fourth, will offer an insight into why and how his regime collapsed.

Well, it’s about time, sir. Nineteen years is a long time to prepare a memoir. But now that it has finally come to see the light of day, be advised that you must tell the truth and nothing but the truth. You owe the people at least that much.

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: